Even so, his job, Nittany Lions athletic director Sandy Barbour said, is entirely safe.
"James is not on any hot seat," Barbour said Wednesday, speaking at a casino in Blair County, responding to questions about a 49-10 loss to Michigan last week. "He's not on the hot seat, and he's not going to be on the hot seat in December.
"James is going to be our football coach," she said, according to the Altoona (Pa.) Record. "I believe in where this football program is going under James Franklin, and I think he's going to be our football coach, period."
Barbour said scholarship sanctions that are part of Penn State's recent reality were not part of the path Michigan took to a strong rebound under Jim Harbaugh the past two seasons.
"Was Saturday disappointing? Of course it was. But no one's more disappointed than our coaching staff and our student-athletes in our football program," Barbour said of losing to fourth-ranked Michigan. "So I certainly understand where our fans are coming from and the disappointment."
Barbour held tight to the assertion Franklin is the right coach for Penn State, no matter how questions were phrased and directed.
"I think I've been really, really clear on I think he's doing a spectacular job as a teacher, as a coach, as a leader of these young men," she said. "That's really, really important to Penn State. He and his staff are absolutely nailing that.
"I believe that James is the right guy, and yeah, he's going to be our football coach."
Penn State was 7-6 in 2014 and again in 2015. At 2-2 this season, the Nittany Lions are not a challenger in the Big Ten and have never been ranked in the Top 25 since Franklin arrived from Vanderbilt, where he was 39-24 in three seasons.
"You may know more about it than I do," Saban said.
Barnett, according to AL.com, plans to transfer, which would make the second-stringer the fourth quarter to leave Tuscaloosa.
"Blake is a fine young man, he's done a good job in this program," Saban said. "We'd love to see him be a part of this program in the future. But we also want him to do what's best for him."
Saban said Barnett visited him before Wednesday's practice "with some concerns about his future."
A redshirt freshman, Barnett started the season-opening win over Southern California but the former five-star recruit was benched for Jalen Hurts. Hurts, a true freshman, has eight touchdowns (three rushing) and one interception with three starts for No. 1-ranked Alabama.
Cooper Bateman, a junior, would be the Crimson Tide's backup quarterback.
Barnett would join a quarterback exodus from Alabama under Saban that includes Parker McLeod, Luke Del Rio and Alec Morris. Barnett is from Corona, Calif., and was an Elite 11 camp finalist recruited primarily by current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Barnett drew a blue-blood crowd on the recruiting trail, including Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arizona and Duke.
Fisher, in his seventh season with the Seminoles, was asked again by reporters about the opening after LSU fired longtime coach Les Miles on Sunday.
"I love this university," Fisher said Wednesday, "and I plan on being here for a long time. I love Florida State, and that's all I'm saying. Anything else is clutter and does not concern me and is not involving me."
Fisher coached seven seasons as an offensive coordinator at LSU and helped Nick Saban -- now Alabama's coach -- win a national championship in 2003. Fisher is 71-15 as Florida State's head coach and has won three ACC championships and a national title.
On Monday during his press conference before No. 12 FSU hosts North Carolina on Saturday, Fisher did not flat-out deny interest in LSU.
"I'm not talking about LSU," Fisher said Monday. "No, I haven't (heard from LSU). And I'm not talking about it. We're talking about North Carolina."
Fisher is under contract through the 2022 season and is making $5.075 million this season. His contract buyout drops from $5 million to $3 million on Jan. 1, 2017.
Miles was fired after the Tigers got off to a disappointing 2-2 start, including an 18-13 road loss to Auburn last Saturday in which LSU's potential game-winning touchdown was nullified because the ball was snapped after time expired.
Now the No. 24 Broncos focus their sights on Mountain West Conference play when they host the team that knocked them out of those same ratings a year ago, the Utah State Aggies, on Saturday night (10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN2) at Albertsons Stadium.
The Broncos (3-0), who eventually finished in a four-way tie for second place in the Mountain Division behind Air Force, were ranked 20th when the host Aggies jumped out to a 45-10 halftime lead and cruised to a 52-26 victory. So it shouldn't take much for head coach Bryan Harsin to get his team ready for this year's rematch.
"Every week you've got to find a way to motivate yourselves, you've got to find a way to motivate your team," defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. "Some weeks are easier than others. Obviously, this week -- Utah State got after us pretty good last year so ..."
Actually, the defense was only partly to blame for the loss. Boise State's offense finished with eight turnovers, including seven in the first half, and the Aggies parlayed three of them into 21 points in the final 85 seconds of the half.
Afterward, Utah State coach Matt Wells called the victory "maybe the greatest win in program history. It's huge. I make no bones about it."
Turned out both teams finished looking up to an unheralded Air Force squad in the final standings.
"I think it's time to set it straight," defensive lineman Elliot Hoyte said. "This is a completely different year and we want to come out with a (win) ... (But) that memory is still fresh even a year out."
Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols rushed 28 times for a career-high 208 yards and scored a career-high four touchdowns in the win over Oregon State. He has now scored a touchdown in all 15 games he has started in his career.
"He was awesome," Harsin told the Idaho Statesman. "The one thing I think you see in J-Mac ... is how much more physical he was. He got angry out there."
McNichols scored on runs of 5, 6 and 70 yards, and added a 6-yard touchdown reception on a shovel pass from sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien. It was the first time that a Boise State running back ran for 200 yards since Jay Ajayi on Nov. 29, 2014, against Utah State, which was also the last time a Bronco scored four touchdowns in a game.
McNichols, who has been somewhat overshadowed by San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey when it comes to top running backs in the Mountain West, now has nine career games with 100 or more rushing yards, all in his past 11 appearances.
Utah State (2-2) enters the contest off a 27-20 home loss to Air Force and could be without two of its best players, running back Devante Mays and safety Dallin Leavitt.
Mays, who sat out Utah State's 34-20 win over Arkansas State a week earlier with an undisclosed leg injury, did not start against the Falcons and left after carrying just once for two yards. He had a career-high 208 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a season opening win over Weber State, so his loss would be a big one for the Aggies.
The same could be said if Leavitt, who has emerged as the leader of Utah State's secondary, can't go. He left the Air Force loss in the third quarter with an ankle injury.
"We'll see about Leavitt and Mays," Wells said at his weekly press conference. "If they are out an extended time, I'll let you know. And if they're not, it'll be day-to-day and we won't talk about it much anymore."
Boise State has won 16 consecutive conference openers and is 97-6 at home since 2000, a 94.2 winning percentage that ranks as the best in the nation during that span.
The No. 19 Aztecs went 341 polls without being ranked before cracking the rankings Sept. 18 and aim not to stumble when they visit South Alabama in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPNews).
San Diego State didn't remain ranked very long back in 1995. The Aztecs fell out as quickly as they climbed in by losing 34-31 to Wyoming.
But San Diego State, which didn't play last week, is back among the elite and intends to hang around a lot longer this time around.
"It feels great to just be able to get the recognition we felt we deserved," standout senior running back Donnel Pumphrey said. "Our team, we expected it. We're all happy and we're ready for the next test -- which is South Alabama."
Oh yeah, South Alabama.
This San Diego State squad should have plenty of motivation when it comes to avoiding the upset. You see, the Jaguars (2-2) defeated the Aztecs 34-27 in overtime last season in San Diego.
San Diego State players and coaches sure don't need much reminding of that defeat.
"Anytime somebody beats you, you relish the chance to return the favor," Aztecs coach Rocky Long said. "My idea that last year's game was two teams of similar playing ability was exactly wrong. They outplayed us bad. You have to give them credit."
South Alabama senior outside linebacker Roman Buchanan is interested in making it consecutive wins over the Aztecs. He also expects to confront an angry group of San Diego State players.
"They're definitely gunning for us," Buchanan said. "I would expect nothing less than that. They're a really good team, and they don't take lightly somebody coming into their house and beating them. So they definitely want to return the favor."
The Aztecs (3-0) are streaking as they enter the rematch. They have won their past 13 games -- second best in the nation behind top-ranked Alabama (16) -- and have won 11 of those by 14 or more points.
Another victory would give the program its first 4-0 start since 1981.
Not only is San Diego State gaining rare national attention, Pumphrey leads the nation in rushing yards per game (199.7) and is receiving mention as a possible top-five Heisman Trophy finisher.
Pumphrey recently surpassed Marshall Faulk's school career rushing mark of 4,589 yards and that has elevated his status and increased his national profile. He has 4,871 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns -- including 599 yards and seven touchdowns in three games this season.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Pumphrey is only 129 yards away from becoming the 21st player in college football history to rush for 5,000 career yards.
"He kind of reminds me of Reggie Bush, he is that type of back," South Alabama coach Joey Jones said in reference to the former USC star and current NFL player. "He is what I call a one-step cutter, he can be running full speed and it only takes him one step to change direction at a great angle.
