Forde-Yard Dash: 7 teams in position to make College Football Playoff without any help

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Webfoot” jerseys burned separately in Eugene):

POLITICAL FOOTBALL

By the time the absurd spectacle was over Sunday night, a terrible realization fell upon The Dash: college football and politics had become indistinguishable from one another.

Save us, please.

It started with the locker-room banter (1)” explanation Friday from Donald Trump, ascribing some terrible comments to simply being Stuff Players Talk About. Count The Dash among those who have spent a lot of time in a lot of locker rooms without hearing that.

Then there was the highly partisan argument over a game that wasn’t played Saturday. The LSU-Florida Hurricane Bowl (2) had all the elements of a presidential debate: bickering, finger pointing, a refusal to hear out the other side and an ineffective moderator in Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey (3). And with LSU athletic director Joe Alleva rhetorically digging in Monday and insisting that potentially rescheduling the game to Nov. 19 in Gainesville won’t happen – “We’re going to have a home game on Nov. 19” – we’re moving toward another hallmark of politics: gridlock.

There was vulgar dialogue, and not all of it came from a hot mic: Arkansas associate professor of agri-economics and agribusiness Lawton Nalley was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after the Razorbacks lost at home to Alabama. Nalley reportedly was heard yelling at coach Bret Bielema (4) as the coach walked off the field, “If I had your record I’d be [expletive] fired. [Expletive] you.” Bielema now is 22-22 at Arkansas, 7-19 in SEC games, though the latter stat is skewed by an 0-8 debut year in 2013.

The barbarism being committed upon Rutgers (5) by Ohio State and Michigan on the past two Saturdays – a combined 136-0 by the two brutes of the Big Ten – is uglier than any negative ad campaigns in the presidential campaigns.

Deflecting blame and instead pointing out the moral and ethical inadequacies of opponents is a strategy employed by politicians forever – and now actively being copied by college football fan bases. Baylor (6) and Mississippi (7) fans have studied up.

Given all that, it’s time for a one-week revival of the Dashette. Give it up for Ken Bone (8), America’s sweetheart and a man worth writing songs about in the wake of a dismal debate.

CONTROLLING THEIR OWN PLAYOFF DESTINY

Just seven teams are in position at present to make the College Football Playoff without outside help. The list:

Alabama (9). Status: 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in every human poll. If the defending national champions keep winning and get through the toughest division top-to-bottom in America undefeated, then win the SEC championship game, they’re a playoff lock. How easy will 13-0 be: Not very. Next game is at Tennessee on Saturday. Then comes unbeaten Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, and the Aggies will arrive off a bye week. In November there is a game at LSU and the Iron Bowl at home against an improving Auburn team. The SEC title game is most likely to be either a rematch with Tennessee or a game against Florida. (And the above-mentioned Hurricane Matthew game rescheduling could play a part in that.) ‘Bama likely will be favored in every remaining game, but it has also lost at least one game each of the past six years – and still won three national titles in that time. If the Tide is going to drop one, this Saturday against the Volunteers would be the least costly because Nick Saban’s team would still control its SEC West destiny and thus still would have a path to the conference championship.

All roads to the College Football Playoff lead through Nick Saban and Alabama. (Getty)
All roads to the College Football Playoff lead through Nick Saban and Alabama. (Getty)

Texas A&M (10). Status: 6-0 for the first time since 1994 and ranked No. 6 in the major polls. Like Alabama, the Aggies are a playoff lock if they can run the SEC table. How easy will 13-0 be: When the road to undefeated runs through Tuscaloosa, it’s not easy at all. However, the bye-week advantage is a consideration – thus far this year teams at a bye-week disadvantage are 11-19. There have been some notable flops in that situation: Southern Mississippi was blown out last Saturday by Texas-San Antonio; Notre Dame fell behind 36-7 to Michigan State; Oregon was walloped by Washington State; and North Carolina no-showed Saturday in the water-logged loss to Virginia Tech. (On the flip side, South Alabama upset San Diego State, Auburn routed Mississippi State and Wake Forest upset Indiana.) Texas A&M could lose a close game at Alabama and remain in the playoff hunt, but at that point it would require some help to get there.

