College Football Week 6 Preview — Will the Road to the Playoffs Run Through Utah?
After all the upsets the last couple Saturdays, this looks to be a calmer week with just one game between ranked teams. But that doesn’t mean this weekend won’t have its own share of excitement. Here are the big storylines going into this weekend in college football:
Can Utah Make a Playoff Run?
Raise your hand if you had California vs. Utah as the game of the year in the Pac-12? Okay, now that all you liars have put your hands back down, we’ll continue.
The No. 5 Utes have rocketed into the national playoff discussion with a 4–0 start and a blowout road win over then–No. 13 Oregon. Coming off a bye week, they’ll return home for a key matchup with No. 23 California, who are also off to an unexpected undefeated start. The 5–0 Bears, who were 1–11 just two years ago, hadn't gone 4–0 since 2007. Quarterback Jared Goff has been the catalyst for Cal’s sudden resurgence, completing over 70 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Goff will be the toughest test to date for a Utah defense that has forced 11 turnovers and has yet to give up more than 24 points. The Utes rank 85th nationally in pass defense, giving up nearly 240 yards per game. But after missing the last two games with a knee injury, leading pass-rusher Hunter Dimick is expected to return against a Cal offensive line that has already given up 12 sacks this season. This will be a fun clash of styles, with Utah’s pounding run game and aggressive defense against Cal’s high-scoring offense.
Utah is in the Top 5 for just the third time in school history, while the Bears are seeking their first 6–0 start since 1950. While this game certainly won’t decide the Pac-12, the winner of this game is going to be well-positioned to be a contender late into the year. Utah is already in the national discussion, and with a future NFL first-rounder under center, the Bears could work themselves into the mix as well.
What Does Myles Jack’s Departure Mean for UCLA?
While on the subject of the Pac-12, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the sudden departure of one of the conference’s best known stars. UCLA linebacker (and occasional running back) Myles Jack was a preseason All-American and was expected to contend with Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III as the conference’s defensive player of the year. But the junior’s season came to abrupt end September 21 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.
While the loss was certainly a blow to the Bruins' Pac-12 title hunt, the bad news wasn’t done coming. On Tuesday, Jack announced that he was withdrawing from school and would enter the 2016 NFL draft:
Fortunately for them, UCLA is on a bye week, giving the defense some time to regroup. But after giving up 30-plus points the last two weeks and facing a future with Jack gone and No. 16 Stanford and No. 23 Cal waiting on deck, the Bruins will need to find some answers quickly.
Can Texas Stop the Bleeding?
If you’re sitting at 1–4, you’ve faced a week full of off-field distractions, your athletic director has been fired and your coach is on the hot seat, normally facing the No. 10 team in the country is not the best recipe for success. But if history is any guide, it could be just what the doctor ordered for Texas coach Charlie Strong and the Longhorns.
The annual Red River Showdown against archrival Oklahoma has always been full of surprises. Despite O.U. having been a solid favorite in each of the last two years, Texas took the Sooners down to the wire last year and pulled off the upset in 2013. In the last 25 years, five of the seven double-digit underdogs have covered the spread, with three winning outright. In some ways this game came at the best possible time, as it allows the Texas faithful to stop fighting with each other and focus on hating the Sooners.
Although it’s clichéd, there’s some truth to the idea that records don’t matter so much in rivalry games. do have some small reason for hope. That said, Bob Stoops is 10–6 against the Longhorns, with seven wins by double digits (four by 38-plus). So it’s just as likely that Oklahoma could give the Longhorns a beatdown of epic proportions.
(Note: after this post was originally written, Texas announced that Bevo XIV, the Longhorns’ mascot since 2004, will not be making the trip due to illness. I wish the big guy well and look forward to Coach Strong’s epic “Win one for Bevo” speech, but this is just too much bad mojo. O.U. rolls.)
Who Will Be the Surprise Team in the Big Ten?
Ohio State is still number one. No big shocker there. And most of us expected Michigan State to still be solidly in the playoff mix by this point in the season. But I doubt I would have gotten many takers if I'd offered a bet that Northwestern and Michigan would be the two hottest teams in the Big Ten a month into the season. Nevertheless, that's the very real scenario in which we find ourselves this week when No. 13 Northwestern heads to the Big House to take on No. 18 Michigan.
This will be an old-school throwback Big Ten game, with both teams featuring running attacks on offenses and stifling, hard-hitting defenses. Northwestern and Michigan rank first and second, respectively, in scoring defense and both are in the top 5 in total defense. The Wolverines have pitched back-to-back shutouts while the Wildcats have also held two opponents scoreless as well and four of their five opponents to 10 or fewer points.
Can Florida Keep Rolling?
Arguably the biggest surprise in college football this year, the No. 11 Florida Gators will look to avoid a letdown after last week’s big win over then–No. 3 Ole Miss. However they’ll face a tough road test at 4–1 Missouri, who has won the last two in this series.
The Tigers will once again be without starting quarterback Maty Mauk, who remains suspended for a second consecutive game for an unspecified violation of team rules. Backup Drew Lock will face a tough challenge against the Florida defense that held Ole Miss (previously the number one offense in the country) to just 328 yards and 10 points.
The month of October has not been kind to the Gators. Between 2010 and 2014, Florida went just 6–12 in the month and, in order to improve on that mark, they’ll have to earn it. They’ve already gotten past Ole Miss, but the Gators must still face 4–1 Missouri, No. 7 LSU and No. 19 Georgia this month. If Jim McElwain can keep working his magic, the first-year coach could have the Gators in contention for their first SEC title game appearance in six years.