The calendar has turned to October, which means one full month of college football is in the books. In case you slept through September, Clemson lost twice and has looked ordinary, SEC favorites Alabama and Georgia have looked extraordinary and Big 12 favorite Oklahoma and Pac-12 leaders Oregon join the Dawgs as favorites to reach the playoff. Penn State and Iowa are also in the mix but play each other next weekend, which means one of them won’t remain undefeated.
The Hawkeyes still have to go to Wisconsin and beat the East Division winner in the Big Ten title game while the Nittany Lions also have to visit Ohio State and host Michigan, which means we could be in for a situation where the conference cannibalizes one another and winds up on the outside looking in since the Buckeyes lost at home to the Ducks and the Badgers were routed by Notre Dame in Chicago last Saturday.
Wisconsin will look to rebound by handing Michigan its first loss this weekend, but that ranks a distant third in this week’s most interesting college football statement games. No one can dispute Alabama-Ole Miss being at the top since the defending champions will have their hands full against the one team in the SEC’s West Division capable of pulling off an upset.
Ole Miss at Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET
Lane Kiffin hasn’t fared poorly in head-to-head matchups with former boss Nick Saban, who employed him as Alabama’s offensive coordinator for 2014-16. Their first matchup in 2009 in Kiffin’s one season at Tennessee was a stunner since Alabama survived only 12-10. Last season’s matchup produced a 63-48 result in Oxford as Kiffin took his first Ole Miss team and played Alabama closer than any opponent besides Florida, which lost the SEC Championship 52-46. ‘Bama and Ole Miss were tied at 42 with over 11 minutes remaining but Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith, proved to be too much. All those guys are earning NFL paychecks, while Matt Corral, Snoop Connor and Jerrion Ealy, are all back. Tight end Kenny Yeboah led the Rebels two touchdown catches and 181 receiving yards and is now with the Jets, but the fact is Ole Miss has a lot of talent back and Alabama is moving forward with a new crew.
The Tide overwhelmed a Miami squad we now know isn’t very good, but struggled after a fast start in Gainesville, scoring just 10 points over the final three quarters in barely holding on 31-29 two weeks ago. Ole Miss doesn’t have as talented a defense as Florida, but certainly brings more offensive firepower to the table. Saban lamented that Kiffin had written down all his secrets over the three years they worked together and was now using it against him. He also complimented his ability to instantly recognize a defense and get his team into the play best-suited to work against it, calling him the best play-caller he’s ever been around. Facing an elite defense is likely to slow down how fast Kiffin wants to work as far as pace is concerned, which makes a total of 79 scary despite last season’s 111-point outburst. Getting more than two touchdowns could be appealing if you believe the Kiffin-Corral combo can execute effectively enough to at least produce a cover. Since losing at home to LSU in 2019, Alabama has defeated its last eight opponents by at least 17 points, covering the spread seven times. Only Mercer has managed to cover in this season’s home opener as the Tide won 48-14 as a 54.5-point favorite. Ole Miss leads the country in yards per game (635.3) and points per game (52.7) and are coming off a bye week, giving Kiffin an extra week to focus on this season’s biggest challenge.
Cincinnati at Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. ET
This is one of Saturday’s top matchups, presenting the Bearcats with an opportunity to land in the national conversation for CFP berth despite its status as a Group of Five team. Cincinnati will soon join the Big 12, but that doesn’t do anything for this season’s group, which happens to rival Brian Kelly’s 2009 version that nearly reached the BCS National Championship game as far as the most talented teams in school history are concerned. Luke Fickell’s team has the benefit of coming in off a bye, so they’ve been able to lock in on this visit to South Bend since posting a 38-24 win at Indiana in which they trailed in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame dominated Wisconsin down the stretch at Soldier Field to move to 4-0 on the season and come off its most impressive performance of 2021. After narrowly surviving both Florida State and Toledo, the Fighting Irish scuffled with Purdue and entered the fourth quarter even with Wisconsin at 10-10 before a 31-3 fourth quarter put the Badgers to bed. Oddsmakers have installed the visiting Bearcats as a 2.5-point road favorite, setting the total at 51.
This should be a defensive battle since new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman served in the same capacity at Cincinnati for four years prior to coming over to South Bend this past offseason. He’s plenty familiar with Bearcats’ QB Desmond Ridder’s strengths and weaknesses. Cincinnati’s defense is talented and will look to get a handle on QB Jack Coan, RB Kyren Williams and star TE Michael Mayer. Coan was hit hard by Wisconsin before leaving the game with a soft tissue injury in his ankle that isn’t expected to sideline him here but could limit his effectiveness.
