Forde-Yard Dash: 8 playoff contenders have emerged

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (UCLA-Washington State street-legal amphetamine game tape sold separately):

[More Dash: Coaching grades | Most memorable games | D’Eric King saga]

FIRST QUARTER

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THE GREAT EIGHT, PLUS TWO

Four weeks into the season, a first flight of playoff contenders has formed. It’s comprised of eight teams (four of them from one league, can you guess which one???). There are still 23 undefeated FBS teams, but they are not all created equally. One-third of the way through the regular season, these are the ones that matter most, in order of accomplishment to date:

LSU (1). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 2-0. Road record: 2-0. Power Five record: 2-0. FBS record: 3-0. Best win: at Texas on Sept. 7. Big stat: The Tigers lead the nation in scoring offense at 57.8 points per game, which is 19.1 points higher than the school record, set in 2007. Simply put, and against all traditional archetype, LSU has become a Big 12 team offensively. It is one of the most radical transformations in recent memory, and it creates the possibility that the traditional Cro-Magnon, spear-versus-club matchup with nemesis Alabama could be replaced by a track meet this season. That would blow minds across the South. Remaining slate: Very difficult. LSU hosts undefeated Florida on Oct. 12 and undefeated Auburn on Oct. 26, then visits Alabama on Nov. 9. An appearance in the SEC championship game would also be a possibility.

LSU's Joe Burrow (9) high-fives teammates after scoring against Vanderbilt in a 66-38 rout on Saturday. (Getty)
LSU's Joe Burrow (9) high-fives teammates after scoring against Vanderbilt in a 66-38 rout on Saturday. (Getty)

Auburn (2). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 2-0. Road record: 1-0. Neutral record: 1-0. Power Five record: 2-0. FBS record: 4-0. Best win: over Oregon in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 31. Big stat: The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing attempts and rushing yards, and are outrushing their opponents by 170 yards per game. No team in the SEC has a higher run percentage than Auburn, at 64.2 percent. With freshman quarterback Bo Nix still very much a passing work in progress, Gus Malzahn’s ability to rely on the running game is vital. Remaining slate: Four unbeaten opponents remain, two on the road in October (Florida and LSU) and two at home in November (Georgia and Alabama). An appearance in the SEC championship game would also be a possibility.

Clemson (3). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 3-0. Road record: 1-0. Power Five record: 3-0. FBS record: 4-0. Best win: home over Texas A&M on Sept. 7. Big stat: The Tigers haven’t allowed more than 14 points in any of their first four games for the first time since 2000. The remarkable thing is that Clemson had five defensive players drafted last spring, three of them in the first round, and thus far they are better statistically on that side of the ball in 2019 than 2018. Points allowed is down from 13.1 to 10; yards per rush is down from 2.51 to 2.47; yards per play is down from 4.19 to 3.78. Remaining slate: This is the true long-term advantage for Clemson — the roadblocks to another undefeated record are few and far between. Per the Sagarin Ratings, Clemson should be favored by at least 17 points in every remaining regular-season game.

Georgia (4). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 3-0. Road record: 1-0. Power Five record: 2-0. FBS record: 3-0. Best win: home over Notre Dame on Saturday. Big stat: Perhaps no other team has exerted more control of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs are third nationally in yards per rush (6.93) and 12th in yards allowed per rush (2.3). They have recorded 12 sacks while allowing only one. They have 24 tackles for loss and have given up only four. Georgia is huge and physical on both lines, wearing down every opponent to date. Remaining slate: There are two major tests away from Athens, the annual Florida game in Jacksonville and a visit to Auburn on Nov. 16. And a potential SEC championship game appearance would also loom large in December.

Wisconsin (5). Overall record: 3-0. Home record: 2-0. Road record: 1-0. Power Five record: 1-0. FBS record: 3-0. Best win: home over Michigan on Saturday. Big stat: The Badgers are, to date, an unprecedented defensive juggernaut. They are No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (4.7 points per game), total defense (171.3 yards allowed per game), yards allowed per play (3.17), rushing defense (27 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (75.73). Last year, an injury-riddled Wisconsin defense allowed its most points per game since 2008; this year Jim Leonhard’s unit is returning to form. Remaining slate: The next three games are at home, and after that three of the remaining five opponents are currently unbeaten — Ohio State in Columbus, Iowa and Minnesota to end the regular season in Minneapolis. The Oct. 26 game against the Buckeyes could have playoff implications and also serve as a Big Ten championship game preview.

