You might have noticed the Big Ten has turned upside down. Michigan and Penn State have one win between them through eight games. Indiana and Northwestern are both undefeated and leading their divisions going into Week 5.
Why? Well, COVID-19, sure. The coronavirus has turned the sport upside down. There have been 45 games canceled or postponed in this month alone, 82 overall. The Big Ten has lost four games since starting on Oct. 24.
But using the pandemic to explain these success stories doesn't seem quite complete. The biggest weekend of this shortened Big Ten season features No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 19 Northwestern and No. 9 Indiana at No. 3 Ohio State. Not a loss among them. The results will go a long way deciding who populates the Big Ten Championship Game four weeks from now.
Northwestern is the team you hate to play. Its 48 one-possession wins since 2006 are tied with Navy for the most in the country. Three of their four wins this season have come by one, eight and seven points. Coincidentally, coach Pat Fitzgerald has been at Northwestern since 2006. The Wildcats are the Wildcats.
The defense is chiseled in the image of Fitzgerald's classic chin: straight and rigid. Last week, Purdue was held to 2 yards rushing. That's the fewest by a Northwestern defense since 2015. The D has allowed only 10 second-half points, five touchdowns in four games and four red-zone TDs in 14 attempts.
Linebacker Paddy Fisher fits the Northwestern stereotype. The Big Ten's active career tackle leader (351) has 33 tackles this season and plays the same position his coach once did.
The last time the Wildcats were at least 4-0 going into the Wisconsin game was 1962. The Badgers can't afford to lose -- the game or a game. Wisconsin's had two games canceled due to COVID-19. Lose another and it is ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Who are the Badgers? Good question. They've only played twice. They certainly don't pummel opponents with the run game like usual, though that started to come around last week against Michigan. They don't have to with redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Only one other current Big Ten starting quarterback has not thrown an interception. That would be Ohio State's Justin Fields.
Speaking of the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, Fields and Ohio State would like to reassert themselves after having last week's Maryland game canceled. Fields has as many touchdown passes as incompletions (11 each). It will be on an experienced Indiana defense to soil that pocket.
If the favorites win? Yawn. Not much changes, pandemic or no. Ohio State and Wisconsin will have the inside track toward the Big Ten title game. But we've seen that game before, three times since 2014. How about Indiana vs. Northwestern? That would be upside down.
God bless (the) America(n)
For one of the few times in the College Football Playoff era, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about a Group of Five team in the playoff.
Four weeks ago, Cincinnati (which plays at UCF on Saturday) became a complete team. It went to SMU and handed the Mustangs their worst home loss in years, 42-13. Including that game, No. 7 Cincinnati has averaged 46 points per game in its last four.
UCF's Dillon Gabriel might be the best player on the field (leading the country in total offense). Win this one and a scenario is possible where No. 4 Clemson loses again to No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 5 Texas A&M drops another game and the only option for the CFP Selection Committee is an 11-0 Cincinnati.
The Bearcats won this game last year, ending the Knights' 19-game home winning streak. With Gabriel and an opportunistic defense (UCF leads the country with 19 takeaways), don't be surprised if the Knights win a shootout.
Everything else in Week 12
Bedlam: Baker Mayfield is ready for the Oklahoma State game. Is Mike Gundy? For all the glory he has brought Oklahoma State, he's 2-13 against Oklahoma. A win by the No. 14 Cowboys win all but ends the No. 18 Sooners' five-year run as conference champions. Oklahoma State is also the Big 12's last, best College Football Playoff hope. Take the Sooners at home with more balance, a four-game winning streak and experience at these sorts of things. Gundy has won one Big 12 title in his 15 years at the helm (2011).
JT for the Dawgs: USC transfer JT Daniels will reportedly start for the first time as No. 13 Georgia hosts Mississippi State. Now, try to figure out why Daniels hasn't touched the field yet for the Bulldogs. Early on, he was cleared to play a year after a season-ending knee injury at USC. The assumptions in September were that the Trojans' transfer would take over to begin the season. Wrong. Walk-on backup Stetson Bennett IV was the gutty underdog replacement. But he wasn't good enough. Whatever happens, the Dawgs have lost twice and are all but out of the SEC East race.
Freeze out? The loser of Tennessee at No. 23 Auburn game will be under fire, well, because that's what their fans do. The Volunteers (2-4) haven't quite turned the corner. Their fans have to watch one-time quarterback commit Michael Penix Jr. win each week at Indiana. Tennessee has lost four in a row overall and five straight to ranked opponents. If the season goes sour for either one of these programs down the stretch, don't be surprised if Hugh Freeze ends up at Tennessee or Auburn rather than South Carolina.
Your weekly Kyle Trask numbers update: The comparisons to Joe Burrow are not that outrageous as No. 6 Florida visits Vanderbilt. Trask is averaging 4.67 touchdown passes per game. If the Gators reach the national championship, they will play 13 games. That math equates to 60.71 touchdowns, again, in 13 games. Burrow set the all-time record last year throwing 60 TDs in 15 games for LSU.
F-S-Who?: Clemson must get Travis Etienne going in what is expected to be a walk through at Florida State. In his last two games against Boston College and Notre Dame, Etienne has averaged 2.95 yards per rush. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence returns from COVID-19 issues 28 days since playing his last game.
Chip returns to Eugene: It's not the first time Chip Kelly has gone back to Oregon. UCLA's coach got smacked down two years ago, 42-21, in his first season with the Bruins. His team seems to be developing an identity after nine tackles for loss against Cal. Oregon looks like the balanced machine Kelly built. The No. 11 Ducks are averaging 269 yards rushing and 269.5 yards passing per game under coach Mario Cristobal.
Sun Belted: Stay away from Appalachian State-Coastal Carolina, bettors. The Chanticleers have never defeated App State in six previous meetings. No. 15 Coastal could become the first Sun Belt team to go 8-0. App State (6-1) has lost seven straight games to ranked opponents since winning at Michigan in 2007, the greatest upset in history. The winner has the inside track in the Sun Belt East.
Quick Kicks: LSU (2-3) has not started a season 2-4 since 1999, the year before Nick Saban arrived. The Tigers play at Arkansas … if No. 21 Liberty wins at NC State, it will have more ACC victories (three) than five ACC teams … Mac Jones reenters the Heisman discussion with No. 1 Alabama hosting Kentucky. It seems like the Crimson Tide have been off for a month … Penn State (0-4) could start 0-5 for the first time in its history; it faces Iowa … through 11 weeks, we're on track for the second highest-scoring season ever (29.61 points per team). Quarterbacks are the most accurate in history (61.36%). Rush yards per game (168.28) would be the lowest since 2011. Pass yards (237.2-) would be the second-highest in history … at least four teams have not lost at home since 2018 -- Cincinnati, Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame. Among those, only Cincinnati has completed its 2020 home schedule … No. 17 Iowa State's Breece Hall b became the first runner to surpass 1,000 yards (1,034) in this shortened season. The Cyclones host Kansas State.