The center of the CFB Universe resides in Knoxville this weekend as Tennessee hosts Alabama in a “Third Saturday in October” rivalry game with enormous stakes. It’s the game of the year. I’ll be at Cool Beans (a local’s favorite bar) right next to campus with Jonathan Hutton on Friday from 3-6 p.m. ET on a special remote broadcast of “OutKick 360.” If you are in town for the game, come by and say hi and Hutton will buy you a beer. OutKick SEC guru Trey Wallace will join us at Cool Beans as well.
What’s happening outside of Vols-Bama? Glad you asked. Here are five storylines to watch for this weekend:
Penn State or Michigan will emerge as possible 2nd Big Ten CFB Playoff team
It’s a battle of unbeatens in Ann Arbor this weekend. The winner is almost assured of a defacto Big Ten East Championship game against Ohio State later this season. Both Penn State and Michigan have shown the ability to grind you into the ground with their stud running backs. For Michigan, Blake Corum has been a steadying force offensively as the passing game continues to find its way with JJ McCarthy. Corum, a junior, is already at 735 yards rushing and 11 TDs with a stellar 6.2 yards per carry. Penn State goes a little more by committee with Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton splitting carries. Look for a lot of running and a lot of defense in this one. The O/U is a modest 51.5 but the under feels like the play in this game. (My boss agrees.)
James Franklin has seemingly righted the ship in Happy Valley after a two-season hiccup and a win over Michigan would be huge. Both programs are jockeying for position next to Ohio State in the Big Ten and national pecking order. Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh is trying to prove that last season’s Big Ten Championship and CFB Playoff berth will become more of the norm and not an outlier. Penn State-Michigan is the Big Noon Kickoff on FOX.
Syracuse 6-0? Syracuse?!?!
It hasn’t always been the most impressive but here sits the Orange undefeated halfway through the season. Their two most impressive wins are a 31-7 shellacking of Louisville in Week 1 and a close 32-29 win over Purdue in Week 3. Both of those wins came at home. How is Dino Babers getting it done? Pounding the rock. RB Sean Tucker leads the way with 546 yards and QB Garrett Shrader is 2nd with 219 yards. The former Mississippi State starter can beat you with his arm or his legs.
Syracuse is favored by 3.5 at home against an underperforming N.C. State team. If the Orange wins, it will be its first victory over a ranked opponent this season and would set up a huge game for the ACC Atlantic next week at Clemson. It’s easy to chalk up Syracuse’s early success to them benefiting from a relatively weak schedule. Win this weekend and that narrative starts to change.
Jim Leonhard Coach Audition Tour Rolls Into East Lansing
The more I think about the mid-season firing of Paul Chryst at Wisconsin, the more I think it’s partially AD Chris McIntosh’s attempt to secure the job for Jim Leonhard. The 39-year-old Leonhard is widely viewed as a hot coaching commodity. So it makes sense that if you elect to fire a head coach with a 72% winning percentage, that you would at least do so in time for your “star in the making” interim to have a big enough body of work to win the full-time gig. Especially when that interim is an alum like Leonhard and keeps Wisconsin in line with the program’s well established identity.
Leonhard is off to a great start. After the 34-10 home loss to former coach Bret Bielema’s Illinois team, Wisconsin fired Chryst. A week later Wisconsin dominated Northwestern (a bad team) on the road with Leonhard playing the role of the Badgers’ knight in shining armor. Now Leonhard gets a chance to beat another bad team (Michigan State) on the road before a Big Ten West-deciding stretch of games to close the season that includes Purdue, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Don’t laugh but Wisconsin is still in line to make it to the Big Ten Championship Game. And if they do so, Chris McIntosh will looks like a genius and he won’t have to conduct a coaching search because his new head coach will already be leading the team.
Clemson Begins Crucial 3-Game Stretch For CFB Playoff Run
Clemson is starting to look like Clemson again and that’s very bad news for the rest of the ACC. After struggling offensively for the first few weeks of the season, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei is finding his footing in new OC Brandon Streeter’s offense. Will Shipley is a big help in the backfield rushing for nearly 6 yards per carry. The Tigers found their offense when they held off Wake Forest 51-45 and haven’t let up in back-to-back easy wins over NC State and Boston College. The school’s lone misstep was when fans decided to storm the field after beating NC State in a game against a lower ranked opponent that they were expected to beat. That was one of the stranger moments of the college football season thus far. Be better, Clemson fans.
Ill-timed field storming aside, Tigers fans have a lot of reasons for excitement and trepidation as they embark on a 3-game stretch that will define their 2022 season. It starts this weekend in Tallahassee, then a home matchup with undefeated Syracuse. After a bye, Clemson travels to South Bend to take on a suddenly resurgent Notre Dame squad that’s playing great defense. These next three games will tell us whether or not Clemson is returning to the CFB Playoff.
Pac-12 Decided In Salt Lake City, But What About UCLA?
Utah was everyone’s sleeper this preseason. Kyle Whittingham’s team is built on intestinal fortitude, physical toughness and led by a star QB in Cameron Rising. But all the Utes have done is lose in their biggest moments this season. With a chance to win the game at the end of regulation against Florida in the Swamp, Rising threw an interception in the end zone. With a chance to prove UCLA was a product of a terribly weak early schedule, Utah went to Pasadena and lost by 10.
Now comes Utah’s next big chance: a home matchup against USC. The best chance for any team in the Pac-12 to spoil Lincoln Riley’s bid to blitzkrieg the entire conference in Year One comes Saturday night in Salt Lake City. Utah’s previous two opportunities came on the road. Something tells me this one will be different in front of a raucous home crowd and against a USC team that is starting to show a few cracks.
But let’s not forget about Chip Kelly’s undefeated Bruins. UCLA travels to Kelly’s old stomping grounds in Eugene this Saturday to play Oregon. Pull off the road win and UCLA should cruise to an undefeated record before facing USC on Nov. 19. That would put some juice into this future Big Ten rivalry game.
Chad Withrow hosts “OutKick 360” weekdays from 3-6pm ET. You can email him about CFB topics at Chad.Withrow@OutKick.com