Nebraska will travel to Northwestern on Saturday, while UCLA ventures up to the Bay Area to face California. Neither game carries national significance, but each carries the potential for dubious achievement.
Nebraska, off to its first 0-5 start since 1945, has never lost its first six games. UCLA last opened 0-6 in 1943, when it lost seven consecutive games to open a 1-8 campaign.
This is uncommon territory for any major-conference team in recent years. Only three other schools currently in Power Five conferences have started 0-6 since 2008.
Neither Nebraska nor UCLA initially scheduled an FCS opponent this season, although the Cornhuskers added a date with Bethune-Cookman on Oct. 27 as a hastily scheduled substitute for its game against Akron to open the season was canceled by foul weather.
That should provide a safety net that prevents Nebraska from entering November with a loss. But if the Huskers fall this week, they will be saddled with the worst start for any Big Ten team since Illinois went 0-11 in 1997.
Pac-12 is near dark
The regular season reaches its midpoint Saturday, the seventh of 13 weekends in the college football season. And already, it’s closing in on the time for the Pac-12 to become an afterthought in the College Football Playoff race.
No two-loss team has earned a semifinal nod in the playoff’s four-year history, and the combination of no more than 13 games per program and only four available playoff berths suggests it would take either a truly remarkable team with some high-end victories or an unusually chaotic year for an exception to occur.
A year ago, the Pac-12 saw the demise of its faint playoff hopes on Nov. 10, when Washington fell at Stanford for its second loss. But it was clear by mid-October where things were headed. By the end of last season’s seventh week, there were no remaining undefeated teams in the Pac-12, and only Southern Cal, Washington and Washington State had one loss. Only Washington — which would have been hamstrung by a lousy nonconference schedule anyway — made it out of October with just one setback.
Things are going to look similar halfway through this season. The Pac-12 still has an undefeated team in Colorado (5-0), which has thrived behind the pitch-and-catch combination of quarterback Steven Montez and wideout Leviska Shenault, and there are three one-loss teams (Oregon, Washington and Washington State) in the North Division.
Yet Saturday brings what amounts to a playoff eliminator between Oregon and Washington. And Colorado has to travel to USC and Washington the next two weeks, arguably their toughest games of the season.
With respect to Colorado and its improvement, the Pac-12’s most realistic playoff hope is probably the same team it was the past two years: Washington, which lost in the semifinals in 2016 and was the last viable option last season.
Hypothetically, a 12-1 Washington bunch that dropped a tight opener against Auburn and then ran the table would have a case. The strength of it would depend on what happens elsewhere; if, say, Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State all finish undefeated, what the Huskies do the rest of the way won’t matter a bit.
But assuming there is a place for a one-loss team (or two), another round of nearly leaguewide struggles in the Pac-12 isn’t doing much good for its eventual champion.
Sooner or later, it had to happen
Oklahoma has the weekend off, a chance for Ruffin McNeill to settle in as interim defensive coordinator after college football’s biggest news of the week. Coach Lincoln Reilly fired Mike Stoops, who was in the seventh season of his second stint in Norman.
The move came a day after the Sooners were shredded for 501 yards in a 48-45 loss to Texas. It marked the eighth time in the last three seasons that Oklahoma gave up at least 40 points, and the 13th time in that span it surrendered at least 30.
The Sooners are 5-3 since 2016 when yielding at least 40 points, and 8-5 when giving up at least 30 over the last two-plus seasons. They can thank Baker Mayfield and the offense for compensating for a defense whose statistical averages were at best average.
Oklahoma under Mike Stoops
National ranking in parentheses
|Year||Scoring def.||Run def.||Pass def.||Total def.|
|2018*||27.3 (79)||156.8 (62)||264.3 (106)||421.2 (96)|
|2017||27.1 (68)||156.5 (54)||238.4 (87)||394.9 (67)|
|2016||28.8 (68)||162.6 (55)||269.4 (111)||432.0 (82)|
|2015||22.0 (28)||161.7 (53)||202.8 (34)||364.5 (39)|
|2014||25.9 (55)||106.4 (8)||276.2 (117)||382.6 (51)|
|2013||22.1 (22)||137.6 (25)||212.5 (30)||350.2 (20)|
|2012||25.5 (50)||192.2 (89)||206.1 (29)||398.4 (64)|
*-through Oct. 6
Even when accounting for opposing offenses in the up-tempo Big 12 and for the fact teams were often forced to throw on the Sooners after Mayfield helped construct huge leads, there wasn’t much to see in recent years. Oklahoma was a middle-of-the-road team against the run year after year — and struggled there when it mattered most.
In its two playoff appearances, both losses, Oklahoma surrendered 312 rushing yards to Clemson in 2015 and 317 yards to Georgia last season. With that background and a lengthy stretch of unremarkable play, Riley’s decision after the Sooners' first loss of the season hardly looks like a knee-jerk reaction.
Five games to watch
Pittsburgh at No. 5 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., NBC): The visiting Panthers (3-3) have a well-earned reputation for becoming an unexpected headache. Two years ago, their early defeat of Penn State cost the Nittany Lions a playoff berth, and later that season they dealt Clemson its only loss. Then last season, they tripped up undefeated Miami on the last weekend of the regular season. Notre Dame (6-0), you have been warned.
No. 2 Georgia at No. 13 LSU (3:30 p.m., CBS): The Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) took their first loss last week at Florida, but that doesn’t mean their playoff hopes are toast. Granted, they need to navigate the undefeated Bulldogs this week, Alabama next month, the SEC title game in December and everything in between. Not easy, but this is still a blockbuster even with the stumble in the Swamp.
No. 7 Washington at No. 17 Oregon (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2): In addition to the playoff implications, this is also a good way to figure out how the wind is blowing in the Pac-12 North. Oregon had won 12 in a row in the series before the Huskies cruised to routs of 70-21 and 38-3 the last two years. Oregon (4-1, 1-1) is coming off an open date, while Washington (5-1, 3-0) was lackluster last week at UCLA.
No. 15 Wisconsin at No. 12 Michigan (7:30 p.m., ABC): Another playoff eliminator. The Badgers (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) could easily get on a long winning streak if they can survive their trip to the Big House, while Michigan (5-1, 3-0) hasn’t lost since its opener at Notre Dame. Wisconsin rushed for 186 yards on the stingy Wolverines last year, and getting tailback Jonathan Taylor going will be critical in this one. The home team has won eight of the past nine in the series.
No. 19 Colorado at Southern Cal (10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1): It’s the biggest platform yet for Colorado wideout Leviska Shenault, who has 51 catches for 708 yards and six touchdowns. He’s scored in all five games for the undefeated Buffaloes, who visit Los Angeles to take on a 3-2 Trojans team coming off an open date.