The Nos. 1 and 2 college football teams in the country look stronger than ever, while three other top-10 teams lost.
Our reporters try to make sense of what happened in Week 5 of the college football season and what to look forward to.
The great wide divide
The narrative around college football, at least in some locales, has been that the sport is becoming boring with the same teams winning all of the time. Something says we’ll hear even more of that as Alabama and Georgia continue to steamroll everybody. The chances of those two schools playing in the SEC championship game, then turning around and playing again in the College Football Playoff, are real. Very real. About as real as the fact that those two schools invest tons of resources and then reinvest even more resources in their football programs.
But don’t blame Alabama and Georgia or any of the College Football Playoff regulars each year for the sport allegedly becoming dull. Blame those conferences that aren’t carrying their weight.
Here we are (again) not even at the midway point of October, and the Pac-12 appears to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff. Oregon’s overtime loss to Stanford on Saturday was crushing for the league, and there are no unbeatens left in the Alliance’s “West Coast division.” Sure, the sport is more fun when USC is elite, and for that matter, even just relevant. But the onus is on everybody else to catch up.
Let’s not forget that the goal when we went down the playoff road was to get the best four teams in and not the best four teams from each part of the country.
Who knows? Maybe there will be some new blood this year. If Cincinnati goes unbeaten and doesn’t get in, it’s safe to say a Group of 5 team will never make the playoff in a four-team format. — Chris Low
It’s time to start paying attention to Ohio State again
Penn State, Iowa and Michigan have stolen the spotlight since the Buckeyes lost to Oregon in Week 2, but while everyone has been arguing over whether Penn State or Iowa deserves to be ranked higher, the Buckeyes are quietly starting to look capable of beating them both.
“It was some tough times here, but we grew through it,” coach Ryan Day said after beating Rutgers 52-13. “We didn’t panic, and in that we might have a good team as we head into October, November.”
That’s exactly when it matters the most.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud threw five touchdown passes and no interceptions after missing a game with a shoulder injury. The Buckeyes have found their offensive groove, scoring on their first six possessions against Rutgers, and the defense snagged a pick-six. It was arguably the most complete game they’ve played, and while the competition will get more difficult, Ohio State looks more prepared for it.
Ohio State is generating more offense right now than Penn State, Iowa and Cincinnati, with an average of 555.6 yards per game, 39.4 points per game and 8.57 yards per play.
According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Ohio State still has the best chance to win the Big Ten (37%), followed by Iowa (31%), Michigan (17%) and Penn State (8%). The Buckeyes are also still favored to win the Big Ten East (51%), followed by Michigan (26%). There are plenty of opportunities for Ohio State to compensate for its loss to Oregon, and right now, ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Buckeyes to win all of them. — Heather Dinich
Pitt’s QB turning heads
Before the season began, the preseason buzz at quarterback in the ACC centered on Sam Howell at North Carolina — so much so that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wondered whether everyone had forgotten about his veteran returning quarterback, Kenny Pickett.
Five weeks into the season, Pickett is making sure nobody forgets. In Saturday’s 52-21 win over Georgia Tech, Pickett threw for 389 yards and four touchdowns, putting himself in pretty elite company. In his last three games, Pickett has thrown 15 touchdown passes, breaking Dan Marino’s school record for most TD passes in a three-game stretch (13 in 1981).
In addition, Pickett has thrown at least four touchdown passes in three straight games, the longest streak by an ACC quarterback since Russell Wilson did it for NC State in 2009. Pickett ranks in the top five in the nation in seven different statistical categories, including passing yards per game (346.2), pass efficiency, passing yards (1,731), passing touchdowns (19), total offense (374.6 YPG), Total QBR and touchdowns responsible for (21). Oh, and he has only one interception.
Pickett made the decision to return to Pitt rather than enter the NFL draft. As it stands, Pitt (4-1) is the current ESPN FPI favorite to win the ACC. The biggest reason is Pickett and the offense. Pitt has now scored more than 40 points in five straight games, a first in school history.
“This is what I expected to come back and do,” Pickett said in a phone interview with ESPN on the team bus after the game. “I thought this would be the most talented, most veteran team that I would be a part of, and it’s shown. All the work we put in is paying off, so we’ve got to keep it going.”
After the Georgia Tech win, Narduzzi mentioned the H-word when discussing his quarterback with reporters.
“He should be a Heisman candidate,” Narduzzi said. “It’s what he is right now. The guy is so smooth, he’s so calm. … He’s a smart football player, and it takes time to get that where you want it to be. He’s put the work in and he deserves what he’s getting right now.”
Pitt has not had a Heisman-caliber player since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003. When asked whether he deserves to be in the Heisman conversation, Pickett chuckled.
“You guys can figure that one out,” Pickett said, referring to the media. “I’m just going to keep playing. We’ve got seven games to go. I want a championship. That’s why I came back.” — Andrea Adelson
Cincinnati’s CFP hopes likely rest on Ridder’s shoulders
Desmond Ridder wasn’t Cincinnati’s best player in Saturday’s win at Notre Dame. If not for the Bearcats’ signature defense collecting three first-half turnovers, Cincinnati wouldn’t have had the comfortable lead it enjoyed for most of the afternoon. But the Ridder-led fourth-quarter touchdown drive, and the way coach Luke Fickell talked about the senior quarterback after the game, made it clear who will lead Cincinnati the rest of the way.
If Cincinnati becomes the first Group of 5 team to make the CFP, Ridder will be the reason.
“They were making it really difficult on him all day,” Fickell said of Notre Dame. “They had done a really, really good job at eliminating Des and his run game. But he’s just really hard to stop. He’s just so consistent. He keeps working, and if there’s an inch, he’s going to find it. That’s the kind of leader we want in this program.
“We feed off of him.”
Ridder is thriving with the deep passing game orchestrated by quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Gino Guidugli. He accounted for 201 of his 297 passing yards Saturday on only six completions.
Cincinnati’s run game is average (4.5 yards per carry), and the team is converting only 31% of its third-down chances. The offense could be more efficient, which ultimately falls on the fourth-year starting quarterback. Ridder accepts the challenge.
“Sometimes the team needs a voice,” Ridder said. “People say it’s got to be the quarterback. It doesn’t have to be the quarterback. That’s just who I’ve been as a person and I take great pride in being the leader of this team, and just keep leading them to victory.” — Adam Rittenberg
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