It’s getting easier to make the argument that No. 3 Tennessee is more than just one of the top success stories in the Bowl Subdivision or even simply a contender for the College Football Playoff — the Volunteers may just be the best team in the country.
Earning that label means taking it away from No. 1 Georgia, which might be a stretch. The defending national champions remained undefeated by storming out to a 28-3 halftime lead against Florida and holding on for a 42-20 win.
But every passing week has painted a stronger picture of the Volunteers’ chances of climbing back to the top of the FBS after a long absence from the national stage.
Two weeks after downing Alabama in a memorable shootout, Tennessee played its most complete game of the season in a 44-6 destruction of No. 17 Kentucky. On both sides of the ball, the Volunteers are rolling heading into next Saturday’s game-of-the-year matchup against the Bulldogs.
Hendon Hooker continued to build his Heisman Trophy case with 245 passing yards and three scores, giving him 21 on the season against just one interception. His favorite target, wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, accounted for 138 yards and another two touchdowns.
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The play of the Volunteers’ defense was even more impressive. Tennessee ran for 177 yards on 4.4 yards per carry; Kentucky’s entire offense gained 205 yards on 3.3 yards per play. The defense also forced Will Levis into three turnovers, including a huge interception inside the red zone late in the second quarter with Kentucky down 20-6. Tennessee would score late in the first half to build an insurmountable 27-6 advantage.
These performances are beginning to speak for themselves: Tennessee may be hard for anyone to beat, Georgia included. After yet another eye-opening win, the Volunteers lead the list of the weekend’s biggest winners and losers:
In addition to Tennessee, every other unbeaten team in action remained perfect with wins Saturday, setting up a wild and crazy November full of impactful games across every Power Five conference. Georgia toyed around with Florida, which drew within eight points in the third quarter before the Bulldogs put the Gators away. Pressured by Penn State, No. 2 Ohio State trailed 21-16 in the fourth quarter before a late scoring explosion sparked a 44-31 win. No. 4 Michigan wore down rival Michigan State behind 177 rushing yards and a score from Blake Corum and won 29-7. No. 7 TCU was pushed by upset-minded West Virginia before a late Max Duggan touchdown helped the Horned Frogs hold on for a 41-31 victory.
STEPPING UP: Defense leads Ohio State defeats Penn State
After coughing up an 18-point lead in last week’s loss to the Horned Frogs, the No. 22 Wildcats broke out to a 35-0 halftime lead and pulled off a hugely impressive 48-0 win against No. 9 Oklahoma State. With quarterback Adrian Martinez sidelined, backup Will Howard completed 21 of 37 throws for 296 yards with four touchdowns while outplaying Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders, who finished with 147 yards and an interception. The offense was sparked by running back Deuce Vaughn’s 176 yards of total offense and two scores, one as a receiver. The win vaults Kansas State back into position to reach the Big 12 championship game and the New Year’s Six and damages significantly the same hopes for the Cowboys.
The Fighting Irish leaned on the running game and dominated the clock in a 41-24 win against No. 16 Syracuse that represents the high point of Marcus Freeman’s young tenure. Led by Audric Estime’s 123 yards, Notre Dame ran for 246 yards, eclipsing the 200-yard mark for the fourth time in five games, and a season-high four touchdowns. Losses to Marshall and Stanford are hard to forget, and will likely end up defining Freeman’s debut if the Irish lose games in November against No. 5 Clemson and No. 11 Southern California. But Notre Dame has played much better football in the past month, that loss to the Cardinal not withstanding, and could end up with eight or nine wins.
Louisville notched two defensive touchdowns as part of a 35-point third quarter and forced eight turnovers overall to embarrass No. 10 Wake Forest 48-21 for one of the most important wins of the Scott Satterfield era. Since losing 34-33 to Boston College to open October, the Cardinals have rolled off three consecutive victories to reach the doorstep of bowl eligibility and remove some pressure off Satterfield in a possible make-or-break season. For the Demon Deacons, the loss puts a huge dent in the chance to reach a New Year’s Six bowl
The Hawkeyes scored a touchdown. Actually, they scored once in the first quarter, again in the second, once in the third and added another in the fourth as the nation’s sleepiest and least productive offense stirred to life to beat Northwestern 33-13. Iowa finished with a season-high 393 yards — the best single-game performance since gaining 428 yards against Maryland last October — while quarterback Spencer Petras went over 200 yards passing for the second time this season.
