USA TODAY US Edition

Don’t write off Oklahoma for Playoff

- Dan Wolken Columnist USA TODAY

As soon as Oklahoma fell behind by 25 points at Kansas State, you could practicall­y hear the clicketycl­ack of keyboards all over America declaring the Sooners dead in the College Football Playoff race.

But have we learned nothing over the last half-decade?

Although Oklahoma’s eventual 48-41 loss Saturday was undoubtedl­y the most significan­t result of Week 9 and puts the Big 12 in a less favorable position going into November, it would be ridiculous at this juncture to start eliminatin­g one-loss teams that can still win their conference.

Remember, since the Playoff began, only one outright conference champion with one loss has missed making the field: Ohio State last season.

While Oklahoma’s performanc­e was ugly in many respects and represents a major regression for a defense that had played well up to this point, there’s no comparison between this effort by the Sooners and Ohio State’s 49-20 loss to Purdue last season that was deemed unforgivab­le by the selection committee.

In fact, for all of the issues Oklahoma encountere­d, the Sooners were a replay over turned onside kick away from giving the ball back to Jalen Hurts with about 1 minute, 40 seconds left with a chance to tie the score.

That’s little consolatio­n for the Sooners, especially because the ball caromed off an Oklahoma player maybe half a yard before it would have been a legal onside kick, but the quality of loss does matter. The fact Oklahoma fought back might end up as an important data point when it’s all said and done.

Regardless, if this season has taught us anything, it’s that anyone can have a bad week.

Georgia lost at home to South Carolina. Wisconsin looked great until it got popped by Illinois.

The health of Alabama quarterbac­k Tua Tagovailoa is uncertain after a high ankle sprain.

Clemson hasn’t quite put things together yet and was fortunate to beat North Carolina.

In other words, while Oklahoma got knocked back to No. 9 in the Amway Coaches Poll this week, it feels like there are plenty more potential losses out there for the first flight of Playoff contenders. The Sooners wounded themselves in a pretty significan­t way with their defensive faceplant in Manhattan, but it’s too early to eliminate them from the race.

Here are other observatio­ns from

Week 9:

Ohio State is only team that has shown no flaws

Let’s face it, there’s a beauty contest component to this sport. Sometimes just winning is enough, but if you can win and look good doing it, you’re going to separate yourself from the pack of contenders and get a lot more benefit of the doubt in the subjective College Football Playoff process.

So far this season, Ohio State is the only team that has passed the eye test in every way, every week. The Buckeyes might prove to be mortal, but for now they look impenetrab­le. In a sport where it’s natural to nitpick certain flaws that each of the top teams might have, it’s been real difficult through eight games to find anything wrong with Ohio State.

The Buckeyes got challenged briefly in the third quarter by Wisconsin but rolled off 28 straight points and cruised to a 38-7 win. Everything about this effort was impressive visually, including J.K. Dobbins rushing for 163 yards on 20 carries, quarterbac­k Justin Fields making some timely key throws in tough weather conditions and a Buckeyes defense that held Wisconsin to 191 yards and created two turnovers.

Though Ohio State might well get a challenge from Penn State on Nov. 23, Michigan on Nov. 30 and in the Big Ten title game, it’s hard to argue with an average margin of victory of 40.3 points at this juncture.

Chase Young won’t win Heisman Trophy but might be nation’s best player

The other big story to emerge from Columbus was defensive end Chase Young emerging as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. Though he probably won’t win it – the bar is just too high for a defensive player, particular­ly in a year with so many quarterbac­ks putting up big numbers – Young is having a season reminiscen­t of Ndamukong Suh in 2009 at Nebraska when he made it to New York as a finalist.

Young has been an unblockabl­e, oneman wrecking crew all season but saved his best for Wisconsin, sacking quarterbac­k Jack Coan four times and forcing two fumbles. Young now has 131⁄2 sacks through eight games, which is more than Suh’s 12 in the 2009 season. He’ll almost certainly set the Ohio State season record (he needs one to tie Vernon Gholston), but his value isn’t necessaril­y just about numbers. Play after play, Young disrupts everything no matter which side of the line he’s playing on or if the coaches drop him back and use him as a de facto linebacker. With Ohio State’s defense becoming one of the best in the country after a mediocre performanc­e last season, it’s fair to say no individual player in the country has had a bigger impact on their team. Even LeBron James noticed Young’s dominance, tweeting about him during the game.

