Separation Saturday is ahead for the Big Ten. Might as well call it Separation Month. The four contenders in the Big Ten East -- Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State -- play a series of round-robin games over the next five Saturdays that will likely decide the division, the conference, perhaps College Football Playoff berths and maybe even future employment opportunities.
This could be more drawn out than a Netflix series. Feel free to binge.
No. 6 Michigan visits No. 8 Michigan State in the series' biggest game since 1964. The teams haven't met with both ranked in the top 10 since that year. They haven't met with both holding blemish-free records since 2010. To the victor goes a continued unbeaten season, for at least one more week, plus significant buzz going into Tuesday's reveal of the first College Football Playoff Rankings of the 2021 season.
Talk about separation. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has gone from hot seat to just hot. Michigan State coach Mel Tucker has gone from short-timer at Colorado to national coach of the year candidate.
Separation? How about from reality given whatever that was this week with Penn State coach James Franklin.
Now, we're forced to wonder how Penn State is going to do playing Illinois in the Big House. In the real world, the No. 20 Nittany Lions face an inflection point as 18-point underdogs at No. 5 Ohio State.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford doesn't look right despite being cleared. The season took a turn for the worst the moment Clifford was knocked out of the game against Iowa on Oct. 6. Penn State blew a 17-3 lead and was embarrassed by Illinois in that nine-overtime head-scratcher last week. Those two things don't happen if a healthy Clifford is in there. But given recent history, Franklin's bunch is all but out of the race. Just don't expect Ohio State to cover.
Do expect Penn State notices to pop up on your phone these final few weeks. If the Nittany Lions finish strong -- perhaps even if they don't -- you can imagine a bidding war for the services of Franklin. It was revealed this week what had long been rumored: Franklin has switched agents from Trace Armstrong to Jimmy Sexton. That means whatever happens at USC and LSU, which will likely go through Sexton (super-agent with Creative Artists Agency), may also go through Franklin. Sexton basically controls the coaching market with his influence.
All of this has overshadowed the fact that Ohio State looks like the team to beat in the Big Ten and possibly beyond.
Surprised? Maybe just a little. After being exposed by Oregon in Week 2, the Buckeyes have climbed to No. 5 in the AP Top 25 ahead of the No. 7 Ducks. Why? Presumably because Ohio State … in losing to Oregon … has a better loss than the Ducks themselves (defeated by Stanford). Meanwhile, Ohio State has moved back into the top five beating Rutgers, Akron, Maryland and Indiana post-Duck loss. That's not exactly a series of Himalayan mountains.
There's going to be some significant quacking out West if the Ducks are behind the Buckeyes on Tuesday when those first CFP Rankings are released.
You can already see from here how this might end. If it comes to head-to-head at the conclusion of the season, Ohio State looks like the better team. Quarterback C.J. Stroud has elbowed his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation while leading the Big Ten in passing. Running back TreyVeon Henderson is a go-to playmaker who leads the league in yards per carry and touchdown runs.
The biggest question for Ohio State remains a defense that will be tested by three top 35 offenses down the stretch (Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan).
It doesn't end there for the Big Ten
There is a traffic pile-up at the top of the Big Ten West where No. 9 Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin each control their divisional fate. That three-team round robin is also going down during this Separation Month. Minnesota's only Big Ten loss is to Ohio State on opening night. The Gophers play at Northwestern. Iowa faces what could be an elimination game at Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) still have a shot. Their only Big Ten losses are teams from the East, Penn State and Michigan.
Add it up and any Big Ten champion that finishes with fewer than two losses looks like a shoo-in at this point for the CFP.
One-sided Cocktail Party?
The fortunes of Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart are headed in opposite directions going into the Florida-Georgia game. Smart is coasting with the best program in the country. The No. 1 Bulldogs are 14 points over the Gators, the largest spread in series history with UGA as the favorite. Mullen, meanwhile, is being criticized for basically everything: defensive coordinator Todd Grantham still being employed, not starting uber-talented QB Anthony Richardson and potentially suffering a fourth SEC loss before November (that hasn't happened at Florida since 2011).
Mullen continues to stick with redshirt junior QB Emory Jones while Richardson, a redshirt freshman, looks like the better overall package. Jones earned a shot at the job after waiting his turn behind Kyle Trask, but Richardson seems like the better option in a game that has the appearance of a boat race before kickoff.
What would really hurt Mullen's cause: Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV -- outplayed and overwhelmed by Trask and the Gators last year -- outshining by whoever Florida puts out there Saturday. JT Daniels, out since Sept. 25 with a lat strain, may also play for Georgia. Neither program has announced a starting quarterback as they come off bye weeks entering the rivalry game.
'Oh my' at Ole Miss
Let's go ahead and say it: Ole Miss QB Matt Corral is the Heisman front-runner heading into Week 9. His guts (30 carries against Tennessee) and efficiency (best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the SEC at 15-1) should serve him well. The last time the No. 10 Rebels beat No. 18 Auburn was 2015, which is also the last time both teams were ranked in this game.
Texas Tech fortunes
Texas Tech (at No. 4 Oklahoma) must make SMU coach Sonny Dykes say no before continuing its search after firing Matt Wells this week. Dykes' father, Spike, went 82-67-1 over 14 seasons as basically the godfather of Red Raiders football. If Dykes has Power Five ambitions again, he can do better than Tech. He has the nation's leading touchdown thrower in QB Tanner Mordecai this week against Houston. Ulysses Bentley IV is Pro Football Focus' highest-rated running back this season (7.6 yards per carry). The No. 19 Mustangs remain one of nine undefeated FBS teams. Completing the circle, the Cougars' only loss is to … Texas Tech.
It's Year 4 for Jonathan Smith at Oregon State, and its logical to say the Beavers coach is ahead of schedule. Heading into the season's final month, Oregon State (at Cal) is 5-2 tied for the Pac-12 North lead with Oregon. After Oregon State shocked his team 42-34 last week, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called Beavers the best offensive team in the league. That's the most points the Utes have given up in a conference game since 2016.
The only other time Georgia was ranked No. 1 entering the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was 1942. It won 75-0 … since 2000, Georgia is tied with 2007 Ohio State for the fewest points allowed through seven games, 46 … Florida leads the country in yards rushing per game by quarterbacks, 120 … since winning his first career game almost four years ago at Miami, Kenny Pickett is 27-15 as QB at No. 17 Pittsburgh; the Hurricanes are 24-20 since with their last loss to the Panthers coming in that 2017 game … maybe No. 25 BYU should be invited to the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cougars have beaten more Pac-12 schools (four) than anyone actually in the conference and could go 5-0 against the league if they beat USC next month … Tulane (vs. No. 2 Cincinnati) hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since 1984, per CBS Sports Research … facing ground-based Wisconsin, Iowa leads the country having not allowed 150 yards rushing in 16 straight games … No. 13 Wake Forest (7-0) has its highest ranking since 1947 (No. 11) … whoever starts for UCLA against Utah needs to get the ball out quicker. Bruins quarterbacks are averaging 3 seconds from snap to throw; the FBS average is 2.78 seconds. Dorian Thompson-Robinson left last week's Oregon game with an undisclosed injury. Backup Ethan Garbers may start.