Answering college football's biggest non-playoff questions at Michigan, Nebraska and more

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Friday, November 15, 2019

Around this time of the college football year, we start to get tunnel vision. Most every story you read, nearly every segment you see or hear, is about either the national title race or the coaching carousel. Sprinkle in some Heisman talk here and there, too.

There's good reason for this, of course -- who's going to win the sport's ultimate prize (team and individual) and who's going to coach each team next year are basically No. 1 and 1a on the list of the sport's most important questions. However, this sport's biggest strength is its depth and richness; the further you burrow into this universe, the more reward you find. So we do ourselves a disservice by spending most of our energy on just a few topics.

Consider this column a palate cleanser -- a reminder of what else is going on in the college football world at the moment. There will be plenty of time to argue about Bama in the weeks to come, but here's everything else we can talk about now instead.

Nine questions about 10 teams

With 130 teams in the FBS, there are at any given moment 130 different emotional arcs and 130 narrative arcs playing out. (Like I said, this sport is rich.) Good, bad or somewhere in between, let's check in on some of them.

What is Michigan?

Remember a few weeks ago when Michigan's 2019 was a total disaster? When the offense lacked an identity, the defense was leaky and the team was a lost cause after a blowout loss to Wisconsin? The Wolverines found themselves in the second half of a tight loss at Penn State, then blew out Notre Dame and Maryland. Hassan Haskins' emergence brought more pop to the run game, and the defense is back to normal.

Now, after a bye week, comes the stretch that could define the season in a great or terrible way: Michigan State, at Indiana, Ohio State. SP+ gives them an 8% chance of winning out and a 9% chance of losing out. Were the past two and a half games an indicator of things to come? A brief hot streak before another loss of identity?

Can Virginia seal the deal (and end the streak)?

It was written in the prophecy: The ACC Coastal will enjoy seven different champions in seven years. From 2013 to '18, we got the first six: Duke, then Georgia Tech, then North Carolina, then Virginia Tech, then Miami, then Pitt. Bronco Mendenhall's Hoos are the last of the set. But to fulfill this prophecy, they might have to do something they haven't done since 2003: beat Virginia Tech. Gosh, what could possibly go wrong? (The answer: everything. Everything could go wrong.)

Can Nebraska save year two?

Not going to lie: Although I was demonstrably skeptical about Nebraska's offseason hype and its chances of competing for the Big Ten title, I still expected improvement. But in head coach Scott Frost's second season, the Huskers are 4-5 and have slid from 49th in SP+ in 2018 to 57th this season. SP+ gives them only a 23% chance of getting to six wins. Turning a program around takes a while sometimes, but this has been an extremely disappointing fall in Lincoln.

Can we talk for a minute about what Air Force and Navy have done?

There seemed to have been a serious service-academy changing of the guard. After 20 years of Air Force and Navy trading the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy back and forth, Army won it in both 2017 and 2018 and was favored to do the same this fall. But while the Black Knights are 4-6, Air Force and Navy have bounced back spectacularly. The two teams are a combined 14-3 (and one of Air Force's two losses was to Navy), and both rank in the SP+ top 40. This wasn't a rebound, it was an outright surge.

What the hell, Missouri?

Four weeks ago, Missouri was 5-1 and 10th in SP+ following a dominant string of home performances. But the Tigers suffered appalling no-shows in losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and a banged-up offense got shut out at Georgia. Their next three games: Florida, Tennessee, at Arkansas. They could rebound now that they're finally back at home, or they could further the collapse. I have no idea which is more likely because I'm not sure I've seen this sudden a collapse before.

Is Oklahoma State fully weaponized again?

OSU needed some late-year heroics just to reach a bowl last fall and stood at just 4-3 with star receiver Tylan Wallace out for the season with a knee injury. But just as things were looking listless again this season, the Cowboys rebounded with wins over both Iowa State and TCU, and now they get games against Kansas and WVU before a visit from Oklahoma. Quarterback Spencer Sanders looked brilliant in those two wins, and the defense is making plays. Look out for the Pokes.

Why the malaise in Palo Alto?

In the past 10 seasons, the Stanford Cardinal have not won fewer than eight games or ranked worse than 35th in SP+. They are currently 4-5 and 75th. The defense is mediocre, the offense is just bad, and not even the special teams unit, great for years, is producing much quality. The Cardinal lost by 18 at home to UCLA. What the heck happened? And do they have any chance of salvaging bowl eligibility? (SP+ says no, not really.)

Is BYU's annual existential crisis going to have a happy ending?

Each year in BYU country, there is an ongoing debate about the Cougars' football independence -- whether it's been a good thing, what's on the horizon, etc. Thanks in part to QB injuries, this year has seen an even bigger roller coaster than normal. BYU has beaten Tennessee, USC and Boise State, gotten thumped by Utah and Washington and lost to an iffy Toledo team. But the Cougars have won three straight, with two more surefire wins (Idaho State, UMass) ahead. And after all that, a 9-4 finish is still a possibility.

