Forward Pass: Notre Dame-Florida State tarnished by Jameis Winston news & more Week 7

College football at its core is an escape. On Saturday, another thrilling set of games diverted our attention as fans from the ugliness of the 48 preceding hours.

On Thursday, Georgia shut down Heisman candidate Todd Gurley, possibly for good, amidst accusations he signed memorabilia for money, raising yet another round of debate over the NCAA’s antiquated amateurism rules. But autographs seemed like small potatoes a day later with a deluge of new investigative reports regarding Florida State football and the local police. FOX Sports uncovered documents showing that FSU’s university police and athletic department meddled with last year’s Jameis Winston rape investigation. The New York Times described the revolting pattern of Tallahassee police downplaying criminal accusations against Seminoles players. And ESPN reported the reigning Heisman Trophy winner will soon face a university code of conduct hearing over his alleged 2012 sexual encounter.

Doesn’t it just make you feel warm and fuzzy that this week’s most anticipated form of escape nationally will be … a Florida State football game?

Not just any FSU game, mind you. It’s Notre Dame-Florida State, a primetime showdown of top five teams with prestigious football brands that may carry more College Football Playoff implications than any upcoming game to be played outside of the SEC West.

Notre Dame had its own recent scandal, which also involved hearings. Five players were accused of academic dishonesty. Following quarterback Everett Golson’s season-long suspension last year for his own cheating incident, the news last August did not reflect well on the academically proud university.

But give Notre Dame credit. It immediately suspended the involved players, who have not since played. The outcomes of their recent academic hearings were not announced publicly, though one of the players, standout cornerback KeiVarae Russell, told coach Brian Kelly and his teammates last week he wouldn’t be back this season.

Conversely, it was business as usual Saturday for Florida State’s star quarterback, who, according to ESPN.com, “might be charged with as many as four violations of FSU’s student conduct code, two of which involve sexual conduct.” He went 30-of-36 for 317 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-20 win at Syracuse. Asked afterward whether he expects to suit up Saturday against the Irish, Winston told reporters: “Of course.”

Generations of college football fans have taken a certain glee in rooting for whoever’s facing Notre Dame, but I can’t help sensing this may be a rare occasion where the Irish will have the majority of the public on their side. It’s not uncommon for a reigning juggernaut — like Nick Saban’s Alabama program the past several years — to take on a villainous quality. But Florida State, 6-0 and winner of 22 straight, is redefining the role.

THE FOX FOUR

If the reports are to be believed — and they’re all based on highly credible reporting — then some of the people in power in Tallahassee truly are villains.

The Irish, 6-0 themselves, go into Saturday’s game as considerable underdogs. They’re coming off a strange 50-43 win over 2-4 North Carolina in which, as Kelly told reporters Sunday, “We gave them three touchdowns on offense. If you take the three touchdowns that we gave them off the board, it’s 50 to 20-whatever, and everyone is going, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty nice game.’” Those three miscues came from quarterback Golson, whose nine turnovers in his past three games have dampened his otherwise impressive productivity (315.3 yards per game of total offense, 20 total touchdowns).

Notre Dame hasn’t played like a playoff-caliber team of late, but then it endured no shortage of sloppiness during its 12-0 regular season two years ago. Florida State has similarly struggled to put together complete games, contributing to its fall this week from the No. 1 perch in the polls, but with all that talent most figure it a matter of time before the ‘Noles put it all together.

That is, if they don’t lose their star quarterback for good somewhere along the way.

Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann made the radical suggestion over the weekend that Winston might be best off dropping out of Florida State to avoid facing a hearing that could potentially unearth new evidence against him. Since he’s never been charged with a crime for the 2012 incident, he’s not yet protected from Double Jeopardy in the justice system.

That doesn’t seem likely given Winston’s and his lawyers’ continued insistence he did nothing wrong. Instead, it appears that Winston and coach Jimbo Fisher — the man who keeps putting him out there — are engaged in a game of pickle with a university administration that’s grown increasingly image conscious amidst mounting criticism. Is his pending hearing — coming nearly two years after the alleged incident — merely for appearance sake? Or is he really in trouble?

Much like in the ‘Noles’ Sept. 20 primetime game against Clemson, Winston’s off-field issues figure to be a recurring storyline during the broadcast of one of the season’s biggest games Saturday. But that’s unfortunately become a reality of watching Florida State football. There’s something seriously wrong in Tallahassee. From that we can’t, nor shouldn’t, escape.

MISSISSIPPI STATE’S MONUMENTAL MOMENT

On Saturday evening, it was still just an enticing possibility that had yet come to fruition. But the jubilation in the stands of Davis-Wade Stadium following Mississippi State’s 38-23 win over defending SEC champion Auburn clearly carried an acknowledgement of the likely news that did in fact arrive Sunday: Mississippi State is the new No. 1 team in the country.

