Top storylines for college football in November

By David Kenyon
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Shocking upsets will shatter prevailing narratives.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 college football regular season has entered its final month. November, as it always is, will be the defining stretch of the campaign.

Unexpected results and shocking upsets will shatter prevailing narratives. Undefeated teams will lose, one-loss squads will soar and College Football Playoff rankings will change dramatically every week.

Who can possibly predict it all? Trick question. Nobody has all the answers.

But we definitely know where you should watch for the most important results of the season.

 

Notre Dame’s pursuit of 12-0

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The switch to Ian Book at quarterback has changed Notre Dame’s offense from mediocre to excellent. During his five starts, the Irish have averaged 40.4 points compared to just 23.3 in Brandon Wimbush’s three games. Perhaps most importantly, the defense has thrived all season. Only one opponent has cracked 24 points on the Irish. That’s a terrific combination heading into November, which includes a neutral-site date with Syracuse plus trips to Northwestern and USC. Road games are often tricky, but Notre Dame has a reasonable chance to finish 12-0.

 

Big Ten down to two CFP hopes

Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have quite the test in college football Week 1

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan and Ohio State hold top-10 rankings and remain in the College Football Playoff hunt. One of them, however, won’t even have an argument when the month is over. There’s a decent chance both programs are 10-1 entering a showdown to decide the Big Ten East Division. Yes, that involves Michigan navigating Penn State and Ohio State dispatching a typically tricky Michigan State squad. But as long as either the Wolverines or Buckeyes climb to 10-1, CFP aspirations will be at stake. Love them or hate them, college football is better when “The Game” matters like that.

 

Will anyone catch Tua Tagovailoa for the Heisman?

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Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t simply surpassed what seemed to be lofty expectations. No, he’s raised the bar for production from a college quarterback. While helping Alabama earn eight straight wins, Tagovailoa has picked apart defenses with lethal efficiency. He’s completed 70.4 percent of his throws for 2,066 yards and 25 touchdowns. He has zero interceptions — and zero pass attempts in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray is the top threat, but Tagovailoa might not allow much of an argument. Oh, and since he’s only a sophomore, he’ll be back next year.

 

Clemson looks headed for 13-0

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Of all undefeated teams remaining, Clemson is the most likely to finish that way. In fact, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Tigers hold a nation-best 73.2 chance of winning out — including the ACC Championship Game. Similar to Notre Dame, Clemson has a favorable slate. Dabo Swinney’s club hosts three of its four November outings, only traveling to face a pesky Boston College side. To knock off the Tigers, it’ll take a flawless defensive day and a couple of lucky bounces for the offense. And that appears unlikely at best from their upcoming opponents.

 

Washington State is Pac-12’s last chance

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The Pac-12 is staring at two years without a College Football Playoff representative. The only way that changes is if Washington State continues its unexpected run — and gets a little help elsewhere. But let’s focus on the Cougs. They’re a high-volume passing team that excels in the red zone. Defensively, they’ve generated more pressure than anticipated with a young front despite losing coordinator Alex Grinch. Wazzu has dealt with letdowns on both sides of the ball, so it’s reasonable to be skeptical. But every other Pac-12 program has two losses or more; the Pac-12 is Cougs or bust.

 

Can Ed Orgeron, LSU keep winning?

Ed Orgeron

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

LSU has defied expectations. After thrashing Miami to open the season and edging Auburn on the road, the Tigers entered October at 5-0. Although a loss at Florida put a blemish on their record, consecutive wins against Georgia and Mississippi State minimized the sting of that shortcoming. LSU’s offense is frustratingly inefficient and relies on perfect plays at perfect moments, but 7-1 is 7-1. For the Tigers to remain a CFP possibility, they absolutely, positively must knock off Tagovailoa and Alabama. But if that happens, LSU will quickly become a front-runner in that race.

 

Big 12 is Oklahoma’s to lose

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Texas holds the head-to-head victory, yet Oklahoma doesn’t need to worry about that. Since the top two finishers in the Big 12 reach the conference championship, the Sooners are still in good shape. They already defeated Iowa State and will meet Texas Tech and West Virginia this month, and that trio of tiebreakers would basically assure Oklahoma of a place in the Big 12 title. No matter whether Texas, WVU or Iowa State await in that clash, Oklahoma would be favored. Win there, and a dynamic Kyler Murray might have led the Sooners to the CFP in his last season before focusing on baseball.

 

UCF’s quest for perfection

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountain West battle between Fresno State and Utah State is intriguing. However, the Group of Five’s only super-unlikely-but-maybe-possible CFP threat is a familiar one. Central Florida — following its 13-0 championship-claiming campaign in 2017 — entered the month at 7-0 and opened with a win over Temple. From here, though, the Knights are facing a challenging slate that includes Cincinnati and South Florida — and possibly Houston in the AAC title game. They’re all currently 7-1. If UCF ends 12-0, it’ll have earned every bit of the perfect record.

 

Georgia clinging to CFP dreams

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the regular season approached, odds for the national title typically read Alabama, Clemson, then some combination of Ohio State and Georgia. Even if Georgia made the SEC Championship Game at 12-0 and lost to Alabama, it was feasible the College Football Playoff committee would still consider Kirby Smart’s club a top-four team. The loss to LSU, though, eliminated that possibility. At 7-1, Georgia has an obvious path to a return CFP trip; that doesn’t make it an easy one. The Dawgs must rip off five straight wins to make the championship tournament.

 

Coaches on the hot seat

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The potential headliner is Clay Helton, whose USC team is lumbering into November at 4-4. While the third-year coach deserves a little grace for starting a true freshman quarterback, that good-will might start running out if the Trojans barely make a bowl. Otherwise, there are possible changes at Rutgers (Chris Ash), North Carolina (Larry Fedora), Illinois (Lovie Smith) and UConn (Randy Edsall), among others. Those teams are a combined 6-25, and Illinois owns three of those victories. Hefty buyouts complicate it, but pink slips are coming. Will any of them last another offseason?

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