November is officially here and with it comes a top 5 matchup that has all the stakes a fan could ask for.
Tennessee will travel to Georgia on Saturday in what should be one of the most highly anticipated SEC East games in recent history. What’s on the line? Oh, just the inside track to a division crown, a place in the SEC title game and, ultimately, a firm spot in the College Football Playoff mix.
The high profile matchup isn’t the only top 10 battle between SEC foes this weekend as Alabama travels to LSU to play under the lights at Tiger Stadium. The teams may come in with three losses combined but a big win in this rivalry game would get either the Crimson Tide or the Tigers back on the fringes of the playoff and a likely date with either Georgia or Tennessee in the conference title game.
Outside of the SEC action, Clemson travels to South Bend, where it lost to Notre Dame in double overtime in 2020 despite a standout performance from then-freshman DJ Uiagalelei. The now-junior will get another attempt to topple the Irish and keep the Tigers in the CFP top four for another week.
A week after hammering Oklahoma State 48-0, Kansas State has the opportunity to notch yet another quality win with Texas headed to Manhattan. And Thursday night gets a taste of the Fun Belt this week when Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina meet in a crucial Sun Belt East clash.
These are the biggest storylines from the best games of Week 10.
No. 1 Tennessee at No. 3 Georgia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
One of the more dominant units in all of college football over the past two seasons has been Georgia’s defense.
The Dawgs’ defense a year ago — the one with five NFL first-round selections — gave up just 16 touchdowns in 15 games on the way to Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years. It’s been more of the same this season, as Georgia has held its first eight opponents to just seven touchdowns.
But Saturday in Sanford Stadium, Georgia’s defense will be tested in a way that it hasn’t all season against a Tennessee offense that leads the country in scoring (49.4 points per game) and has scored 34 or more points in every game, including 40 or more in its past four games.
While nobody has been able to slow down quarterback Hendon Hooker and the Vols, they haven’t faced a defense the caliber of Georgia’s or a front seven on defense that smothers the run the way the Dawgs do. They’ve given up just two rushing touchdowns all season and are allowing 85.4 rushing yards per game.
“You can say it every game, but you’ve got to win the line of scrimmage,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball some, because if they get you in a bunch of third-and-long situations, that’s right where they want you.”
Tennessee moved the ball as well as anybody on Georgia a year ago in a 41-17 loss, especially early in the game, but couldn’t finish drives. The Vols finished with 387 yards in total offense and 22 first downs, but only managed 55 rushing yards. Meanwhile, the Dawgs had 274 rushing yards.
If Tennessee is going to snap a five-game losing streak in this series and take a huge step toward its first SEC championship game appearance since 2007, the Vols will have to find a way to even up those rushing numbers.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart didn’t mind one bit seeing the Vols No. 1 and the Dawgs No. 3 in the first College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday night. Not that the defending national champs needed any extra motivation, but there it is. Think the “no-respect” theme has been mentioned once or twice on the Georgia practice field this week?
Smart downplayed the rankings — period. At least to reporters.
“We’ve dealt with this so long now with last year going on and knowing that it really doesn’t matter,” Smart said. “It doesn’t matter. It matters how you play.” — Chris Low
No. 6 Alabama at No. 10 LSU (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app)
Set aside the obvious penalties, and what stood out from Alabama’s defense during a close call at Texas and loss at Tennessee was a lack of depth at cornerback. Outside of Kool-Aid McKinstry, there just weren’t very many reliable options for coach Nick Saban to choose from.
But that might have changed two weeks ago against Mississippi State when Eli Ricks finally stepped into the starting lineup after seven games and shined. Against a pass-happy Bulldog offense, Ricks played up to his potential, broke up four passes and allowed only one completion.
While it took longer than expected since transferring during the offseason — Saban said they worked hard to improve Ricks’ fundamentals and understanding of a new defensive scheme — his coming out party comes at an opportune time. On Saturday, he’ll experience a reunion of sorts, returning to LSU where he became an All-American as a freshman two seasons ago.
Long with physical skills, Ricks could match up nicely against talented receivers Kayshon Boutte and Malik Nabers. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is playing his best football of the season, having thrown for 597 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in wins against Florida and Ole Miss.
But Saban said what’s important for Ricks is to try not to do too much against his former team.
“I think it’s important that he just goes into this game and is himself and doesn’t think he has to do something fantastic just because he’s playing against a team he used to play for,” Saban said. “I think that’s always important psychologically for guys to be able to focus on what’s in front of them and do their job well.” — Alex Scarborough
No. 24 Texas at No. 13 Kansas State (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, FS1)
The Longhorns’ game against the Wildcats presents a conundrum. Texas is coming off a bye week but blew a second-half lead against Oklahoma State in a loss to the Cowboys the week before. Last week, Kansas State beat No. 9 OSU 48-0. The Longhorns are coming off their fifth straight road loss and their 1-6 road record in the past two seasons is the worst in the Big 12.
Yet the Longhorns are favored by 2.5 points, just the fifth time since the 1978 FBS/FCS split that a team unranked in the AP poll is favored on the road against a top 15 opponent.
So what gives? K-State coach Chris Klieman says he sees it on film.
