Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (bubble wrap sold separately for punt snappers in Ann Arbor):
THE LEADERS HAVE EMERGED
After a weekend of mayhem, we have a clearer College Football Playoff picture across the land. We have a clear quartet of frontrunners, plus a defined pack of pursuers. Halfway to Selection Sunday, we can reasonably predict how this will play out and where the controversies may arise.
If these four teams keep winning, they’re in the playoff:
Alabama (1) remains the terror at the top. There has been plenty of squawking about the Crimson Tide’s schedule, some of it justified. When the game against Louisville lost all value, it further exposed the rest of the non-conference schedule. But the annihilations of Southeastern Conference competition resonate — and before the SEC bashers say the league is overrated, go back to who did work early and who did not. The 22-point thumping of Texas A&M — closest game the Tide have had — is a quality win. The Sagarin Ratings say ‘Bama has played the No. 58 schedule in the country. Sagarin also says Ohio State’s schedule is No. 57. Challenging games remaining: at LSU on Nov. 3; Mississippi State on Nov. 10; Auburn on Nov. 24; presumptive SEC championship game.
Ohio State (2) is Alabama’s closest pursuer, but the quality of the Buckeyes’ signature victories is waning. TCU is now 3-3, with a fresh loss to Texas Tech, and Penn State has two losses after being upset at home by Michigan State. Still, Ohio State has taken care of business without doubt or equivocation other than that very close scare in State College. The only offense that has been more productive to date is Alabama’s. Ohio State has played just one true road game, but three of the next four are on the road. Challenging games remaining: at Purdue on Saturday; at Michigan State on Nov. 10; Michigan on Nov. 24; presumptive Big Ten championship game.
Notre Dame (3) nearly choked on a shamrock Saturday at home against Pittsburgh. In what figured to be their easiest remaining game, the Fighting Irish never led until less than six minutes remained before pulling out the victory. Pitt shut down Notre Dame’s productive ground game, holding it to a season-low 80 rushing yards, and kept quarterback Ian Book unsettled for much of the day. But the Irish got the victory and also some ancillary help, with Michigan’s big win over Wisconsin boosting Notre Dame’s résumé — the Irish victory over the Wolverines is one of the top four nationally thus far. Which is helpful, because the rest of the body of work is modest. Challenging games remaining: at Northwestern on Nov. 3; at USC on Nov. 24.
Clemson (4) benefited from an open date while the rest of the top 10 was burning. The Tigers have the best road win of the top four — at Texas A&M, albeit in controversial fashion — and the most true road wins (three). They also rebounded from their close call against Syracuse by atomizing Wake Forest by 60, a strong statement heading into the second half of the season — where not many pitfalls await. Challenging games remaining: unbeaten North Carolina State on Saturday at home; at Boston College on Nov. 10; ACC championship game.
If any unbeaten teams are susceptible to an argument for being jumped by a one-loss team, it’s Notre Dame and Clemson. Alabama and Ohio State will have no such problem — and, frankly, it would be a surprise if a 12-0 Notre Dame or 13-0 Clemson isn’t a playoff team as well.
Here is the conga line of closest pursuers:
LSU (5). The Tigers (6-1) have a huge win, beating Georgia by 20 points. Their wins over Auburn and Miami took hits Saturday when the Tigers lost for the third time and the Hurricanes for the second time, both to unranked teams. But it’s all in front of LSU in the next two weeks: beat Mississippi State at home Oct. 27 and slay the Saban dragon Nov. 3, and LSU will be in playoff position regardless of what anyone else is doing. (Though it would still have a trip to Texas A&M and the SEC championship game as added risks.)
Texas (6). Among one-loss teams, the Longhorns (6-1) certainly have the best win away from home, beating Oklahoma on a neutral field. And the more USC wins after its ugly start, the more currency their 23-point whipping of the Trojans gains. The Horns are well positioned going forward, with an open date this weekend well-timed to help quarterback Sam Ehlinger recover from a sprained throwing shoulder. Their two toughest remaining games are both at home (West Virginia and resurgent Iowa State). We could have Red River Round 2 in JerryWorld on Dec. 1.
Michigan (7). Which one-loss team has the best loss? That would be the Wolverines, who were beaten by Notre Dame in South Bend by seven to open the season. Now Michigan also has a win to hang its hat on after bludgeoning Wisconsin by 25. There are three games remaining against ranked teams, plus a possible second meeting with the Badgers in the Big Ten title game. Much like LSU, if Michigan keeps winning and takes down an undefeated Ohio State along the way, it will be in the playoff.
Oklahoma (8). We’ll see this week how the Sooners are defensively after the firing of Mike Stoops. Some improvement on that side of the ball might be all Oklahoma needs to win out, including a potential rematch with Texas. The Sooners were fortunate to catch Iowa State pre-Brock Purdy, and the rest of the schedule isn’t much. In fact, even a 12-1 Oklahoma may not have the schedule strength of other one-loss teams, given a non-conference slate of Florida Atlantic, UCLA and Army and the largely uninspiring Big 12 itself.
The Georgia-Florida-Kentucky mashup (9). The SEC East’s pileup of one-loss teams will sort itself out significantly in the next few weeks. Georgia and Florida meet in Jacksonville on Oct. 27, and then the Bulldogs go to Kentucky the following Saturday. If the East winner emerges with one loss, it will be in the picture going to the SEC title game — and it also figures to be a significant underdog.
Central Florida (10). Predictably — and justifiably — the Knights were leapfrogged in the polls by LSU and Michigan after their victories Saturday. UCF was lucky to escape Memphis with a one-point victory after trailing by 16, but staying unbeaten was the important part. That one-point win, combined with South Florida’s one-point win Friday, keep alive the possibility of a high-impact end to the regular season in the American Athletic Conference: undefeated South Florida at undefeated Cincinnati on Nov. 10; Cincinnati at UCF on Nov. 17; and UCF at USF on Nov. 24. Still, an undefeated AAC champion needs more Power Five carnage to get a shot at the playoff.
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