NCAAF Teams
David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer 35d

Why Week 7 gave us the answers we needed about CFP's top contenders

College Football, Texas Longhorns, Florida Gators, Clemson Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs, Oklahoma Sooners, LSU Tigers, South Carolina Gamecocks, Ohio Bobcats, Wisconsin Badgers, Memphis Tigers, Arizona State Sun Devils

The problem with September football is that it skews our perspective. College football is still figuring itself out in September. The comparison points are all hypothetical. September lies. October, however, offers real insight.

Was LSU's offense really ready for a title run? It's easy enough to think so when Joe Burrow is torching Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt and, yes, even a shaky Texas defense. But what happens when he's faced with one of the country's best secondaries in Florida? That's when we learn something, when we get real answers.

This was true for Georgia and Clemson, Penn State and Oklahoma, Notre Dame and even Minnesota on Saturday. We've picked apart the appetizer portion of the 2019 college football season already, and Saturday offered our first taste of the main course. This was a week of turning points, a chance to see nearly every contender test some of its glaring weaknesses, answer some of its biggest questions and start scripting the playoff run.

Start with Burrow, who offered an emphatic answer to any lingering doubters. Florida's defense had run roughshod over Auburn just a week earlier, but CJ Henderson & Co. were no match for the red-hot Tigers. Burrow completed 21-of-24 throws for 293 yards and three touchdowns, looking every bit the part of a Heisman favorite.

Here's the list of players who've completed 70% of their throws with three touchdowns and 300 total yards against Florida in the past decade: Burrow, Joe. That's it. That's the list.

So yes, this LSU offense is for real, a unit that looks poised to go toe-to-toe with Alabama and finally upset the power structure of the SEC.

The LSU defense? OK, that's a question we'll have to answer down the road.

Around the rest of the country, turning point Saturday gave us plenty more insight into the playoff contenders. We got some surprising answers. (Minnesota's good!) Some teams failed their tests. (Wake Forest's defense is a problem.) And we have a few incompletes. (Alabama still hasn't been tested.) Some had the rough equivalent of that dream where you show up in your underwear for an exam you haven't studied for. (Hi, Georgia.)

But that's the beauty of October. We're finally learning. Here's what we found out.

Does Georgia have the downfield passing game to win the SEC?

The Bulldogs weren't expecting much of a test from South Carolina on Saturday, and as pop quizzes go, this one got ugly.

There were, of course, some real questions surrounding Georgia's offense. Entering play Saturday, Georgia had only one touchdown on a pass of more than 10 yards downfield, and the Bulldogs ranked 61st out of 65 Power 5 programs in total explosive plays vs. FBS opponents. It was a warning sign.

Jake Fromm had arguably the worst game of his college career, throwing three interceptions, and the Bulldogs struggled mightily to move the ball with any consistency vs. South Carolina. Downfield, Fromm was bad, completing just 8 of 20 passes for 140 yards on throws of 10 yards or more, and on throws of 20-plus, he was a woeful 1-of-8, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The inability to stretch the field allowed South Carolina to swarm at the line of scrimmage, too, and the pressure clearly rattled the Georgia quarterback. Fromm was 1-of-11 for only 11 yards and a pick when pressured, including three sacks.

The Bulldogs' playoff hopes aren't over after the 20-17 double-overtime loss, but if the offense can't find some ways to be more explosive, it's hard to see how Fromm & Co. manage to win out the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Will Muschamp offered an emphatic answer to the biggest question looming over South Carolina. Yes, he looks damn good in a pair of reading glasses.

Is Oklahoma's defense playoff-caliber?

It seemed obvious from the Sooners' first five games that new coordinator Alex Grinch had made significant improvements to a defense that struggled badly last season, but the competition -- Houston, South Dakota, UCLA, Texas Tech and Kansas -- left a little room for the doubters.

Saturday's performance vs. Texas in a 34-27 victory removed all doubt.