"He has the speed to take it home, if you miss him and he gets out in the open field he can score from 60, 80 yards out. He's a guy who can make big plays."
South Alabama did a capable job on Pumphrey last season. Pumphrey finished with 102 rushing yards but needed 28 carries to reach that total.
Buchanan and senior safety Kalen Jackson are tied for the team tackle lead with 33. Buchanan has a team-best five tackles for losses and Jackson has 4 1/2. Senior defensive end Randy Allen has a team-leading 3 1/2 sacks.
Offensively, sophomore quarterback Dallas Davis passed for 1,130 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions this season, while senior tight end Gerald Everett has 21 receptions for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
Davis' most memorable performance was rallying the Jaguars from a 17-point deficit to record a 21-20 victory over Mississippi State in the season opener. He tossed a game-winning 4-yard touchdown pass to Everett on fourth down with 57 seconds remaining for the decisive points.
San Diego State's defense is led by linebacker Calvin Munson (team-best 34 tackles) and cornerback Damontae Kazee (12 career interceptions). Senior defensive end Alex Barrett has contributed four sacks.
Sophomore quarterback Christian Chapman threw for six touchdowns against two interceptions this season.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops isn't the least bit interested in advancing that theory.
Stoops feels winning the Big 12 title would rate as a big accomplishment and Oklahoma begins its hunt for the conference crown when it visits No. 21 TCU on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, FOX) at Fort Worth, Texas.
"We've won a lot of championships around here with a couple losses," said Stoops, who has won or shared nine conference titles since becoming coach in 1999. "Keep fighting, keep improving. The better teams improve through the year and that's what we have to do. We have to keep improving this week to next week."
The Horned Frogs (2-1, 1-0) also find themselves in must-win mode if they want to have a chance at becoming part of the College Football Playoff discussion.
TCU suffered a home loss to Arkansas earlier this season and there isn't any remaining wiggle room.
Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson has been selling his team on the importance of the Big 12 title since the nonconference loss to the Razorbacks and his message only increased this week.
There is also the matter of starting a new home venue winning streak. TCU had won 14 straight at home prior to the Arkansas loss.
"One of the things you can't take for granted, the home crowd can give you emotion, but it can't be your emotion," Patterson said. "That's one thing as a young football team you've got to learn. You can feed off of it, but you already have to have it."
The Horned Frogs certainly are proficient on offense again this season -- averaging 42.8 points per game -- and junior quarterback Kenny Hill has led the way.
The Texas A&M transfer has been a solid passer by completing 66.1 percent of his throws for 1,487 yards and six touchdowns. He has topped 400 yards passing in two of his four games for TCU.
Hill also has been a potent force in the running game with 166 yards and six touchdowns. His rushing yards are second behind junior Kyle Hicks (314).
Another SEC transfer, junior John Diarse, has also made an impact. The former LSU wideout caught six passes for a career-high 139 yards in last Friday's victory over SMU, including a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
He has caught 16 passes already this season after totaling 28 in two seasons at LSU.
"Diarse has been in big ballgames at LSU, and he transferred here because he wanted to catch more balls," Patterson said. "The bottom line is he's done a great job."
The Sooners have also been productive offensively while averaging 35.3 points. Junior quarterback Baker Mayfield has passed for 793 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions.
Mayfield sees the potential to do more individually. He's also got the same view as Stoops when hearing all the naysayers pontificating about how Oklahoma has nothing to play for.
"I mean, we can still end up playing in a New Year's Day bowl in one of the big-time bowl games," Mayfield said. "It's not discouraging at all. If you can go end up and play in something like the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl again -- I mean, I know the playoffs are in Atlanta and Arizona -- but other than that, yeah, one of the other big-time bowl games is obviously a big accomplishment that we can go do."
The Sooners have been suspect on defense and are one of seven teams nationally without an interception. Oklahoma is allowing 31.7 points and was drilled for 33 and 45 points in losses to Houston and Ohio State, respectively.
TCU's defense just got its first two interceptions of the campaign in the 33-3 rout of SMU. The Horned Frogs have allowed just 23 points over their last two games and getting torched for 82 over their first two.
Sophomore outside linebacker Ty Summers leads TCU with 39 tackles after recording a combined 29 over the past two games.
Oklahoma leads the series 10-5 and has won five of the six previous matchups in Fort Worth.
The Sooners won 30-29 at home last season and led by 17 points in the fourth quarter before the Horned Frogs staged a rally.
The 14th-ranked Hurricanes start the month by playing Georgia Tech Saturday in their ACC opener. Kickoff is set for noon ET at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Both teams will have had extra rest when they meet with the Hurricanes (3-0) coming off a bye week and the Yellow Jackets having played on Thursday night last week. The Jackets lost that game 26-7 to Clemson to fall to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the conference.
Often, the extra time Miami has had to prepare is viewed as a bonus for Tech's opponents, who can use the time to tune up for the Yellow Jackets' triple-option, ground-oriented offense.
But though the Jackets are averaging an impressive 216 yards per game rushing for the season, this doesn't look to be the business-as-usual Tech attack under coach Paul Johnson.
A huge chunk of that rushing yardage came against Mercer in the second week of the season when the Jackets rushed for 364 yards against the FCS foe. They added 289 against SEC bottom dweller Vanderbilt the next week.
Against Boston College, they had only 119 yards rushing and then last week were held to just 95 in the loss to Clemson.
Still, Miami coach Mark Richt is respectful of the Yellow Jackets' ground game, no doubt in part because he saw it first-hand every year during his 15-year run at Georgia.
"Clemson obviously did a very good job and got their numbers down," Richt said of the Jackets' rushing. "But that's a rarity."
It was only the fourth time under Johnson, who took over in 2008, that Tech has failed to get at least 100 yards on the ground, and was its lowest rushing total since the last time the Jackets played Clemson and managed only 71 yards on the ground last Oct. 10.
The Jackets had just 22 yards of total offense against Clemson in the first half, which ended with the Tigers leading 23-0. To their credit, the Jackets never quit and held the visiting Tigers to a field goal over the final two quarters.
"Well, clearly Thursday night last week didn't go as we would have hoped," Johnson said. "I think Clemson has a really good football team, and you couple that with the fact we played about as poorly as you could play, especially offensively, you are not going to get the results you would like to have.
"The good news is you get to play again in this sport. You get to move onto the next game and we have another game on Saturday against another undefeated and nationally ranked team. We have a chance to see if we can come out and play better than we did on Thursday night."
True freshman B-back Dedrick Mills ended up as Tech's leading rusher with a career-high 75 rushing yards and a touchdown. In just three games, he has scored five touchdowns to tie for fourth in the ACC in the category.
Miami has had a relatively light month to start the season with big wins over Florida A&M (70-3), Florida Atlantic (38-10), and Appalachian State (45-10).
Sophomore running back Mark Walton has spearheaded an offense that has produced 816 yards rushing, but he is far from a one-man show. He has rushed for 401 yards in averaging 8.1 per carry, but junior Joe Yearby is right behind with 256 and a 7.3 average. Together they have rushed for 11 touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya has thrown three interceptions over the last two games and struggled trying to get comfortable against Florida Atlantic. But he was sharp in the win over Appalachian State, completing 21 of 27 attempts for 368 yards and three touchdowns.
That's a good sign for Miami with what is coming up.
After the trip to Atlanta, the Hurricanes host Florida State on Oct. 8 and are home again to take on North Carolina on Oct. 15. They have a quick turnaround with a Thursday night date at Virginia Tech on Oct. 20, then finish the month with a trip north to Notre Dame on Oct. 29.
Tech, which needs a win to avoid falling to 1-2 in conference play, is at Pittsburgh next for its first true road game. The Jackets opened the season against Boston College in Australia and have been home for their last three games.
Now nearly a full month into the season, injuries are starting to mount for Nebraska, particularly along its offensive line.
After losing a projected starter in Jerald Foster to a season-ending knee injury during fall camp, the Huskers were already thin on an offensive front that featured three new starters and two others taking over new positions.
Now it looks like Nebraska (4-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) might be down another starter this week against Illinois (1-2, 0-0), as sophomore right guard Tanner Farmer is considered doubtful and mostly likely out after suffering a high ankle sprain in Saturday's 24-13 win over Northwestern.
"Tanner is probably out," head coach Mike Riley said. "It's a high ankle sprain. He might need right through the bye to be healthy for the following week. So we'll see about that."
Nebraska was already using a former tackle in senior walk-on Sam Hahn to replace Foster at left guard, and while senior Corey Whitaker would take over for Farmer if he is indeed ruled out, the depth after that suddenly becomes a major concern.
