Back in August, the college football world wondered if a season would be played at all, and the resounding chorus from fans was simple: Any football is better than no football.
Well, this weekend will test that theory.
Four of the top five teams won't play. There are no matchups between top-25 teams. Nine of the 13 ranked teams playing are favored by a touchdown or more. Half the SEC is in contact-tracing protocols. There is simply not much marquee football on the docket for Week 11.
In other words, it's time to talk about the Pac-12.
Oh, you remember the Pac-12, right? True, the league has missed the College Football Playoff four of the past five seasons and didn't kick off its 2020 campaign until last week, when some leagues already had seven games under their belts. It's the league that decided nothing goes better with brunch than college football.
You're forgiven if the Pac-12 has been an afterthought thus far. Heck, even when the league tried to cancel its season, it was upstaged by the Big Ten. People couldn't even be bothered to be angry at the Pac-12.
But here we are. This week's slate includes USC traveling to Arizona. The Trojans were a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 but opened the season at 9 a.m. local time last Saturday and clearly didn't wake up until there was but five minutes left in the game. The stunning comeback kept Clay Helton's job safe for another week and kept USC in the chase for a conference crown, but it sure wasn't the type of fast start USC fans might have hoped for. On the upside, the Trojans now face the Wildcats, a team that has gone more than a calendar year since its most recent victory.
We'll also get to see Oregon travel to Washington State. The Ducks looked good against a diminished Stanford team last week, and if the Pac-12 has a true playoff hope, it's probably them. But is it realistic to expect a playoff berth for a team scheduled to play just six games?
"No one knows how many games any team will be playing," playoff executive director Bill Hancock said. "Most of us expected games to be postponed or canceled. Everyone is moving forward as best they can."
But don't get bogged down in all the negativity here. It's easy to do when we're talking about the Pac-12, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we need to find optimism where we can. And on Saturday, we find it in Tuscon and Los Angeles and Pullman, because when our college football schedule needed it the most, the Pac-12 stood tall and told us to sit back, pour a stiff drink and enjoy the second half of Oregon State-Washington at 1 a.m ET.
GameDay Q&A with Indiana coach Tom Allen
ESPN: Outside of your own expectations, has there been anything about your 3-0 start that has either surprised you or exceeded your expectations?
Allen: I believed that we had the opportunity to do what we're doing right now. So I'm not surprised that we're 3-0. I think most people are, but I'm not. I expected us to be able to compete with those teams.
I told our team it doesn't matter what I think or what I believe. What do you believe, and what are you willing to do to create that? So that's what's really changed here, is that the guys have bought in, and they're living those things out every single day.
ESPN: How great do you think quarterback Michael Penix Jr. can be as he continues to grow as a player?
Allen: I think the sky's the limit. I think he can be an elite quarterback in this country. I think he can be a guy that's the best quarterback in this conference eventually as time elapses and he continues to grow and develop. His arm talent is unique and special. His ability to read coverages is unique and special.
ESPN: Your 2021 recruiting class is really impressive so far. What has been the key to success there? And without giving up any secrets, how do you sell guys on Indiana football?
Allen: It's about relationships. We talk about that -- you know "LEO" is our brand, it stands for Love Each Other. The three pillars of our program are accountability, toughness and love. We talk about this with our recruits extensively, and that's the pillar of this program is branded with the LEO mantra, and it's about building relationships with your players.
ESPN: How fulfilling has it been for you personally to bring this type of success to your alma mater? Did you ever envision this happening?
Allen: I believe we can win the Big Ten here. I thought that we had the support administratively when I got here, and that was a big reason I even came. ... That hasn't always been the case in Indiana ... football has always been kind of on the lower rungs behind some other things. I get it, basketball is a big deal in this state. I'm born and raised in Indiana, I understand it and I love basketball. I want us to win a national championship in basketball. But I think we can give you both.
What else to watch
Harbaugh's last stand: Michigan hosts a Wisconsin team dealing with its own issues after an outbreak of COVID-19, but the Badgers are clearly a good squad when healthy. That's bad news for Jim Harbaugh, who is now on the brink of falling to 1-3 with Wolverines fans clamoring for significant changes.
It was one thing to overlook Harbaugh's struggles in big games, because moving a program from good to elite is an incredibly difficult job. But losses to Michigan State and Indiana? That's inexcusable. Still, it's hard to envision Michigan's leadership wanting to make a change -- if for no other reason than if Harbaugh couldn't right this ship, who can? That's what makes Saturday's game so significant. A victory over a ranked Wisconsin team calms the waters with Rutgers on deck. But a loss this week and the Wolverines are likely staring at their first losing season since the Brady Hoke era.
