What is the biggest question for each Top 25 team as it hits the home stretch of the season? From injuries to depleted defenses to weak schedules, each contender has something it needs to answer.
No. 1 Alabama: Can Tua stay healthy?
The youth on defense took a back seat the moment quarterback Tua Tagovailoa rolled his ankle against Tennessee. Surgery will sideline him only one week, according to coach Nick Saban, but that feels awfully optimistic. Even with a bye week after Saturday’s Arkansas game, he has only three weeks to recover in time for the Tide’s Nov. 11 showdown with No. 2 LSU. And remember, Tagovailoa had the same procedure done to his other ankle last season, and it sidelined him for four weeks. He could certainly play at less than 100 percent, but would that be enough to beat LSU in a game that could decide the winner of the SEC West? — Alex Scarborough
No. 2 LSU: Can the defense — yes, the defense — pick things up?
The Tigers’ retooled offense has been great, but it doesn’t come without a price — they’re not quite as dominant on defense as they have been. The run defense has been fine, but the Tigers have been surrendering more in the air, as Power 5 opponents have thrown for an average of 297 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt and a 57.9% completion rate. All those numbers are higher than they have been in the past five years. Sure, some of that can be attributed to trailing teams trying to throw their way back into the game, but even in the close games (Texas, Florida), opposing teams have produced in the air. The most eye-opening number here? Power 5 teams are converting 45.7% of third downs on pass plays (seventh worst among Power 5 teams). — Sam Khan Jr.
No. 3 Ohio State: Can this year’s team avoid a 2018 Purdue repeat?
The only question about this team at this point is whether it’s going to have its 2018 Purdue moment and get tripped up along the way to the conference championship game and a potential playoff berth. The Boilermakers took down No. 2-ranked Ohio State 49-20 in the eighth game of last season, which ultimately kept the Buckeyes out of the playoffs. Ohio State is currently 7-0, ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and once again looking like a playoff contender. However, this eighth game is against Wisconsin, which is coming off a bad loss to Illinois and potentially looking for redemption and a bounce-back to prove it is the top team in the conference. — Tom VanHaaren
No. 4 Clemson: What will the ACC’s struggles do to Clemson’s CFP chances?
Trevor Lawrence knows he needs to make better decisions and cut down on the interceptions — he has eight right now, more than he did a year ago — and had another slow start last week against Louisville. But the biggest question mark might be something the Tigers have no control over, and that is the way the ACC is playing. For three straight weeks, the Tigers have won their games but dropped in the polls. The first time, they played a closer-than-expected game against North Carolina. In the next two, Clemson won by 30-plus points but was jumped by another SEC team. Although the polls don’t matter when it comes to the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, strength of schedule does, and with the ACC struggling so badly, it’s reasonable to assume its schedule strength won’t look great when the committee sits down to evaluate. That could have a direct impact on its seeding, especially if there are more than four undefeated teams when the first rankings come out. — Andrea Adelson
No. 5 Oklahoma: Can the offensive line find continuity?
There aren’t many issues on this Oklahoma squad — the offense is potent as usual and the defense has been significantly improved under Alex Grinch — but if there’s one thing to keep an eye on, it’s the offensive line. It has played well overall but has had a lot of shuffling up front for various reasons, including injuries. The Sooners went through a stretch of five games with five different starting lineups, but have finally had two consecutive weeks with the same starting five. If they can keep that unit — which has four new starters this season — together consistently, it would bode well for the offense. — Khan
No. 6 Penn State: Can the offense diversify?
What happens if a team figures out how to stop KJ Hamler? The versatile receiver has accounted for seven of Penn State’s 17 passing touchdowns and has been a huge part of the success on offense. Despite that success, Penn State’s offense over the past few seasons has been at its best with a dynamic running back to complement the passing game. Quarterback Sean Clifford has done a nice job running the ball, but the Nittany Lions haven’t settled on an actual running back, rotating Journey Brown and freshman Noah Cain, among others. Penn State still has Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio State on the schedule, all with defenses capable of putting up great performances. The offense has already had a lot of success, but if those defenses adjust and key in on Hamler, someone else is going to need to step up. — VanHaaren
No. 7 Florida: Can the defense get healthy?
The Gators absolutely have to have Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga either at or close to full strength if they want to maximize their chances of winning the SEC East. And while they are expected to play against Georgia on Nov. 2, no one knows how effective they will be. Zuniga has been hampered most of the season by a high ankle sprain, and without him, Greenard stepped up to lead the team in sacks and tackles for loss. But Greenard also suffered an ankle injury against Auburn and was unable to play against LSU and South Carolina, and the Gators’ pass rush struggled. There is no question he was playing at an All-America level before the injury, so how he looks when he returns remains the biggest question mark for this team. — Adelson
No. 8 Notre Dame: Can the Irish get the CFP chaos they need?
