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College football winners and losers: Penn State must hope it’s this year’s Ohio State

Penn State head coach James Franklin shouts at his team as they play Ohio State in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Penn State 39-38. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
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Breaking down the highlights and lowlights from Saturday’s college football action …

A one-point loss at Ohio State wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to Penn State this season.

Now, don’t be confused. Winning is always better than losing, so the Nittany Lions’ stumble at the Horseshoe was far from the best thing that could have unfolded for Penn State’s playoff prospects. And losing after taking a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter and an 11-point advantage into the final five minutes? Not ideal.

In shocking Penn State, Ohio State and J.T. Barrett refused to let go

But zoom out for a moment from the Nittany Lions’ short-term misery and look at a more global angle. Penn State (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) might just be able to follow the same path to the playoff that Ohio State did last year when it suffered its only loss … that’s right, in a one-possession loss at eventual Big Ten champion Penn State.

After next week’s trip to Michigan State (6-2), Penn State will host sub-. 500 Nebraska and Rutgers before closing the regular season against a Maryland team that closed the day at 4-4. It’s not hard to envision 7-1 Penn State becoming 11-1 Penn State in four weeks.

Then survey the rest of the landscape. The only remaining undefeated teams in power conferences are Alabama, Georgia, Miami and Wisconsin. There’s going to be room for one or more one-loss teams in the playoff, and it’s unlikely there will be a one-loss team with less to feel bad about stemming from its loss than the Nittany Lions — with Notre Dame (a one-point loss to Georgia) a notable exception.

Penn State still needs some help. A Notre Dame stumble would be useful, as would the Big 12 and Pac-12 continuing to cannibalize themselves. But as Ohio State demonstrated last year, a league title isn’t a prerequisite for a playoff berth. If Penn State handles its business over the next month, it might just find itself in the semifinals despite a forgettable fourth quarter against the Buckeyes.

WINNERS

* Iowa State. Superlatives get thrown around too easily, and not everything is the greatest thing ever or the worst occurrence in history.
But there’s a compelling case to be made that Iowa State football just wrapped up its best month ever. The Cyclones turned back Texas Christian, 14-7, earning their fourth consecutive victory. It was only the third triumph over a top-five team in Iowa State history. One of the other ones came Oct. 7 at Oklahoma.

Iowa State (6-2, 4-1 Big 12) has allowed just 27 points in its last three and a half games, and it held the potent Horned Frogs to 307 total yards. The Cyclones — the Iowa State Cyclones — are in full control of their Big 12 title fate entering the last month of the season, and that constitutes the pleasant surprise of the college football season.

* Georgia. As a general rule of thumb, a team is likely to do well when its points-to-plays ratio is dead even. Such was the case at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, where the Bulldogs remained undefeated with a 42-7 rout of Florida.

Georgia (8-0, 5-0 SEC) took only 42 snaps, averaging 9.4 yards per play and easily distancing itself from the overmatched Gators. A victory next week over South Carolina effectively secures the East Division and a trip to the league title game for Kirby Smart’s team.

* Notre Dame. The reinvented Fighting Irish (7-1) did it again, silencing N.C. State’s able offense in a 35-14 victory as tailback Josh Adams became the first rusher to pile up 100 yards on the ground against the Wolfpack this season. Then he did it again, finishing with 202 yards and a touchdown as Notre Dame won its sixth in a row.

A week after chasing Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold, the Irish held N.C. State to 263 total yards and allowed only one offensive touchdown (the Wolfpack also scored on a blocked punt). An injury to N.C. State tailback Nyheim Hines made matters easier for Brian Kelly’s team, but it didn’t entirely explain the Irish’s dominance.

* Arkansas. Did Saturday mark the beginning of Bret Bielema saving his job? Perhaps. Arkansas spotted Mississippi a 24-point lead less than 20 minutes in, then came back to earn a 38-37 victory on Connor Limpert’s field goal with four seconds to play.