“He’s probably the most dominant player in college football,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.

At this point, it’s hard to disagree.

Michigan knocks out a Playoff contender, resets narrative on season

The good news is that Jim Harbaugh finally has a signature win to point to – and it was a doozy, as the Wolverines dominated No. 7 Notre Dame 45-14. The bad news is that only changed the outcome of Notre Dame’s season, as the Irish will not be heading to the Playoff for a second straight year.

As for the Wolverines, this doesn’t change the destinatio­n for 2019. They’re not going to the Playoff, and they can’t erase what was a very underwhelm­ing first half of the season. But give Michigan credit for taking the moment built in the second half last week against Penn State and playing good, solid football against Notre Dame from start-to-finish despite some tough conditions, including a midgame monsoon.

Michigan might not be able to make the Big Ten title game, but it can hit the reset button on the Harbaugh era if it performs like this down the stretch. After some reports surfaced last week that Harbaugh might be looking for an exit ramp back to the NFL – these reports seem to pop up every year, and Harbaugh knocked them down just like he has in the past – it was different this time. Harbaugh’s lack of big wins and the fact his contract has dwindled to a couple of years remaining is a natural tinder box for speculatio­n about his future.

Backup QB Mac Jones gave Alabama some confidence

The sight of Tua Tagovailoa on the sideline in street clothes and a walking boot is enough to make Alabama fans very nervous with two weeks to go before the showdown against LSU. But at least there was good news in how backup Mac Jones performed in a 48-7 victory over Arkansas.

Though Alabama doesn’t anticipate starting Jones against LSU – coach Nick Saban said Tagovailoa could return to practice this week – it was still good to see him play efficientl­y against Arkansas, completing 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Against the worst team in the Southeaste­rn Conference, Jones obviously didn’t face the type of pressure he would see regularly as the starter, but Alabama looked competent enough with him under center that you could envision this team winning a lot of games if Tagovailoa couldn’t come back.

And, who knows, Jones might have to play some against LSU. No matter what Alabama officials say about Tagovailoa’s recovery from the high ankle sprain suffered just a week ago, it is an undeniably tight timeline for him to get back on the field, much less feel like he’s 100% on the ankle. After 11⁄2 games, Jones now has enough reps to feel comfortabl­e if he has to play in a pressurize­d situation.

Penn State at Minnesota will be the ‘other’ Game of the Year on Nov. 9

While the nation’s attention in two weeks will be focused on Alabama-LSU, who could have imagined that a game in Minneapoli­s would get second billing?

Minnesota – yes, Minnesota – is 8-0 going into its bye week and will reemerge on Nov. 9 at home against a Penn State team that is also 8-0 and has probably been underrated by the national media.

Understand, Minnesota hasn’t been 8-0 since it finished undefeated in 1940 and 1941 when the Gophers claimed national championsh­ips. So this is going to be a really big deal, and we’re about to get inundated with another round of stories focused on coach P.J. Fleck, who put together a 13-0 season at Western Michigan in 2016 before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

But it’s fun to have new programs pop up and get the kind of attention, if only for a couple weeks, that the Gophers are about to receive.

Obviously, this hasn’t been the toughest of schedules so far for Minnesota, which destroyed Maryland 52-10 Saturday. The best team the Gophers have beaten so far is probably … Illinois? But the neat part is they’ll get a chance against Penn State to prove whether they’re for real.

 ?? JESSE JOHNSON/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck carries receiver Tyler Johnson off the field after the win over Maryland pushed the Gophers to 8-0.
JESSE JOHNSON/USA TODAY SPORTS Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck carries receiver Tyler Johnson off the field after the win over Maryland pushed the Gophers to 8-0.
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