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Tunney: Top 5 conference championship games

5. Purdue vs. No. 2 Michigan (-16.5), 8 p.m.

Michigan is coming off of the best win in the college football season, a 45-23 dismantling of Ohio State. After big plays from quarterback JJ McCarthy and receiver Cornelius Johnson kept the Wolverines in striking distance at halftime, the bruising offensive line opened big holes for Donavan Edwards to sprint the field and ice the game. The Michigan defense stepped up, allowing just three points in the second half in addition to forcing two turnovers against a  vaunted Buckeyes offense. McCarthy was quick to say that the Wolverines “weren’t finished,” in his postgame interview, and they now travel to Indianapolis to face Big Ten West Champion Purdue.

The Boilermakers are coming off of an emotional rivalry win of their own against Indiana. After his older brother, Sean, passed away, quarterback Aidan O’Connell threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns to lead Purdue to a 30-16 win. Purdue is a feel-good story, they have back to back 8 win seasons for the first time in 15 years. They also have a history of upsets, including 9 wins over the second-ranked team while being unranked themselves. Michigan is number two. Can the Boilermakers become the Spoilermakers once again?

4. No. 22 UCF vs. No. 18 Tulane (-3), 4 p.m.

UCF and Tulane are scheduled to play for the second time in a month this Saturday. Last month, the Golden Knights won 38-31 behind the play of quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. However, Plumlee has struggled to stay healthy since. Backup Mikey Keene, who has filled in for Plumlee in previous games, is in line to start if Plumlee can’t play. Last week, Keene filled in for Plumlee in the second half of a 46-39 win over rival South Florida. The two teams are the highest ranked among the Group of 5 conferences, meaning that the winner will head to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

UCF got the best of Tulane in the first round, and there is now uncertainty around the Green Wave. Head coach Willie Fritz has been rumored to be negotiating with Georgia Tech for their coaching position. It remains to be seen whether the rumors will affect the play of his team on Saturday. The Green Wave are coming off of a huge win over Cincinnati that got them to the conference championship game, and they have the benefit of being the home team. Green Wave running back Tyjae Spears is a player to watch. He has over 1,000 yards on the season and a conference-leading 16 touchdowns.

3. No. 11 LSU vs. No. 1 Georgia (-17.5), 4 p.m.

LSU has shown flashes of brilliance where they can defeat any team at any time. Their success will revolve around two players, quarterback Jaylen Daniels and linebacker Harold Perkins. Daniels suffered an ankle injury in LSU’s loss to Texas A&M last week, but head coach Brian Kelly said he is optimistic that Daniels will play in the SEC Championship game. However, his best attribute could be limited. Daniels has made the Tigers offense go this season due to his amazing scrambling ability in addition to his passing. With Daniels banged up, he may be less mobile against a frightening Georgia defense. Linebacker Harold Perkins is a star for the Tigers. He had four sacks against Arkansas earlier in the season.

Georgia, on the other hand, has a lethal defense and two weapons at tight end. Both Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington are semifinalists for the Mackey award, given to the best tight end in the nation. Georgia’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 22 points the whole season. Head coach Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs are the favorites to win the national championship for the second year in a row, but in order to do it they have to defeat a talented LSU team. 

2. No. 13 Kansas State vs. No. 3 TCU (-2.5), 12 p.m.

Kansas State is coming off of a 20-point victory over rival Kansas to clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship game. Deuce Vaughan ran for 147 yards and a touchdown to earn their trip to the Big 12 Championship game. Vaughan has 1295 yards on the year and is one of the best running backs in college football. The Wildcats are looking for revenge, they lost the first matchup against TCU 28-38. However, Kansas State had an 18-point lead before TCU roared back with 28 straight points to win.

TCU is coming off of their most dominant performance of the season, a 62-14 demolition of an Iowa State team that had the best statistical defense in the Big 12. TCU has had many doubters throughout the season due to their inability to win games in a convincing fashion. However, the Horned Frogs have an unblemished 12-0 record. Quarterback Max Duggan has led the horned frogs the whole season, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. Head coach Sonny Dykes and the Horned Frogs are just one game away from the first playoff berth in program history. 

1. No. 12 Utah vs. No. 4 USC (-3), 8 p.m. Friday

The best game of the weekend surprisingly takes place on Friday night. USC needs a win to keep their spot in the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Caleb Williams is the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman after his four-touchdown performance against Notre Dame. Williams has been superb the whole season, throwing for 3712 yards, 34 touchdowns and 3 interceptions as a sophomore. Head coach Lincoln Riley seems to have the Trojan offense humming on all cylinders, despite the loss of starting running back Travis Dye to a season-ending injury. What remains to be seen is if the defense can hold against the Utes.

Earlier in the season, the defense folded, allowing 43 points and a game-winning two-point conversion for Utah. Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 that is statistically top 20 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. They are looking to defend their PAC-12 Championship from last season in pursuit of a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. If USC (or TCU) loses this week, chaos will ensue for the fourth spot. Would the committee put in Ohio State? Alabama? This weekend is the ultimate factor in determining who will be in the playoff come the end of the calendar year.

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Tunney: Top five games of College Football Week 12

5. Montana @ Montana State (-1.5), 2 p.m.

College Gameday goes to Bozeman, Montana, in the heart of Big Sky country for the Brawl of the Wild. The college football slate doesn’t have as many big games this week, so the ESPN crew chose to highlight a game that is one of the most unique in college football. Both of these teams are not in contention for the College Football Playoff, since they play in the FCS, a division below the power programs of college football.

