National championship race starts to take shape
As the calendar turns to November, the college football season has officially hit its final stretch run with four more weeks of games left to play.
Fans have been treated to a heavy dose of drama, upsets, passion and feel-good stories throughout the fall, and overall interest in the sport is as high as ever.
Unlike the past few seasons, the pool of National Championship contenders feels a lot wider than just Alabama and Clemson — the dominant duo that have squared off in three of the past four title games. This year, the group of title challengers includes LSU, Ohio State, Penn State, Georgia and Oregon, among others.
There is still a lot of meaningful football left to play in November, so fans shouldn’t put too much stock into the initial rankings released by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee this week. Many division races are still wide open and the playoff picture will surely be shaken up with the many rivalry games that will be played this month.
Considering there are 130 teams in the FBS, it can be hard to keep up with all the action each and every Saturday. Without further ado, here is a brief rundown of the top storylines in each of the power-five conferences.
Clemson is miles ahead of every other team in the ACC and will likely walk to its fifth consecutive conference title. The Tigers are outscoring opponents by over 32 points per game and have turned things up a notch ever since a narrow one-point victory over North Carolina in late September when the Tar Heels came within a two-point conversion of upsetting the defending national champions.
Sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence has found it slightly difficult to live up to enormous expectations following his stellar freshman season, but still leads the second-highest scoring offense in the country and has only looked stronger as the season has progressed.
Wake Forest, currently ranked No. 22 in the AP Poll, has put together an impressive 7-1 season thus far, taking advantage of a relatively easy schedule. The Demon Deacons will have a chance to shock the world against Clemson in two weeks, but will be heavy underdogs.
Virginia currently leads a wide-open and very mediocre ACC Coastal division, but will have to hold off teams like Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Miami.
Ohio State, currently ranked No. 3 with a record of 8-0, is first in the nation with an average scoring margin north of 40 points. The Buckeyes, led by sophomore transfer quarterback and Heisman trophy contender Justin Fields, have blown out every team on their schedule, including a recent 38-7 victory over Wisconsin two weeks ago.
On the other side of the ball, junior defensive end Chase Young has a legitimate shot at becoming the first defensive player to win the Heisman trophy since Charles Woodson in 1997. Young, a likely top pick in the upcoming NFL draft, leads the FBS with 13.5 sacks and is second with five forced fumbles. He is truly the definition of a “game wrecker” and will be a key component in Ohio State’s quest to return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2017.
Under first-year head coach Ryan Day, who took over from Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have been able to stay laser focused every week and avoid any costly letdowns against inferior opponents. In each of the past two seasons, Ohio State suffered blowout road losses to massive underdogs Iowa and Purdue which were too much for the College Football Playoff Selection Committee to overlook.
Undefeated Penn State, standing closely behind the Buckeyes, has every shot to reach the conference title game and make the Playoff for the first time. The Nittany Lions have yet to falter in any of their big games and have pulled out close wins over Pittsburgh, Iowa and Michigan. If Penn State can survive a road test versus No. 13 Minnesota on Saturday, that would likely set up a top-five showdown and playoff elimination game against Ohio State on Nov. 23 in Columbus.
In the Big Ten West, Wisconsin made headlines with a 6-0 start to the season, but fell to Illinois in the biggest upset of the season a week before losing to Ohio State. Minnesota, currently at 8-0, has greatly exceeded expectations and is in the driver’s seat to win the division and play for its first Big Ten crown since 1967.
Oklahoma is the favorite to win the Big 12 title for the fifth year in a row, but is still recovering from a shock 48-41 road defeat to Kansas State on Oct. 26 that rocked the college football world. The Sooners almost roared back to snatch the win in the final minute, but ultimately couldn’t recover from an 18-point deficit.
Similar to Ohio State, Oklahoma has benefited greatly from the play of a transfer quarterback. Senior Jalen Hurts, the former Alabama quarterback who led the Crimson Tide to consecutive National Championship games in 2017 and 2018, now leads the Sooner offense. Former Oklahoma quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have won the Heisman trophy the past two years, and Hurts has a very good chance at being named a finalist himself.
The Sooners never have any trouble lighting up the scoreboard on offense, but that has only taken them so far in recent years. For a while, it looked like the eternally-porous Oklahoma defense had taken a big step forward this year, but the same problems of past seasons reappeared in the shootout loss to Kansas State.
Oklahoma will have to win the rest of its games and hope that other top contenders around the country lose a game or two. The Sooners were able to sneak into the Playoff last season behind three undefeated teams, so their season is far from over.
Baylor has been the other bright spot in the Big 12 this season, jumping out to a 8-0 record and a top-11 ranking. Much like Minnesota, the Bears have faced a relatively easy schedule so far and will have to keep racking up the wins to get more respect in the national conversation. There are more than enough opportunities for Baylor to prove itself, with consecutive home games against Oklahoma and Texas coming up later this month.
The self-proclaimed “conference of champions” just experienced one of its most important weekends in at least three years, as division leaders Oregon and Utah kept their playoff hopes alive with big road wins in a pair of tough environments. Oregon overcame a slow start and whalloped USC 56-24, while Utah edged Washington by a final score of 33-28.
In recent years, Pac-12 teams have had a tendency to beat up on each other, creating lots of parity and eliminating the conference from the playoff discussion early in the season. The victories for Oregon and Utah over the weekend were a huge step in the right direction for a league still fighting for national relevancy and its first playoff berth since the 2016 season.
Oregon has a slight advantage over Utah, due to its close non-conference loss to Auburn in week one, but neither team can afford a second loss. It would be best for the Pac-12 if both sides went into the conference championship game at 11-1, giving the winner the best possible playoff resume.
The SEC has lived up to its esteemed reputation in every possible way this season, placing five teams in the top-12.
No. 1 LSU has been the most surprising team in all of college football this season. The Tigers are putting up massive numbers on offense and already have signature wins over Texas, Florida and Auburn. Fourth-year head coach Ed Orgeron has the Tigers’ confidence level at an all-time high and there is a certain swagger around the program that was missing for the last several years.
Quarterback Joe Burrow, in his second season in Baton Rouge after transferring from Ohio State, leads the country in completion percentage and is second in passing yards and touchdowns. Burrow is currently the favorite to win the Heisman trophy, with 6/5 odds at the Westgate in Las Vegas.
To nobody’s surprise, Alabama is also undefeated and has all the pieces to make its fifth straight National Championship game. The Crimson Tide are averaging over 48 points per game with a plethora of extremely talented skill players and star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa striking fear into every defense in the nation.
LSU and Alabama will face off this Saturday in Tuscaloosa in what many are dubbing the “game of the century”. This is the first time the top two teams in the AP Poll will face off in the regular season since this same match-up back in 2011, when LSU prevailed in overtime by a final score of 9-6. The two teams ended up playing a rematch in the National Championship game and Alabama got the last laugh, winning 21-0.
Tagovailoa suffered a right ankle injury in a win over Tennessee on Oct. 20, but is expected to play against LSU, whether he’s 100% healthy or not. No matter the outcome, both teams have a realistic shot at making the College Football Playoff due to their dominating success all year long.
In the SEC East, No. 6 Georgia controls its own destiny after taking down No. 10 Florida last week 24-17. The Bulldogs suffered a shocking 20-17 loss to South Carolina in overtime last month, but can still make the top four by winning out in the regular season and beating either Alabama or LSU in the SEC championship game.
Written by: Brendan Ogburn — firstname.lastname@example.org