The Sooners utterly manhandled Texas' offensive line, sacking Sam Ehlinger nine times and finishing with 15 tackles for loss. Ehlinger was pressured on 15 of his 47 dropbacks. Those 15 plays resulted in a grand total of minus-42 yards for the Longhorns. Overall, Oklahoma saw eight players record a sack, and 14 players chipped in on at least one tackle for loss. In two games against the Sooners last season, Texas totaled 938 yards of offense. The Longhorns had just 310 on Saturday.

Though the Heisman buzz continues to surround Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts, it might be Kenneth Murray and the Oklahoma defense that finally puts the Sooners over the top in 2019. On the other hand, Oklahoma did see the end of its streak of 10 consecutive games scoring 40 or more points, so perhaps we should start the "What's wrong with Jalen Hurts?" controversy now.

Does Clemson have a second gear?

After a narrow escape at North Carolina in Week 5, Clemson took its share of heat for early-season struggles and dropped from atop the AP poll. That was all bad news for Florida State.

Whether it was the slight by the pollsters, a week off to get things right or just the horrendous play of the Seminoles, everything finally clicked for the defending champs Saturday in a 45-14 rout. There's no need for further late-night texts to Dabo Swinney to inquire about Trevor Lawrence's health. Lawrence had his best game of the season, completing 17 of 25 passing with four total touchdowns. Two of those TD throws went to Justyn Ross, the star of last season's playoffs who'd been off to a dismal start in 2019. Travis Etienne went over 100 yards on the ground for the first time since the season opener. The defense demolished James Blackman and the FSU offensive line. Everything worked.

Somewhere, we assume FSU Book Guy was flipping through the final page of "Pass Blocking For Dummies" in the second half. Someone needs to find answers for the Seminoles. 

Can Jonathan Taylor be stopped?

Since the start of 2018, no defense in the Power 5 has been tougher against the run than Michigan State, so it seemed reasonable to assume if anyone was going to slow down Wisconsin's superstar tailback, it would be the Spartans.

Turns out, they kind of did. At least by Taylor standards. He ran for only 80 yards on 26 carries, snapping a streak of 10 consecutive 100-yard games. So that's the good news for anyone facing Wisconsin the rest of the way.

The bad news? Taylor's two touchdowns Saturday are just two fewer than the Badgers' defense has allowed all season.

Wisconsin's D was dominant once again, pitching its fourth shutout of the season in a 38-0 victory over Michigan State. Here's how impressive it has been: It's the first time a team has recorded four shutouts in its first six games since Minnesota in 1962. The 29 points Wisconsin has surrendered are the fewest by a Big Ten team since Ohio State and Michigan each gave up only 23 in 1973. And it's the fewest points given up by any FBS defense through six games since 1993 Florida State gave up only 23, according to ESPN Stats & Info research. Those Seminoles won the national championship.

On the other hand, Taylor was stopped four yards shy of 5,000 for his career. So it wasn't all good.

Is Penn State's offense good enough to make a run?

The 17-12 final score probably won't add many new fans to the Penn State bandwagon, and there will be days -- at Ohio State on Nov. 23, perhaps -- when the offense needs to do more than it did Saturday, when Sean Clifford was fine, but the Lions managed only 294 total yards. But Penn State didn't turn the ball over, ran the ball 53 times to control the game and turned in another stellar defensive effort to move to 6-0. The Nittany Lions are not as flashy as Ohio State or as dominant as Wisconsin, but don't be shocked if it's Penn State that comes away with a Big Ten title.

Heisman Five

1. Joe Burrow, LSU

Of all the gaudy numbers posted by the Heisman contenders vs. lackluster defenses, Burrow's Saturday stands alone as a truly epic performance against a team that simply doesn't allow those types of games. Burrow was an astonishing 21-of-24 passing, finished with 336 total yards and three touchdowns. Until someone else tops that against a real contender, he's your Heisman front-runner.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Tagovailoa's interception in the end zone near the end of the first half snapped a streak of 166 consecutive throws without a pick. His stat line for the season now is 27 TD passes and one pick. Slacker.

3. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Anyone who can pull off a Harlem Globetrotters routine, spinning the ball behind his back while avoiding a sack, warrants some serious Heisman love.

4. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Since Nov. 1, Taylor has 1,844 rushing yards, 26 total touchdowns and zero lost fumbles. Not too shabby.

5. Justin Fields, Ohio State

The Buckeyes had the week off. Fields still threw for 320 yards and 2 TDs vs. the bye week.

Ranking the SEC's most embarrassing losses

The SEC might have three or four of the country's best teams, but the conference also has suffered some brutal losses in 2019. And since the wins just mean more, so too do the losses, so let's take a closer look at the worst of the worst.

5. South Carolina 20, Georgia 17, 2 OT, Week 7: This was brutal and severely dented Georgia's playoff hopes, so it makes the list. But at least the loss came against a fellow SEC member.

4. Wyoming 37, Missouri 31, Week 1: This was an ugly score, but it came on the road and Missouri actually had 12 more first downs and 150 more yards of offense, and since this opening week embarrassment, the Tigers have actually played quite well.

3. San Jose State 31, Arkansas 24, Week 4: The Spartans were 1-11 last season, were 0-19 in the previous decade vs. Power 5 schools (losing by an average of four touchdowns) and hadn't won a road game of any kind since the final week of 2016. And under normal circumstances this would be as embarrassing as it gets. But it has been worse in the SEC this season.

2. UNLV 34, Vanderbilt 10, Week 7: UNLV is bad. It hadn't beaten an FBS team yet this season. It hadn't won on the road since 2017. That same season, it lost to Howard. And yet, the Rebels dominated Vandy on Saturday, running for 206 yards and winning by 24.

1. Georgia State 38, Tennessee 30, Week 1: For sheer national embarrassment, this takes the cake. The good news, however, is Tennessee actually won an SEC game Saturday, so maybe the Vols really are on the verge of something special.

Badgers own the Wolverine State

Wisconsin's shutout win over Sparty on Saturday concluded the Badgers' three-game series vs. the state of Michigan for 2019, and it seems a shame athletic director Barry Alvarez didn't schedule Eastern and Western Michigan, too.

Wisconsin beat Central Michigan 61-0, thumped the Wolverines 35-14 and stomped Michigan State 38-0 on Saturday. Total score: 134-14.

By Upper Midwest law, that kind of dominance means Wisconsin takes ownership of Bob Seger, General Motors and "Robocop 3."

Memphis madness

Temple's 30-28 upset win on a hotly debated call in the final moments Saturday might be the biggest controversy to hit Memphis since Elvis faked his death (don't argue, it's true). Memphis receiver Joey Magnifico (his real name!) appeared to make the grab to convert a crucial fourth-and-10 with less than two minutes to play, but the call was overturned upon video review.

Afterward, Memphis coach Mike Norvell stated his case in favor of a catch, but the conference released a statement saying there was ample video evidence to overturn the call on the field.

Regardless of the debate, it'll go down as a loss for the Tigers, their first of the season. It also marked the first time in Temple history the Owls have beaten two ranked teams in the same season, according to ESPN Stats & Info research, after they upended Maryland earlier this year.

You play to win the close games

We knew when Arizona State hired Herm Edwards before the 2018 season that it would be interesting, and sure enough, he has delivered.

Saturday's 38-34 win over Washington State featured more than 1,000 yards of offense, two 300-yard passers, zero turnovers and a go-ahead TD with 34 seconds to play.

Chalk it up as typical Arizona State. It's the Sun Devils' 13th game decided by a touchdown or less since Edwards took over, tied with Texas for the most by any program in the country. Overall, ASU is 7-6 in those games.

On the flip side of Saturday's action was Mike Leach and his Cougars. Remember a few weeks ago when Washington State was up 49-17 in the third quarter against UCLA and on the brink of being 4-0? The Cougars' D has given up 126 points in a little more than nine quarters since.