Riley said right now the top backups at guard would be true freshman Boe Wilson and redshirt freshman Jalin Barnett, neither of which have played a single meaningful snap in their college careers.
In fact, while Wilson was briefly in the discussion for immediate playing time before the season, Riley had since stated he wanted to redshirt the former three-star prospect in 2016. Barnett, a former four-star recruit, has been plagued by minor injuries in his own right.
"It's just kind of the next man up kind of thing," Hahn said. "If somebody goes down, it's next person up to step up and make plays. We just have to get prepared in practice every day and take it from there."
The good news is that the Huskers feel good about Whitaker -- who earned one of the highest grades of any Husker offensive lineman after filling in for Farmer at Northwestern -- stepping into the starting lineup.
But the lack of depth after the first group could present some problems this week against an Illinois defensive line that Riley called the best Nebraska will have seen all season.
"We've lost two scout team players as a matter of fact, so our offensive line depth right now is not great," Riley said. "We've got to get this lineup set for this week and figure out how to practice for our defense, too, as we go through the week."
Riley won't get much sympathy from his former NFL head coaching colleague Lovie Smith at Illinois. The Fighting Illini come in off a 25-point loss to North Carolina and a 24-point loss to Western Michigan, and Smith decided to have the team go through a full contact practice on Tuesday to get ready for the Huskers.
"You try to hit on all phases of your game; special teams, of course the offense, defense," Smith said when asked what he hoped to accomplish during the bye week. "We've given up some big plays; we haven't made enough big plays on the other side of the ball. (We're) just really tightening the bolts on who we want to be. Not just in one area, it was all of us looking in the mirror. I think it's pretty obvious on what we need to do better; that's what we concentrated on."
No doubt one major emphasis for the Illini is trying to come up with a game plan to defend Nebraska's dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
Armstrong accounted for 378 yards of total offense in Nebraska's victory at Northwestern, including setting a career-high with 132 rushing yards on just 13 carries en route to Big Ten Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. Armstrong has now rushed for 227 yards over the past two games, and his running ability and Nebraska's willingness to use it has completely changed the identity of the Husker offense.
Nebraska is averaging 242.0 rushing yards per game to rank third in the Big Ten and 21st nationally. The Cornhuskers had a season-high 310 rushing yards at Northwestern and have rushed for at least 200 yards in three of four games.
But Nebraska is also among the nation's most balanced offensive attacks. The Huskers are also averaging 243.0 passing yards per game and 485.0 total yards per game, which ranks 23rd in the nation.
The Volunteers visit Georgia to take on the No. 25 Bulldogs at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN) at Sanford Stadium in Athens.
Tennessee will be looking to carry over the momentum gained from its second-half comeback in a 38-28 win over Florida last week while the Bulldogs are hoping to get the pieces back together from the 45-14 thrashing they took from Ole Miss.
"The silver lining is you get another opportunity to play a good team this week," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. "The opportunity that we have looking forward is what we're fired up about.
"I mean, the best thing we can do is look forward and continue to develop our players to get better. My end goal is for each guy to play his best game this game. That's what we want."
Coming off a 28-27 win at Missouri that ran their record to 3-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC, the Bulldogs never got their game going at Ole Miss until the issue was long decided. The Rebels led 31-0 at the halftime break and stretched their lead to 45-0 before the 'Dogs got a touchdown late in the third quarter and another in the fourth.
There was little to take out of that, but Smart did the best he could.
"It was important to them to get the backs in there, and the backs ran hard," Smart said. "I think that part was really what I wanted to see out of them, was no quit, fight your tail off, and keep battling.
"As far as momentum, I wouldn't say it created any momentum."
Quarterback Jacob Eason, who engineered the comeback against Missouri, played more like the freshman he is at Ole Miss. He threw for 303 yards and three scores, but was completed only 16 of 36 attempts.
Of concern now is the condition of tailback Nick Chubb's ankle. He had only 57 yards on 12 carries against the Rebels.
"He's going to continue to rehab really hard," Smart said. "We're obviously hopeful he'll be able to do something, but we won't know more until later in the week. But it is an ankle injury."
For a while, it seemed as if Tennessee was bound for the same kind of day as the Bulldogs when the Volunteers fell behind Florida 21-3 at the half. But Tennessee came roaring out of the locker room in the third quarter, scoring 28 points in a little more than four minutes, and ran off 35 consecutive points before the Gators managed a late score to cut the final margin to 10 points.
The comeback not only snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Gators but confirmed the Volunteers as a the favorite in the SEC East, a distinction they can solidify with a win over the Bulldogs.
"I was very proud of the way our kids competed," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I thought they competed even in the first half. I thought we competed for 60 minutes. We had some individuals really step up and play winning football for us."
Since going 26-of-48 passing for 283 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Appalachian State at home and Virginia Tech in Bristol, quarterback Joshua Dobbs has gone 35 for 59 for 522 yards and six scores in wins over Ohio and Florida. He passed for three touchdowns and ran for two in last year's 38-31 win over the Bulldogs.
After hosting the Volunteers, the Bulldogs go to South Carolina and get Vanderbilt at home before getting an open date before their Oct. 29 game against Florida.
Tennessee the unenviable task of going to Texas A&M and hosting Alabama the next two weeks, which puts even more emphasis on this week's encounter.
"As we know, it's a week-to-week season," Jones said. "The more you win, the more that is at stake."
But having an extra week off in September probably couldn't have come at a better time for the No. 22 Texas Longhorns, who open Big 12 Conference action on Saturday afternoon (noon on ABC) in Stillwater, Okla., against the Oklahoma State Cowboys (2-2, 0-1) in Boone Pickens Stadium.
The Longhorns (2-1, 0-0), who opened the season with impressive back-to-back wins over Notre Dame and UTEP, needed a little extra time to try and find some answers for a defense that surrendered 50 points and 507 yards in a 50-43 loss at Cal on Sept. 17.
Texas coach Charlie Strong said it's just a matter of some minor adjustments. He said there are three elements to fix.
"We've got to get better fundamentally," Strong said. "We got to learn the concepts. ... And then we've got to devise a game plan where we can be successful."
Perhaps Strong was being deliberately general. But needing to improve the players' physical and mental approach and the coaches' game planning seems like major improvements are needed throughout the defense.
The Texas coach also said he will take a more active role on the defensive side. Asked whether he considered demoting defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, Strong essentially replied that there wasn't time to make that move.
And he gave his DC a vote of confidence.
"We know we've had our issues on defense," Strong said. "I have a lot of confidence in Vance Bedford and I know Vance is going to do a good job. We had a lot of time just to sit down and look at the games that we've played this season and just how much better we could have been.
"(Bedford) is a professional and I look at his track record. It's not like he all the sudden forgot how to coach defense."
Now the Longhorns begin a stretch of nine consecutive weeks of Big 12 action with a trip to Stillwater, where they have won eight straight times.
Oklahoma State comes in off a closer-than-the-final-score-indicates 35-24 loss at No. 13 Baylor. While the Longhorns have plenty of holes to fix on defense, the Cowboys will focus on cleaning things up on offense this week.
Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Baylor 4-yard line, Cowboys running back Rennie Childs was stuffed early in the fourth quarter with Oklahoma State trailing 28-24. Another chance was blown when another running back, Justice Hill, lost a fumble deep in Baylor territory.
"I hate it because if you take six or eight crucial mistakes out, we probably played well enough to win the game," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "If you can't take care of the ball, it doesn't do any good to have (a running back) in there. I know (Hill is) a freshman and I understand that, but he has to take care of the football."
The missed opportunity early in the fourth quarter at the Baylor 4-yard line did not incorporate the arm or legs of quarterback Mason Rudolph, whose sound performance led to an 11-for-15 ratio on third down conversions. In addition, a field goal could have trimmed the deficit to one point and at least provided the Cowboys some points.
"I didn't feel like a field goal would win the game," Gundy said. "I thought we had to score touchdowns."
He may have been right, though the last score Baylor managed came after the fumble by Hill, when Oklahoma State had 99 yards to work with on defense but could not keep the Bears out of the end zone.
Texas will be without senior offensive lineman Kent Perkins, an NFL prospect, for this one. Perkins was arrested for driving while intoxicated on Friday morning and is suspended for the Oklahoma State game.
Strong came down almost as hard on Perkins's teammates as the offensive lineman.
"There was enough of our players wherever you were, enough of you were around, let's look out for one another,'" Strong said he told his squad. "There's a guy that's 300 pounds, how could we lose him?"
Texas leads the all-time series with Oklahoma State 24-6, but the Cowboys won four of the last six meetings.
Then again, the lineup of opponents was pretty tame as the Wolverines averaged 52 points -- fourth most nationally -- while carving their way to four consecutive victories.