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor runs past Michigan defensive back Josh Metellus to score a touchdown on Saturday. (Getty)
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor runs past Michigan defensive back Josh Metellus to score a touchdown on Saturday. (Getty)

Alabama (6). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 2-0. Road record: 1-0. Neutral record: 1-0. Power Five record: 2-0. FBS record: 4-0. Best win: at South Carolina on Sept. 14. Big stat: At 8.24 yards per play, the Crimson Tide is actually ahead of last year’s school-record 7.8. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is every bit as aggressive calling plays as predecessor Mike Locksley, with ‘Bama throwing nearly half its 133 passes on first down and 11 of its 18 touchdown passes coming on first down. Remaining slate: Check back in November. Maybe Alabama will get a challenge at Texas A&M on Oct. 12, but more likely the first big test will be LSU in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9 and the second will be the Iron Bowl at Auburn. After that could be a third annual postseason meeting with Georgia, and the first two were phenomenal.

Ohio State (7). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 3-0. Road record: 1-0. Power Five record: 1-0. FBS record: 4-0. Best win: At Indiana on Sept. 14. Big stat: As good as the offense has been with Justin Fields at quarterback, Ohio State’s defense actually has the higher national rankings. The Buckeyes are second only to Wisconsin in yards allowed per game (222) and per play (3.42), are tied for the national lead in sacks (20) and second in tackles for loss (44). With a nation-leading seven sacks, defensive end Chase Young follows the brothers Bosa as the next great Ohio State terror off the edge. Remaining slate: ESPN’s “GameDay” is going to the Ohio State game at Nebraska on Saturday, but that likely won’t be a great matchup. The Buckeyes host Wisconsin on Oct. 26 and Penn State on Nov. 23 before finishing at Michigan.

Oklahoma (8). Overall record: 3-0. Home record: 2-0. Road record: 1-0. Power Five record: 1-0. FBS record: 2-0. Best win: at UCLA on Sept. 14. Big stat: For the third straight season, and with the third different quarterback, this is America’s No. 1 offense in yards per game (676.7) and yards per play (10.46, which would obliterate the NCAA FBS record Oklahoma set last year if that can be maintained). The slight variation is an increased reliance on the running game, with the Sooners running on 60.3 percent of their snaps thus far compared to 56.8 percent last year (with Kyler Murray) and 55.8 in 2018 (with Baker Mayfield). Quarterback Jalen Hurts is the team leader in both rushing attempts (38) and yards (373). Remaining slate: The Texas game looms large Oct. 12, with a trip to surprising Kansas State two weeks thereafter. The regular season ends with a trip to Oklahoma State, but Mike Gundy hasn’t had much success in the Bedlam rivalry.

The one-loss team best equipped to crash the party:

Texas (9). Overall record: 3-1. Home record: 2-1. Road record: 0-0. Neutral record: 1-0. Power Five record: 1-1. FBS record: 3-1. Best win: over Oklahoma State on Saturday.

There are better opportunities ahead for the Longhorns than the other one-loss teams of note, Notre Dame and Oregon. Whereas Texas could play Oklahoma twice, the Fighting Irish have an increasingly soft schedule with the demise of Stanford and Saturday flop of Michigan — though USC has revived. The Ducks are in an underwhelming Pac-12 that may not provide a lot of opportunities for quality wins. On the flip side, Notre Dame and Oregon might be better situated to remain with only one loss — and neither of them lost at home like Texas.

The Group of Five’s best hope:

Boise State (10). Overall record: 4-0. Home record: 3-0. Road record: 1-0. Power Five record: 1-0. FBS record: 3-0. Best win: at Florida State. The Broncos could have a shot at 12-0, but still would probably need a lot of help. They’re currently ranked 16th in one poll and 15th in the other, with three one-loss teams ahead of them. Boise plays four more teams that have scored wins over Power Five opponents: Hawaii, BYU, San Jose State and Wyoming. But the best thing that could happen to the Broncos is for Florida State to get its act together and win a lot of games the rest of the way.

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