With the first College Football Playoff Rankings to be released next week, things started to round into shape with a more predictable week. While teams like Oklahoma, Cincinnati and Oregon survived close calls, the only upsets were to a banged-up Penn State team and Oklahoma State, who was beaten by the former AP darlings from Iowa State.
Kenny Pickett has firmly planted his flag in the Heisman race (and the first-round conversation) with a solid performance against Clemson. At the same time, the Michigan defense continued to smother their opponents with a 33-7 victory over Northwestern. Chip Kelly’s Bruins nearly knocked off his former Ducks, but a late injury to Dorian Thompson-Robinson ended their chances.
C.J. Stroud’s Buckeyes’ are rolling, and his Heisman case has become as strong as any in the country. Meanwhile, teams like Texas A&M and Notre Dame continue to collect quality wins and stay in the running for a New Year’s Day Bowl.
If I were on the committee, my top four would be Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama, and Michigan, in that order. Cincinnati and Oklahoma would be my first two out, with Oregon nipping on their heels.
We still have one more week of football before those initial rankings. Let’s take a look at some of the top college football matchups this week.
Game of the Week: Ole Miss at Auburn
Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Alabama, Saturday, October 30, 6:00 p.m. (CT) on ESPN
Ole Miss Football:
A lopsided loss to Alabama has all but extinguished Ole Miss’ chances at a spot in the playoff, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reach the SEC Championship. The Rebels need to run the table and hope for one more Crimson Tide loss to get to that game, and I can’t see the playoff committee leaving out the winner of the toughest conference in college football.
That means this game is a big one for Matt Corral and the Rebels. Corral’s Heisman chances and draft stock also rely on a strong finish to the season. The Ole Miss signal-caller is one of few top draft-eligible quarterbacks to see his stock tick upward over the course of the season. While his efficiency and big-play ability with his arm and feet have been evident throughout the year, his careless nature with the football has improved dramatically, putting him in at the top of my quarterback rankings. With the pressure amping up over the next several weeks, I want to see him continue to make smart decisions with his passes.
Wide receivers Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo are a pair of intriguing pass-catchers to keep an eye on as well. Drummond is a JUCO-transfer that is having a breakout season as a stocky slot player who plays more like a running back after the catch.
Running back Jerrion Ealy is another playmaker to watch. He’s coming off one of his best performances of the year, and while I’ve got a day-three grade on him, he’s got big-play ability that this running back class lacks.
I’m also interested to see how Nick Broeker continues to develop. I’ve always felt he was better suited for the inside, but he continues to handle himself well enough to allow Corral the time he needs.
The Tigers also have a quarterback that had the chance to see a significant jump in his draft stock heading into this season, but Bo Nix hasn’t gotten the same support as Corral. While his completion percentage has taken a tiny step forward, and he’s on pace to finish with the fewest interceptions of his career, it hasn’t been the breakout campaign some predicted heading into the fall.
Still, Nix is only a junior, and with only two losses to a pair of top-ten teams, Auburn is still in the hunt for New Year’s Day Bowl as well. What I want to see in this game is Nix throwing with better timing. He doesn’t always have the protection he needs, but if he can get the ball out quickly when players are just separating, it will help that offense immensely.
In addition, this defense has a lot to keep an eye on. Roger McCreary has first-round physical traits, but he’s had some up-and-down play as a senior. Ole Miss won’t be shy about putting the ball in the air, and I want to see him make life difficult for that high-flying passing attack.
Auburn also has a pair of linebackers pushing to put their name in the top-100 category. I’ve highlighted junior Owen Pappoe already this year, and Zacoby McClain is having a terrific senior campaign as well. Both are physical players with a nose for the football, although Pappoe has struggled with a lower-body injury that has his status up in the air for Saturday. I’ll also be watching defensive end Derick Hall and safety Smoke Monday.
My Two Cents on the game:
There is a lot at stake in this one, with the loser likely falling out of the race for any of the New Year’s Day College Football Bowl Games. Still, the winner is very much alive in the SEC West, and it’s one of only three ranked matchups this week.
While Ole Miss is the clear favorite, even on the road, Auburn is not an easy team to beat. It’s going to take a terrific game from Corral and this Ole Miss offense to continue their high-scoring pace, while this Auburn defense is giving up less than 20 points per night.
Look for Auburn to keep things tight in the first half, but eventually, I believe Corral and the Rebels will get their rhythm. Ole Miss distances themselves in the fourth quarter in a performance that boosts them into the top 10.
Matchup of the Week: Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson against Clemson’s Xavier Thomas
Memorial Stadium, Clemson, South Carolina, Saturday, October 30, 2:30 p.m. (CT) on ESPN
Jermaine Johnson, DE, Florida State, Fifth-Year Senior, 6’5”, 262:
Jermaine Johnson has put himself on the map among NFL scouts, thanks to a breakout campaign. While he was a solid rotational piece at Georgia, he’s now shining in Tallahassee. He’s already set career-highs in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks, and has been Florida State’s best player on either side of the ball. He’s a balanced edge player that plays with discipline and tenacity against the run.
His performance against Notre Dame was incredible, as he was a big reason they were in that game until the end. Clemson’s offensive line has struggled this year, setting the stage for another big performance for a player that has jumped up to 97 in my rankings.
Johnson may not blow us away with his pre-draft testing, but his motor runs hot, and his energy is infectious on defense.
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson, Fourth-Year Senior, 6’2”, 265:
As a freshman, Xavier Thomas looked like a future first-round pick, but he’s struggled to take the next step in his development over the past three seasons. At times his weight even fluctuated to make him look more like a defensive tackle, but he appears to have that under control as a senior.
His draft stock is still far from what many expected after his freshman college football season, but he’s working his way up the day-three ranks on my board. We are starting to see some of that explosion off the edge again, and while his numbers don’t look great, he’s impacting players more often.
In this one, I’d like to see him take advantage against a less-than-impressive offensive line from Florida State. The Tigers have had their fair share of struggles on both sides of the ball this fall, and while the Seminoles look like an ideal team to help get Clemson back on track, emotions will be high in this heated rivalry.
Thomas has the ability to put his stamp on this game as both an edge rusher and run defender. I’d like to see him be one of the best defenders on the field this Saturday.
Player of the Week: North Carolina’s Sam Howell vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Indiana, Saturday, October 30, 6:30 p.m. (CT) on NBC
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina, Third-Year Junior, 6’1”, 220:
As I mentioned earlier, not many draft-eligible college football quarterbacks have helped their stock in 2021. Count Sam Howell as one on a downward trend. He’s completed only two-third of his attempts in two games this year, although he came one completion shy of that mark last week against Miami.
It’s no secret this offense lost a ton from last year, but a player with his physical gifts should be able to uplift the guys around him. Instead, his decision-making has regressed, and he’s on pace to a career-high in interceptions and incompletions. That’s frustrating because this team runs a lot of quick throws, screens, and one-read designs. Completion percentage should not be an issue in an offense like that.
Against Notre Dame, he will face the best defense on North Carolina’s schedule. This has the makings of a make-or-break game for his 2022 stock. I’m not saying he won’t come out, but a poor performance against the Fighting Irish will likely sink his grade into the day-two range on most boards. If that’s the grade he gets from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, I don’t know why he wouldn’t just return for a chance to develop another year at North Carolina. He needs to be in command of this offense on Saturday.
The Fighting Irish are going to get pressure, and throwing windows won’t last long. He needs to be accurate and on time to give the Tar Heels a chance.