But the schedule becomes much more arduous when No. 4 Michigan hosts No. 8 Wisconsin in a Big Ten slugfest on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) in the first meeting between the programs since 2010.
The Badgers also own a 4-0 mark -- both squads are 1-0 in Big Ten play -- and have notched signature victories over LSU and Michigan State.
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh took one look at the Badgers on film and had an immediate reaction.
"Big team," Harbaugh said. "I'm wondering if the field is going to be wide enough."
Traveling up and down the field might be the bigger concern for Michigan as Wisconsin ranks seventh nationally in scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and 12th in total defense (277.0 yards per game).
The Badgers are fresh off a dominating 30-6 road victory over Michigan State -- a contest in which they forced four turnovers and held the Spartans to 75 rushing yards.
Wisconsin will also arrive in Ann Arbor with a collective chip on its shoulders. The Badgers are bewildered about being tabbed double-digit underdogs, particularly due to the early-season dominance of their defense.
"We don't have a weak spot," said junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the younger brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt. "I'm not saying that because I'm being cocky. I truly feel like we have 11 guys on defense -- plus depth -- that can get the job done."
Watt has a team-leading 4 1/2 sacks and his 18 tackles rank second on the squad behind junior inside linebacker Jack Cichy (23). Junior cornerback Derrick Tindal has contributed two interceptions.
Wisconsin allows just 80.5 yards per game on the ground so something has to give as Michigan rolled up 326 rushing yards in last Saturday's 49-10 trouncing of Penn State. The Wolverines are averaging 229.8 per game.
Senior running back De'Veon Smith leads Michigan with 259 rushing yards and boasts an impressive 6.6 average per carry.
The Wolverines are also moving the ball well through the air with sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight performing well as a first-year starter. Speight has thrown nine touchdown passes against one interception while completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 875 yards.
Do-it-all sophomore Jabrill Peppers will have an increased role on offense -- at his urging -- after touching the ball just twice (on rushes of 17 and 7 yards) through the first four games.
"He's made it clear he wants to do as much as possible," Harbaugh said. "That isn't in question. There's no question that all of our coaches, special teams, offense and defense, they're like a bull with their paw in the ground, they want Jabrill involved."
Peppers, who rotates between linebacker and safety on defense, has a staggering 9.5 tackles for losses and ranks second on the Wolverines with 33 tackles. He also leads the Big Ten with a 22.7-yard punt return average and has already had three returns of 50 or more yards (two punts, one kickoff).
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is impressed and called Peppers "a special football player."
"He does a lot of the little things that are kind of reserved for when you specialize in it," Chryst said. "That's what's impressive: his knowledge and awareness of the game. Clearly as an athlete, he's special, but I think the football part of him -- the understanding -- that's what to me really makes him. He's got to be the best player in college football right now."
The Badgers will account for Peppers each time they snap the ball as redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook aims to follow up a strong first career start.
Hornibrook passed for 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Spartans. While he impressed his teammates, Hornibrook's self-critique wasn't as glowing.
"I feel like I definitely could have done a lot of things better," Hornibrook said. "I was happy with the score, for sure. A win's a win, and it's awesome. But personally, I feel I could do a lot better."
The Badgers have won the past two meetings and rolled to a 48-28 victory at Ann Arbor in the 2010 contest when Chryst was the offense coordinator.
"Oh yeah, it was a good day. I liked it," Chryst recalled. "Means nothing this week."
O'Connor, who led the 17th-ranked Spartans to what at the time looked like an impressive road win at Notre Dame a week earlier, was pulled late in the loss to the Badgers in favor of redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke who completed two of four passes for 26 yards but also had an interception negated by a pass interference call.
It was the first time Michigan State failed to score a touchdown in a Big Ten game since 2010, but Dantonio wasn't putting all the blame on his quarterback.
"Football is a simple game in some respects but in other respects it becomes a complicated game and it's all tied together much like any puzzle," Dantonio said. "So the quarterback gets pressured, things start to happen in a negative way. Receivers are locked up, they can't get off press coverage and there is nobody to throw to then pressure starts to come even more because you can't hold the ball forever back there. And there are also times you got to find the open guy.
"So it's an accumulation of things and obviously we made some trips to the red zone and didn't score points. Gotta score touchdowns to win football games. -- But with all that being said the quarterback is gonna get more criticism and more praise probably than he deserves, on both ends of the stick. But that's the nature of college football and football in general and you have to be able to accept that in a position of leadership, including the head coach."
O'Connor was the first to take the blame following the loss, and to this point, there doesn't appear to be any plans to make a change at that position despite O'Connor's five interceptions through the first three games. But Dantonio did leave the door open for changes down the road.
"He needs to get better and he'll have his opportunities as the season moves forward," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "At this point in time there is no quarterback controversy. Now there may become one at some point. It's about production"
Michigan State (2-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will get a chance to work through it when it travels to Indiana (2-1, 0-0), which has some quarterback issues of its own, in the nighttime game in Bloomington on Saturday.
The Hoosiers come in off a 33-28 loss to Wake Forest that could have easily been a win, but quarterback Richard Lagow tossed five interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said only one of them was truly Lagow's fault, but no matter how you parse it, five interceptions is five interceptions.
Lagow also threw for 496 yards and three touchdowns, with two receivers going over 100 yards. However, the interceptions outweighed everything. To his credit, Lagow was watching video with wide receiver Mitchell Paige shortly after the loss, trying to figure things out.
"I like the way he's playing," Wilson said of Lagow, a highly touted junior college transfer. "Guys behind him got to play better. I didn't think he mismanaged anything. He had one really forced pick where maybe he should have checked down, but he's a product of our group and our group let him down."
One plus for Lagow and the Hoosiers is that Michigan State could be without two starting linebackers for the contest. Middle linebacker and senior captain Riley Bullough missed the Wisconsin game with a shoulder injury and is listed day-to-day while linebacker Jon Reschke is expected to be sidelined about a month after injuring his ankle late against the Badgers. Reschke has 13 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble this season.
It's hard to imagine, though, the memory of Memphis' 37-24 upset victory over Ole Miss midway through the 2015 season -- derailing any hope the Rebels had of reaching the College Football Playoff -- won't creep into at least some of their heads.
"We won't get into talking about we've got to do this (year) because of last year -- I am not a big fan of that," Freeze said. "Hopefully our kids will understand it is an important game and is one that should have our full attention for sure."
Ole Miss (2-2) is flying high after a 45-14 thumping of Georgia last week that dropped the Bulldogs from 13th to 25th in the Associated Press poll and served as a strong bounce-back effort following a 48-43 loss to top-ranked Alabama the week before.
"When you lose games like that and felt like you could have won, and when you have to hear about it in this world with all of the social media world, it hurts. It stings," Freeze said. "This one (Georgia) is pretty special."
With a season-opening loss to No. 12 Florida State and a road game looming at Arkansas next week, the Rebels cannot afford another slip-up if they are to entertain thoughts of reaching a significant bowl game. Ole Miss is a two-touchdown favorite Saturday, but must deal with a Tigers' offense that piled up 635 yards in a 77-3 victory over Bowling Green last week and has scored 155 points in three games this season.
Memphis junior quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed six touchdown passes and rushed for another last week while playing only the first half, drawing the praise of Freeze.
"He has played really well," Freeze said. "I don't know that it would be fair for me to try to asses it to (Paxton) Lynch until I see him live, but on film he is making every throw, he uses his feet, and seemed like a leader and competitive dude so I know they are pleased with him to this point for sure."
The Rebels have an explosive offense of their own, averaging 40 points behind the leadership of quarterback Chad Kelly. The senior completes 65.4 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, going 18 for 24 with two TDs against Georgia.
Kelly's favorite target is senior tight end Evan Engram, who boasts team highs with 26 catches for 397 yards and three touchdowns. Engram's success also creates opportunities for outside threats such as junior wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow (14-211-2).
"Every week we are moving him around a good bit," Freeze said of Engram. "The second part to that is they have other things to worry about than just Evan (Engram). We have some pretty good receivers. If you want to double him inside then there are some people outside that are in one-on-one situations."
Defensively, Ole Miss must pressure Ferguson and linebacker DeMarquis Gates appears up to the task. The junior recorded a pair of sacks among his team-high 30 tackles (12 solo) this season, with a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries also to his credit.
Memphis junior wide receiver Anthony Miller (17 catches, 273 yards, two touchdowns) will get to work against an inexperienced secondary that is learning on the job and part of the reason the Rebels allow 30 points per game.
Ferguson was named American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week after matching the school record by accounting for seven touchdowns set in 2014 and 2015 by Lynch, who was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos.
"I would say it was a good taste (but) there's still a lot of things we can do better, to say the least," said Ferguson, a junior-college transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. "We actually put up a lot of points (Saturday), but there's still things we can get better on, which is kind of scary."