Reaching No. 1 in mid-October in a poll that no longer determines the official national champion is entirely symbolic. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal at Alabama or Ohio State, but at Mississippi State, which has never been No. 1 before and in fact has not finished a season in the top 10 since 1940, there’s no understating just how euphoric a moment this is in Starkville.

“It doesn’t get you a trophy at the end of the year,” said AD Scott Stricklin, “but it certainly makes everyone feel good.” And as the marketer in him sees it: “It’s hard to find better promotion.”

WEEK 7 WINNERS AND LOSERS

You really had to be there Saturday to understand just what a cauldron Auburn walked into. I’ve covered games at nearly every major college football stadium in the country; Saturday’s was the loudest crowd I’ve ever experienced. Other national writers there said the same thing. That may seem surprising given the relatively modest-sized record announced Saturday of 62,945, but two things: 1) Most of those 60,000-plus spent the entire game (minus live action, as instructed) clanging their deafening cowbells and 2) they’ve waited a long time for a moment like this.

“They [the fans] deserve just as much credit for this as the guys on the field,” said sixth-year coach Dan Mullen, who came into this season with a dismal 2-21 record against ranked teams but is thus far 3-0 in 2014 against top-10 foes. “ … We’ve built from the ground up, and there’s so much pride.”

The only thing more improbable than Mississippi State rising from unranked to No. 1 in the span of five weeks is we’re not even certain the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in their own state. Rival Ole Miss followed up last week’s breakthrough win against Alabama with a resounding 35-20 win at Texas A&M on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs, who largely controlled Auburn despite coughing up four turnovers, win behind a dynamic quarterback, Dak Prescott, a powerful rushing attack led by Josh Robinson and a blue-collar defense. The Rebels, who allowed 401 passing yards by Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill but shut down their running game completely and picked off Hill twice, do it with the more modestly talented Bo Wallace but a defense dripping with athleticism.

Could it be that this year’s Egg Bowl, not Iron Bowl, will be the biggest game of Thanksgiving weekend?

Mullen did his best Saturday night to downplay the Bulldogs’ accomplishments. His biggest boast was that his team is now bowl-eligible.

“Right now,” he said, “we haven’t even guaranteed ourselves a winning season.”

Don’t let that reality check ruin the party, Starkville. This is your moment in the sun. I’m guessing you’ll celebrate it quite loudly.

BAYLOR NOW DRIVING THE BIG 12

Baylor fans stormed the field Saturday following their team’s victory over TCU. Just two weeks earlier it’s doubtful anyone would have imagined that beating then-unranked TCU would merit such jubilant celebration. Even then, the fifth-ranked Bears were favored to win against the ninth-ranked Horned Frogs; this wasn’t an upset.

But when your team rallies from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to win a wild 61-58 shootout on a last-second field goal to remain undefeated — yeah, you get pretty excited.

“I just knew looking at the other guys’ faces we were going to come back in that game,” Bears quarterback Bryce Petty said after throwing for a career-high 510 yards and six touchdowns. “With our offense and the way we play defense, 21 points is not a big deal for us. The belief in each other was outstanding."

BEST PHOTOS OF WEEK 7

The Big 12 was among the initial trendsetters nationally in the hurry-up, no-huddle movement circa 2007/’08. As such, it got a reputation — undeserved at times — that its teams don’t play any defense. There was much talk coming into this season about the expected improved defenses at both Oklahoma and Baylor, and TCU was among the national defensive leaders during the first month of the season.

Well … you can forget all that. Whoever wins the Big 12 this season is going to have to score a lot of points, because no one’s stopping anyone else. Only Texas has shown the consistent ability to slow down quality offenses, but unfortunately for the ‘Horns they have little offense of their own. Or at least they didn’t until they ran into Oklahoma’s purportedly tough defense Saturday at the Cotton Bowl and racked up nearly 500 yards before falling 31-26.

Baylor has won 22 of its past 24 games and now sits in the driver’s seat in the Big 12 race, but who knows how long that will last? This week the Bears visit another high-octane team, 4-2 West Virginia, which mounted its own wild comeback Saturday to beat Texas Tech, 37-34, on a 55-yard Josh Lambert field goal. Other future shootouts likely await against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.

But the Bears’ aerial assault against TCU coach Gary Patterson’s normally sound defense served the latest reminder of just how explosive they can be when Petty — who completed just seven passes the week before against Texas — finds his groove.

"It was just a statement game for us,” said Petty. “… It really does not matter who you put on the other side of the field with us. It was a huge opportunity on a national scale, and we won it again."

THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST

Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.

