Week 8 of the college football season is in the books, and with a little more than a week until the initial College Football Playoff rankings, things are still pretty cloudy. Here's what we learned in another entertaining weekend of action.
Oregon is hanging on
With ESPN College GameDay in Los Angeles for Oregon-UCLA, a brighter spotlight was on a pair of teams that had been trending the wrong way since inspiring early-season wins. Oregon went into the game as the No. 10 team in the AP poll but had looked mediocre, at best, since winning at Ohio State on Sept. 11. That stretch, which included a 31-24 loss to Stanford (3-4), made it hard to put much stock in the Ducks as serious College Football Playoff contenders.
Their 34-31 win over UCLA doesn't necessarily change that, but as things sit, the Ducks will likely be favored in every game left on their schedule -- Colorado (2-5), at Washington (3-4), Washington State (4-4), at Utah (4-3), Oregon State (5-2). ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oregon just an 11.8% chance of running the table, but that's enough hope to keep the playoff a viable possibility -- especially if Ohio State wins the Big Ten. That head-to-head win would carry a lot of weight if both teams are among the committee's options in December. -- Kyle Bonagura
What should we make of 6-1 Pitt?
In the aftermath of what amounted to a signature win for Pitt, QB Kenny Pickett said he was going home to "have a cold one," a reward much deserved. And for the Panthers, there was probably little point in dwelling on issues bigger than Saturday's win over Clemson. There's still a long ride before the ACC championship game, starting with this week's showdown with Miami.
But now that Pitt has knocked off the six-time defending league champions, it might be time to start asking some bigger questions, too.
Is Pitt the team to beat in the ACC now? No Coastal Division team has won the league since 2010, but this season has been filled with surprises, from Clemson's downfall to Wake Forest's ascension. But look at ESPN's FPI metric, and the answer is pretty clear: Pitt has an 89% chance to win the division and a 56% chance to win the league -- well ahead of any other ACC competition. The FPI even believes Pitt has a 3% chance to win the national championship -- admittedly slim odds, but still far beyond anything Panthers fans might've reasonably hoped for two months ago.
Indeed, the FPI favors Pitt far more than the AP poll voters. The FPI ranks Pitt sixth, behind only Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma. The AP voters, however, have Pitt at No. 17, while the coaches' poll has the Panthers 19th.
So, who's right? On the surface, it's hard to ignore that bewildering 44-41 loss to Western Michigan in September. In some ways, it feels like a fluke. The Broncos have since lost to Ball State and Toledo, after all. And Pitt's three turnovers and less than 20 minutes of possession time certainly made things tough. But Pitt also surrendered 517 yards to Western Michigan that day, and it never led after going up 7-0 early in the first quarter.
And yet, here, too, is a team that has impressive wins over Tennessee and Clemson, dominant performances against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, and a potential Heisman winner in Pickett.
Pitt is the ACC's ultimate Rorschach test. Think the Panthers might be the league's best team, an unexpected playoff candidate complete with a possible Heisman QB? You can make a strong case. Think Pitt is an overvalued commodity whose wins are unspectacular and whose lone loss is as egregious as any from a genuine contender? The evidence exists for that, too.
In the end, the best answer is probably Pickett's: Sit back, have a cold one and enjoy this ride. At Pitt, these seasons don't come around too often, and if the journey ends against Miami or North Carolina or in the ACC title game, well, at least you'll have had this win over Clemson and a moment when it felt like anything was truly possible. -- David M. Hale
Who's in for a Wake Forest-Pitt ACC championship game?
On the other side of the ACC, Wake Forest keeps rolling along, now 7-0 for the second time in school history. But now, for the first time all season, the Demon Deacons are the favorite to win the Atlantic Division.
The FPI has been down on Wake Forest until now -- even though the Demon Deacons remain the last undefeated team in the league. Three weeks ago, Wake Forest sat at 5-0. Clemson already had a league loss. Yet the FPI still gave the Tigers the best odds to win the Atlantic. Wake Forest was sitting in third, at 20.3%.