The Irish (5-1) need plenty of help in their quest for consecutive playoff appearances. Although they performed admirably at Georgia, they weren’t helped by the Bulldogs’ loss to South Carolina, or a schedule that lacks signature win opportunities. Notre Dame delivered USC its third loss. The Irish visit a two-loss Michigan team this week. Coach Brian Kelly should get his first win at Stanford, but the banged-up Cardinal are 3-4. Notre Dame is a very good team, but it needs Oklahoma to lose at least once, Oregon to lose again, chaos in the SEC and Big 12, and for some of its opponents, past and future, to impress the selection committee. — Adam Rittenberg
No. 9 Auburn: Can the offense bounce back?
Hanging 51 points on Arkansas was nice but probably not indicative of much. No, the real test of how Auburn’s offense bounces back after a crushing loss at Florida two weeks ago will be this weekend, when it goes on the road to No. 2 LSU. Coach Gus Malzahn needs to get freshman quarterback Bo Nix back on track, and he has to do so with starting running back JaTarvious Whitlow sidelined until at least mid-November. The defense, which has been crushing it up front with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, will keep them in games, but the offense needs to take a big step forward. — Scarborough
No. 10 Georgia: Can the Dawgs fix their offense?
Something’s wrong with Georgia’s offense. The line isn’t playing up to par, the running game has been inconsistent and wide receivers haven’t been doing a great job getting open. Jake Fromm, who has been as steady as any quarterback in the country the past three seasons, isn’t himself. He threw three interceptions against South Carolina and then followed it up with 35 yards passing against Kentucky. Granted, it was raining and the Bulldogs beat the Wildcats, but it was a subpar performance. Down the stretch, and especially against Florida, the Bulldogs need to start scoring points in order to carry this team back to the SEC title game. — Scarborough
No. 11 Oregon: Can the Ducks handle success?
This tougher Ducks team just got its signature win of the season over Washington (on the road), but can it handle the success that comes with now being firmly in the Pac-12 North driver’s seat? Last year, the Ducks won big over Washington, only to turn around and lose to Washington State the week after. Players have talked about how this team dropped off mentally after beating the Huskies last year, and now any loss going forward this season ends their playoff hopes. It helps that the Ducks get to put that to the test immediately in a revenge game against Wazzu on Saturday. — Edward Aschoff
No. 12 Utah: Can the offense keep pace with the defense?
The Utes’ defense is playing at a remarkable level right now. It ranks in the top six nationally in total, scoring and rushing defense. The pass defense might rank 30th nationally, but it’s allowing only 191 yards per game and has given up just six touchdowns with nine interceptions. So can the offense keep pace with this defense? So far, it has done a pretty decent job, even if the Utes had to grind it out offensively against Arizona State over the weekend. Zack Moss is back to his bullish self at running back, but consistency on offense is key down the stretch. — Aschoff
No. 13 Wisconsin: Can Badgers regroup?
It probably isn’t a stretch to suggest that Wisconsin’s about to lose its second straight game. After a stunning upset loss to Illinois, the Badgers have to travel to Columbus to take on the wheat thresher that is Ohio State. They then get a bye week to recover — both physically and spiritually, you could say — before the four-week stretch (Iowa, at Nebraska, Purdue, at Minnesota) that will decide the Big Ten West. The loss in Champaign was a stunner, but the bye is well-placed. Can the Badgers return to form after what will likely be a two-week midseason disaster? — Bill Connelly
No. 14 Baylor: Can the Bears improve on special teams?
Special teams is something to keep an eye on, especially as the Bears play tougher opponents and the margin for error becomes smaller. The Bears are 123rd in the FBS in yards per punt (37.8) and 108th in net punting (36.2) and have allowed 12.5 yards per punt return (113th). With Oklahoma and Texas — both teams with high-powered offenses — still left on the schedule, that will be an area Baylor coach Matt Rhule will certainly want to address. — Khan
No. 15 Texas: Can an injury-ravaged defense improve?
Todd Orlando’s unit has undergone a rash of injuries — nearly half of the starting lineup missed the Kansas game, and those who were on the field gave up 48 to the Jayhawks. The ailments exacerbate what was already a question mark coming into the year, as eight starters from last year’s unit are gone. The Longhorns are allowing 8 yards per pass attempt (101st in the nation), they’re not getting to the quarterback (3.9% sack rate is 117th in the FBS) and they’re allowing 37.6 points per game to Power 5 teams (eighth worst among all Power 5 schools). — Khan
No. 16 SMU: Can the Mustangs handle these expectations?
When SMU found itself ranked for the first time in decades, the Mustangs responded by nearly losing to Tulsa at home. They manhandled Temple on Saturday, which was a great sign, but expectations are a tricky thing to manage when you’re not used to them. SMU is now 7-0 and 16th in the AP poll, but the schedule down the stretch features road trips to Memphis, Navy and rival Houston, and it’s going to take on the haymakers that top dogs always face. Will the Mustangs rise to the challenge? And if there’s a setback, will they respond well to that? — Connelly
No. 17 Minnesota: What happens now that the schedule gets tougher?
