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College football winners and losers: Another empty season for Penn State

It has been another eventful weekend of college football. Here are some of the biggest winners and losers so far:

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It is probably too severe to suggest the Nittany Lions’ season is a failure after a 24-15 loss at home to Michigan left them winless (again) against the two most consequential centers of gravity in the Big Ten. But there’s simply no way this fall can be a satisfying one for James Franklin’s program.

After going 11-2 last year with a victory in the Rose Bowl but no playoff hopes after Halloween thanks to losses to Ohio State and Michigan, the best Penn State can do this year is … go 11-2 with a victory in some New Year’s Six bowl but no playoff hopes after Veterans Day thanks to losses to Ohio State and Michigan.

Much like in their Oct. 21 loss in Columbus, the Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) could not muster enough offense even while doing a compelling job of bottling up an elite opponent. Michigan (10-0, 7-0) rushed for 227 yards, but that was still a step back from trampling Penn State for 418 yards on the ground last year.

Of course, the Jim Harbaugh-less Wolverines treated the forward pass as if it were a novelty, attempting only eight throws. There wasn’t much incentive to take many risks when it was clear the Nittany Lions couldn’t solve the Michigan defense.

Penn State has Rutgers (at home) and Michigan State (in Detroit) still to come, and Franklin could very well grouse about how his program (which could win 11 games for the fifth time in eight seasons) isn’t fully appreciated. But there’s no getting around how the Nittany Lions are clearly the third-best program in their soon-to-vanish division.

Maryland (winner)

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The Terrapins’ four-game skid is over after Jack Howes’s 24-yard field goal as time expired sealed a 13-10 victory at Nebraska. Maryland (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) forced five turnovers, and while it managed only a pair of field goals off the takeaways, that was enough to scrape past the Cornhuskers (5-5, 3-4) in Lincoln.

The big-picture significance of the victory was it made the Terps bowl-eligible for the third consecutive season, the first time that has happened since 2006 to 2008. It also ensured Maryland wouldn’t have a chance to join 2009 Kansas and 2018 Colorado as the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs to start a season 5-0 before losing seven in a row to close it out.

Alabama (winner)

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The Crimson Tide (9-1, 7-0 SEC) offered a master class in how to open a game when there was plenty still at stake.

Alabama’s first three drives in a 49-21 trouncing of Kentucky: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.

What Kentucky mustered in response: three-and-out, fumble on the first play, three-and-out.

The rest of the proceedings were academic after those six possessions, even if more than 49 minutes remained in the game. Alabama rolled to its eighth consecutive victory, clinching the SEC West title along the way, and has to navigate a Football Championship Subdivision program (Chattanooga) and the Iron Bowl on the Plains to set up a titanic conference title game against Georgia, quite possibly with a playoff berth on the line.

Oklahoma State (loser)

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The Cowboys had won five in a row. They had just taken the last scheduled game in the Bedlam series from Big 12-to-SEC defector Oklahoma. They were tied for the conference lead.

And then came one of the season’s most startling thuds: a 45-3 beatdown absorbed at Central Florida.

A regular, run-of-the-mill loss could be chalked up as a matter of failing to reload the musket. Last week was emotional. Oklahoma State probably wasn’t going to play at as high of a level as it had for the past month. Setbacks happen.

But to manage just 277 yards? For running back Ollie Gordon II’s out-of-nowhere Heisman Trophy campaign to fizzle with 25 yards on 12 carries? For Oklahoma State to give up points on Central Florida’s first four possessions and never get its defense on track?

The Cowboys (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) were never in it. And in the process, they offered the season’s best case study to date on the week-to-week variability that usually is one of the sport’s most enlivening factors.

Washington (winner)

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The Huskies remained undefeated with a 35-28 triumph over Utah.

And they did it while, ahem, dropping the ball when given the chance to tack on to what was a five-point advantage late in the third quarter.

Washington (10-0, 7-0 Pac-12) is three victories away from a playoff berth. But if — if — losing a touchdown because a defensive player brought an interception back to the 1 but didn’t bother to carry it into the end zone had cost the Huskies an unblemished season and a possible spot in the national semifinals, it would have been one of the sport’s most notable errors this century.

As it stands, it’s just a footnote — a bizarre and mind-boggling footnote, but a footnote nonetheless — as the Huskies avoided a misstep at home.

Brennan Armstrong (winner)

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It’s not difficult to imagine how satisfying Saturday was for Armstrong, whose past two seasons have not unfolded in particularly enjoyable fashion.

