No. 17 in the debut College Football Playoff rankings, Minnesota will see its postseason stock soar after Saturday’s 31-26 win at home against Penn State left the Golden Gophers as one of two unbeaten teams in the Big Ten, along with Ohio State.
After the program’s first win against a top-five opponent in 20 years, Minnesota is now 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and through the first major hurdle of a difficult November.
September and October, meanwhile, seemed to reveal little about Minnesota’s ability to hang among the best teams in the Bowl Subdivision. The Golden Gophers narrowly defeated South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern to open the season before rolling past the bottom rung of the Big Ten — Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland.
Minnesota takes the Nittany Lions’ place as the Big Ten’s other playoff contender and moves one step closer to securing the West Division championship. The Gophers are two full games ahead of the second-place team in the division with three games to go.
The win is validation for the team’s underrated talent level: Minnesota drew outstanding play from wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, who combined for 14 receptions for 307 yards; both will soon be playing in the NFL. It’s also continued validation for coach P.J. Fleck, who has his detractors yet has now performed incredible turnarounds at two FBS programs.
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The next two games come on the road, beginning next Saturday at Iowa. Then it’s at Northwestern, followed by the finale at home against rival Wisconsin. Minnesota is in position to enter the Big Ten championship game still unbeaten, with a game against the Buckeyes to decide a spot in the national semifinals.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers:
The Tigers’ 46-41 win at Alabama snapped an eight-game losing streak in the series, secured the SEC West and brought Ed Orgeron and LSU one step closer to the playoff. After years of struggling offensively against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers gained more than 550 yards of total offense and responded to every Alabama run with an equalizing score, as in two fourth-quarter touchdowns to fend off the late comeback. LSU is in such good postseason shape that it could lose once this month and still easily finish in the top four with a win against Georgia in the SEC championship game.
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The other under-the-radar Power Five unbeaten kept up its own memorable season with a 29-23 triple-overtime win against TCU. Just to reach overtime demanded a 51-yard field goal as time expired. Style points haven’t been Baylor’s thing, so winning will have to do: Matt Rhule has the Bears still without a loss as they prepare for home games this month against Oklahoma and Texas.
This is the best-case scenario for the league’s November talking point — getting two teams into the playoff. Because LSU so thoroughly dominated the first half, leading 33-13 at the break, and because Alabama played so well offensively in the second half, supporters will point to the close final score and claim both teams are deserving of being ranked in the top four when the final rankings are released next month.
With Ohio State defensive end Chase Young out indefinitely and after Burrow threw for 393 yards, ran for another 64 and had three touchdowns in Saturday’s win, the picture is clear: LSU’s quarterback is way in front for the Heisman Trophy.
The Illini pulled off a miraculous, come-from-behind win against Michigan State to secure bowl eligibility. Down 28-3 late in the first half, Illinois scored on a 48-yard touchdown pass as time expired to make it 28-10 heading into the third quarter. Then, down 31-10 with 15 minutes left, the Illini scored 27 points in the fourth quarter, including a touchdown with seconds left, to pull off the 37-34 win.
The Badgers’ playoff hopes were extinguished by back-to-back losses to the Illini and Ohio State. Saturday’s 24-22 win against Iowa keeps Wisconsin in range of a New Year’s Six bowl, however, with a key game against Minnesota coming on Nov. 30. Winning out and beating Minnesota might give the Badgers the West Division championship, should the Gophers also lose to Iowa, and the second-best team from the Big Ten would make a major bowl should Ohio State finish in the top four.
It’s a tough loss but a survivable one, especially if Minnesota continues adding wins across the next three weeks. The Nittany Lions will still head to Ohio State on Nov. 23 with their goals intact: of winning the East Division, winning the Big Ten and making the playoff. That begins with a win against the Buckeyes.
The Razorbacks continue to find new lows under coach Chad Morris, who in under two seasons may have dug himself into an insurmountable hole. Arkansas has invited over two “paycheck,” Group of Five opponents meant to beef up an SEC program’s won-loss record, paid each opponent $1.5 million and then lost both times, to San Jose State in September and 45-19 on Saturday to Western Kentucky. As if it couldn’t get worse: Western Kentucky’s starting quarterback was Ty Storey, a transfer from Arkansas who threw for 213 yards and a touchdown.
There will be a groundswell to keep Alabama in the top four in this week’s rankings and again all through the final rankings in December, should the Tide win out and finish the regular season 11-1. Whether this team reaches the playoff is entirely out of its control. Now, Alabama must win out and get help from at least two Power Five leagues, likely the Big 12 and Pac-12, to have a shot at reaching the playoff despite not winning its own division in the SEC. As noted, however, the conference couldn’t ask for a better
Wake Forest’s 36-17 loss at Virginia Tech will drop the Demon Deacons to 7-2 and to the very end of the Top 25, if not unranked altogether. That’s not great news for the conference heading into Wake’s upcoming trip to Clemson, which was billed as perhaps the Tigers’ best remaining opportunity at notching the sort of win that would impress the selection committee.