Originally found on Fox Sports:
Oct. 30, 2023 10:01 a.m. ET
The arrival of Halloween is always a fun time on the college football calendar.
This year’s holiday brings additional excitement, though, as it is also the day the College Football Playoff Selection Committee releases its first set of rankings. It will give us our first snapshot of a committee that has three new members (one added at the last minute) and whose composition features a higher percentage of former players and coaches than usual among the 13 members. It’s also going to be an interesting insight into how that same group views one of the more distinctive national title races we’ve seen in years.
Take the two prohibitive favorites, Georgia and Michigan, who have looked impressive and controlling despite neither playing anybody of note — just three combined opponents have qualified for a bowl at this point of the season and there may be only one ranked in the top 25. The committee has tried to make it a point in the past that having good wins matters, but so far the best the Wolverines (maybe UNLV?) and Bulldogs (uh, Kentucky?) have to show is a bag of meh.
Then there’s a team like Ohio State, which has two very good wins — Notre Dame and Penn State. When putting up the blind résumés together, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Buckeyes wind up ahead of both Michigan and Georgia on Tuesday night even if the eye test says differently. Florida State, with six wins against Power 5 teams .500 or better, is likely in the mix as well.
More importantly, the first Top 25 will lay out the roadmap every other final four contender has in front of them.
With conference title game races being more competitive than ever — thanks in part to the lack of divisions in the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 — these initial rankings will kick off an important Elimination Weekend, a Week 10 that features what are in essence a series of quarterfinal games.
Nowhere is this truer than in the “Big Noon Saturday” spotlight between Texas and Kansas State. The Longhorns will be eagerly awaiting their place in the committee’s Top 25 and will be hoping that the victory over Alabama, a thumping of Kansas, and a narrow loss to a rival away from home will place them as the top one-loss team in the rankings.
Regardless of the number by their name, however, Steve Sarkisian’s crew must also approach this game as something akin to a royal rumble match. Two conference losses are unlikely to earn a trip to Arlington, and things are extra complicated for a home side that must not only battle a reigning league champion that has hit its stride but do so with a backup quarterback making only his second start in Maalik Murphy.
The good news is that the young Californian signal-caller has gotten rave reviews from inside the program for months and could be starting for another contender had he chosen to transfer after Quinn Ewers was named the guy to start the season. Murphy didn’t and has acquitted himself well in some early tests, including looking solid, if unspectacular, (16-of-25, 170 yards, two TDs, one INT) in his first start vs. BYU.
Murphy didn’t use his big body to scramble much against the Cougars, instead standing in the pocket to zip a few passes to the likes of Adonai Mitchell and Xavier Worthy. It helps that the QB gets to lean on tailback Jonathon Brooks, and nobody is going to be shocked if Sarkisian saved some of the big play offensive calls for this weekend when the Big 12’s top-scoring defense arrives for what could be the final time at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium.
Chris Klieman’s squad did suffer two setbacks in the first half of the year as the Wildcats tried to find themselves as a team but has otherwise been the most convincing outfit in the league — scoring at least 38 points in all but one game the past five weeks and clicking in a way that was reminiscent of their run to close out 2022.
QB Will Howard has become incredibly efficient since a loss to Oklahoma State, and the dynamic with backup Avery Johnson coming in has somehow worked like magic for them both. The latter remains a more dynamic threat to run the ball and presents plenty of defensive challenges when he’s in the backfield with tailbacks DJ Giddens and Treshaun Ward.
Klieman’s defense, meanwhile, has been suffocating the past two weekends. There’s also the fact that KSU tends to give Texas trouble, too, given the physical style of play they love to impose on their more highly touted opponent (just one game in the last seven meetings has been won by more than a touchdown).
Even better for neutrals, this Big Noon Saturday contest is something of an appetizer for a full weekend’s worth of elimination games on the docket across the country.
Staying in the Big 12, the final Bedlam for the time being is about far more than the emotions of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State facing off against each other for the last time in the same conference. The Sooners come limping in after suffering their first loss and will now have to deal with an even more hostile environment than the one they were in last week against Kansas. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are as hot as anybody and hitting their own stride to surge up the pecking order in one of Mike Gundy’s better in-season coaching jobs over the course of two decades in Stillwater. Given the tie-breakers at play, it’s a game with large CFP and Big 12 implications for either side.
Further north, the Jayhawks have to travel to face an Iowa State team that has become among the most shocking Big 12 contenders. The head-to-head result against OU, combined with some tiebreakers at play, also means Kansas isn’t out of the running to make it to the Big 12 Championship game. A loss for either side, however, would prove fatal to such grandiose hopes.
Elsewhere, Ole Miss could be one of several one-loss teams in the mix for a final four bid depending on how the SEC West race goes and how the committee values their performance. They’ll take on a Texas A&M side backed into a corner and a coaching staff almost facing a must-win.
Out West, the Pac-12’s marquee game pits preseason pick USC against current front-runner Washington in a meeting of the two teams atop the standings. In addition to what should be plenty of points given the offenses involved, it could also wind up representing a passing of the Heisman torch as well.
In the Big Ten, you may not have noticed, but Nebraska is suddenly in the West Division race and will have to hope it doesn’t trip up against a Michigan State team pining for a win in the worst way given how things have gone in East Lansing.
So buckle up, because Week 10 could feature elimination battles across the board as we head to Tuesday’s Halloween release of the Playoff rankings.