Memphis is led defensively by junior linebacker Genard Avery, who owns a team-high four tackles for loss and an interception.
Tigers senior outside linebacker/defensive end DeMarco Montgomery (sack, two QB hurries) will miss the first half after he was ejected for targeting last week.
The Aggies will argue very strongly that based on recent history, it is October that has that dubious distinction.
Consider for the last two seasons that the Aggies have gotten off to great starts -- 5-0 in 2014 and 4-0 in September last year, seemingly putting themselves in position to make runs at favored Alabama and others in the SEC's West Division.
But then came October, and the Aggies were shown not to be contenders but mere pretenders. They were 0-3 in October two years ago and 2-2 in the month in 2015.
But coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping that the changes to his staff, which included Noel Mazzone replacing Jake Spavital as offensive coordinator, and the offseason program and approach by his players will make a difference this time around. The Aggies are once again 4-0 -- including two SEC wins -- as they kick off October on Saturday with a date against South Carolina at 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network) in Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
"We made some drastic changes throughout the program," Sumlin said. "We made some subtle changes throughout the program. Does that guarantee that things are going to change? No. Because performance guarantees change."
Well, so far, performances have been pretty good. The Aggies have thrived with Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight at quarterback and freshman running back Trayveon Williams emerging as the team's leading rusher.
Williams has rushed for 389 yards, 84 more than Knight, and has gone for 280 yards in the last two outings against Auburn and Arkansas. He had 153 yards in the 45-24 win over Arkansas as the Aggies broke the game open in the second half.
"Explosive" is the word Sumlin uses to describe the running back who came out of Houston's C.E. King High and enrolled at Texas A&M in January after originally committing to TCU.
"He did a lot for C.E. King," Sumlin said. "They had him all over the place. He's a guy that was always explosive. He was a little bit thinner, really a different build -- kind of high-split, long-legged guy, but had great hands. A guy we fortunately got flipped."
Though the status of defensive end Myles Garrett and receiver Ricky Seals-Jones remains somewhat in doubt because of injuries that Sumlin refuses to discuss, the Aggies figure to have their way against a South Carolina team that is struggling offensively. The Gamecocks will put one of the nation's lowest scoring offenses up against what is statistically a Top 20 defense for the Aggies.
Coach Will Muschamp's Gamecocks (2-2, 1-1) saw their scoring output drop to an average of 14.3 points per game with their 17-10 loss to Kentucky last week. Only Florida International scores less with its 13.5 average.
The Aggies, meanwhile, are holding their opponents to 16.0 points a game, good for a tie for 18th with Army among FBS teams.
With freshman Brandon McIlwain starting at quarterback, no ground game to speak of, and their most experienced receiver, sophomore Deebo Samuel, sidelined by a hamstring problem, it's easy to see why the Gamecocks are struggling getting points.
They were shut out in the first half before rallying to beat Vanderbilt 13-10 in their opener, got two touchdowns in the second half of a 27-14 loss at Mississippi State, and scored a season-high in a 20-15 win over East Carolina before their loss at Kentucky.
"Just disappointed with the lack of execution offensively and defensively just not playing blocks," Muschamp said after the loss to the Wildcats. "We'll continue to work and continue to improve. We've got a young group.
"It's frustrating in the passing game because of the lack of continuity."
But Sumlin has respect for the Gamecocks' defense, which ranks fifth in the SEC behind Florida, Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU in scoring defense in allowing just 17.3 points a game
"Defensively they're always going to be good," he said. "They're still trying to get an identity offensively, but defensively, there's never been a Will Muschamp team that hasn't been salty."
At first glance, it would seem Baylor should have nothing to worry about. The Bears opened as 17-point favorites and are playing a 1-3 Cyclones squad that lost at home to an FCS school, Northern Iowa (25-20), and was blown out by both Iowa (42-3) and TCU (41-20) before finally breaking through with a 44-10 home win over lowly San Jose State last week.
But this is the first Big 12 road contest for the Bears, who have lost two of the last three times they have visited Jack Trice Stadium.
"It's always tough going to Iowa State," Baylor quarterback Seth Russell told the Waco Tribune. "They have great fans and a great turnout every year. They have a grass field and we don't play on a grass field a whole lot, so it will be a little different."
Baylor lost on its first two trips to Ames, Iowa, under former head coach Art Briles before finally breaking through for a 49-28 win in 2014. A sellout crowd of over 50,000 is expected. The Bears have played just one nonconference road game, defeating Rice 38-10, before a turnout of just 27,047 at Rice Stadium, and the atmosphere figures to be much louder on Saturday.
The Bears remain the only unbeaten team in the Big 12, and they showed they could keep that distinction despite a huge step up in competition against Oklahoma State last Saturday night.
Baylor defeated the Cowboys 35-24 and did so with the same swagger that made the Bears contenders in the Big 12 the last three seasons. Baylor gave up yards, but held Oklahoma State out of the end zone at crucial moments.
On offense, Baylor showed versatility in its passing game. Russell threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Platt in the third quarter. Then in the fourth, Russell deftly led a 99-yard scoring drive during which he passed for 104 yards.
"I was happy that our players got challenged and bowed their necks a little bit and did what they needed to do, especially down the stretch to get a win," Baylor interim coach Jim Grobe said.
On the surface, the Bears seem to be handling this strange year with remarkable dexterity.
Grobe replaced Art Briles after Briles was fired in May for his part in Baylor's Title IX failings the past few years. As interim, Grobe has done his job of smiling after wins and offering up the usual head coach quotes.
But he doesn't seem to have much control over the team. It appears the Baylor assistant coaches, all holdovers from Briles's staff, are running the show.
When Baylor faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 24 late in the third quarter versus Oklahoma State, Grobe called for a punt. He was either not heard or ignored depending on how one deciphers a quote from Grobe's Monday press conference.
Initially, Grobe said in his postgame presser that his headset was inadvertently muted. But he said on Monday that wasn't the case.
"To be honest with you, when I said I didn't have the switch turned on, I wasn't sure," Grobe said on Monday. "I asked (offensive coordinator Kendal Briles), 'Did you hear me say punt the football?' He said, 'No coach. You said punt the football.' We've just got to do a better job of communicating."
Baylor failed to gain a first down on the risky fourth-down play. But the Bears' defense covered for the miscue by eventually stopping Oklahoma State on a fourth-and-two inside the Baylor 3.
Russell, inconsistent in the first three games, had by far his best game of the season in the win over the Cowboys, passing for 387 yards and four TDs en route to Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors. He benefited from the return of wide receiver Ishmael Zamora, who had been suspended for the first three games of the season for beating a dog.
The Bears are likely to rest wide receiver KD Cannon, who has been slowed by a groin injury. Cannon leads the Big 12 with 27 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns but had just three catches for 18 yards in the first half against Oklahoma State and wasn't at full speed.
Iowa State has been going with a two-quarterback system this season and Jacob Park and Joel Lanning combined to complete 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against San Jose State.
If they are effective, Cyclones running back Mike Warren might have some room to run. He is averaging 64 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush.
Stricklin replaces Jeremy Foley, who announced in June that he would be leaving as the Gators athletic director in October.
"I'm really excited about this opportunity at Florida," Stricklin said in a statement. "I'm an SEC guy. I understand the position Florida holds in college athletics. I'm excited to come and be part of the department. It's a great staff here to work with. I love college towns. The opportunity to come and get invested in another community, with my family, you start balancing all that and you understand at this point in my career, this is an opportunity you just can't not do.
"I couldn't have left for any other place but Florida. It's just a special place not only in the world of the SEC, but in college athletics because of the success they've had and the way they've had it with the integrity. Florida holds a leadership position in college athletics. And you look at the academic reputation, it's one of the best universities in the country. That's a pretty hard combination to not take the opportunity if it's offered to you."
Stricklin, 46, graduated from Mississippi State and was the Bulldogs athletic director since 2010.
In 2016, he received the Athletic Director of the Year Award from the National Association of College Directors of Athletics (NACDA).
Foley, who is remaining with Florida as a fundraiser, also issued a statement.
"I've known Scott on a personal and professional level for a long, long time," Foley said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Scott and what he has accomplished at Mississippi State and the other institutions where he has worked. Scott is a wonderful leader, and a great person. He has passion for student-athletes and loves working with and supporting coaches. Those two qualities alone make him a great fit for Florida.
"Scott is about the right things and running the business the right way. I have the utmost confidence that Scott will help the Gators carry out our mission to provide a championship experience with integrity. We've sat in the room together at AD meetings for several years now, and I've seen firsthand that Scott brings a deep understanding and appreciation for what it takes to run a successful athletic program, particularly in the Southeastern Conference. I couldn't be more excited to have Scott serve as the next athletic director at the University of Florida."
