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Mike Lopresti | | October 27, 2022

What's at stake for the 'Spotless 6' undefeated college football teams in Week 9

College football rankings: TCU, Oregon rise after ranked wins

Nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . . That’s the NASA-like countdown of the dwindling roster of unbeaten FBS teams in college football, where the perfect records have been falling like British prime ministers. Only the Spotless Six remain. This time last season, there were nine. So maybe this can be like the Masters, where the previous year’s winner hangs around on Sunday to help the new champion into his green jacket. Stand by, Cincinnati. The final no-loss team in 2021 — the Bearcats’ perfection survived until they were Nick Sabaned in the playoffs — can be there to congratulate the last unbeaten standing in 2022.

But who, and when?

With November coming, when the thermometer drops and the stakes increase, Moments of Truth declares this to be Zero Weekend. Only those with zeroes on the right side of their hyphens need apply.

No. 2 Ohio State at No. 13 Penn State | Noon ET, Saturday | FOX 

Really, is there any reason to believe the Ohio State train won’t keep rolling, faster and way more on schedule than Amtrak? The frighteningly complete Buckeyes are fourth in the nation in total offense and second in total defense. Penn State is 49th and 63rd. They have scored on all 36 trips into the red zone this season, 31 by a touchdown. They have mashed their first four Big Ten opponents by an average of 51-15. They have beaten the Nittany Lions nine of their past 10 meetings, though the average winning margin of the past six games of the series has been only six points.

Penn State’s potential to deal with the big dogs is uncertain. Its lone bout against a ranked heavyweight so far this season was a 41-17 knockout by Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the only unresolved issue left from that quashing has been both coaches arguing over what started a spat between the two teams in the stadium tunnel.

Still, this will be in State College, where it seems Sean Clifford has been quarterback since the Nittany Lion was a cub, starting 40 games. And on Ohio State’s user-friendly schedule, Saturday might be Oct. 29 but it’s only the second road game for the Buckeyes. A ranked opponent and the noise from a hostile crowd could test them. Some.

What’s intriguing is a possible scenario for next week’s polls. Ohio State is very large in Georgia’s rearview mirror in the voting, and an impressive romp through Happy Valley might get the Buckeyes promoted to No 1. Is that even allowed, to have a non-SEC team at the top of the Associated Press rankings? It’s been two years since either Alabama or Georgia was not the name sitting there.

No. 19 Kentucky at No. 3 Tennessee | 7 p.m. ET, Saturday | ESPN

Here’s another game between two ranked SEC teams. They’re not that hard to find since seven of the lodge members were in the top-25 this week, which is 28 percent of the list. Still, the last time these two were both ranked when they met, Harry Truman was in the White House. That was 1951, but this has been the season for lots of unusual sights on Rocky Top.

The Volunteers haven’t been 7-0 since 1998, when they ended up national champions. Their offensive numbers are breathtaking. They have put up at least 34 points in every game, with four of the scoring sprees against ranked opponents. Their 50.1 scoring average is No. 1 in the land. Just two years ago, before Josh Heupel brought his playbook to town, they averaged 21.5. That was 108th in the country. Alabama-tormentor Jalen Hyatt has eight receiving plays of 40-plus yards. That’s more than the total of 11 SEC teams.

No wonder Tennessee insists it is playoff timber, trying to be heard above the Georgia-Alabama chants the SEC. This is a vital fortnight for that kind of talk, with the Vols following Kentucky — and its No. 14 rated defense in the country — by taking its shot at top-ranked Georgia. The pass defense might need some work. Ohio is the only FBS team in the nation giving up more yards through the air each game than Tennessee’s 330 yards. That leakage has been easy to miss amid the offense’s weekly fireworks display.

This ain’t hoops. As recently as 2016, Kentucky had gone 1-31 in its previous 32 meetings with Tennessee. Mark Stoops has made the Wildcats more dangerous, and they have won two of the past five. But that was back before Tennessee’s offense became a video game.

Michigan State at No. 4 Michigan | 7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday | ABC

Return with us to that magical moment in 2007. Michigan had just rallied to beat Michigan State 28-24 and maintain the usual dominance over its next-door neighbor for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, and Wolverines running back Mike Hart was doing his post-game session with the media. That’s when he uttered the words heard ‘round the state, both upper and lower peninsulas:

“Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and let him get the lead. Then you come back and take it back.”

Little brother. Oh, how that steamed their Coney dogs in East Lansing, and in the 14 years since, the Spartans have beaten Michigan 10 times. The little brother has become a full-blown pest, including last season when both teams were 7-0 for the first time and Michigan State inflicted the Wolverines’ only regular season loss, 37-33.

This year seems different. Michigan State is 3-4 while Michigan is on a rampage. The Wolverines are third in the nation in scoring defense, sixth in scoring offense, and have steamrolled the opposition 159-37 in the first half. Their largest deficit all season has been three points. Somewhere on campus, there must be a clock giving the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Ohio State game.

Still, no matter how big a favorite Michigan is Saturday — and the Wolverines will be a mighty one at home —  a rivalry game can turn into a stick of dynamite. Saturday is also the time to ask the annual question: Why do two teams from Michigan play for a trophy named after a guy from Minnesota?

