The biggest college football game on Saturday? It's happening in Dallas between No. 9 Cincinnati and No. 16 SMU -- two of the nine unbeaten teams left in the FBS.
If you're eager for the Big Ten's return, the Bearcats vs. the Mustangs may not be the game you're most excited for. But these two ranked Group of 5 teams face an opportunity to add a résumé-building win in an attempt to accomplish the seemingly impossible: make the College Football Playoff.
We're not getting ahead of ourselves here -- even in a season when most conferences have started on their own time and are playing their own conference-specific schedules, a G5 team's best effort might not make the committee bat an eye, but it's fun to root for chaos.
SMU will be Cincinnati's biggest test since its 24-10 win over Army on Sept. 26. And while the Bearcats haven't played since Oct. 3 (their Oct. 17 game at Tulsa was postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the Cincinnati program), they have been consistent in their three games so far.
Of note: their defense that is ranked fifth in SP+. That still "wins championships," right?
With SMU, we weren't completely sure what to expect. Sonny Dykes took over in 2018 (going 5-7 that season) and quickly turned things around with a 10-3 season in 2019.
Through five games this year, they've proved 2019 was no flash in the pan and have presented themselves as a real challenger at the top of the conference. QB Shane Buechele is a big reason why, completing just under 67% of his passes for 1,710 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
This game is a later start (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2), so you should make time for it. Even if you're just casually flipping over for a drive or two. Keep that football palate diverse. You'll thank us later.
SMU's superfan keeps streak alive
For a while last Saturday, Paul Layne remained in his seat, watching his beloved SMU take on Tulane, the 525th straight Mustangs game he has attended. Then it dawned on him: Why not get up and move around? After all, he wouldn't be blocking anyone's view.
For 44 years, Layne has been a fixture in the stands -- home and away -- but last week's game was unique. Tulane wasn't allowing fans for the visiting team because of COVID-19 protocols, but Layne was able to pull a few strings and nab a ticket. That left him all alone, save a hundred or so cardboard cutouts. TV cameras trained on him, a perfect visual expression of college football in 2020, and suddenly Layne was a celebrity.
"My phone went dead from so many people texting," Layne said.
It doesn't hurt that there are a lot more eyes on SMU these days, too. The No. 16 Mustangs face off against No. 9 Cincinnati on Saturday, arguably the biggest game in three decades for the program. A top-25 ranking and marquee matchups have been a welcome return to glory after so many years of bad teams.
"For a long time, I didn't know if I'd live long enough to do that again," Layne said. "It's a very exciting time now."
Layne's streak started when he was a freshman at SMU, serving as a cheerleader. He's 66 now. Somewhere around Year 17, it finally dawned on him that perhaps the streak was something he should work to keep alive, and last week's game wasn't his first near-miss. In 1995, Layne came down with chickenpox. Fortunately for him, the game was on Halloween weekend. SMU was playing Rice, and the Owls weren't bringing many fans, so Layne dressed as a scarecrow and took a seat in an empty section of the old Cotton Bowl typically reserved for visiting fans.
Keeping the streak alive during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a trickier proposition. SMU is allowing 25% capacity for its home games, including Saturday's showdown against Cincinnati, but the road trips have been a tougher ticket. Layne said he booked his travel in May, though he was doubtful any games would even be played.
The next tough call comes Nov. 5 at Temple, where fans still aren't allowed in the stadium. He's planning to fly to Philadelphia anyway, and if he has to watch the game from outside the stadium, he's confident he'll find a view that will make the trip worth it.
"I couldn't imagine being somewhere else on a Saturday afternoon or evening other than an SMU game," Layne said. "I guess I'm kind of loyal. Or crazy."
What else to watch
It's been a tough season for the Orange. Syracuse is 1-4, with one of the worst games in program history coming last week in a 38-21 loss to Liberty, which racked up over 300 yards in the first half alone. The Orange's lone victory came against Georgia Tech, which allowed 73 points to Clemson last week. With the way Syracuse has looked this season, there's a non-zero chance that Clemson could do that again this week. If the Orange can prevent Clemson from having its punter play a whole series at quarterback, they will have done better than Georgia Tech.
Tigers have to find themselves, according to Coach O
LSU's Ed Orgeron knows it will be a tough game against the Gamecocks, and South Carolina's Will Muschamp says it's his job to keep his team dialed in.
Auburn's offense has been hot and cold all season, and it's been the latter more times than not. Ole Miss' defense hasn't shown any signs of being able to stop any offense, with its best performance (can you call it a performance?) coming against Arkansas, when it gave up 33 points. Auburn QB Bo Nix will probably be able to find WR Seth Williams for a big play or two, but as inconsistent as Auburn has been offensively, there is no reason Ole Miss can't counter with a couple of big plays of its own.
Don't sleep on Minnesota
In case you haven't heard all week, Big Ten football is back this weekend. There's -- appropriately -- a lot of talk about Ohio State and Justin Fields. But one team that isn't being discussed enough, particularly in a wide-open Big Ten West, is Minnesota, which opens against Michigan. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is coming off a solid sophomore campaign in which he threw for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven picks. Lucky for him, wideout and future first-round NFL draft pick Rashod Bateman opted back in and has been cleared to play this season. Going up against Michigan will be a nice early test and a barometer for what we might expect from the Gophers this season.