Arkansas (3-5, 1-4 SEC) gets Coastal Carolina at home next week and closes with Missouri. Get a split with Mississippi State and Louisiana State, and 6-6 is within reach. Now, is it enough to fend off a coaching change? That’s tough to tell.

* John Wolford and Matt Colburn. Wolford outplayed Lamar Jackson and tailback Matt Colburn tore up a program that jilted him in early 2015 near signing day as Wake Forest ripped Louisville, 42-32.

Wolford has spent much of his four seasons as the Demon Deacons’ starter, and that meant absorbing some brutal punishment as Wake Forest fielded an offensive line that was every bit as untested as the rest of its team. The durable senior threw for 461 yards and five touchdowns against a feeble Louisville secondary and tacked on a rushing score in the best game of his career.

Meanwhile, Colburn — who was told two days before he was set to sign with Louisville that there was no scholarship available — rumbled for 134 yards on 24 carries as Wake Forest (5-3, 2-3 ACC) defeated the Cardinals for the first time and inched within a victory of bowl eligibility.

LOSERS

* Texas Christian and the Big 12 (except for you, Iowa State). There won’t be an undefeated team out of the Big 12 this year. Iowa State saw to that, forcing TCU quarterback Kenny Hill into three turnovers in the second half. It was just an uncharacteristic day for the Horned Frogs (7-1, 4-1 Big 12), who never got anything going on offense and scored their lone touchdown on a kickoff return to open the second half.

More than any team, Iowa State will be the responsible party if the Big 12 is shut out of the playoff for the third time in four years. But with the Cyclones now bowl-eligible for the first time since 2012, it’s unlikely anyone in Ames cares about the sob stories from elsewhere in their league.

* Michigan State. The playoff hopes are shot in East Lansing after a 39-31 loss to Northwestern in three overtimes. The Spartans (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) aren’t out of the league title race just yet, but with Penn State and Ohio State looming over the next two weeks it seems like that’s just a matter of time.

The final score of this week’s loss was a mirage; Michigan State had only 10 points until scoring a touchdown in the final minute of regulation to force overtime. It is a team that has close games virtually embedded in its DNA, and a few of those are bound to go the wrong way. The Spartans are good (and certainly better than last year), but Northwestern showed they are far from great.

* Florida. Forget for a moment the intrigue surrounding the job status of Coach Jim McElwain and focus solely on the matters between the lines. Put bluntly: The Gators are every bit as bad as a Florida State bunch that was rightfully pilloried Friday for looking like they wanted to be anywhere but on a field with Boston College in what became a 35-3 loss.

Florida was bludgeoned by Georgia and fell to 3-4 in the process. But look at those victories. The Gators beat Tennessee on a Hail Mary on the final play of the game, and they came back in the final quarter to erase a two-possession hole against Kentucky. This could easily be a 1-6 team. As it stands, their two-year run atop the SEC East is most emphatically over.

* South Florida. Continuing the theme of Sunshine State crumminess, the Bulls stumbled, 28-24, against Houston to end their hopes of an undefeated season. An American Athletic title isn’t out of reach — run the table in November, including in the regular season finale against Central Florida, and the East Division belongs to South Florida. Still, there will be no playoff rabble-rousing in Tampa after this setback.

* Virginia. There’s still three more games between the Cavaliers and the Commonwealth Cup, but it sure looks like there could be more misery awaiting Virginia in its regular season finale. After squandering chances to clinch bowl eligibility against Boston College and now Pittsburgh, Virginia enters November at 5-3 and still in need of one more victory to extend its season.

So who do the Cavaliers have to deal with between now and Thanksgiving weekend? Georgia Tech, Louisville and Miami, the latter two games on the road. Then comes Virginia Tech, which has taken 13 in a row against Virginia and would be only too happy to end the Cavaliers’ season if Bronco Mendenhall’s team finds that its two-game slide balloons into a five-game tailspin in the coming weeks.

More college football:

Terps’ defense finally holds at end for a wild win over Indiana

Dartmouth assistant tossed for smashing window in coaches’ box in loss to Harvard

These five teams are poised to ruin someone’s College Football Playoff dreams

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