4-0 Northwestern? It's possible with a win this week, and that's not something that any of us anticipated. It's easy to look now and say those victories perhaps aren't surprising given how Iowa and Nebraska have looked. But this week, the Wildcats visit Purdue, which beat Illinois by only a touchdown in its most recent outing. If you're Pat Fitzgerald, you gotta feel pretty good about this one and about being comfortably atop the Big Ten West in the middle of November.
Cincinnati states its case: There's effectively no real difference in quality at the top or overall depth of talent in the American Athletic Conference this season compared to the Big 12, Pac-12 or even Big Ten so far. That's good news for the Bearcats, who'll have a strong case for a playoff bid if they remain undefeated. The problem, however, is that old habits die hard, and the Group of 5 stigma is hard to shake -- particularly with committee members. That makes games like Friday's against East Carolina important, even if it's not expected to be particularly close. Cincinnati's résumé will face a daunting amount of nitpicking at season's end, which means it can't afford a closer than expected outcome against bad teams -- even if it still results in a win.
Notre Dame's encore: The Fighting Irish are coming off a huge upset victory over Clemson. Boston College is less intimidating than the Tigers, but the Eagles are no slouch. They gave Clemson a first-half scare a couple weeks back, and could catch Ian Book & Co. by surprise.
Can Rutgers get a second Big Ten win? There's not much that can surprise us anymore in 2020, but how about this mind-boggling fact: The Scarlet Knights are favored by a touchdown Saturday against Illinois. This is the first time Rutgers has been favored to win a conference game since Nov. 28, 2015. It's just the fourth time, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, that the Scarlet Knights have been a favorite in a conference game since they joined the Big Ten. Should it win, Rutgers would have a second Big Ten victory for the first time since 2017. Prior to this season, the Scarlet Knights had won just two of their previous 24 Big Ten games.
Lyles: SMU vs. Tulsa
I'm not sure Tulsa can upset SMU here, but I do think the Golden Hurricane can give the Mustangs a good game. Tulsa did give Oklahoma State a scare in the first game of the season and had an impressive victory over then-No. 11 UCF. Quarterback Shane Buechele has played well the past two games, and even if Tulsa isn't able to contain him Saturday, his stat-sheet-filling performances have been fun to watch.
Hale: Coastal Carolina at Troy
The Chanticleers have been dominant this season, with just one game decided by less than two touchdowns, and road wins against Kansas, a top-25 Louisiana team and a 51-0 blowout of Georgia State. All of that should set up for another big win for Coastal, but Troy isn't likely to make it that simple. The Trojans have a sneaky good defense, allowing fewer than 7 yards per pass attempt. Last season's meeting was an epic 36-35 Coastal victory, and while the Chanticleers have certainly improved since then, this has the makings of a far more interesting matchup than the double-digit point spread might indicate.
Player to watch
Last week, Trask came up huge against Georgia, completing 30 of 43 passes for 474 yards and four touchdowns. This week, despite facing an improved Arkansas squad, Trask has a huge opportunity to gain ground on Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence in the Heisman Trophy race.
Temple's defense has been a train wreck this season, allowing nearly 40 points per game, including 14 TD throws through five games. That's a juicy scenario for one of the best quarterbacks in the country. No, Gabriel isn't getting much Heisman love, but he belongs in the conversation. Look at the numbers: more than 2,500 passing yards, 22 total TDs and two interceptions through six games. Saturday offers the perfect chance to pad his stats even more. Last week, Gabriel threw for just 328 yards -- a season low. Don't be surprised if he goes well over 400 this week. Gabriel can become the first QB since Gardner Minshew in 2018 to start the season with seven straight games of 300 yards passing and a TD.
Lyles: Nebraska over Penn State
It doesn't totally feel like an "upset" necessarily, even though the Nittany Lions are favored. Both of these teams have had awful starts to the season and desperately need a win. But with Penn State coming off an ugly 35-19 loss to Maryland that had the Terrapins letting all kinds of memes fly from their social media accounts, I'm just confident enough to pick Nebraska here. I think this game is going to be ugly and not a fun watch, and I'd probably be lying to you if I tried to come up with reasons why either team could win this game. It is really just a matter of, well, somebody has to win.
The Ragin' Cajuns made their mark with a 31-14 win over Iowa State back on Sept. 12, but that remains their biggest blowout of the season. They got past Georgia State, Georgia Southern and UAB by a combined nine points, lost to Coastal Carolina, and scuffled last week versus Arkansas State. Louisiana has talent, but it has struggled early in nearly every game, then relied on that talent to dig out of a hole in the second half. The luck runs out this week, and the Jaguars pull off a stunner.