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Mike Lopresti | | October 13, 2022

Tennessee's chance at history vs. Alabama, 8 other college football games that can rock(y top) the nation

College football rankings: Georgia takes back No. 1 in latest AP poll

It’s the third weekend of October and you know what that means. Besides a spike in Spider-Man costume sales for Halloween. Time for Alabama vs. Tennessee, otherwise known lately in headlines everywhere as Tide rolls by (insert score here).

The last time the Vols beat a Nick Saban Alabama team was, well, never. Not in 15 kickoffs. But they have come within 13 points twice. Still, since the Tide have been dodging raindrops this season, perhaps danger is afoot Saturday in Knoxville. This week’s Moments of Truth, then, open to the melody of Rocky Top.

RANKINGS: AP Top 25 | Georgia reclaims No. 1, James Madison enters poll for first time

No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Tennessee

One more good play by both Texas and Texas A&M, and Alabama could be sitting here with two defeats, which would automatically trigger a state of emergency in the Yellowhammer State. All turned out right in the final minute, barely, but even Big Al the mascot elephant is now worried sick about Bryce Young’s throwing shoulder. And the Tide have slid allll the way down to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll.

The defense must answer the call Saturday against a Tennessee offense that is among the nation’s most electric, with a 46.8 scoring average. The Vols have hit at least 30 points in eight consecutive games and the last time they did that, the quarterback was named Peyton Manning. They have also beaten three ranked opponents. They have also produced 30 touchdowns in five games. Alabama has allowed seven in six games, so it’s not hard to see where a main battleline should be.

This is the first time in 33 years that both teams are unbeaten for their date. ESPN GameDay will be there, of course. GameDay has been around for nearly as many big Tide moments as the Alabama Million Dollar Band. This will be the 45th visit during the Nick Saban era — Ohio State is next highest at 36 — and a lot of his shiny numbers are on the line: 35-1 in the last 36 games against the SEC East, 54-3 in October. And that perfect 15-0 shutout of Tennessee. One tradition of this game is the winners light up cigars. The Vols’ side has been a no-smoking area for nearly a generation.

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No. 10 Penn State at No. 5 Michigan

Times are good in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines have gone 6-0 for the second consecutive year, something they hadn’t done since 1977 and the salad days of the Bo Schembechler empire. They have taken games by the throat with a 143-23 dominance in the first half, handed the ball to Blake Corum so he could score 11 touchdowns and average 122.5 rushing yards a game, and seen Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback decision hit the jackpot. J.J. McCarthy’s 78.3 completion percentage is the nation’s finest, with all-Big Tenner Cade McNamara now the backup. The Wolverines are the only team outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to rank in the top-10 nationally in both scoring offense and defense.

But unbeaten Penn State will test Michigan’s high hopes, especially with a defense that has forced 11 turnovers in three games and allowed only one team to crack 100 yards rushing. Strange, given these programs’ pedigrees, that this is the first time in a quarter-century that Michigan and Penn State will meet as top-10 teams.

No. 7 USC at No. 20 Utah

This Pac-12 showdown lost a little glitter when the Utes got themselves caught in UCLA barbed wire in the Rose Bowl, but the stakes are still huge. The Trojans, 6-0 for the first time since the Pete Carroll era 16 years ago, will be playing their first ranked opponent so this is another chance to prove they’re fully revived. Utah has lost twice on the road but the Utes are a handful in Salt Lake City, where they have won 11 games in a row and 22 of 23.  Turnovers might tell a lot. USC’s margin is off the charts — forcing 15 and committing one. The Utah defense has 10 interceptions.

It is also a clash of very different coaching resumes. Lincoln Riley has won six games at USC. His first six, something no Trojan coach had done since 1951. Kyle Whittingham has won 148 in 18 years at Utah, making him the second longest tenured coach at one school in the FBS.

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No. 8 Oklahoma State at No. 13 TCU

Shootout alert. TCU is third in the nation in scoring at 46.4 points a game, Oklahoma State is fourth at 45.2. The 5-0 Horned Frogs have roared onto the Big 12 main stage by trailing only 16:31 out of 300 minutes so far this season and gaining 8.1 yards a play. The Cowboys have won every game by double figures. The only other FBS team that can say that is Ohio State. Their defense also loves to make a mess of things, barging into the other team’s backfield. They lead the nation in tackles for loss, and had 14 of them last week against Texas Tech. 