Michigan at Wisconsin, 12 p.m. ET
QB Graham Mertz was selected over Jack Coan and was the highest-regarded recruit in Wisconsin history, but the time to be patient with him has run out. The third-year sophomore threw pick-sixes on back-to-back possessions to put the cherry on top of last week’s 41-13 loss to Notre Dame. He threw interceptions on three straight drives and has now thrown just one TD pass and eight picks over the last seven-plus games. He hasn’t thrown for a score in six starts since Nov. 21 and now faces a Michigan defense that has clamped down on every team it has faced this season. The Wolverines allowed 14 points to Western Michigan, 10 against Washington and Northern Illinois and 13 in last week’s tight win over Rutgers.
It’s time to see whether Michigan’s defense can handle business on the road. They’re definitely down on Mertz and this suspect Wisconsin offensive line in Madison, but that won’t stop Badgers fans from packing Camp Randall for one of the games most had circled on the 2021 schedule. Wisconsin would slip to 1-3 on the season if it falter here and still has a Homecoming game against Iowa to worry about, which means this could be an awfully long season unless Paul Chryst’s team proves to be resilient on Saturday afternoon. Michigan is 0-12 under Jim Harbaugh when entering a game as an underdog and are getting two points here. Harbaugh is 1-9 in true road games against ranked opponents. Wisconsin is 5-2 over its last seven against the Wolverines but will have to solve its offensive issues while also locking in to stop a rushing attack that ranks fifth in the nation averaging over 290 yards per game.
Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech, 12 p.m. ET
After narrowly missing out on an upset of Clemson as a 27.5-point favorite, the Yellow Jackets took down North Carolina as 14.5-point ‘chalk.’ Suddenly, the team that opened the season with a home loss to Northern Illinois looks like it might be a factor in the ACC race. Pitt was victimized by a MAC foe too, falling 44-41 to Western Michigan at Heinz Field, but they’ll visit Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech the next two weeks to open up conference play, which means they’ll have a leg up on preseason Coastal Division favorite UNC if it can pull out victories. Pat Narduzzi has definitely been selling the Panthers on controlling their own destiny coming out of their bye week, which gives them a leg up on a team playing a fifth consecutive contest, the third of which they enter as an underdog.
Tech’s defense has been tremendous over the past few weeks while the QB combo of Jordan Yates and Jeff Sims co-existed beautifully last week and may do damage against a Panthers defense that gave up 34 points to Tennessee and 44 to the Broncos, who arrived in Pittsburgh as a 14-point underdog. Pitt will be playing at Bobby Dodd Stadium for a third straight season and won 20-10 in ’18 and 34-20 last season as 7-point favorites. These teams don’t care for one another, so this contest should be spicy. Kenny Pickett threw for 403 yards and five TDs in a 77-7 rout of New Hampshire. He threw six TD passes in the loss to Western Michigan. If he can help Pitt win an ACC title, he’ll be in the Heisman conversation. Look for Pickett to help clear this first obstacle.
Liberty at UAB, 7 p.m. ET
Hugh Freeze’s Flames failed to cover a spread for the first time in 16 games, losing outright at Syracuse 24-21 despite closing as a 6.5-point underdog. Despite falling behind 14-0 and trailing for most of the game, Liberty had its chances to win and cover but were denied by a goal-line stand as QB Malik Willis failed to sneak into the end zone on a key fourth-quarter fourth down play that helped swing the game in Cuse’s favor. Willis still finished 14-for-19 for 255 yards and three touchdowns, but not being able to reach the end zone prevented a third straight win over a Power-5 opponent. The Flames struggled up front against the Orange’s pressure and ultimately fell just short in a physically taxing affair. Bouncing back won’t be easy since the Blazers are arguably the most talented team Liberty will see this season until it visits Ole Miss and hosts Louisiana and Army come November. UAB comes off a 28-21 upset of Tulane in New Orleans and routed North Texas in Denton and FCS power Jacksonville State – the team that won at Florida State – by a combined margin of 71-6. Although it lost 56-7 at Georgia, UAB has a deep, talented group that should compete for the Conference USA title. The school is also playing its first-ever home game at the new Protective Stadium, a new building in downtown Birmingham that replaces the ancient Legion Field as the program’s home. The stadium holds over 47,000 and should draw a great crowd for the debut. Liberty handled a large, vocal contingent of Syracuse fans at the “Loud House” well but now looks to bounce back in a game that’s basically being looked at as a pick’em. Although Willis is one of the most talented QBs in the country, the Blazers are tougher along both lines and have seen redshirt sophomore Dylan Hopkins really blossom after missing all of last season due to a preseason foot injury. His decision-making should be the difference in a tight one.