Written off after losing 27-10 to Texas-El Paso on Sept. 23 — that’s the kind of loss that’s hard to forget, in our defense — the Broncos have played themselves back into the mix for the top spot in the Group of Five with four wins in a row, the latest a 49-10 shellacking of overmatched Colorado State. The offense has started to rally around quarterback Taylen Green, the former backup who ascended to the starting role after Hank Bachmeier opted to transfer in late September. After completing 66.7% of his throws for 227 yards in last week’s win against Air Force, Green had a career-high 305 yards and two touchdowns against the Rams.
At least the Nittany Lions fared better than in the matchup with No. 4 Michigan, when the Wolverines put up 416 rushing yards in a 24-point win. The loss still serves to essentially eliminate Penn State from Big Ten championship contention and stands as the sixth loss in a row to Ohio State. While running the table against a very kind slate of November games should land the Nittany Lions in the New Year’s Six, they will likely finish no higher than third in the Big Ten East for the fifth time in six years.
What a difference a year makes. Michigan State was one of the nation’s top teams last season, earning a spot in the Peach Bowl, the No. 9 spot in the final USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and coach Mel Tucker one of the largest contracts in FBS history. After getting smashed by Michigan, the Spartans are sitting at 3-5 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play, tied with Indiana and Rutgers at the bottom of the Big Ten East. Just getting to the postseason demands three wins against Illinois, Rutgers, Indiana and Penn State.
One year after becoming the first Group of Five team to reach the playoff, No. 19 Cincinnati may get squeezed out of the American Athletic championship game after losing 25-21 to Central Florida. The loss featured another underwhelming performance from the Bearcats’ offense, which gained just 333 yards and averaged a measly 1.5 yards per carry. How long had it been since Cincinnati had last lost in conference play? Try almost three years: Memphis topped the Bearcats 29-24 in the 2019 conference championship game.
Another Saturday, another loss for the biggest disappointment in college football. Despite some nice moments from freshman quarterback Conner Weigman, who tossed four touchdowns and should be the starter moving forward, the Aggies struggled on third down and gave up 390 rushing yards in a 31-28 loss to No. 12 Mississippi. This fourth loss in a row leaves the Aggies at 3-5 after heading into September as one of the top contenders in the SEC. What does that spell for Jimbo Fisher? This seemingly unstoppable slide could lead to a series of staffing changes as A&M attempts an offensive reboot.
There’s good news and bad news. The bad: Auburn lost again, this time 41-27 to Arkansas, and continues to take up occupancy in the cellar of the SEC West. A season that seemed lost well before September has gone just about as expected. The good news, in a silver-lining sort of way, is that every Saturday and every successive loss brings the Tigers closer to making the obvious coaching change involving Bryan Harsin and moving the program in a new direction.
Anyone who watched Virginia and Miami
The only good news is that this game was only available online, making it easy to miss. But even following the scoreboard was painful: Virginia and Miami combined for 14 punts, 4.6 yards per play, eight field goals, zero touchdowns and a single two-point conversion as the Hurricanes won 14-12 in four overtimes. Things have been ugly all season for both teams, with Virginia struggling against any opponent with a pulse — Illinois, Syracuse, Duke and Louisville — and Miami hitting a major stumbling block coming out of the gate under coach Mario Cristobal. The win is the Hurricanes’ second in six games and increases the chances of reaching bowl eligibility with games to come against Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Forget about getting back to bowl play or improving upon the six-win total from each of coach Jeff Hafley’s first two seasons — Boston College isn’t even the best Bowl Subdivision team in New England after losing 13-3 to Connecticut. The Huskies forced five turnovers for the first win in program history against the Eagles, snapping an 0-12-2 mark in a border-state series dating to 1908, and are making some noise under new coach Jim Mora.