A heart-stopping final Saturday of September, at least on the local college football front, gives way to the start of league play this week in every Power 5 conference.
That means no more MAC cupcakes to consume for the Big Ten’s big dogs atop The Associated Press poll, No. 1 Ohio State (4-0) and No. 2 Michigan State (4-0). It means a potential early knockout in the College Football Playoff race for No. 13 Alabama (3-1), which plays Saturday at No. 8 Georgia (4-0) in the first regular-season meeting between the SEC power programs since 2008.
(Idle thought: How many more Big 12 teams might be deemed CFP-worthy if two of the league’s top programs were allowed to duck one another for six-year increments?)
As the calendar flips to October, it is time for weekly win-or-else gut checks for the nation’s top teams seeking admission to the CFP’s four-team postseason bracket. No. 4 TCU (4-0) just passed one, a 55-52 escape from Lubbock against Texas Tech (3-1). So did No. 14 Texas A&M (4-0), with its 28-21 overtime squeaker over Arkansas.
Both teams follow up with notable challenges this week. TCU meets Texas (1-3), a last-minute loser in its last two games because of special teams gaffes, and A&M faces No. 21 Mississippi State (3-1), the team that started the Aggies’ midseason swoon last year with a 48-31 romp in Starkville, Miss. No. 5 Baylor (3-0) gets its first meaningful test of the season against Texas Tech at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
As we prepare for the first significant Separation Saturday of the 2015 season, here are some things to remember:
Flag Day in the Big 12: Texas fans angered by two crunch-time calls in the Oklahoma State game (one for defensive holding, the other for unsportsmanlike conduct on coach Charlie Strong) have legitimate points, based on videotape replays. But missed calls happen on a weekly basis at all college football venues.
Ask fans from Tech and TCU about some of Saturday’s flags and replay decisions in Lubbock. Check with Baylor fans about the impact of a league-record 215 yards in step-offs against the Bears in last year’s 41-27 loss to West Virginia, the outcome that kept Baylor out of the CFP playoffs. Stuff happens in every close game, including missed calls. The best teams overcome them and find a way to win.
Having said that, here are some digits to ponder for fans eager to declare Big 12 game officials too flag-happy for their own good: Texas was flagged 16 times for 128 yards in penalties against OSU, the Longhorns’ highest penalty total in any contest since the 2011 Baylor game. Four of the nine most-penalized teams from Power 5 conferences this season play in the Big 12. Baylor leads the nation in penalty yards (114.33 per game), followed by Oklahoma (80.67), TCU (79.50) and Texas (78.25) among league schools.
That means the three Big 12 teams flagged more frequently than Texas are a combined 10-0. The Longhorns are 1-3. Draw your own conclusions.
Too early for panic: Because 29 FBS schools remain undefeated heading into October, there is no reason for angst if your team has yet to surface in CFP projections this season. Heading into Week Five games last year, the eventual national champs from Ohio State held a 2-1 record and were No. 22 in the AP poll.
Big 12 in playoff position: The nonconference schedule is complete for Big 12 schools, with half of the 10 league teams in Sunday’s updated AP poll: No. 4 TCU, No. 5 Baylor, No. 15 Oklahoma, No. 20 Oklahoma State and No. 23 West Virginia. The same five teams cracked the coaches poll and seven league teams finished with undefeated records in nonconference play.
Sunday’s rankings show a level of respect for the Big 12 that did not exist nationally a year ago. In 2014, notable nonconference setbacks suffered by league peers hurt TCU and Baylor in crunch-time deliberations by members of the CFP selection committee. Among league members, only three schools ran the table in nonconference play last season (TCU, Baylor, OU). More than twice that total (7) did so this season.
Nov. 27 buzz building: The Nov. 27 showdown in Fort Worth between last year’s Big 12 co-champs, TCU and Baylor, features a matchup of the nation’s two most prolific offenses based on Sunday’s updated NCAA stats. Baylor leads the nation in total offense (767 yards per game). TCU ranks second (636.5 avg.).
Utah has arrived: Fans who question the pedigree of the 10th-ranked Utes (4-0) need to watch highlights from Saturday night’s 62-20 rout of then-No. 13 Oregon. The game marked the Ducks’ most lopsided home loss since 1977. Mix in Utah’s 24-17 win over much-improved No. 22 Michigan (3-1) and that is two quality September wins for a team that should be prominent on the respective radar screens of CFP committee members.
1,404: Combined yards generated each week by the nation’s two most prolific offenses: top-ranked Baylor (767 avg.) and second-ranked TCU (636.5 avg.). The teams meet Nov. 27 in Fort Worth.
Josh Doctson, TCU WR: The senior from Mansfield Legacy earned Walter Camp national offensive player of the week honors Sunday after making a Big 12 record-tying 18 catches for 267 yards and three TDs in a 55-52 victory over Texas Tech.
Texas’ special teams: A dropped snap and subsequent 10-yard punt in the final minute by Longhorns punter Michael Dickson set up Oklahoma State’s winning field goal in a 30-27 triumph one week after a missed PAT in crunch time by Nick Rose secured a 45-44 loss to California.
Key games this week
No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 12 Clemson: Two undefeated teams with CFP dreams meet Saturday, with the Tigers having an extra week to prepare because of last week’s bye.
Texas at No. 4 TCU: Historic precedents abound Saturday. The Longhorns (1-3) are off to their worst start since 1956. TCU (3-0) is 1-18 when playing Texas in Fort Worth since a 22-8 victory in 1958.
No. 5 Baylor vs. Texas Tech (Arlington): Two of the nation’s three highest-scoring teams collide when the Bears (64.0 points per game) meet the Red Raiders (53.8) at AT&T Stadium.
If the college football season ended today, here’s a projected playoff bracket based on games played thus far (including playoff seeds):
Semifinal: Ohio State (No. 1) vs. TCU (No. 4)
Semifinal: Michigan State (No. 2) vs. Ole Miss (No. 3)