“If there’s one thing I’d say just watching Texas, they do as good a job as anybody that we’ve played as far as, we’re getting our best players the football and we’re going to make sure that you have to defend our best players for four quarters from sideline to sideline whether it’s the wide receiver to the tight end to the running back,” Klieman said.
The Wildcats would appear ready to defend them, ranking sixth nationally in defensive efficiency and allowing just 15 offensive touchdowns — the fewest in the Big 12.
It will be a battle between two of the best running backs in Big 12 history, the Wildcats’ Deuce Vaughn vs. the Longhorns’ Bijan Robinson. Both are among the top six in league history (minimum 25 games played) in career scrimmage yards per game — Robinson is fourth at 130.4 yards per game while Vaughn is sixth with 128.4. Texas is the only Big 12 school that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this year, a test for Vaughn.
The Longhorns have won five straight against K-State, which is the longest active streak against a conference opponent. But five of the past six games have been decided by six points or fewer. Both still have a shot at a Big 12 title game appearance, but the Wildcats can likely thwart the Longhorns’ hopes with a win.
“I think that we’ve played good football,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said this week. “I think we’ve got a team that’s committed for this final month of the season, but we have to be cautious not to look down the road. We’ve got to focus on this game and we’ve got to handle our business this week, and it’s going to be a heck of a game.” — Dave Wilson
No. 4 Clemson at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Two years ago, DJ Uiagalelei started as a true freshman on the road against Notre Dame and delivered a performance that — in large part — set expectations soaring once he officially became the Clemson starting quarterback.
Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-40 double-overtime loss to the Irish, as Trevor Lawrence sat out with COVID-19. Based on his two starts that year, Uiagalelei headed into the 2021 season as a preseason Heisman hopeful — the latest in a line of highly successful Clemson quarterbacks.
But 2021 did not go smoothly as Uiagalelei and the Clemson offense struggled, and questions about his long-term future have been the topic du jour in 2022. Though Uiagalelei has played far better than he did a year ago — with 2,150 total yards, 21 total touchdowns and four interceptions — getting benched after turning the ball over three times against Syracuse brought the doubters back as Uiagalelei and No. 4 Clemson return to Notre Dame.
Coach Dabo Swinney has spent the past 11 months defending his quarterback, and did it again after he brought in Cade Klubnik to help rally Clemson to a 27-21 win over the Orange. Though Swinney pulled Uiagalelei from that game, he has reaffirmed multiple times over the past two weeks that Uiagalelei remains the starter.
“You put your ace on the mound and there is a certain expectation,” Swinney said during his weekly news conference. “But even the best of the best, next thing you know they’ve hit three home runs off him in the second inning and it just ain’t his day. You’re not going to let him get four home runs. If you do, you’re just stupid. But that guy’s going to come back whenever his next start is, he’s going to get right back at it.
“We’re people, and people are not perfect. We have moments from time to time. You have to be made of the right stuff to be able to let it help you get better. We’re not 8-0 if it’s not for DJ. He had a bad game, but that’s why you have a team. I’m really proud of DJ, and how he’s handled himself and how he’s led. He knows he can’t go play like that. There’s a standard. He’s the ace. You’ve got to go do your job.”
Believe it or not, Clemson has won 14 straight games — the longest active streak in the country — and Uiagalelei has started every single one. But the margin for error headed into the final stretch is small. At No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson is in great position to make another playoff appearance if it wins out. But a loss down the stretch, and those chances will diminish significantly or vanish all together. Notre Dame has won 26 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents, but if you want to get technical — Clemson did beat the Irish in the 2020 ACC championship game.
Since 2018, the Tigers are the only ACC team to beat Notre Dame. — Andrea Adelson
ESPN’s college football crew discusses the rankings reveal for the Top 6 of the College Football Playoff.
Appalachian State at Coastal Carolina (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app)
The Sun Belt East is more than likely going to be decided in Conway, South Carolina, between Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina.
A win over App State would give Coastal Carolina a 97% chance to win the division, while a Mountaineers victory raises their 33% chance to 56%, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Our kids are locked in and focused,” App State head coach Shawn Clark said at his weekly news conference. “They know it’s going to be a big football game. We can sit here and say it’s not, that it’s the next game, but it is a big football game, and every week’s a big game in the Sun Belt. That’s something we look forward to.”
Coastal Carolina comes into the game fresh off a 24-13 rebound win on the road at Marshall, after losing the previous week at home to Old Dominion 49-21.
“We know we have a great opponent coming in,” Coastal coach Jamey Chadwell said at his weekly news conference. “They’re coming in, they’re rested. They basically had an open week last week where they were able to rest a lot of starters, so we know they’re going to be fresh and had a chance to prepare for us a little more than we had a chance to prepare for them but our guys will be ready to go and we’ll go out and play well.”
The quarterback matchup in this one stands out. App State’s Chase Brice is having the best season of his career, having thrown for over 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns with just four interceptions in eight games.
On the other side, Grayson McCall has continued to prove that 2020 wasn’t just some magical season for the Chanticleers, but rather the new standard. He’s thrown for over 2,000 yards, with 19 touchdowns and just one interception, while adding four rushing touchdowns as well.
And if you’re a fan of atmosphere (you’re a college football fan reading this, of course you are), Thursday night is going to be a great one with Coastal Carolina having a blackout on their signature teal turf with the Sun Belt East on the line. — Harry Lyles Jr.