'Anything is possible' — Which new faces could emerge as playoff contenders?

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BATON ROUGE, La. – After Iowa blasted Maryland, 51-14, on Friday night, the Hawkeyes hauled home halfway across the country and landed in the predawn darkness.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz crawled into bed around 5:15 a.m., tired but at least hitting the pillow knowing the 5-0 Hawkeyes can still dream the biggest dreams in the sport.

Ferentz is in his 23rd season at Iowa, the longest run of any coach at a single school in the sport. And with No. 5 Iowa having won 11 straight games and hosting a top-five matchup against No. 4 Penn State on Saturday, it’s arguable that Ferentz may be amid his finest stretch as Iowa’s coach.

Certainly, no one would expect the consistently understated Ferentz to make a bold proclamation that Iowa is in the thick of the playoff race. But it’s clear that this Iowa team has the capability and trajectory to join the other gold-standard Ferentz teams – Orange Bowl teams in 2002 and 2009 and a Rose Bowl team in 2015. And by staying solid, there appears to be a potential path for a team like Iowa in a year when few programs are spectacular.

“Anything is possible,” Ferentz said by phone on Saturday, calling after he’d slept a few hours and watched the Maryland film. “Certainly, we were close in 2015. With the system the way it is now, we’d have been in the discussion in 2002.

“For us to be in that discussion, things have to fall right and we have to take every game like it’s our last game. That’s the world we live in. We’re used to that.”

And Iowa’s surge into the top five and Iowa City looming as the center of the sport’s universe next week is indicative of a new reality in a college football season that’s unfolding like a giraffe on roller skates.

After Alabama and Georgia, who have solidified themselves atop the sport, a kaleidoscope of possibilities exists. With Oregon losing in overtime at Stanford and falling out of the No. 3 spot and a top-five team guaranteed to lose next week, the sport’s red carpet is getting surrounded by fresh faces.

Come on down, playoff newbies. Cincinnati? BYU? Penn State? Wake Forest? Michigan? Michigan State? Kentucky? Oklahoma State? Coastal Carolina? (Sorry, Arkansas, you were here until about 12:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.)

“It’s early, but we’re talking about a spread of teams,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night. “When I look at the future, a 12-team playoff model causes you to talk about a whole lot of teams. I think that’s good for the game. ... I think it’s the kind of dialogue you want, talking about teams all across the nation.”

Here’s a peek at a few newbies who could remain in the conversation for much of the season:

Iowa Hawkeyes

It’s always tempting to stereotype Iowa by filling in the roster with the familiar Mad Libs from Ferentz’s generation in charge. Iowa redshirted players, developed them and took great high school wrestlers and molded them into great college football players.

The reality is that Iowa has emerged as a sneaky NFL factory, as it has had nine players leave early for the NFL draft the past three years.

Iowa has another crew of high-end players the NFL is coveting – center Tyler Linderbaum is the best at his position in the country, linebacker Jack Campbell is an elite talent and defensive end Zach VanValkenburg (5 TFLs) is intriguing to the next level.

Iowa also has strong skill – Tyler Goodson is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, tight end Sam LaPorta is the leading receiver (263 yards) and corner Matt Hankins has two interceptions.

“Ironically, our strength and experience was more on the perimeter on both sides,” Ferentz said. “If we were playing 7-on-7 this year, we’d have a chance to be pretty good.”

Will Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes be in the College Football Playoff mix at the end of this season?  (Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
Will Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes be in the College Football Playoff mix at the end of this season? (Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

But the young players in the trenches have grown up around Linderbaum and Vanvalkenburg, and Ferentz has seen the kind of consistency and steady improvement that the program has been built on. “You’re either developing or you’re not developing,” Ferentz said.

Iowa’s defense is shaping up to be one of the country’s best, as it's No. 3 nationally, yielding 11.6 points per game. The Hawkeyes have blended zone coverage and pattern matching, which has minimized big plays and helped Iowa rank No. 2 nationally in turnover margin.

The offense is still a work in progress, as the rushing offense is ranked No. 100 and the passing is No. 99. More important, Iowa has been opportunistic, scoring on 10 of the 12 turnovers it has forced.