However, Montana State is ranked third in the FCS, and Montana is ranked 16th. Both teams are on track to make the 24-team FCS playoff, but this game will be pivotal for seeding and a conference championship. In Montana State’s last game, the Bobcats broke records in a 72-28 demolition of Cal Poly. Running back Marqui Johnson scored five touchdowns as the Bobcats rushed for 554 yards. After losing three straight games, Montana got back on track. Last week, the Grizzlies routed Eastern Washington 63-7. Montana leads the rivalry with 73 wins compared to just 41 for the Bobcats, but the rivalry has been much more even the past 10 years as each team has five wins. 

4. Illinois @ No. 3 Michigan (-17.5), noon

Since Michigan’s win over a top-10 Penn State team three weeks ago, the Wolverines have played a brand of football that some would consider boring. The Wolverines have focused heavily on the run and leaned on their defense to beat three inferior teams. The Wolverines may have lost their second-string running back, Donavan Edwards, due to injury in their last game.

An absence of Edwards turns a position of strength for the Wolverines into one with a concerning lack of depth behind Heisman contender Blake Corum. While Corum has shown that he can carry the ball over 20 times a game, the Wolverines’ rarely-used backups will also need to be ready in the event that they are called upon. Illinois rose meteorically through the Big Ten West but two straight losses to Michigan State and Purdue dampened their spirits. With four teams now tied for first in the Big Ten West, the race to the Big Ten Championship game is truly wide open. Running back Chase Brown has the most rushing yards in the country, and he is trending in the right direction after an injury last game. 

3. No. 4 TCU @ Baylor (+3), noon

At first glance, this line may look like insanity, but it makes more sense when you realize how TCU has played this season. Predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12, the Horned Frogs shocked everyone en route to a 10-0 start. TCU’s strength is their high-flying offense headed by quarterback Max Duggan. Their offensive talent has allowed them to get out of some big holes, such as an 18-point deficit against Kansas State.

Last week, however, their offense was largely shut down by Texas. Give credit to TCU for being able to come out with a 17-10 win, but the tape of this game should serve as a blueprint for how coach Dave Aranda and his Baylor Bears can craft a winning game plan. After three straight wins heading into last week, Baylor lost 31-3, humbled by Kansas State. Quarterback Blake Shapen threw two interceptions in the Bears’ worst offensive performance of the season. The Horned Frogs have won six of the last seven games in the series. This is the most pivotal game in the series since 2014, and a win for the Horned Frogs puts them that much closer to a College Football Playoff berth. 

2. No. 10 Utah @ No. 12 Oregon (-3), 10:30 p.m.

After spending time off of the field due to personal issues, Utah running back Tavion Thomas came back with a bang last week with 180 rushing yards against Stanford. The Utes started off slow against Stanford, but behind the legs of Thomas and the arm of Cameron Rising the Utes roared to a 42-7 victory. Utah’s defense also held Stanford to just 22 rushing yards through utter domination of the line of scrimmage. The Utes did not allow a Stanford first down in the entire second quarter. They also had seven sacks.

Oregon is coming off of an extremely disappointing loss to their rivals to the north, Washington. Their chances in this game largely depend on if quarterback Bo Nix can get healthy after suffering an ankle injury last game. After Nix left, the Ducks couldn’t move the ball against Washington, ultimately leading to a gut-wrenching loss. Both teams have two losses, so the playoff is out of the question. However, the winner of this game will get into the top 10 and be in a strong position to play in the PAC-12 Championship and a New Years’ Six Bowl game.

1. No. 7 USC @ No. 16 UCLA (+2.5), 8 p.m.

The number one spot is another key PAC-12 contest. USC represents the PAC-12’s last hopes for a playoff team, as they go across town to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl in a ranked matchup. USC has responded to their one-point loss to Utah earlier in the season with one-score wins over Arizona and California and a rout of Colorado. Caleb Williams had another amazing game for the Trojans against Colorado, accounting for five touchdowns on the day. After trailing 3-2 after the first quarter, the Trojans locked the Buffaloes down on the way to a 55-17 win.

The win was significantly soured, however, due to the loss of running back Travis Dye for the rest of the season to a leg injury. “There’s no way we would be sitting here… if it wasn’t for him,” head coach Lincoln Riley told media after the game.

UCLA is coming off of a surprise loss to Arizona, where the defense was unable to generate key stops. Running back Zach Charbonnet rushed for 181 yards and three touchdowns, but UCLA’s defense was unable to handle Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura. If UCLA wants to beat USC, they’ll have to stop a much better quarterback surrounded by potent weapons. UCLA’s chances for a conference championship largely hinge on this game.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Irish best Penguins behind stellar offensive performance

After the picturesque first snowfall of the season, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team hosted the aptly named Youngstown State Penguins for a Sunday afternoon contest. While many have pointed to the Irish as one of the most experienced teams in the country due to their six graduate students (four of which played today), Youngstown State had three graduate students of their own play big minutes.

The Penguins returned three starters from a team that went 19-15 last year. The Penguins were fifth in the Horizon League preseason poll, with one first place vote. They came into Purcell Pavilion with a 2-0 record. The Irish played their season-opener versus Radford on Thursday, ultimately prevailing 79-76.

Going into the season, the Irish were sixth in the ACC preseason poll. The Irish knew going into today’s contest that the Penguins could score, as they tallied over 90 points in each of their first two contests. The Penguins shot 50.8% from the floor today, but the Irish bested them with a 60% mark. The Irish had an extremely balanced attack, with five players finishing in double figures.

Graduate student guard Dane Goodwin paced the Irish, scoring 20 points on 9 of 14 shooting. Although he had a slow start, the Ohio product was able to get in the lane and hit from mid-range. Penguins head coach Jerrod Calhoun said that the Irish were “very balanced” and that “they played with a sense of urgency.”