The Golden Gophers are 7-0 for the first time since 1960, and the offense is averaging 36.4 points per game. The question here is whether Minnesota can continue scoring at that clip with the tougher part of its schedule coming. Maryland, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin remain and will give Minnesota’s offense a challenge. Of the first three Big Ten opponents Minnesota faced, none ranks higher than 73rd among FBS teams in touchdowns allowed this season. Of the five Big Ten teams remaining on the schedule, only Maryland ranks lower than 23rd in touchdowns allowed this season, with Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin all ranked in the top six. Those games will be the true test of whether Minnesota can score and keep itself in big games. — VanHaaren
No. 18 Cincinnati: Can the Bearcats dial up some big plays?
After Boise State’s loss to BYU, Cincinnati and other AAC title contenders have an inside track to a New Year’s Six bowl. Cincinnati shouldn’t be challenged until closing the regular season with Temple (home) and Memphis (road). Then, it likely would face SMU, Memphis or Navy in the league title game. The Bearcats’ defense is excellent, but the offense is tied for 92nd nationally in plays of 20 yards or longer (28). During an open week, Cincinnati must find more ways to stretch the field, especially if it faces big-play offenses like SMU and Memphis in the AAC championship. — Rittenberg
No. 19 Michigan: Can Jim Harbaugh improve the offense?
The offense probably had its best game of the season against Penn State in terms of timing, looking in sync and being able to consistently move the ball productively. That was a good sign for Michigan, but the biggest question is whether that was an anomaly or the offense really is making strides, as Harbaugh suggested. Notre Dame is next on the schedule, with Michigan State and Ohio State still remaining. If Michigan is going to salvage this season, it’s going to need the offense to continue to progress and move the ball the way it did against the Nittany Lions. If the offense from the beginning of the season shows up, it could be a long few weeks to finish out the season. — VanHaaren
No. 20 Iowa: Can the offense be consistent in big games?
The Hawkeyes aren’t out of the Big Ten West Division race, especially with games left against both Wisconsin (Nov. 9, road) and Minnesota (Nov. 16, home). But Iowa’s offense must perform better on those stages than it did against Michigan (three points, four turnovers, eight sacks allowed) and Penn State (12 points, two turnovers, 2.3 yards per rush). Iowa has scored only two touchdowns against the three best defenses it has faced: Iowa State, Michigan and Penn State. The Hawkeyes need more from their run game (88th nationally in yards, 90th in yards per attempt) and their offensive line (tied for 88th in sacks allowed). — Rittenberg
No. 21 Appalachian State: What happens against South Carolina?
App State is well on its way to a second straight Sun Belt title game appearance, but at 6-0 and 21st in the AP poll, the Mountaineers have their eyes on a bigger prize. If they go 13-0 (and SMU doesn’t), they’d have a strong case for the New Year’s Six autobid. That will require winning at South Carolina in Week 11. So now comes some awkwardness. Can the Mountaineers properly prep for always-tricky Georgia Southern in Week 10 without looking ahead to the Columbia trip? — Bill Connelly
No. 22 Boise State: Is all hope lost for a New Year’s Six bowl?
With the loss to BYU, the Broncos’ margin for error as they try to make it to a New Year’s Six bowl is razor thin. So getting freshman starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier healthy and back on the field is important. Boise can build off backup quarterback Chase Cord’s fourth-quarter performance against BYU, but he also threw three interceptions and didn’t hit 100 yards passing until late in the third quarter. Bachmeier threw for 1,547 yards with nine touchdowns and three picks before his injury two weeks ago. Luckily, four of Boise State’s final five opponents rank in the bottom half of the Mountain West in total defense. — Aschoff
No. 23 Iowa State: Can Breece Hall sustain his breakthrough season?
The nine-game Big 12 slate is a gauntlet. There are almost no off weeks. ISU is currently 3-1 in conference play, however, and the Cyclones appear to have even more upside than they did just a couple of weeks ago. Hall, a true freshman from Wichita, has rushed 72 times for 315 yards in the past two games, both easy wins. His two long TD runs put away a road win in Lubbock, and he is bringing extra pop to an already efficient offense. If the Cyclones weren’t serious Big 12 title game contenders before his breakout, they most certainly are now. — Connelly
No. 24 Arizona State: Can the Sun Devils get QB Jayden Daniels more comfortable?
The freshman signal-caller is averaging 233.6 yards per game and has thrown just two interceptions this season, but his numbers have been inconsistent. He has followed all three of his 300-yard performances by throwing for fewer than 180 yards, including a 25-yard outing in Saturday’s ugly loss to Utah. Having two freshmen starting on the offensive line creates obvious issues, but getting Daniels in more pass-friendly situations is a must. That starts with getting the running game going more with Eno Benjamin, who is averaging just 90 YPG this season. — Aschoff
No. 25 Wake Forest: Can the defense catch up to the offense?
The Demon Deacons have played at an exceptionally high level on offense, but their defense has been inconsistent, and now linebacker Justin Strnad is out for the season after rupturing his bicep tendon against Florida State last week. Strnad leads Wake Forest with 69 total tackles and has done just about everything for the Wake Forest defense. The Demon Deacons are closing in on a historic season, and if they want to have any shot at possibly upsetting Clemson and making an improbable run at the ACC title, they need their defense to be playing at a much higher level without one of their best players. — Adelson
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