In 2008, No. 3 Penn State arrived at 9-0, eyeing its first BCS championship game appearance. The Nittany Lions led by nine points entering the fourth quarter but fell 24-23 when Iowa’s Daniel Murray hit a 31-yard field goal as time expired.
Nine years later, No. 4 Penn State trailed 19-15 with 1:42 left, when quarterback Trace McSorley guided the offense downfield and found Juwan Johnson for a walk-off touchdown.
High drama defines this series: nine one-score games since 1996, including two that went to overtime and the famous 6-4 final in State College in 2004. But Saturday’s game between No. 3 Iowa and No. 4 Penn State will mark the teams’ first top-five meeting, and the first top-five clash at Kinnick since No. 1 Iowa beat No. 2 Michigan in 1985.
“Penn State plays in a lot more of these than we probably do, right?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s what you want to play for. It’s fun when the chips are on the table.”
At Big Ten media days in July, several coaches called Iowa the league’s most challenging setting for visiting teams.
“What makes it challenging is the size of the crowd, the intensity of the crowd,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “The sidelines are tight, they’re right on top of you. Like our stadium, you have fans who have had season tickets forever, so you started to kind of build a relationship with these people. You know their names, and they know a lot about you.
“It’s a tough environment, but we’re looking forward to it.”
In a college football season in which defenses are finally flexing again, Iowa and Penn State boast two of the best. The Hawkeyes lead the nation in interceptions (12), takeaways per game (3) and points off turnovers (75). Iowa collected four takeaways in a Week 2 win at Iowa State and seven — its most since 1982 — in last week’s win at Maryland. Defensive back Riley Moss leads the Big Ten with three interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
Penn State has nine takeaways, a respectable total, but thrives in the red zone, where it has allowed five touchdowns on 15 drives and prevented points altogether seven times. PSU shut out Indiana last week and hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in a game this season. The defense is experienced and sound, boasting multiple standouts at all three levels.
Scoring chances will be in short supply.
“Their scheme, more times than not, allows them to capitalize on mistakes because they have their eyes on the quarterback, probably as much as anybody in college football,” Franklin said. “And they obviously do a great job of coaching it and drilling it and teaching it.”
The quarterback Iowa will be watching, Sean Clifford, has improved this season under new playcaller Mike Yurcich, completing more than two-thirds of his attempts for 1,336 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. While Iowa has tormented quarterbacks and wide receivers this year, it hasn’t seen a talent like Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, who has 35 receptions for 446 yards and six touchdowns.
“There’s no wasted movement,” Ferentz said of Dotson. “He’s concise. Everything is really sharp. I have to think the pro [scouts] watching him have to like him. He’s a really decisive player.”
Iowa doesn’t want to see Dotson in the end zone Saturday, and especially not late. If recent history holds, though, the game will come down to the final play. — Adam Rittenberg
The big games
The Red River Rivalry is back to normal this year, after playing in the Cotton Bowl last year with a 25% capacity crowd in the middle of a canceled State Fair of Texas in what OU wide receiver Drake Stoops said felt like a “ghost town” as opposed to one of the most heated rivalries in sports. The teams will meet for the 117th time, but it’s a first for Steve Sarkisian.
“I’m fired up for the game,” Sarkisian said. “I love the pomp and pageantry of college football. I love the history and the nostalgia. We put in so much work during the week so we can enjoy the experience on gameday.”
There are always family ties tested in this one. Charles Thompson, the father of Texas starting quarterback Casey Thompson, played for Barry Switzer at Oklahoma. OU coach Lincoln Riley and Drake Stoops have known the Longhorns QB for years.
“It’s our rivals, so you know, you never wish too much good upon them,” Riley said. “But it’s been fun for me to see Casey do well. To see him hang in there and do a good job and make the most of his opportunities is not surprising at all.”
All seven regular-season games in the series since 2014 have been decided by one score, the most in the country between two FBS teams in that span. With Bijan Robinson powering the Texas offense on the ground and Spencer Rattler and Oklahoma playing more of a ball-control style than usual, another tight one could be in store. — David Wilson
Georgia coach Kirby Smart isn’t sure when quarterback JT Daniels will return to action, but the Bulldogs are seeking advice from other teams that have dealt with similar injuries, including the Dallas Cowboys.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott missed a month during training camp with a similar lat injury in his right shoulder, although his might have been worse. For now, Daniels has been limited to soft-tossing in practice as he tries to get back on the field.
“Anything that doesn’t bother it, you want to continue to do,” Smart said. “So he was able to go out and do some soft toss and it didn’t bother it. That’s the same protocol they did with Dak. It’s not a complete shutdown. There’s exercises he can do in our training room that are bands and throwing motions and things that don’t hurt him. They don’t bother him. As long as it doesn’t bother him, then we feel like we’re getting improvement, gradual improvement.”
Senior Stetson Bennett IV is expected to make his second straight start and third of the season in Saturday’s game at No. 18 Auburn.