No. 4 Clemson at Florida State

The top 15 teams in this week’s Associated Press poll have a combined record of 83-3. Two of those three losses came courtesy of Clemson, against North Carolina State and Wake Forest. All part of the Tigers’ 12-game winning streak, the nation’s longest. But can that victory parade get safely through Tallahassee, which actually begins a three-game trial by fire for Clemson? After this comes unbeaten Syracuse and a trip to Notre Dame. The Seminoles are dangerous and explosive on offense, with 45 plays of 20 or more yards.

No. 15 North Carolina State at No. 18 Syracuse

This is the first time Syracuse has been 5-0 in 35 years. Or to put it in more familiar Orange basketball language, Jim Boeheim had 261 wins at Syracuse the last time it happened. He now has 1099. Should the Orange win Saturday, it would be only their third 6-0 start since 1935 and their first 3-0 ACC record ever, not to mention give them the validation stamp of their first victory this season over a ranked opponent. This from a team picked to finish last in its division. Syracuse hasn’t hosted a game when both teams were ranked in 21 years.

NC State will try to rain on this party with an uncertain quarterback situation, since Devin Leary is iffy after leaving last week with a shoulder injury. Jack Chambers filled in and led the Wolfpack on three field goal drives to beat Florida State, but did it by throwing only one pass. And that was incomplete. NC State will likely need more than that at Syracuse.

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No. 16 Mississippi State at No. 22 Kentucky

It’ll be basketball season soon in Lexington but the football Wildcats are certainly playing well enough to hold interest, and even more so if quarterback Will Levis returns well from a leg injury. They have dropped two in a row but can regain their footing with a Homecoming win over Mississippi State. The Bulldogs like to play ranked opponents. They’ve beaten six of them since Mike Leach arrived in 2020.

Minnesota at No. 24 Illinois

Let’s send best wishes to the offensive coordinators in this one. The Big Ten claims four of the top scoring defenses in the nation: No. 5 Michigan, No. 3 Iowa, and — drum roll, please for No. 2 and No. 1 — Minnesota and Illinois. In 11 games, they have given up a combined eight touchdowns. TCU scored that many on Oklahoma the other day.

The 5-1 Illini have been downright historic, allowing three touchdowns and only one in the last 53 possessions. The 48 points given are their fewest after six games since 1950, and they didn’t allow a touchdown in non-conference play for the first time since 1921. They just beat Iowa 9-6 in a game that had five field goals. They have also been in a vengeful mood, beating Virginia, Wisconsin and Iowa by a combined score of 67-19. They lost to them all last season by a score of 99-37.

Illinois has limited four consecutive opponents to under 100 yards rushing, so this ought to be interesting. Minnesota is sixth in the nation in rushing and Mohamed Ibrahim averages 141.8 yards a game.

No. 19 Kansas at Oklahoma

The wheels have come off the Sooner Schooner. They were just shut out by Texas for the first time since 1965 and are 0-3 in conference play for the first time this century. The defense has been shredded for 145 points in those three defeats. Now they have the chance to lose to a program they have beaten 17 times in a row, and 44 of their last 50 meetings. It’s the first time in 30 years that Kansas has been ranked for this game and Oklahoma hasn’t. The high-octane Jayhawks offense has been a major factor in their dreamy 2022 start, but injured star quarterback Jalon Daniels is probably out with a shoulder issue. Then again, replacement Jason Bean threw four touchdown passes against TCU last week — in the second half.

A win makes Kansas bowl eligible for what would be its 13th bowl game. Oklahoma has played in 55 of them.

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Interim coaches

Fire the coach, save a season? Hardly a safe bet, but there have been signs of life from some of the sites of this season’s mass whackings — Nebraska, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech and Arizona State. They were 5-10 when they dropped the guillotine. They’re 6-3 since, and went 4-0 last weekend, so let’s hear it for the interims.

Brent Key, for example, is 2-0 at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have a bye this week. So does Arizona State, where Shaun Aguano’s team just upset No. 21 Washington. Jim Leonhard won his debut at Wisconsin as the Badgers mashed Northwestern 42-7, and now goes on the road to Michigan State. But the most interesting interim MOT this week is Nebraska.

Mickey Joseph has won his last two games with the Cornhuskers, proving that, yes, they really don’t have to have a piano drop on their heads when the score is close. Their 14-13 victory at Rutgers was their first in a game decided by six or fewer points since 2019, after losing eight in a row. If Nebraska wins Saturday night at Purdue, where the Boilermakers are starting to have thoughts of making a run at the Big Ten West, the Cornhuskers would be no worse than tied for first in their division. They also would have their first three-game winning streak in six years. Then comes a bye week, followed by a home game with Illinois. Win that one, too, and Nebraska — downtrodden, left-for-dead Nebraska — might have the lead to itself in the Big Ten West.

Things can change quickly on the MOT list.

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