Utah allowed 14 plays of at least 13 yards last week but still managed to move to 4-0 when it scored with 16 seconds left to pull out a 31-27 victory over USC in its Pac-12 opener. One of the Trojans' scores came on a kick return.
"We have to play better on defense," Whittingham said.
"We didn't play our usual defense, but in the end, 20 points allowed is pretty darn good. You give up 20 points most weeks, you're going to win and that's the bottom line. As far as rush and pass defense, it was not up to our usual standards."
It needs to be against Cal, which is second nationally in passing, averaging 459.3 yards per game. The Bears (2-2, 0-1) have scored at least 40 points in every game and have a 50-43 home victory against then-No. 11 Texas to their credit.
Cal's losses have come on the road to San Diego State and Arizona State, both undefeated.
Cal quarterback Davis Webb, a Texas Tech graduate transfer, has stepped in seamlessly for No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff in coach Sonny Dykes' fast-paced "Bear Raid" offense. Webb leads the nation in completions (138), pass attempts (222), passing touchdowns (18) and passing yards (1,837). He has thrown five interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's 51-41 loss at ASU.
"You can't throw two picks in the fourth quarter and expect to win," Webb said. "That is on me. If you turn the ball over, you are probably going to lose."
Cal also has the nation's leading pass-catcher in 6-foot-2 junior Chad Hansen, who has 50 catches for 656 yards and six touchdowns. That's already 31 more receptions than he had all of last season.
"He has tremendous body control and can go get the contested ball as well as anyone I've ever seen," Whittingham said. "He has some size to him and he's a competitive guy. He's a fierce competitor that can make catches, get his feet down when he needs to."
Utah did not allow a touchdown pass last week and has yielded only two all season. The Utes secondary kept USC in check by keeping everything in front of them. Cal won't mind that. Webb's quick release fits perfectly with Cal's volume of short passing.
That could also negate Utah's pass rush. The Utes recorded 10 sacks vs. San Jose State two weeks ago, although they had only one against USC. Defensive end Hunter Dimick leads Utah with four sacks.
As of early in the week, Utah was hopeful of having standout defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei against Cal. He left last week's game with a shoulder injury. Utah lost defensive end Kylie Fitts after the second game due to a foot injury.
The game will certainly be a contrast in styles.
Utah will huddle and mostly will try to grind out offense on the ground, valuing physical play and time of possession.
The Utes have yet to feature a 100-yard back through the first four games. Running back Zack Moss, who led the Utes with 90 yards on 20 carries last week against USC, has a team-high 256 yards on 47 carries.
Quarterback Troy Williams has managed the Utes' offense efficiently in his first season as the starter. After throwing a combined four interceptions in games against BYU and San Jose State, he did not turn the ball over against USC. He threw two touchdown passes as part of his 270 yards, while completing 21 of 34 passes.
Wide receiver Tim Patrick continues to be the primary receiver, catching six passes for 100 yards against the Trojans.
Cal is giving up 491.8 yards per game and allowed 41 second-half points to ASU.
The Bears have turned the ball over seven times in their two losses, none in their wins over Hawaii and Texas.
"In the end that's what it comes down to," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. "That's what we attribute our losses to."
While Cal is comfortable with shootouts, Utah is fine with low-scoring, tight games. The Utes are 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, dating to the 2014 season. It helps that Utah still excels at punting, even after losing two-time All-American Tom Hackett. Mitch Wishnowsky leads the nation with an average of 52.1 yards.
Utah has won four of the last five meetings in the series.
The players did that in Saban's eyes in a 48-0 romp, and now the coach is hoping the team can build on that momentum again in their homecoming matchup against Kentucky. Kickoff at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET (ESPN).
"Now that we are back in SEC play, I think it's time to build on that; build on the momentum," Saban said. "If we want to be the team that we are capable of being, I think it's important for everyone to buy into that and do that. The SEC is a tough league, and every game you play in this league is an important game as this game will be against Kentucky."
Kentucky marks the first of four straight SEC games before Alabama's bye week.
Saban is hoping to get a couple of people healthy, including running back Damien Harris, the Tide's leading rusher with 345 yards and an impressive 8.6 per carry average.
"The injury update is Damien Harris is still day-to-day," Saban said, adding that wide receivers ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster also are considered questionable this week with knee injuries.
Harris is a freshman from Richmond, Kentucky, just a short hop from the Wildcats' campus in Lexington and very well known to Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.
"Damien looks very good, just like we knew recruiting him and watching him play right here in Kentucky," Stoops said. "He's just like you'd expect. He's a very talented guy and he looks very explosive, the great vision, the great jump cuts that you see out of him, that's what you see on film."
The Wildcats are 2-2 (1-1 SEC) overall after a 17-10 victory over South Carolina last weekend. Although they may not appear to be a threat to the 4-0 Crimson Tide, as is his wont, Saban isn't taking Kentucky lightly.
"Kentucky has played their best in the last two games that they have played," Saban said. "Mark Stoops has done a really good job of sort of finding out who they are and how they want to play. They played really well in the last two games.
"They have really good skill players on offense, good running backs and good receivers. They have explosive guys that have put up pretty impressive performances to this point.
"Their quarterback has played well for them, even though he had to come in for the starter, and he has done a nice job. They haven't really skipped a beat."
Maybe so, but this is still Kentucky, which hasn't beaten Alabama anywhere in that state in 22 tries, going 0-9 in Tuscaloosa, 0-8-1 in Birmingham, and 0-4 in Montgomery.
"You know they are led by arguably the best coach of all-time in college football and it starts there," Stoops said, referring to Saban. "But what impresses you about them is their whole program.
"Top to bottom they do things right. They are extremely talented, and they are very well coached. So, there is a lot to talk about on what they do right."
Stoops, however, isn't dwelling on what the Tide does as much as he zeroes in on his Wildcats, who have won their last two games over New Mexico State and the Gamecocks to even up their record after losses to Southern Mississippi and Florida.
"I want to see us continue to worry about us," he said, "continue to progress, and continue to improve in the areas we need to improve."
Quarterback Stephen Johnson, a junior-college transfer who has taken over for injured starter Drew Barker, guided the Wildcats to both of their wins. He has completed 28 of 41 attempts in the two games for 445 yards and three touchdowns.
"I saw a guy that made plays when he had to and really did what he had to do to manage the game and win the game," Stoops said. "There were some throws that he could have forced that he didn't.
"He made good decisions and got critical first downs with his legs. He took care of the football later on.
"There are still some things we know we need to clean up that I'm not happy about with turnovers and the ball on the ground but late in the game he did a better job with that."
Quarterback Austin Allen spent much of the night attempting to dodge defenders and often took big hits even when he was able to throw the ball.
It's a good time for a bit of a breather, and fortunately the schedule makers have provided one. The No. 20 Razorbacks (3-1) take the trip to their second home, War Memorial Stadium, in Little Rock to take on Alcorn State on Saturday (noon ET).
The break also comes at a good time considering what comes afterward.
Arkansas follows up with home games against Alabama and Ole Miss. To stay afloat in the SEC, the Razorbacks not only need a victory this weekend to get their confidence back, they need to correct weaknesses that the Aggies exposed last week.
One key area of need: pass protection.
Though sacked only once, Allen was hit early and often in the 45-24 loss to the Aggies - and at one point was diagnosed with a bruised chest muscle. That's not much of an injury as these things go, and the junior will be ready long before the weekend.
Allen continues to look awfully polished for a quarterback making just his fifth career start. He leads the SEC in completion percentage (66.9) and has at least two touchdown passes in each of the first four games.
But if the Arkansas line wants to keep its starter in the game, it's going to have to get the pass protection solved. The Razorbacks have given up seven sacks for the year.
Of course, Allen was a target in part because the running game was missing in action. The line couldn't get a push, and unless he had a fullback in front of him, running back Rawleigh Williams III had a hard time breaking past the first tackler.
Williams led the Razorbacks with 79 rushing yards against A&M, but 55 yards came on one play. Take that away and you're left with 16 carries for 24 yards and a key goal-line fumble, not the kind of production that's going to win you games.
Unless the team can get the short-yardage and goal-line offense in gear, it will continue to leave points on the field.
Defensively, the big issue is stopping the run. The Razorbacks rarely managed that against Texas A&M regardless of whether it was the quarterback or tailback with the football.
Poor positioning and poor tackling proved costly and kept Arkansas from getting even once Texas A&M started pulling away in the second half. The Aggies wound up with 366 yards on the ground.
Quarterback runs burned the Razorbacks as the Aggies' Trevor Knight ripped through the defense for 157 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns.
Will any of these be a factor this weekend? Probably not.