Junior Spencer Petras has emerged as a steady presence, a reliable quarterback in a season when much of the Big Ten lacks consistent play at that position. He has completed 62% of his passes, thrown seven touchdown passes and one interception. (He has avoided what happened to Maryland on Friday night when Taulia Tagovailoa unraveled for five interceptions in the loss.)

Iowa is never going to be flashy under Ferentz. But in a year when there’s little brilliance, consistency may be plenty to have Iowa in the Big Ten and CFP conversation.

Ferentz’s voice perked up Saturday when the assumed electricity of Saturday’s game against Penn State came up.

“To be in a stadium with fans,” he said. “That’s how college football is supposed to feel. And there’s nothing better than being in Kinnick Stadium. It’s a great venue anytime, but especially when things are anted up a little bit.”

BYU Cougars

The Western team with the best shot to reach the College Football Playoff is BYU. After the departure of Zach Wilson and a swath of talent on the offensive line, few figured that reconfigured BYU could again establish itself as a top team. Especially with a schedule filled with seven Power Five teams.

But the Cougars have been salty so far, overcoming injuries and figuring out ways to beat Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. How’ve they done it?

“It all comes back to Kalani Sitake,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. “He’s like the Ted Lasso of college football coaches. He’s so positive all the time. Our players love playing for him and coming in the building every day. Practice is fun and meetings are fun. He’s created such a fun environment to play and coach in.”

Roderick credits Sitake for building the program so it could sustain the types of injury issues that BYU has endured this year. In BYU’s win against Utah State on Friday, they played without their starting quarterback, fullback and three offensive linemen. They rolled, 34-20.

BYU has built a clear identity on offense in the post-Wilson era, led by center James Empey.

“We have a really physical offensive line,” Roderick said. “Again, we have an NFL running back. I think our physicality allows us to be in the game, no matter how the game is going or how teams defend us. We always have a chance to run the ball and grind out a win."

If there’s one play that epitomized BYU’s spirit this season, it came from tailback Tyler Allgeier, the aforementioned NFL tailback. Allgeier is a former walk-on who started his BYU career as a linebacker.

In the Arizona State game, Allgeier sprinted nearly 50 yards to chase down Arizona State linebacker Merlin Robertson after he’d picked off a Jaren Hall pass. Allgeier didn’t just tackle Robertson, he leapt on his back and punched out the ball in the outsized manner of something from a Marvel comic.

“He’s the kind of guy who would do anything the team needs,” Roderick said. “We have a whole team full of guys like that.”

Opportunity awaits BYU for more showcases – Boise State, at Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and a trip to USC remain on the schedule. Will that be enough for Coach Lasso?

BYU coach Kalani Sitake has his team thinking big. Could the Cougars crash the College Football Playoff picture? (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
BYU coach Kalani Sitake has his team thinking big. Could the Cougars crash the College Football Playoff picture? (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Cincinnati Bearcats

The Bearcats officially have the best chance to reach the College Football Playoff of any team from outside the Power Five.

They stormed into South Bend, led 17-0 at halftime and won 24-13. They took what head coach Luke Fickell said after the game was a “big step” toward pushing the program into the College Football Playoff conversation. The Bearcats never got higher than No. 7 in the CFP conversation last year. If they are undefeated when the first CFP rankings come out in November, it’s hard to imagine they won’t be in the top five.

Perhaps the best part of Cincinnati’s win for the CFP committee was that they looked the part. The Bearcats handled Notre Dame in the trenches, their defensive backs pushed around Notre Dame’s receivers and held the Irish to 84 rushing yards.

Every underdog needs a hero, and Cincinnati has that in quarterback Desmond Ridder. After shaking off a slow start for the second straight game, Ridder finished the day with 297 passing yards and enough composure to continue to ratchet up his NFL draft stock. He led the Bearcats on a six-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter after Notre Dame pulled within a score. Ridder hit tight end Leonard Taylor on a 36-yard pass and capped the drive with a six-yard run. He entered his press conference by yelling, “How about them Bearcats?”