How does year zero finish up for Geoff Collins and Georgia Tech?

It was clear from the start that this was going to be a prototypical year zero in Atlanta -- too much turnover, not enough proven talent. The goal in these situations is simple: Put the pieces in the right places for 2020 and beyond and hopefully play better in November than September. Following a loss to The Citadel in September, Tech in its past three games has beaten Miami and nearly beaten Virginia. Play better in November: Check. Now can they keep it up?

Actually, one more question: Are you ready for some emotionally fraught rivalry games?

You might have noticed a through line in a lot of the questions above: There are a lot of huge rivalry games this year. Virginia might need to beat Virginia Tech to win the Coastal ... Missouri might need to beat Arkansas to save bowl eligibility (Arkansas is terrible, but, well, so is Mizzou conqueror Vanderbilt) ... Michigan might need to beat Michigan State and/or Ohio State to keep this from feeling like a lost season ... Stanford might need to beat Cal to reach a bowl.

It doesn't stop there. Minnesota will have to beat Iowa and Wisconsin to keep this dark horse national title run going ... Mississippi State and Arizona might need Egg Bowl and Territorial Cup wins to make bowls ... same for Army (against Navy) and NC State (against UNC).

The only thing that can make Rivalry Week even better is a heaping helping of anxiety. We should have loads of it.

Eleven players you really need to watch in the coming weeks

Here are a few players -- at least one from each offensive and defensive unit -- you should really catch a glimpse of between now and the end of the year. Some will be major stars in future seasons, and some have only a few games left.

QB Kedon Slovis, USC

To be sure, the freshman has had an up-and-down season. He has battled through injury, was brilliant against Stanford, Colorado and Arizona State and was far less than brilliant against BYU and Oregon. But as the primary QB in only seven of USC's 10 games, he has thrown for 2,321 yards, with 20 touchdowns and only nine picks. His 156.1 passer rating ranks a healthy 22nd among qualified QBs.

He's also a deft manipulator of space. Watch when he leaves the pocket -- he almost never scrambles upfield, but he's among the best in college football at using his feet to put defenders in bad positions. As soon as they commit to going after him, he hits the man they left open. He's brilliant at it. I realize he might be playing under a new head coach soon, depending on how these next few games go, but I think he's got as much potential as any of this game's good, young QBs (of which there are many).

OT Samuel Cosmi, Texas

For all of Texas' defensive struggles this year, the offense has come together. Sam Ehlinger is on pace for 3,500 passing yards and 750 non-sack rushing yards, and after years in flux, the offensive line is delivering. At the heart of that development is the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Cosmi, a redshirt sophomore and blindside protector who has started all but one game in his career.

WR Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty

First-year Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze has engineered a lovely offensive turnaround; the Flames have gone from 96th to 62nd in offensive SP+ and have averaged 45 points per game over the past month. Of course, Freeze inherited some lovely pieces, namely quarterback Stephen Calvert and Gandy-Golden, a 6-4, 220-pound senior who has 64 catches for 1,244 yards. You can catch him when Liberty faces Virginia in Week 13.

S Kolby Harvell-Peel, Oklahoma State

You could diplomatically call the OSU defense a work in progress. The sophomore- and junior-heavy unit has ranked in or around the 50s in defensive SP+ for most of 2019, but it made big plays in each of the Cowboys' past two games (both wins), and by "it," I mean Harvell-Peel. The sophomore had 13.5 tackles, a tackle for loss, two picks and eight breakups in these two wins.

RB/KR Javon Leake, Maryland

Maryland's season has fallen apart, but you can't blame Leake. He had 60 combined carries and catches for 415 yards during the Terps' five-game losing streak, and he's been one of the two or three best kick returners in the country. Maryland is not bowling, so you've got two more chances to watch him: against Nebraska in Week 13 and against Michigan State in Week 14.

QB Malcolm Perry, Navy

We'll talk about Navy's turnaround more below, but Perry has been the best option QB in the country. He oscillated between QB and skill positions in his first three seasons, but as a full-time quarterback, he has posted 1,074 non-sack rushing yards (7.1 per carry) and has upgraded his passing: 722 yards, 55% completion rate, 24.9 yards per completion. This Navy offense is humming again, and he's why.

WR Whop Philyor, Indiana

Indiana has seven wins for just the second time in 26 seasons and is ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1994. The Hoosiers have done this despite injury issues at QB. But it helps when you've got Whop. After a quiet start, the junior has exploded for 42 catches for 584 yards in the past five games, and IU has risen to 16th in passing SP+. And now he gets spotlight time with games against Penn State and Michigan.