No. 7 TCU at West Virginia | 12 p.m. ET, Saturday | ESPN

The Horned Frogs might not be the most renowned unbeaten around, but can anyone claim a more interesting roster? To wit: Australia is known for koalas, kangaroos and old college football players, since the five eldest athletes in the FBS this season are all Aussie punters. Fourth among these Down Under senior citizens is 29-year-old Jordy Sandy, who worked with scaffolding and mill companies back home before heading for TCU. He can punt, too. He's had only two touchbacks and no returns all season. By the way, the NFL’s first team All-Pro punter last season — A.J. Cole of the Las Vegas Raiders — is three years younger.

Moving along on the TCU depth chart, one of the guards, Garrett Hayes, has a private pilot’s license and has been known to fly over campus. Tight end Dominic DiNunzio is on a ROTC scholarship, never played high school football, and was advised to walk on when someone saw him playing rugby. Defensive lineman Damonic Williams started his first college game this season at the age of 17. Sonny Dykes, the first TCU coach since 1929 to win his first seven games on the job, lettered at Texas Tech in his playing days — as a first baseman in baseball.

Put all that together with other high-achieving Horned Frogs —  quarterback Max Duggan has a 69 percent completion rate with 19 touchdown passes and one interception —  and you have a fascinating TCU team that so far has been most stubborn about losing. That includes coming from 17 and 18 points behind the past two weeks to beat a couple of ranked antagonists, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. That had been done in the FBS only once in the past 25 years.

Also, the Horned Frogs have knocked off four ranked teams in four weeks, and nobody from the Big 12 had ever accomplished that in the regular season. Incidentally, here is the pre-season media poll for the Big 12. You’ll find TCU down in seventh place.

But about Saturday. Is it more perilous than it looks? West Virginia is 3-4 and comes off a 48-10 collapse at Texas Tech when the defense was shredded for 594 yards. Not the recommended way to build confidence with the third highest scoring team in the nation coming to town. But the Mountaineers have produced 42, 65 and 43 points in their three home games so can be trouble in Morgantown. Plus, they have beaten TCU in five of their past six meetings.

The Horned Frogs are trying push their surprising story into the playoff picture so there can be no blinking, just because they’re facing their first unranked opponent since September. After Saturday, they will not leave the state the rest of the season, with two home games and trips to Texas and Baylor.

Florida vs. No. 1 Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.) | 3:30 p.m. Saturday | CBS

Crunch time is at hand for the No. 1 Bulldogs. First, Florida in Jacksonville, where the Bulldogs hope to have the World’s Largest Outdoor Gator Fry. Later come Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky — and if they get there, probably Alabama in the SEC title game. The appetizers and salad courses for this season are over.

Georgia will enter this SEC gauntlet with a defense allowing only 9.1 points a game, quite a reloading feat considering the fact that in last April’s NFL draft, five of the 32 first-round picks were Georgia defenders. And when the Bulldogs aren’t stuffing opponents, they’re second in the nation in total offense. They had a scare at Missouri, then worked out the kinks and won their two latest SEC games 97-10.

Florida has a quarterback that should be getting the Georgia defense’s attention. Anthony Richardson’s do-it-all resume this season includes 453 yards of passing against Tennessee and an 81-yard touchdown run against LSU. The Gators beat Utah and held Tennessee to a relatively sane 38 points. But they’ll be the biggest underdog the series has seen this century.

No. 5 Clemson (8-0) vs. nobody.

The Tigers can use this week’s scrimmage with Open Date State to work out any questions about the quarterback spot, after Cade Klubnik had to be called out of the bullpen to relieve DJ Uiagalelei and save the day against Syracuse. By all accounts, it is still securely Uiagalelei’s job and the last thing any contender wants as November arrives is a quarterback question. But Clemson remains something of a puzzle, needing to rally past both Syracuse and Wake Forest.

No ranked opponents and only one road game remains in the regular season for the Tigers and that’s the following week at Notre Dame, where the Irish have been known to ruin a lot of perfect records, from Knute Rockne on down. Then again, Knute Rockne never lost to Marshall.

Southern at Jackson State | 2 p.m. ET, Saturday| ESPN3

The FCS Tigers are not included among the unbeaten sextet, but this is one of the nation’s most robust rivalries, right down to the tuba sections in the celebrated marching bands. Hence the game’s stage name — the BoomBox Classic.

Then there’s the Jackson State coach, Deion Sanders, in all his Primeness. Sanders is 22-5 in three seasons and the 2022 edition has given the school its first 7-0 start in 39 years, led by the top FCS defense allowing only 10.1 points a game and Sanders’ quarterback son Shedeur deftly running the offense. The Tigers also overcame a massive early season water crisis in their city. Their No. 1 defense now faces a 5-2 Southern team that has won games by the scores of 51-7, 59-3 and 86-0.

All this seems too compelling to miss, and ESPN GameDay won’t. It’ll be in Jackson Saturday.

What was it a miffed Alabama State coach Eddie Robinson Jr. said about Sanders after losing to him three weeks ago? “He ain’t SWAC.” But come Saturday when the bright lights shine on the SWAC like seldom before, it’s because Deion Sanders is in the house. Oh yeah, and he’s unbeaten.

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