Ohio State (11). Status: 5-0 and ranked No. 2 in the human polls. Win eight more and the Buckeyes are in. How easy will 13-0 be: There are significant challenges, starting this week in Madison. Ohio State faces the same bye-week disadvantage on Saturday that Alabama will face next week, and this one is on the road. And then the Bucks follow it with another game in the same situation Oct. 22, at Penn State. (The Big Ten office might have given Urban Meyer’s team a soft entry into league play with home games against Rutgers and Indiana, but the following two weeks are a doozy.) Then there are two November games against current unbeatens: Nebraska on Nov. 5 and Michigan on Nov. 29. Both of those are in the Horseshoe, at least. As of today, Ohio State will be favored in every remaining game. But a young team must continue playing above its experience level to handle everything in its path.

Michigan (12). Status: 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the human polls. The Wolverines have ridden a wonderfully user-friendly schedule – five home games and a trip to poor, pitiful Rutgers – halfway to an unbeaten regular season. The playoff possibilities are real. How easy will 13-0 be: Not impossible by any means, but it figures to require one huge effort Nov. 26. The back half of Michigan’s schedule is looking easier now than it did in August, with Michigan State (2-3) and Iowa (4-2 against nobody) both surprisingly pedestrian at this point. Team Harbaugh plays both on the road – the Spartans on Oct. 29 and the Hawkeyes on Nov. 12. The remaining home games are against Illinois, Maryland and Indiana – not much to lose sleep over, although the Hoosiers are not bad. So it absolutely could come down to a Michigan-Ohio State showdown of similar magnitude to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game a decade ago. The Wolverines lost that one by three points in Columbus and claimed they had a right to play for the national title, but instead were passed over for Florida (which destroyed Ohio State in the BCS championship game). They may have the same argument as a one-loss team if it happens the same way in 2016 – but overall schedule strength remains in flux at this point.

Nebraska (13). Status: 5-0 and ranked No. 9 AP, No. 10 coaches. The Cornhuskers are no better off than Baylor or West Virginia to this point in terms of quality wins – thanks to Oregon’s sudden collapse – but there are three potential opportunities to change that. Nebraska plays at Wisconsin on Oct. 29, at Ohio State on Nov. 5, and could have a potential Big Ten championship game rematch with the Buckeyes or a game against Michigan. Run the table against a better schedule than anything a 12-0 Big 12 champion could muster and the Huskers are in. How easy will 13-0 be: arduous and unlikely. Nebraska hasn’t beaten anyone ranked higher than 50th by Sagarin, and the past three victories – over Oregon, Northwestern and Illinois – are by an average of 9.7 points. This team appears to be much more solid than last year’s 6-7 bust – start with a positive turnover margin, something the Huskers haven’t finished the season with since 2009 – but it would be a crazy quantum leap to undefeated.

Clemson (14). Status: 6-0 and ranked third in the human polls. The Tigers have resumed resembling their 2015 selves, which is a very good thing. It took some dramatics to hold off Louisville at home, but ACC road wins over Georgia Tech and Boston College were no-doubters and the season-opening road win over Auburn is improving in quality. Even the confusing slog past Troy looks better now, by virtue of the Trojans’ 4-1 record. How easy will 13-0 be: It seems both attainable and challenging, which is the perfect combination. The most significant test remains at Florida State on Oct. 29, but this is not a vintage Seminoles team. On the other hand, North Carolina State (4-1) and at Wake Forest (5-1) might be better tests than in recent years. An ACC championship game against Virginia Tech, Miami or North Carolina could be a moderate challenge, particularly the former.

Washington (15). Status: 6-0 and ranked fifth by the human polls. The Huskies came into 2016 with big expectations and thus far have exceeded them, winning with eye-opening dominance the past two weeks against Stanford and Oregon – with the caveat being that both those teams look like significant disappointments. How easy will 13-0 be: In what has been a quickly shifting Pac-12 landscape, far from impossible but still hard to predict. Washington has clearly been the best team in a mediocre league, but some second-half traps exist: at Utah on Oct. 29; home against regrouping USC on Nov. 12; home against Arizona State on Nov. 19; and at Washington State on Nov. 26 in what could be a quite momentous Apple Cup. Yet even at 13-0, there will be some flaws with the résumé: a non-conference slate of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State; three remaining opponents with losses to non-Power Five teams in Oregon State, California and Washington State (which lost to an FCS school and Boise State).

