Week 6 college football preview, Heisman watch

The best way to make a playoff push in college football is to never lose.

It’s hardly an easy feat, but 16 Football Bowl Subdivision programs remain undefeated as the season nears its midpoint.

Perennial playoff contenders Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State make up a quarter of the group. Kansas, Syracuse and UCLA — three schools best-suited for basketball title talk — are also perfect to this point.

Only two Group of Five teams (Coastal Carolina and James Madison) have yet to lose, which means Cincinnati’s 2021 playoff appearance is almost certainly going to remain an outlier.

With the ranks of the unblemished shrinking by the week, the timing is right to dig into when those unbeaten runs are most likely to come to an end.

Money is having a hard season in college football. Poor money.

Alabama (5-0): The ultimate usual suspect, the Crimson Tide had a close call at Texas last month and used a pair of long Jahmyr Gibbs touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to pull away from Arkansas on Saturday. It’s what everyone has come to expect from Nick Saban’s juggernaut.

Most likely first loss: It’s foolish to pick Alabama to lose pretty much at any time. But the Nov. 12 trip to Mississippi could be intriguing, especially if the Rebels continue their strong start.

Clemson (5-0): The Tigers took two significant steps toward locking down the last ACC Atlantic Division title by defeating Wake Forest (in overtime) and North Carolina State the past two weeks. After a “down” 10-3 season, Clemson looks like it is firmly back in the playoff hunt.

Most likely first loss: If — and it’s a big if — Notre Dame really has turned the corner, the Tigers’ Nov. 5 trek to South Bend is probably their biggest remaining obstacle.

Coastal Carolina (5-0): The Chanticleers went a combined 22-3 the previous two seasons, so there’s a strong ethos in place. But with a pair of four-point victories, Coastal doesn’t look like an unstoppable force — hardly a surprise for a team that had significant graduation losses on both sides of the ball.

Most likely first loss: Nov. 3 against Appalachian State. The Thursday night tussle in Conway, S.C., should be one of the best games this season in the Sun Belt, which is hardly faint praise.

Georgia (5-0): The Bulldogs breezed through September before receiving a scare at Missouri last week. The defending champs still statistically dominated that game even if the scoreboard said it was a close call.

Most likely first loss: The cheap way out is to say the SEC title game in December. But maybe Georgia will be vulnerable in back-to-back games against Florida (Oct. 29) and Tennessee (Nov. 5).

James Madison (4-0): The Dukes have treated FBS opponents pretty much the way they treated foes in the Football Championship Subdivision in recent years. For fans of chaos, the most amusing outcome anywhere in the sport is to have a bowl-ineligible James Madison team go 11-0 in its first season at college football’s highest level.

Most likely first loss: Let’s go with Oct. 15 at Georgia Southern, which joins later games against Marshall, Louisville (assuming a healthy Malik Cunningham) and Coastal Carolina as dicey tests still to come for Curt Cignetti’s team.

JMU moved to the top level of college football. It hasn’t stopped winning.

Kansas (5-0): There are two things the Jayhawks have shown over the past five weeks. One is they’re much, much improved under second-year coach Lance Leipold. The second is there is a fan base that was just waiting for a bandwagon to jump on after almost a decade and a half in the wilderness.

Most likely first loss: Saturday against TCU. And if it doesn’t happen this weekend, trips to Oklahoma and Baylor are coming up later this month. Kansas is going to get a few more victories, but it hasn’t pulverized opponents, either. This isn’t a team ticketed for a long undefeated run.

Michigan (5-0): There was much more to learn about the Wolverines at Iowa than in any of their four September home games. A methodical victory over the Hawkeyes bodes well for another playoff push.

Most likely first loss: Getting Penn State on Oct. 15 as it comes off an open date has the potential to throw things into flux, though that game will be in Ann Arbor. If not then, the Nov. 26 trip to Ohio State stands out.

Mississippi (5-0): The Rebels are off to their best start since 2014, and they had firm control of their first four contests before fending off Kentucky, 22-19, last week thanks to a couple forced fumbles in the closing minutes.

Most likely first loss: Ole Miss visits Vanderbilt this week and then gets Auburn in Oxford, where the Rebels have won 13 in a row for the first time since the 1950s. But an Oct. 22 trip to LSU, where Ole Miss has stumbled in its last six visits, could be a tricky test.

