Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (novels sold separately to sad/bored fans in Tallahassee):
THE DANDY DOZEN PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
The first College Football Playoff rankings come out Tuesday night. And while it’s worth remembering that they serve little purpose at this date beyond inflaming debate, there are a few constants we have come to expect.
Like parents and grandparents at Thanksgiving dinner, respected elders will be in their usual seats at the table — namely Alabama and Clemson. The Crimson Tide has been in the top four in the CFP rankings 21 of the last 22 weeks, with the only break since November 2014 coming when they were No. 5 for a week last season following the loss to Auburn. The Tigers have been in the top four 18 straight weeks. It would be a surprise if the two mainstays are not 1-2 Tuesday night.
If history serves as a guide, half the eventual field will be in the top four in the first rankings — that’s the average over the first four seasons of the playoff. Last year the number was three: Georgia, Alabama and Clemson. The previous year it was two: Alabama and Clemson. In 2015 the number also was two: Alabama and Clemson. And in 2014 the number was one: Florida State.
The others who received a taste of initial top-four excitement, only to fade away: Notre Dame (2017), Michigan (2016), Texas A&M (’16), LSU (2015), Ohio State (’15), Mississippi State (2014), Auburn (’14) and Mississippi (’14).
Here are the 12 teams The Dash sees jockeying for those coveted four spots, ranked in order of likelihood to be in the bracket come Selection Sunday on Dec. 2:
Clemson (1). Record: 8-0, 5-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 2. Sagarin rating: No. 2. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 34. Best win: at Texas A&M. Underappreciated win: 38-7 over Georgia Southern, which is 7-1 and maybe the best team in the Sun Belt.
The Tigers aren’t the best team in the country, but they have the easiest path to the playoff. They’ve routed three straight opponents by a combined 142 points, and the Saturday game against lousy Louisville will be another name-the-score beatdown. Unless there is a significant northeast weather event, Clemson figures to be favored by at least two touchdowns the following week at Boston College, then finishes up with home games against Duke and South Carolina. An ACC championship game against the winner of the lightweight Coastal Division also would be an anticipated mismatch. That said: Clemson has lost each of the two previous seasons as a favorite of more than 20 points. So it’s hardly inconceivable.
Alabama (2). Record: 8-0, 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 1. Sagarin rating: No. 1. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 60. Best win: home against Texas A&M. Underappreciated feat: Alabama has won three SEC road games by an average of 42 points.
The Crimson Tide has destroyed all comers, but the hardest games are ahead — starting Saturday in Baton Rouge, in what will be the most anticipated game of the season to date nationally. The final three regular-season games are at home against a pretty good Mississippi State, an overmatched Citadel and hated rival Auburn. Then there would figure to be an SEC championship game against either the team that nearly beat the Tide for all the marbles last year (Georgia) or nouveau riche Kentucky. Could ‘Bama afford a loss and still make the playoff? Maybe. But the terrible non-conference schedule could be a problem in a potential beauty contest with other one-loss teams.
Notre Dame (3). Record: 8-0. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 3. Sagarin rating: No. 12. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 45. Best win: home against Michigan. Underappreciated win: handling Stanford, which hasn’t had a great season but still ranks in the Sagarin top 30.
The Fighting Irish own a perfect record and one of the two best wins in the country, the season opener against the Wolverines. There isn’t much other meat on the bone beyond the Stanford game. One-score games at home against the middling likes of Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh underscore the vulnerability of an Irish team that will play four November games in four different cities stretching from Los Angeles to New York City. But here’s something to keep an eye on: If Notre Dame loses a game and Michigan wins out, would the Irish still be slotted ahead of a 12-1 Wolverines team based on that head-to-head win? Notre Dame doesn’t have a 13th game for a conference championship, which could be more of a blessing than a problem.
Oklahoma (4). Record: 7-1, 4-1 in the Big 12. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 7. Sagarin rating: No. 3. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 36. Best win: at Iowa State, which is up to No. 30 in the Sagarin ratings. Underappreciated win: over top 40 Army, which is 6-2. The loss: by three points to Texas on a neutral field.