The sixth-year college player threw for 4,449 yards at Virginia in 2021, then stayed after a coaching change and endured a miserable season with the Cavaliers last season. With an extra year of eligibility to use, he transferred to North Carolina State, only to lose his starting job in the middle of the season to MJ Morris — whom the Wolfpack had planned to redshirt this season.

Armstrong’s career looked as if it would end as a change-of-pace rusher, except for an unexpected plot twist: Morris informed N.C. State Coach Dave Doeren that he would still like to use the redshirt year. That meant he couldn’t play in any more than four games, and Morris hit that plateau last week.

Reenter Armstrong, who threw for 111 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 96 yards and a score in a 26-6 victory at Wake Forest. N.C. State (7-3, 4-2 ACC) clinched a winning season with its rare victory in Winston-Salem, and Armstrong’s second stint as the Wolfpack’s starter got off to an effective, largely mistake-free start.

Missouri (winner)

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A week after sticking with Georgia on the road, the Tigers offered further validation of their strong season by smashing Tennessee, 36-7.

Cody Schrader did plenty of the work on offense for Missouri (8-2, 4-2 SEC), rushing for 205 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries while tacking on five catches for 116 yards. His work — behind a strong offensive line — permitted the Tigers to hold an almost 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession. Tennessee couldn’t stop the run, which meant it didn’t have much of a chance.

While the most notable big-picture impact of the result was Georgia clinching the SEC East before it took the field against Mississippi on Saturday night, Missouri has earned some flowers as well. It has posted all four of its SEC victories by double digits, and a 10-win season is within reach with Florida (at home) and Arkansas (in Fayetteville) to close out the month.

The Tigers won’t be a playoff team, but their only losses are to LSU and Georgia, and a high-end bowl berth is within reach. There haven’t been many real surprises this season — and even fewer with any staying power. Missouri, much to its credit, is a noteworthy exception.

Iowa (winner)

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The Hawkeyes didn’t just blank Rutgers, 22-0; they ended the day in firm control of the Big Ten West thanks to the inconsistency of the rest of the division.

Iowa (8-2, 5-2) began the day a game up on three teams in the division. But Nebraska committed five turnovers while losing at home to Maryland, Wisconsin dropped a 24-10 decision at home to Northwestern, and Minnesota was drubbed, 49-30, at Purdue.

And just like that, the Hawkeyes are a victory from locking up a spot in next month’s league title game against Michigan or Ohio State. Iowa’s first chance to clinch is next week when it plays host to Illinois.

UNLV (winner)

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The Rebels stayed in the Mountain West title race Friday, hammering Wyoming, 34-14, as Jayden Maiava threw for 232 yards and accounted for three touchdowns (two rushing).

UNLV (8-2, 5-1) has won eight games for the first time since 2000, when it beat Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl to get to 8-5. The Rebels hadn’t won eight regular season games since 1984, when Randall Cunningham was quarterbacking a team that went 11-2.

Unsurprisingly, the Rebels haven’t sniffed a conference title game, something that remains in play after polishing off Wyoming (6-4, 3-3). UNLV visits Air Force next, and a victory over the Mountain West-leading Falcons would ensure the Rebels could maintain championship dreams into their regular season finale against San Jose State.

Liberty (winner)

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The Flames (10-0) collected their latest blowout victory Saturday, ripping Old Dominion, 38-10, as Kaidon Salter threw three touchdown passes and rushed for two more scores.

Liberty, which has already clinched a berth in the Conference USA title game, has won just twice by a single-digit margin. Both came in the midst of C-USA’s midseason carnival of midweek games — a 21-16 defeat of Sam Houston on Oct. 5 and a 42-35 victory over Middle Tennessee a dozen days later.

Jamey Chadwell’s Flames didn’t crack the latest playoff committee rankings, though those are generally meaningless measures of anything until the final week of the season. But a Liberty team that gets to 13-0 would presumably be in the conversation to land the Group of Five’s berth to the New Year’s Six structure.

An undefeated season is perfectly plausible. The Flames close November against Massachusetts and UTEP, a pair of 3-7 teams, and whomever they face in the league title game will be a team they have already defeated.

Georgia (winner)

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No scare this week for the Bulldogs, who demolished Mississippi, 52-17, to improve to 10-0. It was the 27th consecutive victory for Georgia (10-0, 7-0 SEC), which clinched a spot in the SEC title game earlier in the day when Tennessee lost to Missouri.

Unlike a week earlier, when Georgia scratched out a 30-21 victory over Missouri, the Bulldogs had little trouble establishing control against the Rebels (8-2, 5-2). Carson Beck threw for 306 yards, and the Georgia offensive line helped the Bulldogs roll up 300 yards on the ground. It was a vintage showing for Kirby Smart’s bunch.

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