Now it is hard even for computers and algorithms to ignore reality. With Clemson at 3-2 in ACC play and NC State at 2-1 after a disappointing loss at Miami, Wake Forest now has a 43.6% chance to win the Atlantic.
Quarterback Sam Hartman has entered the Heisman chatter after throwing for a career-high 458 yards in a 70-56 win over Army. His five touchdown passes also set a career high and tied a program record, and it was hard to take your eyes off what was happening in that wild game.
But the truth is, it's not just the FPI that has disregarded Wake Forest. The human pollsters have, too.
Wake Forest moved up to No. 13 in the AP poll on Sunday, the lowest of the Power 5 undefeated teams. If Clemson sat at 7-0, the Tigers would be somewhere in the top four. Such is life at a school like Wake Forest, which began the season unranked and has had to slowly climb the rankings while trying to earn a modicum of national respect along the way. Its strength of schedule is not great, and there are no marquee nonconference wins (even Cincinnati has one of those), but the Demon Deacons have a shot to improve that over the final month of the season.
A win over Duke next weekend puts Wake Forest at 8-0 just before the release of the only poll that matters: the first College Football Playoff selection committee ranking, on Nov. 2. -- Andrea Adelson
Officials shouldn't police the excitement of college football
College football celebrates big plays like no other sport. One play can mint legends, be celebrated on video boards for generations and inspire decades of trash talk, an integral part of why there's so much passion in the game.
The officials can't be allowed to lessen those moments.
At Big 12 media days in July, Greg Burks, the league's coordinator of officials, said cracking down on taunting would be a "point of emphasis" this season. That's the only explanation for the bizarrely ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct call on Iowa State's Xavier Hutchinson on Saturday en route to his 51-yard touchdown catch.
Hutchinson, a Florida native who went to Blinn Junior College in Texas to work his way to the Division I level, had an outstanding first season with the Cyclones, catching 64 passes for 771 yards and four touchdowns, but he didn't get to do it in front of a rowdy, packed Jack Trice Stadium home crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions.
This was exactly the type of moment Hutchinson -- and all college athletes -- work for. In the NCAA's own 2019 study on the experience of student-athletes on college campuses, FBS players said they spend an average of 40 hours a week on football and another 35.5 on academics. They reported an average of 5.85 hours of sleep per night during the season. It can get to be a grind.
So on Saturday, with a sellout crowd of 61,500 in attendance, imagine what it felt like for Hutchinson, who caught a pass as the defender fell and raced into the end zone against an undefeated Oklahoma State team ranked No. 8 in the country, a huge play in a huge game for the Cyclones.
How did Hutchinson celebrate? By looking back to see if anyone was chasing him, and slightly modifying his stride, slowing up a bit. For that, officials took his touchdown catch off the board and put the Cyclones back at the spot of the foul, the 8-yard line.
Fortunately for Iowa State, Hutchinson caught a touchdown three plays later. But there's no justifiable reason this call, which has the ability to shift the momentum of a game, should exist. The Big 12 has enough issues to deal with. Making football games less fun shouldn't be one of them. -- Dave Wilson
Ohio State is back in the College Football Playoff conversation
Ohio State opened the season with a 14-point win against Minnesota, giving up 31 points to the Gophers, then a 35-28 loss to Oregon.
The defense had holes, and mistakes resulted in a change at playcaller on the defensive side, raising questions about the ceiling for this team. Quarterback C.J. Stroud was nursing an injury, and this wasn't the typical Ohio State team Ryan Day has thrown out on the field in the first part of the season.
Stroud took a week off against Akron to rest his shoulder, and this team hasn't looked back since.
"I just think it's a different team. I think when you practice well, then you know you have confidence because you've already done it, and now you have to go do it on the field," Day said after the win against Indiana. "That only gives you a chance, but it does allow you that confidence to know that first off, the guy next to me has done it before, I've seen him do it, we've played in six, seven games now together. And I've seen what he can do, that's big."
The Buckeyes have had four consecutive games with 50 or more points, and since taking the week off for the Akron game, Stroud has had 14 passing touchdowns in the past three games. That's tied for the most in a three-game span in Ohio State history.
