As much as a contest could be a College Football Playoff elimination game in Week 5, Notre Dame-Cincinnati is it. This is the equivalent of a loser-leave-town match with implications far beyond Saturday.
Start with the realization this might be the biggest game for the have-nots since we started calling them the Group of Five. It certainly qualifies as the biggest game in Cincinnati's history. For Notre Dame's sake, Power Five program has ever lost to a Group of Five and made the playoff. Obviously, no Group of Five school has ever made the playoff, period.
Something's gotta give. If Cincinnati wins and goes undefeated, the Group of Five is represented by only two individuals (out of 13) on the CFP Selection Committee. Bearcats fans, send your cards and letters to a couple athletic directors: Tom Burman of Wyoming and Charlie Cobb of Georgia State.
No Group of Five team has finished higher than No. 8 in the final CFP Rankings. But that's getting ahead of Saturday's blockbuster.
No. 7 Cincinnati is a program that has sustained itself through Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and Luke Fickell. (Even Tommy Tuberville won nine games twice but flamed out over his last two seasons.) The Bearcats have played in three New Year's Six bowls since 2009. That excellence helped the school get an invitation to the Big 12. The committee should know that, too.
This is an inflection point, then; a big reason why the playoff is (supposedly) being expanded. We're going to have to consider Cincinnati having the schedule and the team to go undefeated. Beating two Power Fives (Indiana, Notre Dame) in consecutive games on the road might be the biggest accomplishment of the Group of Five in these eight years of the playoff.
The only team close in the CFP era was Houston in 2015. Those Cougars lost at UConn in November, dooming a playoff run. These Bearcats know the math. Win at No. 9 Notre Dame as two-point road favorites, according to Caesars Sportsbook, and then win them all. The committee could not look away.
"They become the first Group of Five [team] where the discussion is actually entertained," said CBS Sports bowls expert Jerry Palm. "Regardless of the circumstances, they are in that discussion at 13-0. The margin for error is zero."
The biggest weekend of the season to date has arrived. It's almost hard to digest all the games, but here goes …
No. 12 Ole Miss can score: We always knew that. But the defense under co-coordinators Chris Partridge and D.J. Durkin can look itself in the mirror this week against No. 1 Alabama. The unit has gone from second-worst in the country (519 yards per game in 2020) to 58th. Mediocre sounds quite good this week headed to Bryant-Denny Stadium. Coming into this season, only five teams had scored as many points (39.2) and allowed as many points (38.3) as Ole Miss in the last 10 years.
So far, the defense has shaved off 75 yards per game and gone from 106th to 29th in third-down efficiency. Coach Lane Kiffin's team loaded up emotionally on this game last year, losing the next two following a 63-48 loss to finish 5-5. The challenge for the Rebels might be to keep an even keel at a place where they have won once since 2003. The last time the Crimson Tide scored less than 43 points in the series was Ole Miss' 23-17 win in 2014. Ironically, that was the year Kiffin was helping Tide coach Nick Saban install the spread.
Yeah, it's a huge spread: For those of you who have considered the size of Saturday's line for No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 8 Arkansas -- the Bulldogs are favored by 18.5 points – you might as well avert your eyes. It is the largest spread between two top-10 SEC teams in 40 years, according to CBS Sports Research.
Six times since 1995, a line has been larger than 18.5 when top-10 teams meet. Each time, the higher-ranked (and favored) team has won but not necessarily covered. The last time came in 2020 when then-No. 3 Ohio State won 42-35 as a 21.5-point favorite over No. 9 Indiana. Other than that, there isn't much hope for the Razorbacks based on history. The average margin of victory in those six games has been 25.6 points.
SEC East showdown: They're calling it the biggest game at Kentucky in years. At 4-0, the Wildcats have cemented themselves as the third-best team in the SEC East, at least. A win over No. 10 Florida this Saturday, and that conversation changes. Wildcats coach Mark Stoops is 1-7 against the Gators, who have won 16 straight in Lexington, Kentucky. Speaking of cemented, Florida quarterback Emory Jones has grabbed hold of the starting job after back-to-back career highs in passing. Talk of inserting Anthony Richardson has subsided, though he will be cleared and available to spell Jones on Saturday.