Ohio State (5-0): After a five-game homestand to open the year, the Buckeyes begin a string of four road games in six contests this week with a trip to Michigan State.

Most likely first loss: The Buckeyes aren’t assured of running the table until late November, but it sure looks like Michigan (which visits the Horseshoe on Nov. 26) is the best team on the schedule.

Oklahoma State (4-0): It counts for something that the Cowboys won at Baylor last week. But in a parity-fueled Big 12, there’s a loss waiting around the corner for just about everyone — even the team that’s probably the most complete of anyone in the league.

Most likely first loss: Oct. 15 at TCU. Whomever is beating Oklahoma State (47.8 points per game) is probably going to do it in a high-scoring game. And the Horned Frogs (48.5 ppg) are right at home in those.

Penn State (5-0): The Nittany Lions have won at Purdue and Auburn, so they’re not completely untested. At the same time, the way they slogged through a turnover-marred defeat of Northwestern last week did not inspire much confidence.

Most likely first loss: Plenty of challenges loom this month at Michigan (Oct. 15) and at home against Minnesota (Oct. 22) and Ohio State (Oct. 29). Penn State probably won’t escape that stretch with an unblemished record.

Southern California (5-0): The rebuilt Trojans have already surpassed their victory total from last season as new coach Lincoln Riley and his posse of transfer portal imports have remade the program. Bowl eligibility awaits if Southern Cal can upend Washington State on Saturday

Most likely first loss: Oct. 15 at Utah. And if the Utes can’t slow down the Trojans, there isn’t an obvious candidate to do so until Nov. 19 at UCLA.

Syracuse (5-0): Running back Sean Tucker and the Orange deserve credit for navigating a manageable opening stretch while continuing to prove their defensive mettle. However, things are about to get much more difficult for a team off to its best start since 1987.

Most likely first loss: Oct. 22 at Clemson. Syracuse matches up reasonably well with defense-first North Carolina State, which heads north Oct. 15. But even if it gets to 6-0, Clemson should be plenty ready for the Orange in Death Valley the following week.

Tennessee (4-0): How good are the Volunteers? Well, how good are Pittsburgh and Florida, the two notables Hendon Hooker and Co. have handled so far? This much seems clear: Tennessee is at least better than last year, so things are trending in the right direction under Josh Heupel.

Most likely first loss: It could happen as early as Saturday at LSU, but the program’s 0-15 record against Saban-led Alabama teams makes next week’s traditional Third Saturday in October showdown in Knoxville the pick.

TCU (4-0): So what is there to make of a team that’s drubbed Colorado (which has since fired its coach), an FCS school (Tarleton State) and Oklahoma while scoring enough to hold off Metroplex rival SMU? The Horned Frogs are better, but they’re also a bit of an unknown.

Most likely first loss: Oct. 22 against Kansas State. The Wildcats are 3-0 against TCU under Chris Klieman and will be coming off an open date. It wouldn’t be a shock if TCU lost this week at Kansas or next week against Oklahoma State, either, though an extended slide doesn’t seem likely.

College football best bets: Sorry Kansas, but TCU is the pick this week

UCLA (5-0): The Bruins looked stellar last week against Washington, and it’s fair to say this is Chip Kelly’s best team since taking over in 2018. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has a credible chance to lead UCLA to its first 10-win season since 2014.

Most likely first loss: Saturday against Utah. This has not been a good matchup for Kelly-era Bruins teams. Utah has won the past three meetings 41-10 (2018), 49-3 (2019) and 44-24 (2021), and the Utes are a step up from what UCLA has seen the past five week.

Lost in the latest buyout frenzy is how firmly Colorado has planted itself in the competition to be the sport’s equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death, constantly rebooting only to find itself back in the same spot it was in just a short time earlier.

Karl Dorrell, who had spent one year coaching in college since his firing at UCLA at the end of the 2007 season, never seemed like an especially inspired choice to begin with for the Buffaloes. His final record of 8-15 included an 0-5 start this season, and it’s hard to identify when Colorado’s first victory will come.

Colorado fires coach Karl Dorrell after 0-5 start

Yet Dorrell wasn’t set up to succeed, either. He was hired in late February 2020 after Mel Tucker left for Michigan State. Less than three weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports. He managed a 4-1 mark in the truncated 2020 regular season before the trolley started to leave the tracks last season.

