GameDay Kickoff: Contenders hit the road in key week

Pack your bags, No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Ohio State. It’s time to enter hostile territory.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the first week in the history of the Associated Press poll that the top three teams will each play a true road game against a ranked opponent.

How difficult is it to beat a fellow ranked team on the road? Consider this: Since 2012, AP-ranked teams have a 39.4 win percentage (67-103) in road games against ranked Power 5 teams. By contrast, AP-ranked teams have won 78.3 percent of their road games (199-55) against unranked Power 5 teams in that span.

Week 3 falls into the category of danger zone, with four top-25 teams facing ranked opponents.

Here’s a look at the most challenging road games of Week 3, in order of their playoff implications.

No. 1 Alabama at No. 19 Ole Miss: Ole Miss is the team that could be eliminated from the playoff conversation with a loss, but the pressure is on Alabama because the Tide have lost their past two games against the Rebels. The winner of this game will likely become the early favorite in the SEC West. Ole Miss is looking to become the third team to win three straight against a Nick Saban-coached team, along with Michigan (1996-98) and Purdue (1997-99) while Saban was at Michigan State. Bama obviously can lose and still make the CFP semifinal; it has done so the past two seasons.

No. 3 Ohio State at No. 14 Oklahoma: Oklahoma is in a must-win situation after it lost its opener to Houston, but don’t underestimate the importance of this road trip to Ohio State. The Buckeyes haven’t even begun conference play, and this is the first ranked opponent Urban Meyer’s team will face. OSU still has to play Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan. Oklahoma hopes to avoid starting 1-2 for first time since 2005 and for the second time in 18 seasons under Bob Stoops. A win by the Sooners could send them flying into Big 12 play, where they’d have a chance to win a league title and get back in the playoff picture, just like Meyer’s 2014 Buckeyes.

No. 2 Florida State at No. 10 Louisville: FSU and Clemson have been the ACC’s heavyweights in recent years, but Louisville could join the party with a win Saturday (12 p.m. ET, ABC). If Florida State loses, it’s going to need some help to get to the ACC title game, and it certainly can’t afford a home loss to Clemson on Oct. 29. Louisville has jumped from No. 16 in the preseason Football Power Index to No. 5, and the winner of Saturday’s game will take the lead in the ACC Atlantic Division race. Florida State ranks first in ESPN’s FPI and has the highest chance among Power 5 teams to win the rest of its games (13 percent).

No. 12 Michigan State at No. 18 Notre Dame: Remember Michigan State? Played in a CFP semifinal last year? The Spartans aren’t getting much attention this year, but they tend to be at their best when nobody is watching. Mark Dantonio has a terrific defense, and quarterback Tyler O’Connor beat Ohio State last year when starter Connor Cook was injured. This could be a scary one for Notre Dame, which can’t afford to lose another game after it dropped the season opener to Texas in double-overtime. The Irish don’t have a conference championship game to play in, so they bear a bigger burden of having a one-loss season or better — unless everyone else completely unravels.

USC at No. 7 Stanford: The Trojans got absolutely crushed by Alabama in the season opener, but this is their chance to reassert themselves — not only in the Pac-12 pecking order but also in the CFP conversation (8 p.m. ET, ABC). The selection committee wouldn’t leave out a one-loss Pac-12 champ, especially if that loss is to the defending national champions in the season opener. They will, however, ditch a USC team that continues to play like it did in Week 1 and drops another game. Stanford had a bye week to prepare, and it has to take advantage of staying at home this week, as three of its next four are on the road. ESPN’s FPI projects that the Cardinal will lose all three of those road games (at UCLA, at Washington and at Notre Dame).

No. 6 Houston at Cincinnati: Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. is back in the lineup, and that’s good news for the Cougars, especially for a nationally televised Thursday night road trip (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). It’s the first time the Cougars are leaving the state and their first league game of the season. Houston likely needs to go undefeated to get serious consideration from the CFP selection committee, and it is favored by ESPN’s FPI to win every remaining game, except against Louisville on Nov. 17.