Freshman guard JJ Starling contributed 17 points in an extremely encouraging performance. Compared to the first game, where Starling said he was “a little in his head,” the freshman phenom looked much more confident. He was also the go-to-guy down the stretch for an Irish team looking for a freshman leader, similar to the role Blake Wesley played a season ago.

After Youngstown State cut the lead to three points with 2:20 left to play, Starling hit a corner three to extend the lead to 6. After another Penguins basket, Starling came back down the court and canned another three to give the Irish a 7 point lead with under 80 seconds to play. Head coach Mike Brey loved his star freshman’s play, praising his basketball IQ and his sharpness on the court.

Starling looks to be fitting in well in the Irish’s experienced rotation. His graduate student teammates can also serve as a calming presence during his first games. Another freshman, Ven-Allen Lubin, contributed nine points as well. The athletic forward from Florida also sent back two shots in over 23 minutes on the court. Lubin also showed off his range, hitting a three pointer on the wing. The play of Starling and Lubin on Sunday prompted Brey to call them “as poised as our four old guys.”

Graduate student Trey Wertz added 15 points, playing with more confidence than Irish fans have ever seen from the guard. Wertz had 7 points in a two minute stretch in the first half. Coach Brey said he was “thrilled for Trey,” who has come into his own in a starting role after being a “loyal seventh man” for the last two seasons.

“He’s like Prentiss (Hubb),” Brey said. He remarked that Wertz’ calmness with the ball in his hands resembled Hubb, last year’s main ball handler.

The Penguins’ offense largely centered around forward Adrian Nelson and guard Dwayne Cohill. Nelson, a graduate transfer from Northern Kentucky, had a career high 27 points while yanking down 10 rebounds. After only scoring two points in the first half, Cohill, a Horizon League Preseason First-Team All Conference selection, came through with a 16-point performance in the second. The Penguins played a scrappy game, cutting the Irish lead to three points or less four times throughout the game. They stayed in the game throughout. But the Irish never let them put together a run to take the lead.

The depth of the Penguins also presented a challenge. The Penguins played 10 players, where the Irish only played seven. If the Irish were fatigued, though, it didn’t show much late in the game.

Nevertheless, the Irish are eagerly awaiting the return of graduate student Marcus Hammond. Hammond, who scored 18 points per game with Niagara last year, will help to alleviate the pressure and workload currently on the starters’ shoulders. Brey noted that he feels good about where Hammond is at regarding his recovery. He also said that he expects him to return for their game on Tuesday, Nov. 22 against Bowling Green.

The Irish look to continue their winning start with two games in Purcell Pavilion this week. They play their first game of the Gotham Classic against Southern Indiana on Wednesday before welcoming Lipscomb on Friday.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

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Week 11 of College Football: Top 5 games

5. No. 15 North Carolina @ Wake Forest, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2, (Wake Forest -3.5)

North Carolina has run the table since their loss to Notre Dame, making the Irish win look all the better. The Tar Heels are currently 8-1 and are favorites to win the ACC Coastal division. The line favors Wake Forest, but the Tar Heels are 5-0 on the road this season. UNC quarterback Drake Maye has been lighting it up the entire season, passing for nearly 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. The fact that he is putting up these gaudy numbers as a freshman should be extremely encouraging to Tar Heel fans. Maye is absolutely destroying defenses and could even garner some consideration for the Heisman. Wake Forest is coming off of two straight losses, which has seemingly eliminated them from conference contention. The only thing they have left to play is the role of spoiler; they could derail North Carolina’s hopes for a New Year’s Six Bowl. After a great start to the season, Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman has thrown 3 interceptions in each of his last two games. North Carolina has a porous pass defense, so there will probably be holes in the coverage.

4. No. 22 UCF @ No. 16 Tulane, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2, (Tulane -2)

Tulane is the top-ranked team in the Group of Five, which puts them on track for a New Year’s Six game. The Green Wave are 8-1, with a signature win over a Kansas State team that is currently ranked 23rd. Their only loss was a letdown game to Southern Mississippi the week after their upset. Running back Tyjae Spears has been on a tear for the Green Wave, rushing for over 100 yards in each of his last three contests. On the other hand, UCF has a case for being the best team in the state of Florida. The Golden Knights are 7-2 and trail only the Green Wave in the conference standings. Head coach Gus Malzahn has engineered an offensively talented team; UCF has put up 40 points in four of their games this year. Two weeks ago, UCF won their biggest game of the season so far, beating Cincinnati 25-21. Backup Mikey Keene had to lead the Golden Knights to victory, and he also beat Memphis last week by a score of 35-28. 

3. No. 24 Washington @ No. 6 Oregon, 7:00 p.m., FOX, (Oregon -13.5)

The seminal PAC-12 game of the week is a pivotal rivalry contest. Washington needs a win to keep their hopes of a PAC-12 championship alive. The Huskies have shown flashes of an extremely talented team in the first year of the Kalen DeBoer era, but lack a true signature win. Last week, quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. led a game-winning drive to beat a ranked Oregon State team and the Huskies are largely dependent on the play of Penix. In their losses to UCLA and Arizona State, Penix has made crucial mistakes, throwing interceptions in each. The Huskies also have a suspect pass defense due to both injuries and inexperience. Oregon has inspired its fans into once again thinking about a potential playoff bid. Quarterback Bo Nix is having a lot more fun than he did in the season opener, as the Ducks have ripped off eight straight wins since a 49-3 demolition at the hands of Georgia. Nix has 22 touchdowns compared to just 5 interceptions. Last week, the Ducks destroyed a 1-8 Colorado team 49-10. If there is more chaos on the national scene, the Ducks could back their way back into the playoff. However, they have to win out. 