“Stetson’s a savvy vet,” Smart said. “He understands the defenses, he’s very intelligent, and a lot of the football he’s had to learn is through other quarterbacks by sitting back and watching them. I think he enjoys getting an opportunity to go out there and do the things he’s done.”
Bennett made the first start of his career against Auburn last season, throwing for 240 yards with one touchdown on 17-for-28 passing in Georgia’s 27-6 victory. Smart isn’t afraid to start the former walk-on once again.
“I mean, Stetson’s got thick skin. He’s a tough kid,” Smart said. “He’s got good moxy and good confidence, good composure. You don’t see him real rattled very often. He handles success and ups and downs really well, so I think he has got good wiring for a quarterback.” — Mark Schlabach
BYU’s quarterback situation is the big question, as starter Jaren Hall (ribs) and backup Baylor Romney (concussion) are working their way back, with Hall seemingly closer to returning against Boise State. Romney started for Hall against South Florida and completed 80% of his passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew that Jaren was something special, we knew that Baylor was something special, and we still have a lot of confidence in our third-string quarterback,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake told ESPN last week. “There’s only so many reps to go around, but it’s nice to have a guy like Baylor come in and be able to start a game and not feel like you’re really limited in the playbook. It’s been nice having quarterbacks that can play, and then having guys in there who aren’t always about trying to be the starter. Everybody understands their role, the competition, and supports each other.”
Depth at quarterback and elsewhere has been the story this season for BYU, which lost five players to the NFL draft — including quarterback Zach Wilson (No. 2 overall) and offensive tackle Brady Christensen (third round) — and eight others who became undrafted free agents. The offense isn’t quite as explosive as it was in 2020, but BYU has a solid power run game with Tyler Allgeier. The defense has allowed only two passing touchdowns in five games.
Sitake said the 2020 schedule, which didn’t include BYU’s typical September/October gauntlet of Power 5 opponents, helped the coaches get more young players experience when games had been decided.
“We’ve had years of this type of schedule that really affects your depth because it bangs people up playing P5s early in the season,” Sitake said. “The season affects everybody, but nobody does it like we do. Last year, people talked about our schedule, but Zach Wilson could have had better numbers if we kept him in there. But we knew that we needed him off to keep him healthy, and we wanted to make sure that we get a lot of these younger people that are now starting for us a lot of reps. That was a huge benefit for me.
“Last year’s schedule might have cost us some points, but now it’s helping us win games.”
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said repeatedly throughout the offseason he felt good about the veteran team he returned, but life at a small school in the ACC often means finding great difficulty in persuading everybody outside Winston-Salem to pay attention. Indeed, Wake Forest was picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Division in the preseason poll.
Yet the Demon Deacons are the only undefeated team left in the ACC, and are sitting at 5-0 headed into their game at Syracuse. Sam Hartman has drawn much of the attention as the returning quarterback, but it is what Wake Forest has done in the running game that really stands out.
Wake Forest is rotating three running backs nearly evenly: Starter Christian Beal-Smith leads the way with 65 carries for 312 yards and four touchdowns, while Justice Ellison has 50 carries for 242 yards and three scores and Michigan transfer Christian Turner has 51 carries for 205 yards and two scores. Wake Forest is the only school in the country that has three running backs with at least 50 carries and 200 yards rushing. The last team to do that through five games was Missouri in 2018.
“When we brought Christian Turner in midyear, we were hoping it could become a three-man role,” Wake Forest offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero told ESPN. “Christian came in and picked things up right away, and it’s allowed those guys to all play. They all knew going into the season that was how it was going to roll. They have all been team players and know that the goal is for us to win and stay healthy in the long term, and and they’ve been on board with it.”
The matchup against Syracuse’s run defense is the toughest to date, but with Hartman and a group of deep and talented receivers, the Demon Deacons have made plays in their passing game, too. Wake Forest has scored 192 total points, its most through five games in school history.
“We’ve got a lot of experience, and we’ve been able to stay healthy,” Ruggiero said. “If we can keep staying healthy and keep our foot on the gas, hopefully we’ll continue it.” — Andrea Adelson
The losses keep piling up at LSU. After going undefeated and winning the national championship in 2019, the Tigers are just two games above .500.
Last weekend’s loss to Auburn felt like a potential tipping point. A third loss at Kentucky on Saturday would further fan the flames now that coach Ed Orgeron finds himself squarely on the hot seat.
His biggest problem: the offense.
On Monday, Orgeron said LSU must recommit to the running game, which is not something you’d expected to hear from an LSU coach. But the Tigers rank next-to-last in the SEC in rushing yards.
Even so, for the running game to work, you need a productive line, and that hasn’t been the case. Sure, there have been injuries, which explain some of their struggles. And losing position coach James Cregg was an unexpected setback. But still …
“We have two guys on that offensive line that we won a national championship with,” Orgeron said. “I thought that would’ve been one of the strengths of our football team, but it’s not.”