The Razorbacks shouldn't have a problem with Alcorn State, an FCS program, and indeed should be able to get key players some rest. The Braves are coming off a blowout road loss to Grambling and haven't found their stride yet.
Their opener at Bethune-Cookman was eventually called off after a nearly three-hour delay for lightning. They beat Alabama State 21-18 the next week, but lost to Arkansas-Pine Blue 45-43 in triple overtime and then 43-18 to Grambling last week.
The Braves have a ground-oriented attack that has produced an average of 187.3 yards rushing for the season and has had at least 175 yards rushing in every game. Running back Aaron Baker has rushed for 175 yards in two appearances, and 131 of that total came last week against Grambling.
The line also has done a good job protecting the quarterback. The Braves have surrendered only one sack in their three games.
The Razorbacks are looking to start the season 4-1 for the first time since the 2011 campaign. That team went on to finish 11-2, beating Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl.
Arkansas has won nine of its last 11 games. The Razorbacks are looking for their 150th win at War Memorial Stadium against 60 losses and four ties.
"I'm not talking about LSU. We're talking about North Carolina," said Fisher, an assistant at LSU from 2000 through 2006, adding that he also has not had contact with anyone from LSU nor would he listen if they called him or his agent.
"I'm coaching football," he said. "I don't listen."
Fisher and his 12th-ranked Seminoles look to have enough on their hands without that distraction when they take on the Tar Heels at 3:30 p.m. ET at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
The Seminoles badly need this one because they are already 0-1 in the ACC and another loss in conference play would all but knock them out of the running for any sort of title in 2016, including the national playoffs.
And while none of the current players were around the last time Florida State played North Carolina in 2010, there is one detail about that game that Fisher likely will bring up: the Seminoles lost, 37-35.
Finally, there's this extra bit of clutter for Fisher to try to eliminate this week: He has beaten every team in the ACC at least once since taking over in 2010 -- except North Carolina, that is.
"It doesn't matter," Fisher said. "I don't care what everybody else does, we have to get better at what we're doing."
The Tar Heels are unranked but have won three in a row since dropping their opener to Georgia.
Their quarterback, junior Mitch Trubisky, is shaping up to be one of the best passers that the Seminoles may face all year. He's averaging 326 yards passing a game and has already thrown 10 touchdowns without an interception.
"He's big, he's strong and he's hard to get down in the pocket," Fisher said. "I like him, but he's going to be a pain in the tail."
The Tar Heels come into their game buoyed by the confidence of their comeback win over Pitt. Trailing by 13 points with less than eight minutes left in the game, the Heels engineered two touchdown drives, the second of which included three fourth-down conversions. North Carolina also held visiting Pitt to a three-and-out in between.
"We found out a lot," said junior wide receiver Austin Proehl, who had one of the critical fourth-down receptions on the final drive. "We found out who we were as a team."
The Seminoles got a confidence boost of their own in their last outing in running up a 55-35 win at South Florida. Running back Dalvin Cook appears to be just fine.
After a hot and cold first three weeks of the season, the junior speedster slashed and dashed for a career-high 267 yards for his first 100-plus-yard rushing performance of the year -- something noticeably missing from the preseason Heisman hopeful's resume the first three games.
Some reports said Cook has dealing with an undisclosed injury. Others speculated the almost 20 pounds of muscle he added during the offseason were slowing him down.
Cook basically laughed off all of it.
"I don't know why it was a question," he said. "I go out there and play the same football every week," Cook said. "Whether it's to run the ball or (catch) the ball, I just did a better job this week."
Cook was also the team's leading receiver in the game with four catches for 62 yards, and he scored an electrifying touchdown on the Seminoles' first offensive play -- a 75-yard gallop untouched into the end zone to tie the game early at 7-7.
Now to what needs fixing: Florida State's defense, which has given up 98 points and 980 yards in its last two outings and gave up an 84-yard pass play on South Florida's first play last week.
"We got to be more physical up front," Fisher said.
The two undefeated teams will kick off at 8 p.m. ET (ABC) at Memorial Stadium in Clemson.
If the third-ranked Cardinals win, they would own victories over both of the other two teams rated as division contenders, having routed Florida State 63-20 in their meeting earlier this season. A loss to the fifth-ranked Tigers opens the way for a three-way fight among the Cardinals, Tigers, and Seminoles.
The 4-0 Cardinals are already 2-0 in conference play with a win over Syracuse to go with the victory over the Seminoles. Also 4-0 overall, Clemson is 1-0 in league play with a win over Georgia Tech in its last outing.
Even Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who always contends that the Tigers' upcoming game is their biggest of the season, has to concede the game's significance.
"Some games have a little more pizazz than others -- that's the biggest thing with this one," Swinney said.
The Cardinals have been looking forward to it ever since whipping the Seminoles in Louisville, and it's a credit to them that they avoided a letdown and demolished Marshall last week 59-28.
"I've been in a predicament before when we thought about something else in the future. We ended up losing and I wasn't having that," Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson said. "I wanted to focus. We wanted to win. We wanted to play Clemson and be undefeated just like them."
Jackson himself wasn't satisfied with his performance, especially after being limited to 62 yards on the ground. Though he threw for 417 yards and five touchdowns, he gave himself harsh marks after the game.
"F," he said.
Don't take any classes that Jackson teaches, with those grading standards.
Clemson-Louisville should live up to its billing. The Tigers haven't looked as dominating as some expected, but they are still undefeated and capable of putting up big numbers.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson is again a Heisman Trophy contender, along with Jackson, and can outrun cornerbacks down the field or stop on a dime and wing it over the safeties' heads. Clemson will be the fastest and most athletic team the Cardinals will see in ACC play, except perhaps during their own practices.
This will be just the second game in the 74-year history of Memorial Stadium to feature two Top 5 teams. The other was three years ago when No. 3 Florida State took on the Tigers, who were No. 5 at the time. The Seminoles won that one 51-14.
"These are the type of games you relish having the opportunity to be a part of," Swinney said. "They all count, but when you get a Top 5 matchup, those are unique. It's going to be a great night."
The primary task for Clemson will be slowing down the nation's most prolific offense. Behind Jackson, Louisville leads the nation in total offense (682 yards per game), scoring offense (63.5) and first downs (125).
"Everybody's having a hard time with him for the same reason -- he's a great player, an elite guy," Swinney said. "He's probably been the best guy in the country through four games. He leads the nation in rushing touchdowns. You're not dealing with just another guy. This is an elite player. We're going to have to play our best."
Clemson has a defense that could prove up to the task. Despite losing eight starters off last year's group, coordinator Brent Venables has the Tigers' defense clicking on all cylinders once again. Clemson ranks No. 3 in the country in total defense (218.5) and No. 5 nationally in scoring defense (11.0).
"First of all, our staff does a great job recruiting," Swinney said of the secret to that success. "To have consistency you have to recruit well, then develop those guys -- that's the key. And we have the best defensive coordinator in the country. He does an incredible job."
VandeBerg suffered the injury during Monday's practice.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that VandeBerg broke the foot and will undergo surgery.
Ferentz indicated VandeBerg will likely miss the rest of the regular season.
"I think he might have a chance bowl-game time, that type of thing," Ferentz said at his weekly press conference. "We've got work to do before we get that far down the road. At least over the next month-plus, I think we're looking at him being out."
VandeBerg, a senior, had 19 receptions for 284 yards and three touchdowns in four games.
VandeBerg led the Hawkeyes with 65 catches as a junior when he had 703 yards and two touchdowns.
The Gators left Neyland Stadium in stunned silence after blowing an 18-point halftime lead in a 38-28 loss to rival Tennessee. The defeat ended Florida's string of 11 consecutive wins over the Volunteers.
No. 23 Florida (3-1) will look to regroup on Saturday (noon, ET) when the Gators take on Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. The Gators are hoping their second trip to the Volunteer State will have a better ending than their first.
"The big thing moving forward is what are we going to learn from this and how are we going to let it affect us," Florida coach Jim McElwain said of the Tennessee loss. "We have a lot of football ahead of us and there's a lot that we can accomplish. It will be interesting to see how we handle people writing us off, jumping off the ship."
Vanderbilt (2-2) is coming off a 31-30 overtime win at Western Kentucky. The Commodores are led by a pair of junior standouts -- running back Ralph Webb and linebacker Zach Cunningham.
"They play disciplined, they play sound," McElwain said. "And I think Cunningham is one of the most underrated players in the league."
Florida has plenty to clean up following its second-half collapse. The Gators' normally air-tight secondary allowed Tennessee senior quarterback Josh Dobbs to throw for 319 yards and four touchdowns. A Florida offense that moved the ball effectively in the first half went three-and-out on five second-half drives.
"They came and took it to us," McElwain said. "That's disappointing. We gave them a lot to cheer about."