2. No. 10 Alabama vs. No. 11 Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m., CBS, (Alabama -11.5)

It’s a rare sight to see Ole Miss with the better record in the annual meeting between these two SEC teams. The Rebels are 8-1, but haven’t done it in a very convincing manner. Last week, they needed another monster performance from freshman running back Quinshon Judkins in order to beat a 3-5 Texas A&M. Judkins rushed for 205 yards in last week’s victory, a game he played on his 19th birthday. The Rebels needed a bounce back from their first loss two weeks ago, 45-20 to LSU in which they utterly collapsed after holding a 17-3 lead. The Tide are still sore from their own loss to LSU, a 32-31 overtime classic. After scoring a touchdown to start overtime, LSU responded with a touchdown of their own and scored on a two-point conversion to win the game. Alabama is 7-2, but has lost their games by a combined 4 points. Quarterback Bryce Young was routinely throwing under pressure last week, and an opportunistic Rebels defense needs to try and take advantage of any weakness they can find. Alabama was favored by nearly two touchdowns in their last game, but will the Rebels pull off another upset and send the Tide reeling?

1. No. 4 TCU @ No. 18 Texas, 7:30 p.m., ABC, (Texas -7)

TCU might just be the surprise of the season in college football. In head coach Sonny Dykes’ first season, the Horned Frogs have sprinted out to a 9-0 record (their best start to a season since 2010) highlighted by wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Although they’ve won all their games, they haven’t looked unbeatable. They have faced double-digit deficits twice: down by 18 to Kansas State and by 17 against Oklahoma State. Quarterback Max Duggan has been the architect behind the Horned Frogs’ meteoric rise. Duggan has 24 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions this season. He also has a host of talented receivers to spread the ball around to — nine have a touchdown this year. Texas is coming off of a huge win over Kansas State that keeps them in the race for the Big 12. Star running back Bijan Robinson ran for 209 yards and a touchdown as Texas withheld a Kansas State comeback to win by a touchdown. The defense came through for the Longhorns against Kansas State, forcing a fumble to ice the game. The Longhorns will need a similar effort if they want to win against this high-flying TCU offense.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

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Week 10 of College Football: Top five games

5. Air Force @ Army, 11:30 a.m., CBS, (Air Force -7)

Air Force and Army square off for the 56th time in an early start with the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy on the line. This trophy is given to the winner of a round robin between Army, Navy and Air Force. Since Air Force beat Navy 13-10 this year, they have a chance to win the trophy outright with a win Saturday. If the Falcons lose and Army beats Navy in their end of the season clash, Army would win the trophy. And, if Army beats Air Force but loses to Navy, the trophy will be shared. Both teams have a unique offensive style. Due to restrictions on the height and weight of those in the service academies, the offensive lines of each school are some of the smallest in college football. However, both schools are elite academically and prepare students to become future officers in the armed forces. This makes running the triple option (an offense based on discipline, quickness and deception) perfect for the service academies. Air Force carries a 5-3 record, led by workhorse running back Brad Roberts and dynamic quarterback Haaziq Daniels. Army is 3-4, but with 2 straight wins and a reputation for playing tough defense under head coach Jeff Monken. 

4. Texas @ No. 15 Kansas State, 7 p.m.,  FS1, (Texas -2.5)

Another week, another key Big 12 battle. This week sees the Texas Longhorns head up to Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kansas to face Kansas State in a battle for second in the Big 12. Texas is 5-3, falling victim in close losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Alabama by a combined 11 points over the three games. The Longhorns are coming off of their bye week, which was needed in order to correct some issues after their loss to Oklahoma State. Texas squandered a 31-17 lead and didn’t take care of the ball; three Quinn Ewers interceptions (two in the fourth quarter) was what did them in. Kansas State is coming off of their best win in years, a 48-0 win over the very same Oklahoma State team. Even though dynamic starting quarterback Adrian Martinez was out, backup Will Howard threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns. Deuce Vaughn had 158 yards on the ground and another score. The defense also had a stellar performance, holding Oklahoma State to just 217 yards. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy stated his team’s performance bluntly, saying they “got their butts kicked.” The transitive property would seem to give the edge to Kansas State, but that rarely works in the tumultuous world of college football. 

3. No. 6 Alabama @ No. 15 LSU, 7 p.m., ESPN, (Alabama -13)

The Tide and the Tigers square off in a key battle between two teams with one loss in SEC play. Although LSU lost their opener in heartbreaking fashion to Florida State, the Brian Kelly-led Tigers have rebounded well. Their only other loss is a 40-13 drubbing by Tennessee, who is currently second in the nation. The Tigers have been led by their dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels. If the LSU receivers are covered downfield, Daniels is always a threat to scramble for a large gain. Daniels has also taken care of the football, throwing 12 touchdown passes to just one interception. In LSU’s last game, they roared back from a 17-3 deficit to dispatch Ole Miss 45-20. This team can put points on the board, and if they beat Alabama they would shockingly be in the drivers’ seat of the SEC West. The Tide have other plans. After their 49-52 loss to Tennessee, they rebounded with a dominating 30-6 win over Mississippi State. Quarterback Bryce Young continues to wow NFL franchises looking for a franchise centerpiece in the upcoming draft. Will Anderson continues to wreck teams’ gameplans from the defensive side of the ball. Head coach Nick Saban is still the best in the business, and he is 6-1 with the Tide in Tiger Stadium, a venue seen as one of the toughest to play in. 