HOW TO WATCH ‘BIG NOON KICKOFF’ THIS SATURDAY
First and 10
1. It’s typically about this time when opposing fans are ready to make the joke that it’s basketball season around the state of Kansas. But it’s a testament to the football coaches at both KU and Kansas State that all the attention right now is focused on the gridiron. The Jayhawks pulled off a Big Noon Saturday upset for the ages and are doing all they can to capitalize on the momentum that Lance Leipold has created. Down the road, Chris Klieman has the Wildcats playing as well as anybody in the conference and looking dangerous as a threat to repeat in AT&T Stadium come December.
2. Was there a better sight than that of Air Force’s 30-13 win over Colorado State in the first snow game of the season? It was a great reminder that the elements are going to be much more a part of the landscape moving forward, and also that the Mountain West is much improved this year. While the bottom of the league is still struggling, the upper half of the conference is as deep as it has been in years.
3. Half of the battle head coaches must deal with beyond the X’s and O’s is the simple emotions of their teams and trying to keep them in check. After this past weekend, it’s safe to say that Dan Lanning has done a better job refocusing his Oregon team following their lone loss of the year, while Washington’s Kalen DeBoer has struggled to get the Huskies playing like they did prior to that big rivalry win. Many folks left that game in Seattle thinking the Ducks were still the better side despite the scoreboard and nothing has changed that viewpoint in the results since.
4. Georgia is starting to look like Georgia again following their evisceration of Florida in the World’s Largest Cocktail Party. It was notable for the way QB Carson Beck (315 yards, 2 TDs) looked perfectly comfortable without TE Brock Bowers around. There’s still some rightful skepticism about the reigning champions come CFP time, but for now, Kirby Smart’s team is the least flawed of any in the SEC and taking advantage of weaker-than-normal opposition as they should.
5. Ohio State is getting healthier on offense — welcome back TreVeyon Henderson — but the defense remains the biggest reason the Buckeyes keep winning games. After the first eight games prior to DC Jim Knowles’ arrival, the team gave up 154 points. After eight games last season: 135. This year? Just 80.
6. The ACC was at the wrong end of a lot of jokes about the ACC Coastal over the years, but it feels like with that division relegated to the scrap heap of history, the entire league — save Florida State and Louisville, perhaps — is embracing the ethos of the most mediocre half of the conference in full. It doesn’t help that Clemson has slid back to the pack.
7. The most underrated coaching job this season might be what Jedd Fisch has done at Arizona. The Wildcats are nearly bowl–eligible and their three losses are all by one score (including two in overtime). They knocked off a top-15 squad in Oregon State and really seem to have found something with young QB Noah Fifita. Regular starter Jayden de Laura should be close to full health soon, but he may have been Wally Pipp’d thanks to Fifita’s play.
8. The Big Ten West alternates between being a tough watch and equally mesmerizing. While this has typically been a space to chat about Iowa, it was the rest of the group that has looked, dare we say, resurgent? It’s notable that Northwestern shocked Maryland at home, Minnesota won comfortably against Michigan State and Nebraska notched its third win in a row for the first time since 2016. The Cornhuskers could go into their Black Friday game against the Hawkeyes with a trip to Indianapolis on the line.
9. Jon Sumrall turned a bunch of heads with the way he turned around Troy in his first season, but it’s the follow-up act that might be even better. The Trojans lost a ton from last year’s Sun Belt Championship group, but find themselves back atop the West Division. The short week against South Alabama doesn’t help, but Troy is in good shape to win back-to-back league titles.
10. Ahead of Tuesday’s CFP rankings, it looks like you could stretch and put a dozen or so programs in the race for the Playoff. If there was a 12-team setup in place for this season, the list would be just shy of 50 and include Georgia, Michigan, Florida State and Washington in line for byes, while the likes of Oregon, Texas, Alabama and Penn State could be set to host first-round games.
Best Player: Bo Nix, Oregon
Team of the Week: Kansas
Coach of the Week: Chuck Martin, Miami-Ohio
Hot Seat of the Week: Mack Brown, North Carolina
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
My ballot going into Week 8 in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
MichiganFlorida StateGeorgiaOhio StateWashingtonOregonTexasAlabamaLSUPenn StateOle MissNotre DameOklahomaMissouriUCLAAir Force
Just missed the cut: Kansas State
Best of the rest: Utah, Fresno State, Oklahoma State, Tulane, Kansas, Miami, James Madison, Oregon State
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Kansas State at Texas (Saturday, Noon ET on FOX)
QB Maalik Murphy looked good in his debut as the starter for the Longhorns, but it’s typically the second time out when young QBs either press too much or are figured out by the opposition. Between that, the Wildcats coming in hot, and this likely being a limited possession game, expect a close one down in Austin. KSU +5
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (3:30 p.m. ET)
The injury to LB Danny Stutsman played a big role in the Sooners’ loss to Kansas. It also comes at an inopportune time given how Oklahoma State has been playing on offense behind the terrific Ollie Gordon II. If the defensive leader remains out, this final Bedlam for the foreseeable future remains in the hands of the Cowboys. OSU +4
Missouri at Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET)
If there’s one team in the SEC East capable of testing the Bulldogs defense on the backend, it’s Mizzou. It’s hard to think they can keep Brady Cook upright for four quarters, but the program that made UGA sweat last season has the ability to hang around for a half before water eventually finds its level on both sides. Georgia -15
Washington at USC (7:30 p.m. ET)
We’ve reached the point where Trojans fans are both dreading what the Huskies’ offense is capable of doing to their defense and half-heartedly rooting for it, so they can be done with DC Alex Grinch. Washington –4
LSU at Alabama (7:45 p.m. ET)
The pace of this game will be a big factor in who ultimately emerges victorious. The Tigers‘ secondary is so beat up that it’s concerning, but they have an offense capable of both making up for that and putting additional pressure on the home side to score. LSU +6
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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