Whomever Colorado hires will be its sixth full-time head coach since 2005, when Gary Barnett’s tenure ended. None of his successors has departed Boulder with a winning record, and the Buffaloes have posted just two winning records in the last decade and a half.

It’s the sort of track record that begs for a different approach, whether it’s an offensive scheme no one else in the Pac-12 uses or handing the keys to an extremely successful lower-division coach and letting them do their thing for four or five years. It can’t hurt to try something else; it’s not as if Colorado — which has been outscored 216-67 this season — is going to get much worse.

Five with the most at stake (non-unbeatens division)

A look at teams that already have lost at least once but still have plenty to prove in Week 6.

1. Utah. The Utes’ opening-week loss at Florida doesn’t look better in retrospect, but that’s about the only thing that has gone wrong for quarterback Cameron Rising and the defending Pac-12 champs. Utah has ripped through its past four games with ease and gets the league’s two Los Angeles schools the next two weeks — starting with a trip to Pasadena to meet unbeaten UCLA.

2. LSU. It was easy enough to write off the Tigers after their opening weekend loss to Florida State on a blocked extra point, but they’ve rattled off four victories in a row and defeated Mississippi State and Auburn along the way. LSU gets unblemished Tennessee in Death Valley in the first high-profile home game of Coach Brian Kelly’s tenure.

3. North Carolina State. Seeking a sign of maturity for the Wolfpack’s strong defense/questionable offense combo? How about whether they respond to last week’s loss to Clemson by handling Florida State for the fifth time in six years. N.C. State (4-1, 0-1 ACC) isn’t finished in the Atlantic Division race just yet, but it effectively would be with another loss.

4. Texas. The Longhorns (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) face a steep climb if the greatest of burnt orange dreams are going to come true this year. However, there is one thing they can do that will please a lot of folks in the Lone Star State: Extend Oklahoma’s recent miseries and handle the Sooners in the Red River Whatchamacallit. Texas has dropped the last four in the series.

5. Texas A&M. It was fun to think the Aggies’ trip to Tuscaloosa would be one of the season’s highlights. After all, they picked off Alabama last year, and Coach Jimbo Fisher’s verbal chippiness with Saban spiced up the offseason. Instead, Texas A&M is trying to avoid sinking back to .500 at the midpoint of a season that doesn’t appear headed anywhere meaningful.

This weekly look at the race for college football’s favorite stiff-arming statue, this time after most of the early front-runners did not distinguish themselves last Friday and Saturday.

1. QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State (1,376 yards, 18 TDs, 2 INTs passing). Didn’t have a monster day against Rutgers, but then again the Buckeyes didn’t need him to. Stroud and Ohio State visit sputtering Michigan State this week. (Last week: 1)

2. QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee (1,193 yards, 8 TDs passing; 175 yards, 3 TDs rushing). Enjoyed the Volunteers’ bye week, which meant he didn’t get hurt or turn in a so-so performance in a loss. That’s better than some of the other hopefuls. (LW: 3)

3. QB Bryce Young, Alabama (1,202 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs passing; 154 yards, 3 TDs rushing). Logged less than a half against Arkansas before leaving with a shoulder injury. As long as he doesn’t miss much time, it shouldn’t hurt his hopes of going back-to-back. (LW: 2)

4. QB Caleb Williams, Southern California (1,402 yards, 12 TDs, 1 INT passing; 144 yards, 3 TDs rushing). Tossed his first interception of the season last week against Arizona State, but also accrued a season-high 348 passing yards. The unbeaten Trojans will happily take the bitter with the sweet. (LW: 5)

5. RB Chase Brown, Illinois (733 yards, 4 TDs rushing; 8 catches, 37 yards, 1 TD receiving). The lack of end zone trips doesn’t help Brown, but he leads the country in rushing as Bret Bielema’s primary back in Champaign. He had 129 yards and a touchdown last week at Wisconsin. (LW: Not ranked)

6. QB Drake Maye, North Carolina (1,594 yards, 19 TDs, 1 INT passing; 255 yards, 3 TDs rushing). Accounted for five touchdowns for the second consecutive week as the Tar Heels demolished Virginia Tech. He’s set to face a Miami defense that yielded 45 points to Middle Tennessee two weeks ago. (LW: NR)

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