2. No. 5 Clemson @ Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC, (Clemson -3.5)

If Notre Dame wants to redeem their season and give first year head coach Marcus Freeman some real momentum, this is the game to win. If Clemson wants to continue their ascent to the College Football playoff, they have to get a tough win in the cathedral of college football. It all shapes up for an epic showdown. The Irish have won 5 of their last 6, highlighted by their 41-24 domination of sixteenth ranked Syracuse. They’ve done it under a punishing run game, led by running backs Logan Diggs and Audric Estime. Further, the Irish hold a 26 game regular season winning streak against ACC opponents. The Irish have largely played up and down to their level of competition this year, which gives them a punching chance against Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team. Clemson’s offense is built around running back Will Shipley. If they are able to run the ball with success against the Irish, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei will have a much easier time connecting with his wide receivers. It remains to be seen how much time Uiagalelei will have under center. In their last game, a 27-21 win over Syracuse, Uiagalelei was benched for freshman Cade Klubnik. Klubnik then successfully led a comeback attempt to preserve the win. 

1. No. 2 Tennessee @ No. 1 Georgia, 3:30 p.m., CBS, (Georgia -9)

One versus two is a rarity in college football, even more so in the regular season. Georgia has put together a convincing title defense in their first 8 games, highlighted by a season-opening drubbing of an Oregon team that hasn’t lost since. Last week, the Bulldogs took care of Florida after a brief scare. Florida scored 17 unanswered points after falling behind 28-3 to make it a one score game. Georgia responded with 2 touchdowns to ice the game. Tight end Brock Bowers is extremely athletic, and he just had 154 yards in his best game of the season. Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV is not the game-changing player that other top teams have at the position, but he knows how to win. The Bulldogs have much less margin for error against a Tennessee team that is having their best season since their national championship in 1998. The Volunteers haven’t let up since their win against Alabama. Last week, they demolished a ranked Kentucky team 44-6. Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt broke the school record for touchdown catches in a season in just eight games. The Volunteers intercepted NFL prospect Will Levis three times en route to the easy win. Tennessee seems to be playing their best football, but a win over Georgia would be unparalleled.

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Tunney: Top five games of CFB Week 9

Another week of college football brings another slate of games, each with unique stories, traditions and players. In the words of famous sportscaster Brad Nessler, “you can go to every stadium in the country, and never see the same thing twice.”

5. Michigan State @  No. 4 Michigan, 7:30 p.m., ABC, (Michigan -22.5)

This iconic battle is waged for the 115th time this Saturday, as two teams with divergent seasons clash in a rivalry matchup. Michigan is 7-0 and has looked the part of a team willing to challenge Ohio State again for Big Ten supremacy. The Wolverine offensive attack possesses a talented group of wide receivers and strong backfield led by running back Blake Corum. Corum has received some Heisman trophy hype, the prognosticators currently project him with the fourth-best odds to win the award. 

After a good deal of preseason fanfare, Michigan State has had a rocky season, going 3-4. Their offense hasn’t gotten over the loss of NFL running back Kenneth Walker III, although the team still has playmakers. Wide Receiver Jaylen Reed had a game-winning catch against Wisconsin last week. Defensive end Jacoby Windmon has won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice. The Wolverines may be the better team talent-wise, but to achieve their goals they’ll have to get past a team that has been their kryptonite. Jim Harbaugh is 0-2 against Spartan head coach Mel Tucker, and the Wolverines are 4-10 in the last 14 matchups. 

4. Notre Dame @ No. 16 Syracuse, Noon, ABC, (Syracuse -2.5)

After an up and down month, the Irish travel east to central New York to play a surprisingly good Syracuse team. The Irish had the benefit of a get-right game last weekend, beating an inferior UNLV squad 44-21. Throughout the year, tight end Michael Mayer has looked like the real deal; he’s the leading receiver on an Irish team that needs more playmakers to emerge. Running back Audric Estime has run well at times but has struggled with ball security, fumbling three times in his past four games. If the Irish want to upset Syracuse, they will need to take care of the ball. Syracuse is 6-1, coming off of a tight loss to fifth-ranked Clemson. Running back Sean Tucker has been the best player for the Orange this year, which makes head coach Dino Babers’ decision to largely exclude him from the game plan against Clemson all the more confusing. Tucker only carried the ball five times for 54 yards. Quarterback Garrett Shrader has had a good year for the Orange, and if they want to stay in contention for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, they will need this win. 

3. No. 9 Oklahoma State @ No. 22 Kansas State, 3:30 p.m., FOX, (Kansas State -1)

The Big 12 plays host to another important battle, a dogfight that could potentially decide the second spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Both teams have lost to TCU, who has taken charge as the best team in the Big 12 thus far. Oklahoma State responded from their double overtime loss to TCU two weeks ago (their only loss of the season) with a huge win over Texas. Quarterback Spencer Sanders is dealing with undisclosed injuries, but he fought through to give the Cowboys an important win. Sanders threw for 391 yards and 2 touchdowns last week.

Kansas State has lost two games, to TCU and a ranked Tulane team, and have shown flashes of being a conference contender. The Wildcats were up 28-10 on TCU at one point before collapsing and allowing a comeback. Kansas State also barely avoided an upset against Iowa State. Quarterback Adrian Martinez also was injured against TCU, and although backup Will Howard filled in admirably, the starter’s health is a paramount concern. Both teams need the game to stay in the battle for the Big 12 Championship. 

2.  No. 19 Kentucky @ No. 3 Tennessee, 7:00 p.m., ESPN, (Tennessee -12.5)

This showdown between two ranked SEC teams has potential to be a classic. Quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Will Levis are two of the most talented in the country for their respective teams, and their showdown on Saturday night is going to be fun. Hooker has been the man behind the reins of an insanely talented offensive attack, and his connection with wide receiver Jalin Hyatt might end up leading the Volunteers to the SEC Championship and beyond. The Volunteers are playing their first conference game since their biggest win in years, a 52-49 win over Alabama. Fans stormed the field, uprooting the goal posts and transporting them out of the stadium into the nearby river. Last weekend, the Volunteers put up 65 points on a hapless UT Martin squad. Kentucky is coming off of their bye week, which allowed their star quarterback to get healthy. Two weeks ago, they earned a key win against a ranked Mississippi State, stopping a losing streak of two games. Kentucky’s philosophy is built on running the football and playing strong defense. If they can somehow get defensive stops this Kentucky team could turn Tennessee’s championship dreams into a nightmare.