Not in control, despite being unbeaten: Baylor, West Virginia, Boise State, Western Michigan. Could an unbeaten Big 12 champion be snubbed? Absolutely. Especially given, say, the Bears’ non-conference schedule, plus the weak profile of the league. West Virginia played an SEC school and BYU, but to date beating them doesn’t pull much weight. Because poll voters just love undefeated teams, Baylor is ranked far too high: eighth with the coaches and 11th with the media, having moved up three spots in the former and two in the latter during a bye week that followed a sketchy victory over Iowa State. Boise’s best chance is to hope that Washington State and Oregon State play great the rest of the way, while other unbeatens lose. Western Michigan is just here for the free appetizers.

LOCKED IN A SHAME SPIRAL

Losing records. Losing streaks. What has gone wrong for programs that at one point in time looked promising:

Notre Dame (16). Began the year in the Top 10, and now is 2-4 with all the losses to unranked teams – which makes the Fighting Irish the Bust of the Year to this point. There has been a leadership void from the upperclassmen, plus personnel losses in the secondary, plus a defense that was bad enough overall to get coordinator Brian VanGorder fired before October. Then the Irish brought their finesse offense into a quagmire at North Carolina State on Saturday and scored a grand total of three points. Notre Dame is 92nd nationally in rushing offense and 98th in yards per rush, which is a problem. Brian Kelly has been a very good coach for a very long time, but this is looking like his worst season so far.

Oregon (17). Began the year uncharacteristically low in the rankings at No. 24 in the AP poll and No. 22 with the coaches, and wasted little time making that look wildly overrated. The Ducks have lost four straight after a 2-0 start, and the past two losses were just ghastly: 51-33 to Washington State and 70-21 at home to Washington – two programs Oregon has handled with almost disdainful ease during their semi-recent ascendance. That 70 was the most points the Ducks have allowed since 1971 – and there were some lean decades between then and now. If ever a team needed a bye week to get things turned around, this would be it.

Texas (18). Sept. 4 was a glorious night in Austin, when the Longhorns showcased a new offensive firepower and withstood Notre Dame 50-47 in overtime in a wildly entertaining game. Unfortunately for Charlie Strong, it augured nothing. Texas now is 2-3, has demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and has surrendered 45 or more points to everyone but UTEP. The last time Texas gave up 45 or more four times in a season was never. And there are still at least seven games remaining.

Michigan State (19). Texas wasn’t the only team that thought highly of itself after beating Notre Dame. So did the Spartans after winning in South Bend on Sept. 17. Since then: three straight losses, including two at home by an average margin of 20.5 points. Thus far Michigan State is a team that isn’t great at anything and has stopped winning the turnover game. After being a massive plus-46 in turnover margin the past three years, Michigan State is a minus-two this year.

Stanford (20). The Cardinal were ranked as high as No. 7 after a 3-0 start, but since then the state of Washington has pulverized the defending Pac-12 champion. Stanford lost to Washington by the shocking margin of 44-6, then lost to Washington State by the more shocking margin of 42-16. With a Heisman Trophy finalist in Christian McCaffrey, the Cardinal still rank last in the league in total offense and scoring offense – a clear indication of problems up front and at quarterback.

Here’s the good news: Stanford plays Notre Dame on Saturday. Which means some spiraling team will have something to feel good about. As for the loser …

THE HEISMAN RACE – A LOT CHANGED IN SIX WEEKS

Your current list of leading candidates doesn’t bear much resemblance to the preseason list. That’s often the way it happens, but this might be an even more substantial shakeup than most years. The current group of front-runners:

Lamar Jackson (21), Louisville. On preseason national radar: Only a little. The thrilling loss to Clemson and a bye week do not change the fact that he is the most exciting and dangerous player in the nation. Jackson is first nationally in scoring (14 touchdowns), first in touchdowns accounted for (28), second in total offense (463 yards per game) and first in jaw-dropping plays (the hurdle at Syracuse, the dazzling run through Florida State, the amazing escape and incomplete pass against Clemson). No telling what he might do next.

