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A pair of unbeatens in the Group of 5 face off, plus what to expect in the Big Ten’s return

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The biggest college football game on Saturday? It’s happening in Dallas between No. 9 Cincinnati and No. 16 SMU — two of the nine unbeaten teams left in the FBS.

If you’re eager for the Big Ten’s return, the Bearcats vs. the Mustangs may not be the game you’re most excited for. But these two ranked Group of 5 teams face an opportunity to add a résumé-building win in an attempt to accomplish the seemingly impossible: make the College Football Playoff.

We’re not getting ahead of ourselves here — even in a season when most conferences have started on their own time and are playing their own conference-specific schedules, a G5 team’s best effort might not make the committee bat an eye, but it’s fun to root for chaos.

SMU will be Cincinnati’s biggest test of the season since its 24-10 win over Army on Sept. 26. And while the Bearcats haven’t played since Oct. 3 (their Oct. 17 game at Tulsa was postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the Cincinnati program), they have been consistent in their three games so far.

Of note: their defense that is ranked 5th in SP+. That still “wins championships” right?

With SMU, we weren’t completely sure what to expect out of them. Sonny Dykes took over in 2018 (going 5-7 that season) and quickly turned things around with a 10-3 season in 2019.

Through five games this year, they’ve proven 2019 was no flash in the pan, and have presented themselves as a real challenger at the top of the conference. QB Shane Buechele is a big reason why, completing just under 67% of his passes for 1,710 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

This game is a later start (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) so you should make time for it. Even if you’re just casually flipping over for a drive or two. Keep that football palate diverse. You’ll thank us later.

SMU’s super fan keeps streak alive

For a while last Saturday, Paul Layne remained in his seat, watching his beloved SMU take on Tulane, the 525th straight Mustangs game he has attended. Then it dawned on him: Why not get up and move around? After all, he wouldn’t be blocking anyone’s view.

For 44 years, Layne has been a fixture in the stands — home and away — but last week’s game was unique. Tulane wasn’t allowing fans for the visiting team because of COVID-19 protocols, but Layne was able to pull a few strings and nab a ticket. That left him all alone, save a hundred or so cardboard cutouts. TV cameras trained on him, a perfect visual expression of college football in 2020, and suddenly Layne was a celebrity.

“My phone went dead from so many people texting,” Layne said.

It doesn’t hurt that there are a lot more eyes on SMU these days, too. The No. 16 Mustangs face off against No. 9 Cincinnati on Saturday, arguably the biggest game in three decades for the program. A top-25 ranking and marquee matchups have been a welcome return to glory after so many years of bad teams.

“For a long time, I didn’t know if I’d live long enough to do that again,” Layne said. “It’s a very exciting time now.”

Layne’s streak started when he was a freshman at SMU, serving as a cheerleader. He’s 66 now. Somewhere around Year 17, it finally dawned on him that perhaps the streak was something he should work to keep alive, and last week’s game wasn’t his first near-miss. In 1995, Layne came down with chicken pox. Fortunately for him, the game was on Halloween weekend. SMU was playing Rice, and the Owls weren’t bringing many fans, so Layne dressed as a scarecrow and took a seat in an empty section of the old Cotton Bowl typically reserved for visiting fans.

Keeping the streak alive during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a trickier proposition. SMU is allowing 25% capacity for its home games, including Saturday’s showdown against Cincinnati, but the road trips have been a tougher ticket. Layne said he booked his travel in May, though he was doubtful any games would even be played.

The next tough call comes Nov. 5 at Temple, where fans still aren’t allowed in the stadium. He’s planning to fly to Philadelphia anyway, and if he has to watch the game from outside the stadium, he’s confident he’ll find a view that will make the trip worth it.

“I couldn’t imagine being somewhere else on a Saturday afternoon or evening other than an SMU game,” Layne said. “I guess I’m kind of loyal. Or crazy.”

What else to watch

How many points does Clemson score against Syracuse?

It’s been a tough season for the Orange. Syracuse is 1-4, with one of the worst games in program history coming last week in a 38-21 loss to Liberty, which racked up over 300 yards in the first half alone. Their lone victory came against Georgia Tech, whom Clemson hung 73 on last week. With the way Syracuse has looked this season, there’s a non-zero chance that Clemson could do that again this week. If the Orange can prevent Clemson from having their punter play a whole series at quarterback, they will have done better than Georgia Tech.

Auburn‘s bad offense vs. Ole Miss‘s bad defense

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Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin doesn’t want the loss to effect this week’s preparation and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is focused on less self-inflecting penalties.

Auburn’s offense has been hot and cold all season, and it’s been the latter more times than not. Ole Miss’ defense hasn’t shown any signs of being able to stop any offense, with their best performance (can you call it a performance?) coming against Arkansas, when it gave up 33 points. Auburn QB Bo Nix will probably be able to find WR Seth Williams for a big play or two, but as inconsistent as Auburn has been offensively, there is no reason Ole Miss can’t counter with a couple of big plays of their own.

Don’t sleep on Minnesota

In case you haven’t heard all week, Big Ten football is back this weekend. There’s — appropriately — a lot of talk about Ohio State and Justin Fields. But one team that isn’t being discussed enough, particularly in a wide-open Big Ten West, is Minnesota, who opens up against Michigan. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is coming off of a solid sophomore campaign in which he threw for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven picks. Lucky for him, future first-round NFL draft pick wideout Rashod Bateman opted back in and has been cleared to play this season. Going up against Michigan will be a nice early test, and barometer for what we might be able to expect from the Gophers this season.

LSU‘s rebound attempt

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LSU’s Ed Orgeron knows it will be a tough game against the Gamecocks as South Carolina’s Will Muschamp says it’s his job as a coach to keep his team dialed in weekly.