1. No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 13 Penn State, Noon, FOX, (Ohio State -15.5)

Ohio State is undefeated and has a claim as the best team in the country. Quarterback CJ Stroud has been scary good, with 28 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. Ohio State has made their living off of having the best wide receiver rooms in the country over the past few seasons and this year is no different. Emeka Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming have more than stepped up in the absence of the crown jewel, Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Head coach Ryan Day is hopeful that Smith-Njigba can return for his first game since his injury against Notre Dame. 

Last week, the Buckeyes obliterated an Iowa defense that some called the best in the Big Ten, overcoming a flat start to put up 54 points. Penn State is coming off of a big win against Minnesota that keeps them in the Big Ten Championship race (for the time being). That contention is dependent on a win this weekend. If Penn State loses on Saturday, the Nittany Lions and head coach James Franklin will be effectively out of the running. Franklin’s team has talent, and have played the Buckeyes close in recent years. 

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Top five games of Week 7 CFB

Conference play is in full swing across the nation, and the matchups are getting better and better. This week will reveal a lot about the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 races with some crucial matchups. Let’s get into it.

5. No. 7 USC @ No. 20 Utah, 8 p.m., FOX, Utah -3

USC and their high-powered offense goes to Rice-Eccles Stadium to take on Utah. The Utes recently got run over on their trip to play UCLA, the other PAC-12 school in Los Angeles. Leading up to last week’s game, the Utes were riding high, but now they face a pivotal battle to see if they are still in contention for the Pac-12 championship. Utah’s defense has to have a better performance against USC than they did against UCLA, in which they allowed over 300 yards and four touchdowns to Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

This summer, the Pac-12 did away with conference divisions, meaning the top two teams will make the championship at the end of the regular season. USC has playoff aspirations, and the road to the CFP would be much harder with a loss. The USC defense showed its mettle last week in a 30-14 win over Washington State. USC has a complete offensive attack as well, and running back Travis Dye is running at his best level this season. Wide receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams give quarterback Caleb Williams no shortage of targets.

The PAC-12 has a reputation for destroying its playoff chances in conference play. Will it continue this season?

4. No. 15 NC State @ No. 18 Syracuse, 3:30 p.m., ACC Network, NC State -4

Syracuse is undefeated? In October? In football? Surprisingly, yes. Syracuse is 5-0 for the first time since 1987. In a make-or-break season for head coach Dino Babers, the Orange have come through. Predicted to finish last in the ACC, the Orange have had crucial victories over Purdue and Virginia in their spring through the first half of the schedule.

Babers has seemingly heard the cries for him to be fired, and the start to this season have quelled the flames. Running back Sean Tucker has looked like a game-changing player, perhaps even a dark-horse Heisman candidate. In their 59-0 romp over Wagner, the teams agreed to shorten the third and fourth quarters, so that the game could mercifully come to an end.

NC State represents the toughest challenge for Syracuse so far. NC State needs the win to be seen as a legitimate contender in the ACC, after losing handily to Clemson. Quarterback Devin Leary and the Wolfpack offense has put up points this season, and the indoor environment of the Carrier Dome is conducive for offensive success.

Can Syracuse continue their Cinderella season? Or, will NC State prove their strength?

3. No. 8 Oklahoma State @ No. 13 TCU, 3:30 p.m., ABC, TCU -2

The top-ranked teams in the Big 12 face off after two emotional wins. Oklahoma State squeaked by an upset-minded Texas Tech last weekend, and TCU went on the road and beat a resurgent Kansas team.

For the Cowboys, Spencer Sanders has been a high-level quarterback. The fourth-year starter had three touchdowns last weekend and is reading defenses extremely well. Bryson Green was Sanders’ favorite target, catching 5 passes for 115 yards and a score. The Cowboys outscored the Red Raiders 21-7 in the second half, pulling away for a 10-point victory.

TCU overpowered Kansas through a stellar outing from quarterback Max Duggan and the emergence of wide receiver Quinten Johnson. Johnson had over 200 yards receiving, and the Cowboys defensive staff will have to have a special game plan in mind to stop him from taking over the game. TCU is 5-0 for the first time since 2017 in a surprising season, the first under head coach Sonny Dykes. Duggan and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley have built an offensive attack that could be the best in the Big 12.

TCU was predicted to finish seventh in the Big 12. Can they keep proving the pundits wrong? Or will Oklahoma State take another step forward in their potential playoff bid?

2. No. 10 Penn State @ No. 5 Michigan, Noon, FOX, Michigan -7.5

The titanic game in the Big Ten this weekend is in the Big House, as two undefeated programs face off to help decide the Big Ten East. Michigan is coming off of a 31-10 win over Indiana, but the score is deceptive. Michigan was tied 10-10 at halftime, but a 97-yard drive in the third quarter helped the Wolverines pull away. Michigan’s defense also stepped up, allowing just 29 yards in the second half.

Penn State is 5-0 and coming off of their bye week, which they needed after a sluggish performance against Northwestern. Quarterback Sean Clifford has done just enough to win games for the Nittany Lions, but the Michigan defense represents a new challenge. Last week, the Wolverines sacked Indiana seven times.

Last year, both teams played an extremely close game, with a late Michigan touchdown marking the difference. Fox will host their Big Noon Saturday pregame show, their fourth straight week at a Michigan game. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and wide receivers Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson headline the multifaceted Wolverine attack. Michigan’s offensive line has been stout, establishing themselves as one of the better units in the country.