J.T. Barrett (22), Ohio State. On preseason national radar: Yes. He does the most important things best: lead and win. But he also produces as both a runner (342 rushing yards, four TDs) and passer (981 yards, 15 TDs). Being the most important guy on a top-five, undefeated team certainly helps, too, and there are some marquee games to come that could help his candidacy.

Jabrill Peppers (23), Michigan. On preseason national radar: Yes, but not really as a Heisman candidate. Speaking of being the most important guy on a top-five, undefeated team – that would be Peppers, too. He’s been used in at least 13 positions on the field thus far, and the production has come from everywhere. He’s made 38 total tackles, 10 of them for loss, as a member of a thoroughly nasty defense. He’s been credited with five quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. He’s averaging 17.8 yards per punt return and scored once. He’s averaging 31.7 yards per kickoff return. He’s run the ball five times and scored two touchdowns, averaging 19.6 yards per carry. Most versatile player in America? Yes. And it’s not close.

Jake Browning (24), Washington. On preseason national radar: Kind of. The nation really started paying attention to the sophomore quarterback the past two games, which is good timing. He threw for 304 yards and six touchdowns in the obliteration of Oregon, which followed up a 210-yard, three-TD game against Stanford. All told he has accounted for 26 touchdowns, second only to Jackson, and leads the nation in pass efficiency. Last time Chris Petersen had a quarterback this good, his name was Kellen Moore and he led the nation in efficiency while guiding Boise State to a 12-1 season in 2010.

Deshaun Watson (25), Clemson. On preseason national radar: Yes. Watson was solid in the first half of last year, then escalated to dominant in the second half. He’s following a somewhat similar script this year. After a slow first few games, the quarterback has averaged 347 yards total offense and 3.7 touchdowns in three ACC contests. He was held to 303 total yards last week against Boston College – but the Eagles are second in the ACC in total defense, so that’s excellent production. The only drawback has been turnovers – seven interceptions and a fumble in six games.

Donnel Pumphrey (26), San Diego State. On preseason national radar: His ability was known, but nobody was talking Heisman. He’s the lone survivor of the Great Running Back Purge of 2016 (see below). Pumphrey, who knocked Marshall Faulk out of the SDSU record books, leads the nation in rushing by 30 yards per game at 178.2. Against FBS competition he’s had at least 141 yards in every game, and he went for 281 against Pac-12 member California. But it’s hard to be a Heisman candidate at a non-Power Five school, and a loss to South Alabama doesn’t help. He’ll need to be ridiculous the rest of the way to remain in the picture.

Greg Ward Jr. (27), Houston. On preseason national radar: Yes. But beating Oklahoma in the opener substantially increased the profile. Another guy trying to fight his way into it from outside the Power Five, but Ward has greater name recognition than Pumphrey after last year and a great start this year. Yes, the Cougars lost to Navy – but the Midshipmen are a good team and it certainly wasn’t Ward’s fault. He produced more than 450 total yards and had his fourth 300-yard passing day of the season. The fearless little guy (listed as 5-foot-11, 185 pounds) takes a pounding and keeps playing. He’ll need to keep producing numbers over the next month, and then hope to outplay Jackson when Louisville comes to Houston on Nov. 17.

Losing a game against Navy likely drops Greg Ward Jr. and the Cougars out of playoff contention. (Getty)
Losing a game against Navy likely drops Greg Ward Jr. and the Cougars out of playoff contention. (Getty)

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE YEAR OF THE RUNNING BACK?

That’s how it was billed by a lot of people in August, The Dash included. Instead, it’s been something of a plague year for players at that position. Among the casualties:

Christian McCaffrey (28), Stanford. What happened: The 2015 Heisman finalist has seen his production decline and the Cardinal’s losses increase. The guy who set the single-season NCAA all-purpose total yardage record last year is third nationally this year, and had just 83 total yards in the blowout loss to Washington State. He’s become progressively more banged up as the season has progressed.

Leonard Fournette (29), LSU. What happened: He’s played in only three out of five games due to injury, and the Tigers lost two of those that he did play. That’s a bad combination. Fournette’s season has been sufficiently star-crossed that some people are wondering whether he should shut down and save himself for the NFL draft, which he will surely be entering at the end of his junior season.