Among one-loss teams, the Sooners have the smoothest path to 12-1. Road games against Texas Tech (Saturday) and West Virginia (Nov. 23) won’t be easy, but Oklahoma still figures to be solidly favored in both. The potential Big 12 title game opponent could be Texas — and even though the Longhorns won the regular-season matchup, a repeat of that upset would be a surprise. The Sooners’ résumé is hurt by UCLA’s down year. But if they go 12-1 and reverse the loss to the Longhorns in the title game, giving them wins over all nine Big 12 opponents on the year, that would be a compelling body of work. However, if the three Power Five unbeatens remain unbeaten and the Big Ten produces a one-loss champion, Oklahoma may be the fifth wheel at a four-team party.
Michigan (5). Record: 7-1, 5-0 in the Big Ten. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 5. Sagarin rating: No. 4. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 23. Best win: the beatdown of Wisconsin, which is No. 21 according to Sagarin. Underappreciated win: Comeback victory at Northwestern, which leads the Big Ten West. The loss: by seven at Notre Dame, the best loss anyone has to date.
If the Wolverines can get to the clubhouse with just one loss, they’ll almost certainly be in the playoff. But the route there includes a game against Penn State on Saturday and of course the trip to Ohio State on Nov. 24. Then there would be the matter of a Big Ten title game, which could be a rematch with Northwestern or Wisconsin, or a game against Iowa or Purdue. And it bears repeating that the selection committee’s evaluation of head-to-head results could loom large with the loss to Notre Dame, should the Fighting Irish and Michigan both end up with one loss.
Ohio State (6). Record: 7-1, 4-1 in the Big Ten. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 8. Sagarin rating: No. 6. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 57. Best win: at Penn State. Underappreciated win: None. The loss: by 29 at 4-4 Purdue, a very bad loss that could leave a mark.
Don’t be shocked if the Buckeyes are lower than their poll ranking Tuesday night — potentially the lowest of all the one-loss Power Five teams. Their body of work to date rests completely on the comeback, one-point win at Penn State, which lost its next home game to Michigan State. TCU has collapsed to 3-5, bottoming out in a loss to Kansas on Saturday. The other wins — Oregon State, Rutgers, Tulane, Indiana and Minnesota — are against teams with an average Sagarin rating of 92. But Ohio State does have remaining chances to score good wins against Michigan State, Michigan and the Big Ten West winner in the league title game. The résumé can improve, but the Buckeyes will have to play better in November than they did at any point in October.
West Virginia (7). Record: 6-1, 4-1 in the Big 12. AP/Coaches ranking: 12th AP, 10th coaches. Sagarin rating: No. 14. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 59. Best win: at Texas Tech. Underappreciated win: None. The loss: 30-14 at Iowa State.
The remaining schedule says there’s at least one more loss out there for the Mountaineers. Maybe it’s in Austin on Saturday, or Stillwater on Nov. 17, or home in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma. But in none of those matchups would West Virginia be a huge underdog — thus if the destruction of Baylor last week can be replicated weekly down the stretch, WVU could find itself in JerryWorld playing for the conference title Dec. 1. West Virginia was dealt a double dose of bad luck — opening opponent Tennessee (No. 58 Sagarin) is no good and the hurricane cancellation of its game at North Carolina State leaves the résumé lacking a quality non-conference win.
Washington State (8). Record: 7-1, 4-1 in the Pac-12. AP/Coaches ranking: 10th AP, 11th Coaches. Sagarin rating: No. 19. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 55. Best win: at home over Pac-12 South leader Utah. Underappreciated win: 59-24 over Eastern Washington. While EWU is an FCS team, it’s a good one, ranking higher than more than 40 FBS teams in the Sagarin ratings. The loss: 39-36 at USC.
This could be the most debated team of the week (and perhaps the entire next month, if it keeps winning) by the selection committee. Washington State’s one loss comes with an asterisk attached — a targeting no-call from a game infamously impacted by the Pac-12 league office weighed heavily into the outcome against USC. Had the obvious targeting by Trojans linebacker Porter Gustin been called, the Cougars would have had a first down at the USC 10 with a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown. Instead they attempted a tying field goal with 1:41 to play and it was blocked. So: How far into the hypothetical weeds does the committee want to go? Or does it look at Wazzu’s non-conference slate of Wyoming, San Jose State and Eastern Washington and automatically shuffle the Cougars to the back of the one-loss line?