LSU's rebound attempt
The Tigers need a win against South Carolina. Their Week 1 loss to Mississippi State didn't seem awful at the time, especially since K.J. Costello threw for the most yards in any SEC game -- ever. Since then, Costello was benched against Texas A&M, and the LSU defense gave up 45 points in a loss to Missouri. A game against South Carolina would usually be a nice and easy way to turn things around, but on top of their poor defensive play through three games, QB Myles Brennan might miss the game with a "significant" lower-body injury. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said Monday he's confident in both of his freshman quarterbacks (TJ Finley and Max Johnson) to start, but there's still plenty of concern in Baton Rouge.
Game-day Q&A with former Coastal Carolina head coach Joe Moglia
As the chairman of TD Ameritrade, Joe Moglia is helping shepherd through a deal with Charles Schwab that will end with the company having a market cap of around $75 billion -- and it also means he'll be stepping down from his role. He's done that before, though. In 2001, Moglia took a break from his job as CEO and got into coaching -- a profession he'd left 20 years earlier -- eventually becoming the head football coach at Coastal Carolina from 2011 through 2018. He's written books on finance and football and is working on a new one on leadership, just as his Chanticleers have reached the Top 25 for the first time in team history. We caught up with Moglia to talk Coastal Carolina, his former boss Bo Pelini, and the future of college football amid a COVID-19 financial crunch.
ESPN: What has it been like to see Coastal reach this level of success? Did you ever envision the program could be nationally ranked so soon after moving up to the FBS?
Moglia: I couldn't be prouder. You look at the staff, I recruited [head coach] Jamey [Chadwell]. I've always believed in him and thought he'd be a great successor and would do a great job of leading Coastal's football team. ... I really did envision we could become an elite FCS program. That prompted the Sun Belt to invite us. It takes a while to transition the scholarships and the transition with the coaching staff. ... But I always thought we'd wind up being competitive. To beat a nationally ranked team, to be nationally ranked, to be undefeated at this point of the season -- I definitely believed we could be competitive and hold our own.
ESPN: When you decided to get back into coaching, you spent two years working with Bo Pelini at Nebraska. He's off to a rough start as the defensive coordinator at LSU now. Do you think he can get things fixed?
Moglia: I worked with Bo for two years as the executive adviser to the head football coach. Frankly, if I didn't have that opportunity, I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity at Coastal. He's a good friend, a loyal guy, a very bright guy, and I'll always be indebted to him for that. I really think that Bo is a tremendous defensive coordinator. He won a national championship at LSU before. Our defenses were always really good at Nebraska, and he was the person behind that. I have no doubt they'll figure it out and get done what they need to get done.
Player to watch
Lyles: Ohio State QB Justin Fields
I'm only kind of sorry I don't have a deeper cut of an answer for you guys here this week, but I really, really want to see this guy play this weekend. Fields is one of the best players in the country, and I want to see how he comes out in the Buckeyes' opener. Last season against Nebraska, he went 15-of-21 passing for 212 yards and three touchdowns, and added 72 yards and a TD on the ground. Don't be surprised if he does better than that on Saturday.
The Irish are ranked No. 3 in the country, but their competition has accounted for just three FBS wins so far, and last week's lackluster performance against Louisville offers cause for concern. More concerning are the struggles of the passing game. Book has just three completions of 20 yards or more to wide receivers this season. Meanwhile, Pitt's defense can be dominant, and the Panthers' secondary is more than capable of challenging the Irish receivers. Brian Kelly has made a point of saying he wants to get the passing game going, and this will be a good test for Book & Co. to see if they can improve on the unimpressive numbers thus far.
Under-the-radar game of the week
It feels like the Sun Belt produces at least one game that you must keep your eye on each week, and for the second straight week, Coastal Carolina (now ranked No. 25 in the AP poll) is featured. Georgia Southern is 3-1 this season, with the lone loss to a ranked Louisiana team that just narrowly lost to Coastal last week. The intrigue in this game for me is mostly about answering this question: "How good is Coastal Carolina, actually?" Because while Southern might not be the team's toughest game to date, it's still a good test.
The Sun Belt has arguably been the most fun conference in college football so far, with last week's showdown between Arkansas State and Georgia State serving as Exhibit A, a 59-52 Red Wolves win. After the win, Arkansas State fired its defensive coordinator. Its offense, however, has been incredible, with its two-QB system of Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher combining for more than 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns so far. App State was the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt, but an early loss to Marshall was followed by two straight postponements due to COVID-19. How will Zac Thomas & Co. respond? It might start with getting the ground game going. That was the bread and butter of the Mountaineers' attack in 2019, but the unit managed just 96 yards on 33 carries in the loss to Marshall.
Upset of the week
Lyles: TCU over Oklahoma
I don't feel very confident with this pick, but if Oklahoma continues to be sloppy on defense, it can definitely happen. Both teams have won and lost the same number of games in the Big 12, a place I never thought we'd be at this point in the season. Of course, Spencer Rattler could make me look silly and pop off, which I wouldn't be mad about.
Hale: South Carolina over LSU
The defense is a mess. The quarterback is hurt. The depth chart is depleted. LSU is reeling, and there's a real concern it is going to be tough to turn things around in the short term. Meanwhile, South Carolina is riding high after a stunning upset of Auburn, and the Gamecocks' offense, which has been a disaster during the bulk of Will Muschamp's tenure, has shown some real explosiveness at times this season. It is always risky betting against a desperate LSU team at home, but there is a lot of ground the Tigers need to make up in a hurry if they want to win this one.