So far, so good: No. 14 Michigan is the only team yet to commit a turnover this season. Wisconsin can't stop turning it over, especially QB Graham Mertz (six interceptions, two fumbles). The Badgers (1-2) have to avoid dropping into obscurity at Camp Randall Stadium.
Turning point? Is it time to hit the pause button on coach Jimbo Fisher if No. 15 Texas A&M loses this week against Mississippi State? Texas A&M would be 3-2 headed into the Alabama game. That's a lot of money to pay (now $9.5 million per year) to finish third in the SEC West. Actually, it's a lot to pay to finish anywhere short of Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Highs and lows: Is it possible to be a Heisman Trophy contender and be booed by your own fans? Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler is finding out. During last week's win over West Virginia, the Gaylord Family Stadium crowd was booing during a tense 16-13 win. The student section was actually chanting the name of backup Caleb Williams, a five-star freshman. "I don't listen to them, they're not on the field," Rattler told ESPN afterward.
We'll find out a lot more Saturday when No. 6 Oklahoma visits Kansas State. There will be plenty of venom in the stands for OU's first Big 12 road game since announcing it would leave for the SEC. The Wildcats picked off Rattler three times last year in an unlikely win in Norman, Oklahoma. They've also beaten the Sooners in consecutive games for the first time since K-State won five in a row from 1993-97.
In-state showdown: Texas -- another future SEC member -- should get the same cordial welcome at TCU where Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs are still fuming over SMU trying to plant a flag after winning last week at Amon Carter Stadium. Lots of folks have been waiting for this day. Who can forget Texas Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R) trolling Texas president Jay Hartzell during August hearings?
"We've been winning, just not like we like to win," Hartzell said.
"3-7 against the Horned Frogs," Kolkhorst shot back.
"Maybe you'd rather lose to Alabama than TCU."
Actually, Texas is 2-7 against TCU all-time in the Big 12. Still … ouch.
Upset of the week: The ACC is all but out of the playoff race thanks to Clemson's 2-2 start. That opens up a spot in the CFP and likely an opportunity for someone else to win the ACC as well. Boston College -- a 15-point underdog at Death Valley -- will make its case with backup QB Dennis Grosel after starting 4-0 for the first time since 2007.
This is almost too easy to pick. The Tigers are last in the ACC in offense. Two potential All-Americans in the defensive line are out for an extended period: Bryan Bresee (ACL) and Tyler Davis (torn bicep). Not a good matchup with the Eagles rolling with the ACC's second-best rushing offense.
Earning something besides NIL: A quarter of the way through the season, no Power Five QB leads the country in any major category. Just curious what the NIL deals are for these Group of Five QBs currently leading the nation in …
- Touchdown passes: Tanner Mordecai, SMU (20
- Accuracy: Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina (.767)
- Yards: Jake Haener, Fresno State (1,842)
- QB Rating: McCall (213.8)
- Yards per game: Brennan Armstrong, Virginia (426.3)
Meanwhile, these guys hit it out of the park on the NIL circuit: Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei is not among the top 100 in efficiency, touchdown passes or average passing yards. Rattler is tied for second in Big 12 interceptions (three). North Carolina's Sam Howell is tied for the ACC lead in that category (four).
Quick hits: Adding to Notre Dame's problems: QBs Jack Coan and Drew Pyne were sacked eight times last week in a four-touchdown win against Wisconsin. That makes 20 sacks surrendered on the season for the Fighting Irish's embattled offensive line. Only Akron (21) has given up more … adding to more Notre Dame problems: Cincinnati has the best pass-rush grade in the country, according to Pro Football Focus … Oregon's Verone McKinley II leads the Pac-12 with four interceptions. There are 96 teams that have three or less picks overall this season … since the start of last season, BYU and Coastal Carolina (both 15-1) are tied for the second-best record behind Alabama (17-0) … since Sam Pittman arrived, Arkansas has the second-best record nationally against the spread, 11-3 … since the beginning of last season, Wisconsin is 0-5 against ranked teams. It was favored each time … Cincinnati is 0-23 on the road all-time against top 10 teams. Notre Dame has won its last five as a home underdog … bet the shootout in Ole Miss-Alabama. Any final over/under of more than 78.5 points would be the most for an SEC game since 2000. As of Thursday, the total was 79.5 … Ryan Day remains unbeaten against Big Ten opponents, 18-0 as Ohio State visits Rutgers.