The Tigers need a win against South Carolina. Their Week 1 loss to Mississippi State didn’t seem awful at the time, especially since K.J. Costello threw for the most yards in any SEC game — ever. Since then, Costello was benched against Texas A&M, and the LSU defense gave up 45 points in a loss to Missouri. A game against South Carolina would usually be a nice and easy way to turn things around, but on top of their poor defensive play through three games, QB Myles Brennan may miss the game with a ‘significant’ lower-body injury. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said Monday he’s confident in either of their freshmen quarterbacks (TJ Finley or Max Johnson) to start, but there’s still plenty of concern in Baton Rouge.

Game Day Q&A with former Coastal Carolina head coach Joe Moglia

As the chairman of TD Ameritrade, Joe Moglia is helping shepherd through a deal with Charles Schwab that will end with the company having a market cap around $75 billion — and it also means he’ll be stepping down from his role. He’s done that before, though. In 2001, Moglia took a break from his job as CEO and got into coaching — a profession he’d left 20 years earlier — eventually becoming the head football coach at Coastal Carolina from 2011 through 2018. He’s written books on finance and football and is working on a new one on leadership, just as his Chanticleers have reached the top 25 for the first time in team history. We caught up with Moglia to talk Coastal Carolina, his former boss Bo Pelini, and the future of college football amid a COVID-19 financial crunch.

ESPN: What has it been like to see Coastal reach this level of success? Did you ever envision the program could be nationally ranked so soon after moving up to FBS?

Moglia: I couldn’t be prouder. You look at the staff, I recruited [head coach] Jamey [Chadwell]. I’ve always believed in him and thought he’d be a great successor and would do a great job of leading Coastal’s football team. … I really did envision we could become an elite FCS program. That prompted the Sun Belt to invite us. It takes a while to transition the scholarships and the transition with the coaching staff. … But I always thought we’d wind up being competitive. To beat a nationally ranked team, to be nationally ranked, to be undefeated at this point of the season — I definitely believed we could be competitive and hold our own.

ESPN: When you decided to get back into coaching, you spent two years working with Bo Pelini at Nebraska. He’s off to a rough start as the defensive coordinator at LSU now. Do you think he can get things fixed?

Moglia: I worked with Bo for two years as the executive advisor to the head football coach. Frankly, if I didn’t have that opportunity, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity at Coastal. He’s a good friend, a loyal guy, a very bright guy, and I’ll always be indebted to him for that. I really think that Bo is a tremendous defensive coordinator. He won a national championship at LSU before. Our defenses were always really good at Nebraska and he was the person behind that. I have no doubt they’ll figure it out and get done what they need to get done.

Player to watch

Lyles: Ohio State QB Justin Fields

I’m only kind of sorry I don’t have a deeper cut of an answer for you guys here this week, but I really, really want to see this guy play this weekend. Fields is one of the best players in the country, and I want to see how he comes out in the Buckeyes’ opener. Last season against Nebraska, he went 15-of-21 with 212 yards passing and three touchdowns, and added 72 yards and a TD on the ground. Don’t be surprised if he does better than that on Saturday.

Hale: Notre Dame QB Ian Book

The Irish are ranked No. 3 in the country, but their competition has accounted for just three FBS wins so far, and last week’s lackluster performance against Louisville offers cause for concern. More concerning is the struggles of the passing game. Book has just three completions of 20 yards or more to wide receivers this season. Meanwhile, Pitt’s defense can be dominant, and the Panthers’ secondary is more than capable of challenging the Irish receivers. Brian Kelly has made a point of saying he wants to get the passing game going, and this will be a good test for Book and Co. to see if they can improve on the unimpressive numbers thus far.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Lyles: Georgia Southern vs. Coastal Carolina

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Massimo Biscardi’s 40-yard field goal is good, giving Coastal Carolina the 30-27 win.

It feels like the Sun Belt produces at least one game that you must keep your eye on each week, and for the second straight week, Coastal Carolina (now ranked No. 25 in the AP poll) is featured. Georgia Southern is 3-1 this season, with the lone loss to a ranked Louisiana team that just narrowly lost to Coastal last week. The intrigue in this game for me is mostly about answering this question, “How good is Coastal Carolina, actually?” Because while Southern might not be their toughest game to date, it’s still a good test.

Hale: Arkansas State at Appalachian State

The Sun Belt has arguably been the most fun conference in college football so far, with last week’s showdown between Arkansas State and Georgia State serving as Exhibit A, a 59-52 Red Wolves win. After the win, Arkansas State fired its defensive coordinator. Its offense, however, has been incredible, with its two-QB system of Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher combining for more than 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns so far. App State was the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt, but an early loss to Marshall was followed by two straight postponements due to COVID-19. How will Zac Thomas and company respond? It might start with getting the ground game going. That was the bread and butter of the Mountaineers’ attack in 2019, but the unit managed just 96 yards on 33 carries in the loss to Marshall.

Upset of the week

Lyles: TCU over Oklahoma

I don’t feel very confident with this pick, but if Oklahoma continues to be sloppy on defense, it can definitely happen. Both teams have won and lost the same number of games in the Big 12, a place I never thought we’d be at this point in the season. Of course, Spencer Rattler could make me look silly and pop off, which I wouldn’t be mad about.

Hale: South Carolina over LSU

The defense is a mess. The quarterback is hurt. The depth chart is depleted. LSU is reeling, and there’s a real concern it is going to be tough to turn things around in the short term. Meanwhile, South Carolina is riding high after a stunning upset of Auburn, and the Gamecocks’ offense, which has been a disaster during the bulk of Will Muschamp’s tenure, has shown some real explosiveness at times this season. It is always risky betting against a desperate LSU team at home, but there is a lot of ground the Tigers need to make up in a hurry if they want to win this one.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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