Randy Edsall bonus of the week

Another week, another brutal loss for UConn, but as we've come to learn, there's always a silver lining for Huskies coach Randy Edsall, whose obscure bonus clauses in his contract mean the checks get bigger, even when the margin of defeat does the same. This weekend's likely bonus? The whole team made it to halftime without UConn shuttering the football program. Good work, everyone!

Big bets and bad beats

  • Before Saturday, the previous time Georgia lost a game outright as a favorite of more than 20 points was Oct. 15, 1994, when Ray Goff was head coach. And as a general rule, if there's a Goff reference, it means something has gone horribly wrong for the Bulldogs. Such was the case in a brutal 20-17 double-overtime loss to South Carolina on Saturday. UGA was a 21.5-point favorite at kickoff, but South Carolina led most of the way, and though both teams managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory repeatedly, the Gamecocks eventually prevailed, paying out on a +950 money line. And while the outright victory was a shocker, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that South Carolina hung with the Dawgs. Since the start of 2017, the Gamecocks are 10-3 against the spread as an underdog in SEC games.

  • There was a good case to be made for Bowling Green as the worst team in the FBS entering Saturday. The Falcons were 0-4 vs. FBS opponents, having lost by a combined score of 201-27. But the football gods smiled upon Scot Loeffler's crew Saturday, with Bowling Green pulling off a dominant 20-7 win over Toledo as a 20.5-point underdog.

  • Vanderbilt's embarrassing loss to UNLV as a 15-point favorite was ugly, but it probably shouldn't have been all that surprising. The Commodores are now 0-6 against the spread this season. They're not alone, though. Woeful Akron was blown out again by Kent State, and also remains winless against the spread. Then there's Georgia Tech, which was blown out by Duke on Saturday, keeping the Jackets winless against the spread, too, including a loss to The Citadel, an FCS team. Worse, Georgia Tech hasn't covered a spread since winning in a pick 'em against Miami on Nov. 10 last season -- a string of nine straight games.

  • It was a relaxing evening for anyone with the over in the Wake Forest-Louisville game. The total closed at 65, which turned out to be an absurdly low number. Jamie Newman's TD pass to Sage Surratt with nearly 10 minutes left in the third quarter put the total at 66, and the two teams didn't stop there. The final -- a 62-59 Louisville victory -- was the highest-scoring game in the ACC this season and the second-highest of 2019 in the FBS after that bonkers 67-63 win by UCLA over Washington State. It was also the second-highest scoring game in ACC history and only the fourth time in ACC play both teams topped 50 points.

Under-the-radar play of the day

The list of truly majestic images in college football is a long one -- the mountain backdrop at the Rose Bowl, the freshly trimmed hedges of Sanford Stadium, Mike Gundy's hair -- but nothing is so beautiful as the celebration of a Big Man TD, and Ohio's Austen Pleasants offered us a performance for the ages. The 6-foot-7, 317-pound Pleasants lined up as a blocker, peeled off, turned and hauled in a catch from QB Nathan Rourke, and rumbled untouched into the end zone, raising his hand in triumph before ever crossing the goal line. From there, his teammates surrounded him -- pure, unadulterated joy. Everyone loves the big guys.

Under-the-radar games of the day

  • It probably comes as no surprise to learn North Dakota State won again, this time 46-14 against Northern Iowa. Ho-hum. But this one did come with a little extra juice. It marked the 26th straight win for the Bison, passing the James Madison teams of 2016-17 for the second-longest win streak in FCS history. The longest? Well, that one also belongs to the Bison, who won 33 straight from 2012 to 2014.

  • Meanwhile on the FCS level, James Madison pulled off a 38-24 win against Villanova, sending the Wildcats to their first loss of the season. That leaves only three undefeated FCS teams remaining: North Dakota State, Dartmouth and Princeton.

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