This is a game that isn’t technically a rivalry, but one that always has huge national implications.

1. No. 3 Alabama @ No. 6 Tennessee, 3:30 p.m, CBS, ‘Bama -8

Alabama is one of the top teams in college football, but they look different from years prior in one important aspect: they look mortal.

In the second week of the season, Texas took Alabama down to the wire, eventually losing a one-point game. Last weekend, a Texas A&M team that has struggled at key points made Alabama fight to the last play. The Aggies’ pass was incomplete, so the Crimson Tide are still undefeated and in the driver’s seat of the SEC West.

Tennessee has looked surprisingly good and could potentially challenge Georgia and Alabama in the race for the SEC crown. Last weekend, Tennessee obliterated LSU on the road. Hendon Hooker shined again at quarterback, and the Volunteers are off to their best start since 2016. The top-10 showdown reaches another level when you factor in the rivalry. Every third Saturday in October, the Crimson Tide and the Volunteers battle for what has historically been a huge game in determining the SEC champion. Tennessee desperately needs a win in the series. They have lost the last 15 matchups. The winner of the game gets to smoke traditional victory cigars.

Can Tennessee win for the first time in the Nick Saban era? Or will Alabama continue their dominance over their rival?

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney2@nd.edu

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Irish lose and draw to open hockey season

This weekend the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey team traveled to Colorado to play a pair of local teams in the Ice Breaker Tournament. In Friday’s matchup, the Irish squared off against the Denver Pioneers, a program with a longstanding hockey tradition. The Pioneers are the defending national champions and entered the season ranked No. 1. It was a big test for the Irish at the very beginning of the year, playing a quality team on the road. 

In the first period, the Pioneers pressured the puck, outshooting the eleventh-ranked Irish 11-3. Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel kept the score clean until late in the period, when the Pioneers power play netted a goal. 12 minutes into the second period, the Pioneers again found the net on the power play. Then, Notre Dame went on the power play. The Irish passed the puck around the zone, eventually finding junior forward Ryder Rolston just beyond the faceoff circle for a one-time goal to cut the lead in half. Denver got another goal before the second period ended to make the score 3-1 at the second intermission.

In the third period, Notre Dame continued to fight. They went on the offensive, which eventually led to a wraparound goal by graduate student defenseman Chase Blackmun off of a rebound to make the score 3-2. With about 6 minutes left, Notre Dame stole the puck off of a Denver power play and had a breakaway chance to tie the game. Denver goaltender Magnus Chrona stepped up to the moment, making a key save. A few minutes later, the Pioneers added to their lead courtesy of a McKade Webster goal. After Notre Dame pulled their goalie the Pioneers added an empty-netter, making the final score a deceiving 5-2. The Irish showed in this game that they can compete with anyone in the country, but there’s room for improvement if they hope to hunt down a national championship this season. 

In the second game, Notre Dame squared off against the Air Force Academy, another team accustomed to the challenges that high altitude brings. Air Force received votes but ended up unranked in the first poll. Air Force got the first points on the board on a power play, and the Irish were unable to find the net in 11 shots in the first period. In the second period, Air Force netted two more, expanding the lead to three goals. The Irish finally found the net with 9:15 left to play in the second period, with junior defenseman Zach Plucinski hitting from the hash. Going into the third period, the Irish were staring down the barrel of an 0-2 start. However, they rescued the result via a last-gasp rally. 

Senior forward Solag Bakich scored off of a rebound six minutes into the period. His classmate, Trevor Janicke, scored soon after on a power play goal after an Air Force penalty to trim the deficit to one. Air Force responded to double the lead shortly after, but the Irish continued to battle. Sophomore defenseman Jake Boltmann scored with just over eight minutes left and Rolston scored the equalizer with 72 seconds left in the contest to bring it to overtime. No one scored in the overtime period and the Falcons won the shootout 2-1. Officially, the result goes down as a tie. 

The Irish challenged themselves early in the year, going on the road to play two quality teams in high altitude. Although the results were surely not what the Irish were hoping for, these two games provided points of emphasis for the coaching staff in the upcoming weeks before conference play. Bischel is still rounding into form after splitting time in the net for portions of last season. The Irish penalty kill was near the top of the rankings last season and if the Irish want to achieve the goals they have set for this year, they’ll have to get quality play from their special teams. Notre Dame is back in action on Friday and Sunday, playing Northern Michigan at Compton Family Ice Arena.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney2@nd.edu.

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Lacey enters transfer portal three weeks after two-sack performance

Three weeks ago, Jacob Lacey was making big-time plays on the field for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Cal, the 6-1, 280-pound defensive tackle had two pivotal sacks on a day when Notre Dame needed all of the defensive help they could get. Notre Dame Football’s twitter account released a video of him being mobbed by his teammates.

On Thursday, head coach Marcus Freeman said that Lacey is no longer with the team and that he will enter the transfer portal when it reopens. Minutes later, Lacey confirmed the news on his Twitter account, saying that it was with “lots and lots of prayer and sorrow,” that he finally decided to transfer. It’s a surprising decision, but one that is completely within Lacey’s rights considering the new regulations of the transfer portal. Lacey will be redshirting the rest of the year, ensuring that he will have two years of eligibility at his new school. 

Lacey seems to have seen that his playing time was trending in the wrong direction. Lacey played 24 snaps in his best game against Cal but just nine against North Carolina. He was the third-most used defensive tackle on the roster, behind graduate student Jayson Ademilola and Howard Cross. Fellow defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio has also begun to get snaps in multiple games. 

Freeman said that the gap left by Lacey will be filled by Rubio and Chris Smith, a graduate transfer from Harvard. Smith has played 46 snaps, compared to Lacey’s 73 this season. Sophomore Jason Onye has been elevated from the scout team to see game action. 