Dalvin Cook (30), Florida State. What happened: It took Cook four games to produce a 100-yard rushing effort. Although he has broken out since then (and been productive catching the ball as well), the Seminoles’ two losses have combined with that slow start to shove him off center stage.

Samaje Perine (31), Oklahoma. What happened: He shared the carries with Joe Mixon for the first four games, which led to him never having a 100-yard effort. Perine finally went back to being the feature back against Texas, and the result was a 214-yard day on a career-high 35 carries. Maybe that will convince the Sooners to utilize Perine more going forward.

Nick Chubb (32), Georgia. What happened: He got injured in a blowout loss to Mississippi, barely played in a heartbreaking loss to Tennessee, and by the time he came back Sunday against South Carolina the Heisman traveling road show had left town. Chubb has gotten the most carries on the team but on a per-carry basis has been no more productive than backups Sony Michel and Brian Herrien.

Royce Freeman (33), Oregon. What happened: Like others on this list, Freeman has been slowed by injuries and hurt by losses. He missed most of one game and all of another, and to date has just 67 carries – about half of what he had last year at this point.

THE LAST OF THE WINLESS

While 11 undefeated teams remain, there are only two completely defeated programs within the FBS ranks. Looking at the two winless teams still out there, and what their chances are for that elusive first victory:

Rice (34). The record: 0-5. Closest brush with greatness: a 42-35, double-overtime loss to North Texas in which the Owls’ tying touchdown attempt was stuffed at the 1-yard line. Will the Owls win: Yes. Prairie View A&M is on the schedule Oct. 22. Misery stat: Rice is being outgained by 230 yards per game. Coach status: David Bailiff is a classy guy in his 10th season, but this one looks hard to survive.

Miami of Ohio (35). The record: 0-6. Closest brush with greatness: The RedHawks took a 10-point lead into the final four minutes against FCS Eastern Illinois but somehow lost, 21-17. Will the RedHawks win: Sure. Miami still has three games remaining against teams that are winless in MAC play: Buffalo, Bowling Green and Ball State.

LIP UPDATE

The Last Interception Pool lost a major player last week. North Carolina’s
Mitch Trubisky is out after two picks against Virginia Tech in the horrendous weather conditions in Chapel Hill.

So who is still in?

Zach Terrell (36), Western Michigan. No interceptions in 142 attempts, part of an incredible team stat. (See below note.) Next: At Akron, which has intercepted five of opponents’ 218 passes this season.

Ryan Finley (37), North Carolina State. No interceptions in 128 attempts. Finley somehow made it out of the same hurricane that tripped up Trubisky, due to fastidious care of the ball, good luck and the Wolfpack’s decision to attempt only 12 passes against Notre Dame. Next: At Clemson, which has an ACC-leading nine interceptions.

Advantage, Terrell.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR

P.J. Fleck (38), Western Michigan. Though he’d rather just row the boat than drive the comp car. Through six unbeaten games, his Broncos still have not committed a turnover on the season. That’s incredible, and has Western Michigan on pace to shatter the NCAA record for fewest turnovers in a season. The record is eight, set in 1940 by Clemson and tied in 1966 by Miami (Ohio) and again last year by Navy. That 2015 Navy team owns the NCAA record for fewest turnovers per game, at 0.62. Fleck will be a red-hot commodity on the coaching carousel in a few weeks, with good reason.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Tommy Tuberville (39), Cincinnati. Tubs has had a fine career, but this is far from his finest work. The Bearcats are 0-3 in the American Athletic Conference, not really sending a commanding signal to the waffling Big 12 that they are a must-add candidate if the league expands. Worse, all three of those losses are by double digits, including a 20-9 loss at Connecticut on Saturday in which Cincinnati could have led by about three touchdowns in the first half.

POINT AFTER

When hungry and thirsty in the terrific college town of Chapel Hill, The Dash defers to friend William Heyward Harrison III’s quick dinner choice: Al’s Burger Shack. Get the slider sampler and include the Bobo and the Kenny J burgers in your assortment.

After dinner head to The Crunkleton (40), which is both very cool but not overly collegiate. They’ll pour you a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA on tap, but the must-try drink is an Elderflower Sour, complete with a rakish slice of cucumber.

Try both and thank The Dash later.

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