Peach: Michigan State (Big Ten champ) vs. East Carolina (Group of 5)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

Fiesta: Alabama (at-large) vs. TCU (at-large)

Orange: Clemson (ACC) vs. Auburn (B1G/SEC/ND)

Cotton: Notre Dame (at-large) vs. Baylor (Big 12 champ)

Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Oregon

Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Mississippi State

How much difference can one offensive lineman make? Last week in this column I wrote: “The Pac-12 may be the nation’s clear No. 2 conference, but it appears increasingly unlikely to produce one of the four best teams.” A week later: Welcome back, Oregon. That’s because the Ducks welcomed back injured left tackle Jake Fisher against UCLA and suddenly an offensive line that allowed 12 sacks in the two games he missed allowed none in an impressive 42-30 rout of the Bruins. I can now see the Ducks winning the Pac-12, and with that Michigan State win on their resume, getting back in the top four.

Clemson’s status as the Orange Bowl’s ACC replacement may be a bit shakier now after breakout quarterback Deshaun Watson injured his throwing hand against Louisville and will miss a month. But the Tigers’ upcoming schedule is hardly daunting, and it’s not like I have more faith in a Coastal Division team. Alabama remains in this group despite a miserable offensive performance against Arkansas, because the Tide’s defense is starting to look more like an expected Alabama defense.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …

* Washington Huskies. Chris Petersen’s team has been a largely ugly work in progress, but the Huskies are 5-1 after shutting down Cal’s second-ranked scoring offense in a 31-7 road win. Forcing five fumbles will do that. Washington visits Autzen Stadium this week, a recent house of horrors for U-Dub, but hey, Pac-12 road teams are 14-4 so far in league games.

* Duke Blue Devils. The Blue Devils handed Georgia Tech its first loss and won in Atlanta for the first time in 20 years with a 31-25 win. Five different players helped Duke rush for 242 yards. At 2-0, Virginia is the only ACC Coastal team without a league loss, but Duke remains my favorite.

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

* Georgia RB Nick Chubb. It will be a shame if we never get to see Gurley play again due to autographs (though don’t count me in the “It’s a stupid rule so don’t enforce it,” crowd). But Chubb, a true freshman, ground out 143 yards on 38 carries in the Dawgs’ 34-0 win at Missouri.

* Central Michigan RB Thomas Rawls. The same guy who could barely get off the bench in three seasons at Michigan ran for 270 yards in Saturday’s 34-17 upset of NIU. The Chippewas ended the Huskies’ 24-game regular season MAC winning streak, and Rawls notched his second straight 200-yard game.

* Pac-12 officiating. The extent of the league’s dysfunction in this area is coming to light after officiating coordinator Tony Corrente abruptly resigned. FOX Sports’ Mike Pereria, a close friend of Corrente’s, describes an atmosphere where administrators would undermine Corrente in response to coaches’ complaints.

THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE

Temple’s Matt Rhule. The Owls, 2-10 in Rhule’s first season, are off to a 4-1 start including a 2-0 league record following their 35-24 win over Tulsa. The improvement started late last season when Temple nearly upset eventual league champ UCF and continued with a season-opening blowout of Vanderbilt.

THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT

Florida’s Will Muschamp. Granted, it never cooled off, but Muschamp missed out on a winnable opportunity against struggling LSU when — have you heard this one before? — a Jeff Driskel interception set up the Tigers’ game-winning field goal. Now Florida, 3-2, will need to upset Georgia or FSU to get to eight wins.

ON TO NEXT WEEKEND

Three games we’re most excited for:

* Notre Dame at Florida State (Saturday, 8 ET). The teams last met in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl. Since then FSU’s won a BCS title and ND’s played for one. “You could tell that both teams were definitely ascending,” said Kelly.

* Texas A&M at Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The teams’ first two SEC meetings were wildly entertaining, but this one’s missing the Johnny factor. Lane Kiffin will face a full-on mutiny if ‘Bama doesn’t score big.

* Baylor at West Virginia (Saturday, Noon). The last time these teams met in Morgantown two years ago, the final score read: West Virginia 70, Baylor 63. And that was before Bryce Petty took the reins in Waco.

Three games you shouldn’t miss:

* Oklahoma State at TCU (Saturday, 4 ET). What a gauntlet the Horned Frogs are running right now. The Cowboys had a disturbingly close game against Kansas, winning 27-20, but they’re still 3-0 in the Big 12.

* Washington at Oregon (Saturday, 8 ET). Huskies LB Shaq Thompson has now amassed 220 yards and four touchdowns on fumble and interception returns this year. He and Marcus Mariota alone are worth tuning in for.

* Georgia at Arkansas (Saturday, 4 ET). The Razorbacks have now lost 15 straight SEC games but they keep getting closer. It’s going to happen at some point. If it happens here, the SEC East will be rendered irrelevant.

One under-the-radar gem:

* Utah at Oregon State (Thursday, 10 p.m. ET). The late Saturday night Pac-12 games have been endlessly entertaining this year, and this week the fun begins two nights earlier as Sean Mannion goes up against Utah’s top-20 defense.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.