Lacey graduated from Notre Dame last spring. He was a four-star, top-200 recruit when he committed to Notre Dame in 2019 from Bowling Green, Kentucky. The product of South Warren High School also held offers from Cincinnati, Clemson and Kentucky.

Head coach Marcus Freeman and the Irish seem to be at peace with Lacey’s decision. 

“He made a decision that ultimately, he felt was best for him and we respect that. We love Jacob. The best thing about it is that he leaves here with a degree in hand,” said Freeman.

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College football top games week 6

5. Texas @ Oklahoma, 12 p.m., ABC, (Texas -7)

Sandwiched in between the two weeks of the Texas State fair in Dallas is the Red River Showdown between Texas and Oklahoma. The game is almost guaranteed to be a good one as regardless of the quality of the teams, only one game since 2014 has been decided by over ten points. Oklahoma has had a rough past two weeks, losing to both Kansas State and TCU after rising as high as sixth in the rankings. Head coach Brent Venables, who is seen as a defensive whisperer, needs to work some magic to get this Sooners defense back to the level Oklahoma fans expected. Texas also could welcome back quarterback Quinn Ewers, who hasn’t played since getting injured versus Alabama in the second week of the season. The Longhorns fell victim to an upset bid from Texas Tech two weeks later, but rebounded with an 18 point win over West Virginia to get to 3-2. Both fan bases are some of the most devoted in college football, and whichever head coach loses this game will get a lot of heat. Can Oklahoma stop their slide? Or, will Texas reassert themselves as a contender in the Big 12? 

4. No. 8 Tennessee @ No. 25 LSU, 12 p.m., ESPN (Tennessee -2.5)

After losing to Florida State in heartbreaking fashion in week 1, head coach Brian Kelly and the LSU Tigers have won four straight games to sneak into the bottom of the Top 25. In their SEC victories, the Tigers have come back from 13 points against Mississippi State and a 17 point deficit against Auburn. Quarterback Jayden Daniels has carried LSU at times, leading them on pivotal drives to help regain leads. The defense has also made plays, forcing key turnovers. The next game is clearly the toughest on LSU’s schedule so far. Tennessee has earned a pair of big wins against Pitt and Florida, allowing them to skyrocket into the top 10. Quarterback Hendon Hooker has been a playmaker for the Volunteers, averaging nearly 300 yards passing per game. The Volunteers also have the benefit of coming off of a bye, allowing them to prepare for the mobility and improvisational skills of Daniels. Wide receiver Cedric Tillman, one of the best pieces for Tennessee, is questionable to play. Getting him on the field would be a huge boost for Tennessee as they go on the road to one of the toughest places to play in college football. 

3. No. 16 BYU @ Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC, (Notre Dame -4)

BYU has shown flashes of brilliance this season while also dealing with some inconsistent play. After winning their first game easily, they took Baylor down to the wire, winning in double overtime. They then got blown out by Oregon, but have responded with two wins over inferior competition in Wyoming and Utah State. Although the Cougars won, in each game they have failed to put together four quarters worth of quality football. If they want to beat Notre Dame and keep the goals they have for this season alive, they can’t sleepwalk at the start of this game. They do have the benefit of quarterback Jaren Hall, one of the most exciting players to watch in college football. Notre Dame’s back seven will have to step up to the challenge against another prolific passing offense. The Irish have largely looked good against the pass, allowing just 21 points to Ohio State and playing well enough versus North Carolina to put the game out of reach. There are still offensive questions, although some have been put to bed for the time being after a 45 point performance against North Carolina. Furthermore, the Irish are coming off of a bye week, allowing for more practice opportunities and a chance to get healthy. 

2. No. 11 UCLA @ No. 18 Utah, 3:30 p.m., FOX, (Utah -4)

UCLA, led by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, just knocked off a previously unbeaten Washington team last week. It was the Bruins’ first win over a top-15 team since 2014, and a statement win for head coach Chip Kelly. Thompson-Robinson’s skills as a mobile quarterback in addition to running back Zach Charbonnet has helped make the UCLA backfield dynamic and fun to watch. The offensive line has more than held its own through the first five games. Although UCLA only won by eight, Washington never threatened; their fourth quarter rally was only good enough to make the box score look better. After Utah’s three point loss at Florida to begin the year, the Utes have responded with four blowout wins, the most impressive being a 42-16 win over Oregon State last week. Quarterback Cameron Rising is also a skillful runner and passer with a lot of weapons surrounding him. Sophomore Clark Phillips III caught three Beaver passes for interceptions. Their defense has looked much improved and they will need all of it to stop UCLA. This is a game that could be a deciding factor in the quest for a conference championship berth. 

1. No. 17 TCU @ No. 19 Kansas, 12 p.m., FS1, (TCU -6)

If someone told me that I would be ranking TCU-Kansas as the number 1 game this week at the beginning of the season, I would have said that I have a better chance of being struck by lightning. Nevertheless, this game is an undefeated Top 25 showdown with College Gameday in town. Kansas has been the feel-good story of college football. The Jayhawks are 5-0 for the first time since 2009. Head coach Lance Leipold has been the architect of a masterful turnaround. Quarterback Jalon Daniels looked like a dominant player in the first four games of the season, although he was bottled up against Iowa State. Kansas still found a way to beat Iowa State thanks to one of their best defensive performances in years. TCU has been led by its overwhelming offensive attack on the way to averaging over 40 points in its first four games, all of them wins. They are ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2019. Quarterback Max Duggan threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns in a romp over Oklahoma, leading to him being named the Walter Camp National Player of the Week. This is the first time Kansas has hosted College Gameday, but TCU is 6-1 during these high-level games.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.