By RALPH D. RUSSO
Highlighted by three games matching top-15 teams, this was the first weekend of the season to seriously separate College Football Playoff contenders and pretenders.
Feel free to take a seat at the adults’ table No. 8 Auburn and No. 13 Wisconsin. You, too, No. 12 Texas. And No. 7 Notre Dame, even in a loss you looked like you belong.
We are looking for teams capable of disrupting the established upper tier in college football this season: No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 LSU, No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 Ohio State.
The Tigers, Badgers, Longhorns and Fighting Irish might — maybe — have the stuff to crash the party.
No. 11 Michigan, you’re excused. Playoffs are the last thing coach Jim Harbaugh needs to be thinking about. His program seems to be at a crossroads. No. 15 UCF, which lost a regular-season game for the first time since 2016, will be joining the Wolverines on the don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you list.
Might as well go in chronological order.
A year after a season of great expectations went sideways for Wisconsin the country’s most self-aware program is back on track. The Badgers never stray far from their successful player development blueprint. Build a big, strong offensive line. Put a workhorse tailback behind it. Play tough and disciplined defense. Wisconsin ripped off four straight 10-win seasons before sliding to 8-5 last year.
The Badgers are back. By beating down Michigan in Madison, the Badgers validated their dominant 2-0 start against weak competition.
“After the first two games, I feel like the world didn’t want to say we were the best defense in the country,” Badgers linebacker Zack Baun said. ”(They said) we didn’t have the best running back in the country and we didn’t have the best O-line in the country. And we really made an effort to make a statement this game.”
The Badgers finally did allow a point after nearly 11 quarters of shutout ball to start the season, and Jonathan Taylor ran for 203 yards, despite sitting out the second quarter with cramps. The Big Ten West looked wide open coming into the season, with Nebraska penciled in as the favorite. The Badgers still face the trickiest schedule in the West, including trips to No. 6 Ohio State and Nebraska, but they are clearly the favorites now.
That Oct. 26 meeting with the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, might be a preview of the Big Ten championship game. Through four weeks, Wisconsin is the only team in the Big Ten that looks like it can challenge Justin Fields and Ohio State.
Auburn was next up, taking care of No. 17 Texas A&M on the road. Auburn has made itself right at home in College Station, Texas, since the Aggies joined the Southeastern Conference, winning all four games there.
The Tigers now have two notable victories in the Lone Star State in September after rallying to beat No. 16 Oregon in Arlington to start the season.
To be fair, Auburn still looks too limited offensively to keep pace with super-charged Alabama and No. 4 LSU. The Tigers also draw both No. 3 Georgia and No. 9 Florida from the SEC East. But if there is going to be a third wheel in the West, Auburn and its nasty defensive line led by preseason All-American tackle Derrick Brown is it.
Texas didn’t beat a ranked foe. More like vanquishing a demon. Oklahoma State had won four straight overall against Texas and five straight in Austin. The Cowboys’ dominance in the rivalry was symbolic of Texas’ fall from grace.
The Longhorns, who two weeks ago played LSU toe-to-toe, took back the rivalry, with some timely defensive stops in their own territory and the third four-TD pass game of the season for Sam Ehlinger. On the Is Texas Back?-o-Meter, this was about an 8 out of 10.
NOTRE DAME’S ROAD
The Fighting Irish went to Athens as a two-touchdown underdog to face a Georgia team that has been trying to make the case it is the equal of Clemson and Alabama.
The Irish hung tough, but lost to a top-five team for the 11th straight time. There are no moral victories, but it wasn’t that bad of a day for the Irish’s playoff hopes. Suddenly, what was assumed to be difficult road games against Michigan and Stanford don’t look so difficult for Notre Dame.
The Irish can’t afford another loss but they will probably be favored in all their remaining games.
WHAT NOW MICHIGAN?
To be clear: Most of the criticism of Harbaugh during his tenure at Michigan has been overblown. Fans like to see blue bloods fail. Especially, when they are coached by a quirky former NFL quarterback with a big reputation and no conference championships.
Harbaugh has three 10-win seasons at Michigan and the program, despite obvious shortcomings against Ohio State, has not been healthier since Lloyd Carr was coach more than a decade ago. At least that is the way it seemed until last Thanksgiving weekend. The Wolverines went to Ohio State favored and looking like a playoff team. They lost 62-39. They then lost to Florida 41-15 in an uninspired Peach Bowl performance. Now, after an offseason remake of the offense, Michigan’s first big game of the season was no contest.
Michigan has been outscored by 70 points in its last three games against ranked teams. It is also 0-7 as an underdog with Harbaugh.
“We were outplayed, outprepared, outcoached, the whole thing both offensively and defensively,” Harbaugh said. “It was thorough.”
This is not a hot-seat situation. Michigan is all in on Harbaugh. But for the first time since he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015 the trajectory of the program feels like it is headed in the wrong direction. And that leads to the scariest question for Michigan fans: If Harbaugh can’t make Michigan a consistently elite program again, can anyone?
UCF AS IN FLOP
Folks were lining up to champion the Knights last week after UCF trounced Stanford. So, of course, the Knights followed it up by losing to Pitt.
Everybody off the bandwagon.
The Panthers’ have chaos in the DNA, always good for at least one perplexing loss and equally surprising victory per season. A week after coach Pat Narduzzi called for a bafflingly conservative field goal late in the game that cost his team, Pitt beat the Knights with its own version of the Philly Special on a fourth-and-ballgame.
One loss on the road is not an indictment of UCF. The Knights are formidable. They’re just not playoff contenders.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: The last time Appalachian State beat a Power Five team the Mountaineers blocked a kick on the final play of the game to seal one of the great upsets of all-time. North Carolina is no Michigan and App State’s latest takedown of a Power Five team was hardly an upset at all … West Virginia ended Kansas’ winning streak at one. … Eastern Michigan is one of the most entertaining teams in the country. The Eagles have played 27 (14-13) one-score games since 2016. The latest: EMU blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown with 10 seconds left to beat FCS Central Connecticut. A week ago, coach Chris Creighton’s Eagles beat Illinois of the Big Ten with a last-second field goal. Creighton is probably due for a shot at a bigger program. … Florida State blew another big lead, but this time recovered for a much-needed victory against Louisville. Willie Taggart so desperately needs to calm the waters in Tallahassee … Speaking of pretenders, No. 10 Utah rammed into its ceiling at Southern California on Friday night. … San Jose State earned $1.5 million and beat Arkansas for its first victory against a Power Five team since 2006 and first ever against an SEC team. A lot of attention has been on the struggles of second-year coaches Taggart, Jeremy Pruitt of Tennessee and UCLA’s Chip Kelly, but Chad Morris is now 4-12 with the Razorbacks, with losses to Colorado State, North Texas and San Jose State.