Cincinnati still has a long way to go. And the best team remaining on the Bearcats' schedule is SMU. But they captured the hearts and minds of the sport today, and it’s a much more difficult task to leave undefeated Cincinnati out of the playoff conversation with this win than it was in 2020.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Your current ACC favorite as we enter October is Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons held off Louisville on Saturday, 37-34, on a last-second field goal to improve to 5-0. They are the ACC’s only undefeated team, and one that’s operating with coach Dave Clawson’s trademark precision.

How good is Wake Forest? They’ve impressed teams with an offense that consistently provides answers for whatever the defense presents. Old Dominion coach Ricky Rahne, who faced Wake Forest in the opener, compared the Wake Forest offense to Iowa’s defense, which he faced as Penn State’s offensive coordinator. The scheme isn’t revolutionary, but the details are coached by coordinator Warren Ruggiero in such a way that it’s consistently effective.

“I think they have a legitimate shot of winning the ACC,” Rahne said of Wake Forest. When the quarterback [Sam Hartman] is on, they can be very explosive on offense. The running back [Christian Beal-Smith] and wide receiver [Jaquarii Roberson] are good players. And on defense, the sum of the parts is greater than the individual pieces. They are extremely well coached in all phases, and their experience and ability to develop have closed any talent gap.”

Wake Forest will be favored in its next three games – at Syracuse, at Army and at Duke – before playing at North Carolina on Nov. 6. That game will have huge stakes for Wake’s credibility as a top-tier team. Wake closes the season at Clemson and at Boston College. Wake Forest hasn’t beaten Clemson since 2008 and lost the last three games to the Tigers by a combined 152-19.

Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh watches on during a college football game against Wisconsin Badgers on Oct. 2, 2021. (Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh watches on during a college football game against Wisconsin Badgers on Oct. 2, 2021. (Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans

While it’s too early to declare Jim Harbaugh’s regime completely overhauled and revived, it’s fair to say Michigan is trending back to where it was earlier in his tenure. Michigan is back to winning the games it’s supposed to win, as the Wolverines went to Wisconsin and dominated the listless Badgers to nudge the program to a 5-0 record and likely top-10 ranking this week.

Michigan’s defense has much more versatility and nuance under Mike Macdonald, as opposed to Don Brown. There’s some high-end talent in end Aidan Hutchinson and safety Daxton Hill. Cade McNamara did enough by throwing for 197 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Michigan didn’t run the ball particularly well against the Badger’s stout front – 112 total yards – but it didn’t need to.

Michigan had long built a reputation for turtling in big games under Harbaugh, flinching when the lights got bright. On Saturday, they let Wisconsin self-destruct and waltzed out of Madison with a breezy 38-17 victory. They lost 35-14 the last trip to Madison in 2019 in a game that felt more lopsided.

Michigan State is another surprise October undefeated that retains an aura of skepticism about the program’s ceiling. Mel Tucker’s Spartans (5-0) have won at Northwestern and Miami, and they’ll be heavy favorites to be 7-0 heading into the Michigan game in East Lansing on Oct. 30.

The winner of that game could well end up with a loud playoff case, provided that neither slips up prior. (Michigan’s trip to Nebraska looks tougher.)

Kentucky Wildcats

There are three undefeated teams remaining in the SEC. Two are the sport’s clear bellwethers – Alabama (5-0) and Georgia (5-0). Each of them took any suspense immediately into the wood chipper after a week of hyped-up games against Ole Miss and Arkansas.

The other undefeated SEC team is Kentucky. While the Wildcats weren’t even ranked in the Associated Press poll last week, that changed after another signature victory for Mark Stoops. Kentucky beat Florida, 20-13, for the first win in Lexington over the Gators since 1986. (Red Sox fan Dan Mullen will remember that as the Bill Buckner year.) They earned a No. 16 ranking in the AP Top 25, which was released Sunday. 

How good are the Wildcats? That’s hard to say. They muddled past Missouri, Chattanooga and South Carolina, which isn't exactly a murderers’ row.

But Kentucky has a top-10 defense and a showcase game next week with flailing LSU coming to Lexington. Kentucky will likely be favored, and a win would set up the Oct. 16 game at Georgia to have similar stakes as the Arkansas game did in Athens on Saturday. There’s little to project that Kentucky’s trip to Athens would be much different, but today Kentucky can dare to dream.

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