"It starts with the protection, and it starts with the trust in the guys to catch it," Day said about Stroud. "But he does see the field, and that's one of his strengths. And he's got a lot of confidence right now, and that's a good thing. But we can't ride the roller coaster, either."
Ohio State went from big questions about how it would finish the season and if the defense could make the needed adjustments, to being back in the College Football Playoff picture.
Day believes a big part of that is getting meaningful practice, game reps and consistency that the Buckeyes didn't get last season with games cancelled and COVID-19 restrictions.
"Early on, a lot of those guys had never really played before. They weren't getting what a bunch of those guys got in the second half," Day said. "We were coaching them really hard in the second half, our offense, our defense, because we know that that's going to pay dividends down the road. We missed that last year and because of that, it was bumpy early on.
"And we didn't have a lot of confidence; everyone kind of felt like they were out there on an island by themselves and, and we're building on it. We're still not there, got a big one next week and we got to get back and get ready for these guys." -- Tom VanHaaren
Notre Dame finally finds its offensive identity behind 'Hurry-Up Jack'
After six games of trial-and-mostly-error offense, Notre Dame studied itself during an open week. The self-scouting showed the Irish needed a tempo change, even though their primary quarterback, Jack Coan, had led deliberate offenses at Wisconsin and early on at Notre Dame.
The result Saturday night against rival USC was a sped-up passing game in which Coan could dispense the ball rapidly from shotgun sets and help a shaky offensive line.
"Certainly they weren't expecting 'Hurry-Up Jack' to be out there," coach Brian Kelly said. "He's been less than that all year."
Coan wasn't dominant against USC, but he showed efficiency in completing 20 of 28 attempts and spreading the ball around. Notre Dame converted 8 of 12 third-down opportunities -- a strength of Coan's while at Wisconsin -- and had four drives of 70 yards or more in a 31-16 win.
"We gave him quick, definitive run-pass reads, and it really seemed to give us the kind of offensive flow that we're looking for," Kelly said. "We've got an experienced guy who's accurate in throwing the football. He's got a live arm, he can make a lot of throws. ... What we needed to do as coaches is put him in a position that makes him feel the most comfortable.
"It's better that he doesn't have a structured offense that slows him down."
Kelly acknowledged it "sounds crazy" to take a veteran quarterback who had spent his college career operating under center in run-oriented offenses with top-end lines, and put him in a different structure. But Kelly has made similar changes with veteran quarterbacks, such as Tony Pike at Cincinnati and Kent Smith at Central Michigan.
Coan said he hadn't led a tempo-based offense since high school but welcomed the change, saying, "It's always fun to learn new things."
After some quarterback shuffling earlier this season, Notre Dame finally has a clear path for the stretch run, behind Hurry-Up Jack.
"Look, this is one game," Kelly said, "but we think it was a good snapshot of what we think he can be the rest of the year for us." -- Adam Rittenberg
Caleb Williams has already made history -- but the Sooners will need more
Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams made what will be one of the most memorable plays of this season -- and probably his career -- in only his second start:
The fourth-and-1 play in the fourth quarter against Kansas was everything from controversial to intuitive and lucky, and it illustrated that intangible, unteachable it-factor that separates the truly remarkable athletes from everyone else.
But the Sooners shouldn't have needed any miracles to beat a 38.5-point underdog.
With the exception of that fourth-down conversion, everything else Williams did in that game was, well, normal for a freshman. Oklahoma was shut out in the first half, held to four first downs and 78 total yards. Yes, it was an entirely different second half -- but this was against a now 1-6 unranked Kansas team.
There's no questioning Williams' ability to lift Oklahoma's offense to a championship-caliber level, but the Sooners have yet to play a complete game, and at some point it's going to bite them. November is filled with upset potential -- at Baylor, home against an Iowa State team that seems to finally be hitting its stride, and then the regular-season finale against rival Oklahoma State. ESPN's FPI gives the Sooners at least a 63% chance to win each of those games, but the reality is that if the Sooners don't improve on both sides of the ball, Williams alone won't be enough for them to win. -- Heather Dinich