Welcome to Four Down Territory, Omaha Sports Insider’s weekly college football round table. We will be joined by members of the Omaha Sports Insider staff to get their thoughts on what is going on in the world of college football. This week we are joined by special guest, Tom Shatel of the Omaha World Herald as well as Alicia Sala of AM 590 ESPN Omaha and Tyler Martin of OmahaSportsInsider.com
The No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams fell last week for the first time since 1985. Now we are just two weeks away from Championship Saturday. While some coaches have lost their jobs, others have done unexpectedly well this season. With three weeks to go in the season, who do you believe could be up for National Coach of the Year?
Tom Shatel: Bobby Petrino will win a lot of them, especially if the Cards can close out against Houston. Yes, it's the Lamar Jackson show, but Petrino will get the credit for coaching him up and should, frankly. But I like to look deeper.
To me, candidates like Mike MacIntrye, James Franklin, Paul Chryst, Mike Leach, Chris Petersen should get attention too. And don't forget our old friend Scott Frost. Do I have to vote now? Let's see who wins the Pac-12 and Big Ten. As a sleeper, I'd also mention Mike Riley, who has done a good job under incredible adversity to start the season.
Ben Stevens: I think James Franklin will draw a lot of votes with the job he has done to turn Penn State around this season. The Nittany Lions are now all the way up to No. 8 in the country according to the latest CFP rankings.
And there’s a still a bunch of scenarios for the Big Ten East division to be played out over the last two weeks, but Franklin’s club could find themselves in the Big Ten title game. And maybe a sleeper pick, P.J. Fleck of Western Michigan, the only other undefeated team still left in college football besides Alabama. And the Broncos have knocked off two Big Ten teams in Northwestern and Illinois.
Tyler Martin: I'd have to agree with Ben and say James Franklin. Many thought he wouldn't make it a full season at Penn State because of the hot water he was in. This year was a make or break year, and it looks like Penn State might end up in the Big Ten Championship. I'd say that's quite the turnaround.
With only two weeks left until the Big Ten Championship game, who do you see as the front-runner for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year?
Tom Shatel: It will be J.T. Barrett, who has rebounded nicely after a mid-season slump. His numbers trail David Blough from Purdue in a couple categories, but a Purdue guy is not winning this award. You have to like Speight from Michigan, but he's hurt. The Penn State quarterback's numbers are good, but I can't see Barrett not getting it, barring a really bad outing against Michigan.
Ben Stevens: J.T. Barrett really has to be the guy. After a sluggish middle part of the season by his standards, he really turned it around against Nebraska, throwing for 290 yards and 4 touchdowns. Another guy probably in the running is Penn State’s stud running back, Saquon Barkley, who’s already ran for well over 1,000 yards this season and has 15 total touchdowns.
Tyler Martin: J.T. Barrett will most likely win the Heisman, so the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year has to be in the bag as well.
Nebraska had to grind out a tough 24-17 win over Minnesota on Saturday, but the question about the teams mentality was answered. Now, Nebraska heads into senior day against Maryland with an outside chance to still win the West Division. The Cornhuskers have a chance to go undefeated at home for the first time since 2012 but nothing is guaranteed in this league. So, what do you see as the biggest key for Nebraska to win their ninth game of the season this weekend?
Tom Shatel: Showing up? Seriously, showing up. That means, playing hard, minimal turnovers and penalties and sloppy stuff, good tackling and assignment football on defense, the same stuff they've been doing all year. No reason to change now. Maryland isn't good but neither is Purdue and that was a task. Nebraska isn't good enough to mail it in. Can't believe these seniors would do that in their last game in that stadium. They won't. Tommy playing would help, but I think the offensive line being healthy helps the run game and that will help Fyfe if he plays.
Ben Stevens: As always, it will be a big difference depending on if Tommy is under center, but I think either way, Nebraska is really going to focus on the running game against a Maryland defense that is close to the bottom in the Big Ten. And although there has been some big margins of victory this year for the Huskers, they have never truly dominated a game from start to finish. I think Senior Day would be a big chance for Nebraska to do just that.
Tyler Martin: Nebraska's offensive line play could be the difference maker in this one. Nebraska is going to want to run the heck out of the ball, and without a good push from the big men up front, that gameplan will fall right through the cracks. With Saturday's game being the last home game for the seniors, this team will have plenty to play for.
Here are some of the big matchups this week: No. 11 Oklahoma heads to No. 16 West Virginia for what could be the Big 12 Championship game, No. 14 Virginia Tech heads to South Bend to take on Notre Dame, and in the SEC, Florida takes on No. 24 LSU in Baton Rouge. So, what game are you looking forward to the most this weekend?
Tom Shatel: As a California kid, I still love to watch USC-UCLA, battle of LA, but that will be a stretch this year. Give me Oklahoma at West Virginia. Bob Stoops had a rough start but his calling card is winning the Big 12 but he's got to beat the Mountaineers, who have struggled at times as a Big 12 member and now have a chance to answer the critics. This isn't exactly a great match-up for OU's defense and the West Virginia crowd will be on fire (couches optional). I don't follow the Big 12 as much anymore, but this is a must-see. Plan B: Ohio State at Michigan State. Are the Spartans awake or was that just Rutgers?
Ben Stevens: From a big game standpoint, it’s got to be Oklahoma-West Virginia. Two offense that average just about 500 yards of total offense a game, you know this is going to be a class Big 12 shootout. And I’m also keeping my eye on a game out in the Pac-12: No. 10 Colorado hosting No. 23 Washington State. Both teams have been surprises in that conference this season, with each school taking down the more traditional powerhouses out West in Oregon and Stanford. Also Mike Leach’s Cougars have won their last eight straight, after dropping their first two games this season.
Tyler Martin: I'll be looking forward to No. 10 Colorado vs. No. 23 Washington State. I'm still in shock to see the Buffaloes in the top ten, as I'm sure many Husker fans are as well. The Cougars are no joke, so it will be interesting to see how the Buffaloes fare in this one.