LB Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Oregon State

Oregon State is still clinging to bowl hopes thanks to a solid offense and major playmaking talent at linebacker. Rashed had a combined seven tackles for loss in wins over Cal and Arizona and is up to 18.5 for the season, most in the country. And he's well-rounded -- third in the country in sacks (12) and fourth in run stuffs (20). He'll give the Beavers a fighting chance against Arizona State on Saturday.

CB Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech

You should've probably already known about this electric 5-9 junior -- in 2017 and '18, he logged 15 TFLs (as a corner!), nine interceptions and 18 pass breakups. He has been dynamite for a while. But he and 8-1 Tech have peaked of late: He's on pace for career highs in TFLs, INTs and PBUs, and the Bulldogs have lost only to Texas this season.

DE Gregory Rousseau, Miami

It isn't a surprise that a Manny Diaz defense has produced another breakout star up front. This redshirt freshman from Coconut Creek had seven sacks in the Canes' wins over Pitt and Florida State, bringing him to 12 for the season. QB Jarren Williams has probably been the most responsible for The U's three-game win streak, but Rousseau is No. 2 on that list.

DT Cameron Thomas, San Diego State

SDSU is as SDSU as ever this year -- 125th in offensive SP+, 19th in defensive SP+ -- and with his incredible motor, this redshirt freshman is absolutely perfect for the Rocky Long defense. He's got six TFLs and eight run stuffs, but his most impressive trait is that he's always near the ball. As an interior lineman. Only one Aztec linebacker has more tackles than him.

Week 12 playlist

Here are 10 games -- at least one from each weekend time slot -- you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.

All times Eastern.


Fresno State at San Diego State (9:30 p.m., ESPN2). The Friday slate is light but features a pair of key Group of Five division battles -- first Louisiana Tech at Marshall, then this one. SDSU can lock down a MWC West title with strong performances tonight and next Saturday at Hawaii.

SP+ projection:San Diego State 27, Fresno State 24

Early Saturday

Indiana at No. 9 Penn State (noon, ABC). What a whiplash game for Penn State -- Indiana's quick-passing game couldn't be more of a lurch from last week against Minnesota. It's also a trap game: Before the big showdown in Columbus, the Nittany Lions have to survive the best IU team in years.

SP+ projection: PSU 33, IU 22

Michigan State at No. 15 Michigan (noon, Fox). On paper, this one shouldn't be very interesting. But ... well ... you know ...

SP+ projection: Michigan 28, MSU 15

Saturday afternoon

No. 4 Georgia at No. 12 Auburn (3:30 p.m., CBS). We went out of our way not to talk about the national title race above, but there's no avoiding how big this game is. Auburn's defense was nearly enough to take down LSU, and now the Tigers get a shot at another nicely perched contender.

SP+ projection: UGA 25, Auburn 20

No. 23 Navy at No. 16 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., NBC). I'm just saying ... Navy has beaten Notre Dame four times under Ken Niumatalolo, and this is starting to look like Niumatalolo's best team. The Irish were pretty clinical against Duke last week; they'll have to be even more so on Saturday afternoon.

SP+ projection: ND 30, Navy 26

No. 8 Minnesota at No. 20 Iowa (4 p.m., Fox). Congratulations, Gophers! You just won your biggest game in years! You now get to go to Kinnick Stadium, a place known for being rather unkind to top teams (and a place where you've won once in 30 years)! This isn't a potential hangover game at all!

SP+ projection: Minnesota 27, Iowa 24

No. 19 Texas at Iowa State (3:30 p.m., FS1). ISU and Baylor are almost the same team, per SP+: 21st and 18th, respectively, overall; 30th and 34th on offense; 18th and 14th on D. But while BU has gone 5-0 in one-score finishes, ISU has gone 1-4. The Cyclones' best team in years might end up 6-6 if it can't get past Texas.

SP+ projection: ISU 34, Texas 27

Saturday evening

No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 13 Baylor (7:30 p.m., ABC). Finally, a marquee game for Baylor. The CFP committee is obviously in wait-and-see mode with Matt Rhule's Bears, but this one will say a lot. (It will also say a lot about an OU team that hasn't looked brilliant in a few weeks.)

SP+ projection: Oklahoma 35, Baylor 27

UCLA at No. 7 Utah (8 p.m., Fox). With most of the big games coming earlier in the day, here's a prime chance to watch a Utah team that has been on a rampage since a loss to USC. It's also a chance to see if UCLA can stay on an upward trajectory after three straight wins.

SP+ projection: Utah 40, UCLA 16

Late Saturday

USC at California (11 p.m., FS1). As solid as my guyKedon Slovishas been at times, the QB has still proved he can be tricked. And while Cal's defense isn't quite as strong as it was last year, it still hasEvan Weaver, Cameron Goode and plenty of tricks to throw at him.

SP+ projection: USC 33, Cal 20

Related Video