No. 17 Texas A&M at Auburn: The Aggies are another undefeated SEC West team hitting the road for the first time this season, and ESPN’s FPI actually favors Auburn by a hair (54.5 percent). It’s essentially a toss-up, but one that will start to sort out the division race (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Alabama, A&M and Arkansas are the only undefeated teams left in the West. Although a two-loss team has yet to make the CFP, it’s certainly a possibility, though the loser of this game will have a long way to go. Auburn already lost to Clemson, but if it can keep its SEC hopes alive, it can hang on to CFP hopes too.

No. 11 Texas at Cal: The Longhorns earned what could amount to a season-defining win in their double-overtime upset of Notre Dame in the season opener, but they have to continue that success outside their home state this weekend (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). This is the first of back-to-back road games, the second an Oct. 1 trip to Oklahoma State. ESPN’s FPI favors the Cowboys in that one and OU the following week. Technically, Texas can afford to lose this game, but then it would face immense pressure to win out, just as OU does now. The Big 12 took a big hit last week and could use another Power 5 nonconference win from a CFP contender.

Pitt at Oklahoma State: A Pitt win over Oklahoma State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) would give the Panthers nonconference wins over both the Big Ten and Big 12. That’s the kind of resume that gets the selection committee’s attention — as long as Pitt goes on to win the Coastal Division and play in the ACC title game. The committee members will also be aware of Oklahoma State’s controversial loss to Central Michigan last week. The worst thing Mike Gundy’s squad could do is let that loss beat them twice. The Cowboys still have a 17 percent chance to win the Big 12, according to FPI. Only Oklahoma is more likely (49 percent). The Cowboys are FPI favorites in each of their remaining games until their trip to Norman on Dec. 3.

No. 16 Georgia at Missouri: Even though Georgia won last week, it lost, as it sunk seven spots in the AP poll after a subpar performance against Nicholls. Still, the Dawgs are undefeated, have a respectable nonconference win against North Carolina and are playing the first of back-to-back SEC road games (next week at Ole Miss) before returning home to face Tennessee on Oct. 1. FPI projects that Georgia has a 97 percent chance to lose at least one of its next three games. It needs to start with a win against struggling Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).

No. 22 Oregon at Nebraska: Both of these teams have a long way to go before they enter any serious playoff conversation, but they’re 2-0. While the Huskers have been beating the Mountain West, this is a chance for a statement win against a ranked opponent (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). For Oregon, it’s a chance at a second straight win over a Power 5 opponent. With the wackiness of the Pac-12, the Ducks are in it until they’re not — just like everyone else.

Week 3 superlatives

Most intriguing mascot battle: The Pirate of East Carolina vs. Cocky of South Carolina. Let’s get him to surrender the sword for this one and level the playing field a bit.

Can-miss game: Georgia State at Wisconsin. Winless Georgia State is allowing 395 yards per game on the ground and 5.8 yards per carry. The Badgers will keep rolling.

Upset watch: Ohio State at Oklahoma. The Buckeyes, slight favorites on Saturday, are still the youngest team in the country, and they’ve looked good against overmatched competition. Now they face Bob Stoops, who is 96-8 at home. Oklahoma has its playoff hopes on the line.

Player in the spotlight: Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly. Last year, Kelly became the fifth quarterback in nine years of Nick Saban to throw for at least three touchdowns without a pick against Alabama. Alabama leads the FBS in defensive efficiency, and Ole Miss ranks eighth in offensive efficiency.

Matchup to watch: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson against FSU’s defense. Florida State has allowed a Power 5-high eight receptions on passes of at least 20 yards downfield, while Jackson leads Power 5 quarterbacks in such completions this season, with eight. The Seminoles, however, will be without all-everything defender Derwin James, who is out with a knee injury.

Under the radar: North Dakota State at Iowa. Don’t dismiss the Bison. If they were in the FBS, they would rank 83rd in FPI and would have a higher rating than four Power 5 teams (Kentucky, Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas).

Forgotten storyline: Temple coach Matt Rhule vs. Penn State. He’s 1-1 all time against his alma mater, and last year, he earned Temple’s first win over the Nittany Lions since 1941. Rhule was a linebacker at PSU from 1994-1997.

ICYMI: The Twitter trolling between Michigan and Colorado was the entertainment of the week. Fans can only hope the game is as good.

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