Week 7 was a week of close calls. It began Friday night, when No. 7 Louisville needed a roughing the kicker penalty to secure its win over Duke. It picked up right away on Saturday as NC State took No. 3 Clemson to overtime before the Tigers prevailed. And it lasted through the end of the night as No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Wisconsin went to OT before the Buckeyes eked out the win.
All three of those prime College Football Playoff contenders survived—just barely—to spend another week in the hunt for conference titles and national semifinal berths. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Week 7:
1. Alabama is far and away the No. 1 team right now
There was some talk this week about whether the gap between the Crimson Tide and No. 2 Ohio State was overblown. Both were undefeated, but Alabama had more quality wins, while Ohio State had better stats. Both prepared for road showdowns against top-10 teams Saturday. When Alabama met No. 9 Tennessee in Neyland Stadium, the Tide quickly put to rest any debate over who deserves the No. 1 ranking.
Alabama stomped the rival Volunteers 49–10, even putting in its backups before the beatdown was over. Even more daunting for future opponents, the Tide showed virtually no weaknesses and they appear to only be getting better. The defense remains the greatest strength, and it held Tennessee to 3.2 yards per play. Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw for just 92 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Tennessee had little more success on the ground, gaining 1.0 yards per carry. Alabama could have outscored the Vols without ever putting its offense on the field, as the Tide got touchdowns on a 58-yard interception return by Ronnie Harrison and a 79-yard punt return by Eddie Jackson. That gives Alabama 11 non-offensive touchdowns this year, more than South Carolina’s offense has this season.
What really makes the Tide dangerous is that they now possess a true dual-threat quarterback. With the exception of Blake Sims in 2014, that’s something Alabama has never had under Nick Saban. True freshman Jalen Hurts continues to progress, dissecting the Vols for 143 yards through the air, 132 on the ground and three scores. He burned Tennessee repeatedly on the read-option, a play call that would have been difficult to imagine as a go-to for Alabama in most years. With Hurts, Bo Scarbrough (109 rushing yards on Saturday) and Damien Harris (94 yards) in the backfield, Alabama’s running game is nearly impossible to stop.
If anyone is going to beat the Tide in the regular season, it’ll happen next week. Texas AM visits Tuscaloosa, closing a daunting stretch of three straight weeks of challenging games. Alabama has passed the first two tests—last week vs. Arkansas and Saturday vs. Tennessee—with relative ease, so the Tide likely aren’t as worn out as they could have been. But even for a Saban-coached team, maintaining the focus to beat top-20 teams in three consecutive weeks can be difficult, especially when that stretch closes with an undefeated squad coming off of a bye. If the Tide can take care of the Aggies, there’s likely no stopping them until the playoff.
2. The Big Ten is top heavy in a very fun way
As the ACC can say from experience, conferences often get dogged for being top heavy. But unlike past years in the ACC when the league really only offered Clemson and Florida State, the Big Ten is top heavy in a way that makes it particularly compelling.
There are clear tiers in the Big Ten, with Ohio State and Michigan in the top stratum, Wisconsin a small step behind and Nebraska likely there too. The league quickly drops off after those four—Michigan State’s fall from the elite group became even more stark with the Spartans’ 54–40 loss to Northwestern at home—but four elite teams is enough for plenty of entertainment.
Saturday’s primetime showdown between the Badgers and the Buckeyes was a perfect example. Amid intermittent rain in a raucous Camp Randall atmosphere, Wisconsin gave Ohio State its first real test of the season—and nearly knocked the Buckeyes from the ranks of the unbeaten. J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State offense shrugged off a sluggish start to erase a 16–6 halftime deficit, ultimately vanquishing Wisconsin in overtime when Barrett and wide receiver Noah Brown connected for a seven-yard touchdown and Tyquan Lewis sacked Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook on fourth-and-goal.
Hornibrook, running back Corey Clement (164 rushing yards) and a technically sound Wisconsin defense proved for the second straight game that the Badgers’ hot start was no fluke. That Wisconsin has been unable to beat Ohio State or Michigan (which won 14–7 in Michigan Stadium two weeks ago) indicates that Paul Chryst’s squad isn’t quite good enough to join the Big Ten’s top tier, but a rematch against either the Buckeyes or the Wolverines in the Big Ten title game would be nonetheless quite exciting. Wisconsin is certainly good enough to beat either team in a one-game scenario.
Of course, No. 10 Nebraska might have something to say about whether the Badgers get another shot. The Cornhuskers are the most difficult team to place in the Big Ten hierarchy because they sit at 6–0, yet their best win was likely Saturday’s 27–22 road victory over Indiana. With a solid pass defense and a consistent ground game, Nebraska certainly deserves to be taken seriously. But trips to Wisconsin on Oct. 29 and Ohio State on Nov. 5 will determine whether the Huskers can make it to Indianapolis to play for a Big Ten championship. A split in those games will be sufficient.
What’s great for outside observers is that, among the four conference title hopefuls in the Big Ten, it doesn’t really matter which ones make the league title game. So far each meeting between these teams has been enthralling. That’s why you won’t hear the Big Ten getting knocked for its top-heavy setup.
3. Let’s not write off the Big 12 yet
Two years ago, the Big Ten was famously ruled out of playoff contention two weeks into the season only for Ohio State to win out, make the semifinals as the No. 4 seed and win the national title. We’ve learned to avoid making such dramatic statements since; however, it’s been the near unanimous opinion that of the five power conferences, the Big 12 was certainly the most likely to get left out of this year’s playoff.
It might be time to rethink that assumption. The conference’s preseason playoff hopefuls—Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State—all have multiple losses, and Texas has fallen back to mediocrity just as quickly as it seemed to be rising at the start of the season. But in their place sit No. 11 Baylor and No. 20 West Virginia, both undefeated and worthy of serious consideration. Baylor’s 49–7 drubbing of Kansas added little to the Bears’ résumé, but for a team that seemed like it could implode amid a wave of transfers and the firing of head coach Art Briles, acting head coach Jim Grobe appears to have kept the squad together.
West Virginia produced one of the most impressive defensive performances of the season Saturday when it held Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense to just 17 points in a 48–17 thrashing in Lubbock. The Red Raiders hadn’t scored fewer than 38 points this season and 26 points in the past two seasons before Saturday, when star quarterback Patrick Mahomes tossed just one touchdown and Texas Tech gained 5.5 yards per play.
With only 5.2 yards allowed per play all season, West Virginia has perhaps the toughest defense in the Big 12. While that may seem relatively inconsequential in a conference known for shootouts, it’s often the team that can get some stops that prevails in the Big 12. That’s a big part of what separated Oklahoma last year from the high-powered offenses of Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor, and it’s what makes the Mountaineers playoff contenders this year. West Virginia has a manageable schedule with most of its remaining tests coming at home. That includes a Dec. 3 date with Baylor, which might have conference title and playoff implications.