Meanwhile,Vanderbilt's performance last week was a mirror image of that of Florida. After a poor effort in a 38-7 blowout loss to Georgia Tech, the Commodores found themselves with a meager five yards of total offense and a 7-0 deficit after the first quarter at Western Kentucky. But the Commodores hung around and instead, found themselves victors as a road underdog.
Webb scored on a 2-yard run on the last play of regulation, pulling Vandy even for the first time since the opening minutes of the first quarter. After the teams traded touchdowns in overtime, Western Kentucky's pass for a potential game-winning two-point conversion was batted in the air and intercepted, giving the 8.5-point underdog Commodores the 31-30 victory.
The key to Vandy's offense was the up-tempo approach it had on the final drive of regulation. With no timeouts left and 1:02 on the clock, quarterback Kyle Shurmur was money, making several nice throws to lead the Commodores down the field to set up Webb's tying run.
In overtime, the confidence and rhythm carried over. Shurmur, on a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, threw a bullet to tight end Nathan Marcus in traffic for the go-ahead score.
Shurmur has shown that he can be effective in that type of offense in games and practices. The question now becomes whether the Commodores want to run it.
There are two problems. First, the Commodore receivers had a hard time finding space in the first half. When the Hilltoppers played looser coverage in the final minutes, certainly that helped.
Second, the defense has faltered considerably since last year. Dating back to the last two games of 2015, Vanderbilt has given up 486 yards or more in five of those six contests.
It may be a good idea anyway.
Shurmur was yanked from the opener against South Carolina after a first-half scoring drive and couldn't find a groove once he was re-inserted after a pair of drives. Shurmur missed his first seven passes against Middle Tennessee State, but in a pair of rapid-fire drives to end the first half, he hit 13 of his next 14 throws.
Since that 0-for-7 start against the Blue Raiders, Shurmur is 50 of 76 for 541 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Washington will play host to No. 7 Stanford on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET in the first matchup of top 10 teams at Husky Stadium in 19 years. The outcome could go a long way in determining the Pac-12 North and which team moves on as the league's favorite to get to the College Football Playoff.
"It's awesome, no question about it," said Washington coach Chris Petersen.
"Stanford's an awesome program. I'll start with that -- program. This isn't just an awesome team. They've had an awesome program here for a while now. They know how to do it right and play good football, win championships. So it's a great opportunity for the kids, and for everybody playing in a game like this."
The Huskies (4-0 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) played a soft non-conference slate of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State before surviving a road game at Arizona, 35-28 in overtime Saturday night. Stanford (3-0, 2-0) is much more battle-tested, having defeated Kansas State, USC and UCLA.
The Cardinal, too, was taken to the brink last week, scoring a go-ahead touchdown with 24 seconds left and adding a fumble return for a score on the final play in a 22-13 victory at the Rose Bowl. Coach David Shaw was pleased how new starting quarterback Ryan Burns reacted to the do-or-die final drive after struggling for much of the game.
"There is no substituting the environment he was in," Shaw said after Monday's practice. "Not playing a great game ... and coming back with a chance to win at the end of the game, you can't duplicate that.
"And you can't duplicate what we're going to face this week: Top 10 opponent, in their house. It's going to be loud. You're not going to be able to hear a thing. I think that environment, you don't know how you're going to respond until you're in it."
Stanford has won 15 of its past 16 games and has tied a school-record by winning seven consecutive Pac-12 road games. The Cardinal has won three of the past four conference championships.
Stanford also has won seven of the past eight meetings against Washington, including 31-14 last season. Cardinal star running back Christian McCaffrey gained 109 rushing yards and 112 receiving yards, including a 50-yard touchdown, in that game.
McCaffrey, by his standards, had an abnormally quiet game last week with 138 rushing yards and no touchdowns against UCLA. But Washington yielded 308 rushing yards in its overtime win over Arizona, including 173 to quarterback Brandon Dawkins.
The Huskies' defense, led by safety Budda Baker, cornerback Sidney Jones and linebacker Azeem Victor, is tied for the national lead with 13 takeaways. They are 15th in scoring defense, allowing 14.5 points per game.
The Stanford defense, fueled by defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, is allowing 12.0 points per game against a tougher schedule.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning is third nationally in passing efficiency (194.9), with 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions. He didn't play in last season's loss to Stanford because of injury.
Shaw said he is worried about Washington's offensive speed, which includes receiver John Ross, tailback Myles Gaskin and tailback Lavon Coleman, who was an unlikely hero with a career-best 181 yards against Arizona.
"Speed everywhere," Shaw said. "Their running backs have speed. Their receivers have speed. It used to be that you had to worry about that No. 1 guy (Ross) running by you. Now it's a bunch of guys."
Stanford likely has more speed that it gets credit for, as McCaffrey is not the only weapon on offense. Wide receiver Michael Rector has 4.4 speed, receiver Trenton Irwin had a team-high seven catches last week against UCLA and backup running back Bryce Love had five carries for 51 yards. He has been working his way back from injury and should be close to 100 percent this week, Shaw said.
The Cardinal won't have receiver Francis Owusu, who suffered a concussion last week.
This will be the first top 10 matchup in Seattle since No. 7 Nebraska beat the No. 2 Huskies 27-14 in 1997. Washington, earlier this month, reached the top 10 for the first time since Nov. 4, 2001.
Are the Huskies all the way back?
Friday's spotlight game will begin to really tell the tale.
"I just want everyone to enjoy college football and be all in," Petersen said. "Players all in, fans all in, coaches, everybody ... all in."
Whether classified as a "revenge game" publicly or not, expect the Cougars to be looking for a little payback against the only team to beat them in 2015 while they're the focus of college football's national spotlight.
The Cougars (4-0, 1-0 in the American Athletic Conference) were denied a perfect season last year when UConn posted a 20-17 home victory on Nov. 15 when Houston was No. 13 in the country. The Cougars went on to win the AAC Championship game over Temple and then waylaid Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and have been perfect so far in 2016.
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. played sparingly in last year's upset because of an ankle injury while star linebacker Elandon Roberts was ejected early due to a targeting call.
"There's some added motivation for this one," Houston coach Tom Herman said Monday at his weekly media availability. "We don't have much to talk about, but I do believe that our returning players on our team are better than they were last season. We don't see this game as a chance for redemption but there is a bit of internal sense of liability, of atonement, to right some of the wrongs that occurred."
Houston has lost just one football game in Herman's 18-game tenure in the Bayou City, but he said the team won't focus on what happened last season.
"It's not something you forget about," Houston defensive end Cameron Malveaux said. "We were 10-0 and on a roll. Being crushed like that stayed with us, but we are looking at it as another step towards our goal of getting to the conference championship."
Houston comes into Thursday's game off a 64-3 walloping of Texas State on the road in which the Cougars played a nearly flawless game. Houston outgained Texas State 563-142 (429-82 in the first half), outrushed the Bobcats 243-33 and had 32 first downs to Texas State's eight. The Cougars scored on their first seven possessions while fashioning a 43-3 halftime lead and had no turnovers or penalties.
"I was proud of the strides that the offensive made – they played well," Herman said. "It wasn't that they were playing awful. In the Cincinnati game (on Sept. 15), we were shooting ourselves in the foot in critical situations. The offense did a much better job (against Texas State) finding a rhythm and finishing drives. "
UConn (2-2, 0-1 American) heads to Houston on the heels of a 31-24 loss at home to Syracuse on Sept. 24 in which the Huskies owned significant advantages in time of possession (38:29-21:31), total plays (91-66) and rushing yards (144-62).
Syracuse receiver Amba Etta-Tawo amassed 270 yards via 12 catches and two first-quarter touchdowns and UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs threw a pick-six late in the third quarter that all but doomed the Huskies.
"We had a couple of plays that created, really, a 21-point gift – and you can't win like that," UConn coach Bob Diaco said.
"Saturday's game was tough because we can see how close these games are and how good we've become. There's still been a few moments that have created losing and prevented winning. It's not a complacent attitude for sure. The team has gotten better every week in all three phases. For some reason, in all four games, we have had a few explosive plays in the passing games. That's not a characteristic of how we play. Those plays have made the games harder than they need to be."
Diaco understands that his team will have its hands full with Ward, who passed for 289 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 39 yards and another score in just over two quarters of play against Texas State.
"Ward has great pocket presence and utilizes movement back there to create opportunities – he's not just scrambling to run," Diaco said. "He puts their offense into good plays and has high intelligence about how to run their offense. He's one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation."
Houston opened as a 24½ point favorite to win the grudge match with UConn. But Diaco knows his team will not back down and is buoyed by the win last year against Houston, no matter the circumstances.
"We are tough minded group and one that believes in itself," Diaco said. "There is great clarity and strong leadership on this team."