LSU (9). Record: 7-1, 4-1 in the SEC. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 4. Sagarin rating: No. 8. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 6. Best win: home blowout of Georgia. Underappreciated win: a 16-point thumping of Mississippi State. The loss: at Florida, probably the second-best loss anyone has to date.
The Tigers should be no lower than No. 4 in the first committee rankings, and perhaps even higher. They have played by far the toughest schedule of any playoff contender, with both a signature victory and a respectable defeat on the résumé. The only flaw is that seemingly major September wins over Miami and Auburn haven’t held up as well through October — Auburn and Miami both are 5-3 and regarded as significant disappointments. If LSU can slay the Saban dragon Saturday, they could have a case to vault up to No. 1 next week. But here’s the downside: actually having to beat Alabama to remain in serious playoff contention. And if LSU pulls that off, it could well face a rematch with Georgia in the SEC title game in the Bulldogs’ backyard — ask Auburn how that role went last year.
Georgia (10). Record: 7-1, 5-1 in the SEC. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 6 AP, tied for No. 5 Coaches. Sagarin rating: No. 5. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 28. Best win: over Florida by 19 on a neutral field Saturday. Underappreciated win: road blowout of South Carolina in the second week of the season. The loss: at LSU, and while it wasn’t close, it at least came at the hands of a powerful opponent.
The Bulldogs got well and got a signature win Saturday, re-establishing their credentials after largely living on 2017 reputation through the first seven games. But the difficulty of the closing stretch is why Georgia is this far down the list of likely playoff qualifiers. The SEC East will be decided at Kentucky on Saturday, and Georgia cannot afford a Cocktail Party hangover heading to Lexington. Under Smart, the Bulldogs haven’t exactly bounced out of Jacksonville into the next week: They slogged past South Carolina last year, winning by 14 as a 23-point favorite; and needed a field goal on the final play to beat Kentucky in 2016. If Georgia does subdue the Wildcats, there are games against Auburn and Georgia Tech still on the docket — and the eventual specter of Alabama in the SEC title game. That’s a lot to handle.
Kentucky (11). Record: 7-1, 5-1 in the SEC. AP/Coaches ranking: 11th AP, 12th Coaches. Sagarin rating: No. 23. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 22. Best win: at Florida. Underappreciated win: a three-touchdown beating of Mississippi State. The loss: at Texas A&M in overtime.
Kentucky got lucky Saturday, rallying from a near-hopeless situation to win at Missouri with the help of a horrendous pass interference call on the final play of regulation, then scoring on an untimed down to win by a point. The flukish nature of the victory is likely why the Cats rose only one spot in the polls and failed to crack the Top 10. It was the third straight game the Wildcats have scored 15 or fewer points, and they’ve somehow managed to win two of them. Kentucky has proven to be nothing if not resourceful, but it would be surprising to see this team beat Georgia and then get to 11-1. And it’s simply impossible to envision Kentucky beating Alabama for the SEC title. So while the résumé is good right now, the chances of staying playoff-viable are not.
Central Florida (12). Record: 7-0, 4-0 in the American Athletic Conference. AP/Coaches ranking: No. 9. Sagarin rating: No. 29. Sagarin strength of schedule: No. 125. Best win: a 31-point shellacking of Pittsburgh. Underappreciated win: None.
The Knights are stuck beating their fists against the glass ceiling of Power Five elitism, and they’re unlikely to crack it. That strength-of-schedule rating is a killer, and having a game canceled against North Carolina — which would be a mid-level AAC team, but carries name recognition — doesn’t help. There are three pretty good regular-season games remaining, starting with Temple on Thursday night and extending to 7-1 Cincinnati on Nov. 17 and 7-1 South Florida on Nov. 23. Then there is a possible AAC title game matchup with 7-1 Houston. So the schedule strength will improve. But will the committee be paying attention? Worth checking where UCF is year-over-year with CFP — it was No. 17 with a 7-0 record in the first rankings last year, behind four two-loss teams. It would be surprising if the Knights aren’t significantly higher than that Tuesday.
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