So LSU is struggling to run the ball and struggling to block, and on top of all that, the playcalling has come into question. Quarterback Max Johnson hasn’t looked comfortable getting signals in from the sideline. Either calls are taking too long or they’re being changed at the last second. The result: The offense can’t go fast.
Remember, this season was supposed to be a return to the Joe Brady style of offense in 2019, which featured a heavy dose of tempo. Orgeron hired Brady disciple Jake Peetz as offensive coordinator for that purpose. But five games into the season, handing the reins over to a first-time playcaller isn’t working.
Still, Orgeron said he believes in Peetz.
“We just need to settle down,” he said. “Mostly just call the play and let them go and not try to change it; I think that’s when we get into most of our problems.”
Fixing those problems won’t happen easily, though, as undefeated Kentucky has one of the best defenses in the SEC, allowing the third-fewest yards in the conference. — Alex Scarborough
For all the talk about Texas A&M’s woes on offense, the Aggies haven’t been very good against the run defensively this season, which is surprising given their talent on the defensive line. That will be one of the key areas to watch on Saturday at Kyle Field.
Alabama’s offense has evolved significantly over the past several years, and first-year starting quarterback Bryce Kelly has certainly shown that he can throw the ball. But the one thing that hasn’t changed about Alabama’s offense is the Tide’s ability to run the ball when the situation calls for it, and that’s especially true now that Bill O’Brien is calling the plays.
The Tide’s overall rushing numbers aren’t great, but they’ve also had only one close game. What they did last week to Ole Miss with Brian Robinson Jr. rushing for a career-high 171 yards on 36 carries should be a warning to the Aggies. If they can’t stop the run early in this game, it could get away in a hurry, especially given Alabama’s balance on offense.
Texas A&M is tied for 71st nationally in run defense (142.6 yards per game) after finishing second nationally a year ago. The Aggies have given up more than 170 yards on the ground in three of their five games. If the Tide get even close to that number in this game, it won’t be a fun night in Aggieland. — Chris Low
Figuring out who the true favorite is in the Pac-12 South has been a game of musical chairs. Utah dropped out quickly. USC couldn’t hang on. UCLA‘s optimism quickly faded. For now, Arizona State stands alone.
After their emphatic 42-23 win against the Bruins, the Sun Devils head into Friday looking to move to 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 2012. This isn’t necessarily a surprise — ASU returned nearly every starter, including one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Jayden Daniels — but there was still a seeing-is-believing vibe coming into the year. So far, so good.
ASU wishes it could have a mulligan in its 27-17 loss to BYU, but it has won by at least three scores in the four other games. There is still a lot to prove considering three of those games came against genuinely bad teams (Southern Utah, UNLV and Colorado), and Stanford provides a huge opportunity to do that.
The Cardinal have already knocked off two ranked opponents — USC and Oregon — and have won six of the past seven against ASU. Stanford coach David Shaw said he has stressed one thing to his team after its emotional 31-24 overtime win over Oregon — building off the victory, not being satisfied.
“With showing that you can rise to the occasion, now there’s a responsibility to play that well in the next game,” Shaw told ESPN. “We don’t want to be the continual stock market team that’s up and down all the time. As I told the team, the Pac-12 North is a race. We’re racing Oregon. We got ahead of them, but we haven’t won the race yet. Oregon State‘s ahead of us. So we’re chasing Oregon State, we’re trying to run away from Oregon, and right in front of us is the team that’s leading the Pac-12 South. So we can’t have up-and-down performances. We have to come out and come to play.” — Adelson and Kyle Bonagura
New rivalry trophy dropped
On Saturday, the Campbell Fighting Camels and Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs will begin a new era in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, playing for the Hog Trophy in the inaugural East/West Barbecue Bowl.
The two schools, located about 200 miles apart (Campbell is in Buies Creek, North Carolina), first played each other in 1929, but have played just twice, in 2019 and 2020, since they both became four-year institutions in the 1970s. They’re now Big South rivals in the FCS.
The loser of the game will supply a barbecue spread to the winner, representing their fiercely debated regional styles from each team’s end of the state. Gardner-Webb, on the Western side, selected Red Bridges Barbecue of Shelby, North Carolina, for its meal, and Campbell has selected White Swan Bar-B-Q in Smithfield as the East’s representative. The big ol’ pig trophy will be presented by Bob Garner, a television personality and author of two books on North Carolina barbecue. Garner explained the difference between the two styles in a release from Gardner-Webb.
“White Swan is whole hog barbecue with both drier white meat from the loins and hams and moist dark meat from the shoulders, chopped together and anointed with a straightforward eastern, pepper-vinegar sauce and accompanied by yellow-white coleslaw,” Garner said. “Red Bridges features luscious, juicy meat from pork shoulders, pit-cooked over live coals for hours, served with a warmed vinegar sauce to which has been added a small amount of tomato to render it slightly thicker than some versions, accompanied by spicy red ‘BBQ’ coleslaw.”
The teams will look to bring home the bacon at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday. –Dave Wilson