Forde-Yard Dash: Eight teams left in College Football Playoff race

Yahoo Sports US

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (mannequin challenge trophy awarded separately to the Texas Tech defense, which has perfected the art of inert):

THE UNCROWDED ROAD TO THE PLAYOFF

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

The regular season is 75 percent complete. It is time for the stretch run, and the list of national title contenders has been whittled down to a manageable number with startling quickness. There are only five remaining unbeatens, just six remaining one-loss teams and then great masses of humanity stacked up with two losses (22 teams in that category).

A couple of possible explanations for the ahead-of-schedule thinning of the herd: The increase in high-level non-conference games means that more good Power Five teams are knocking each other off, and parity is real. Either way, it has made the College Football Playoff selection committee’s primary job – selecting the four teams for the playoff – more streamlined. At least unless/until all hell breaks loose in the final weeks (i.e., more Mississippi State over Texas A&M-type results).

For now, there are six teams that truly matter and a couple more skulking around the periphery. The Dash ranks them in order of easiest path to the playoff:

Alabama (1). Any path that goes through archrival Auburn is not devoid of peril, especially since the Tigers have rounded into top-10 form as this season has progressed. But that game is in Tuscaloosa, as are the Crimson Tide’s two preceding games: Mississippi State on Saturday and Chattanooga on Nov. 19 in what is basically a walk-through attended by 100,000 people. Then would come a Southeastern Conference championship game that figures to be yet another bloodletting. (See below.) Alabama (9-0) is likely to be favored by two touchdowns against Auburn and much more against everyone else. And then there is this possibility: Might a one-loss Crimson Tide team still be deemed one of the four best in America? Chances of making the playoff: Bet your entire houndstooth fashion collection on it.

Nick Saban and Alabama would likely still make the playoff even if they lose a game. (Getty)
Nick Saban and Alabama would likely still make the playoff even if they lose a game. (Getty)

Clemson (2). The Tigers (9-0) play three opponents with winning records: 5-4 Pittsburgh, 6-3 Wake Forest and 5-4 rival South Carolina. Then would come an Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, likely against 7-2 Virginia Tech. So it’s not exactly a walkover – but Clemson also sidesteps any true heavyweights between now and selection Sunday. Chances of making the playoff: The Esso Club running out of beer seems a better bet than Clemson losing one of its last four games.

Washington (3). Don’t sleep on the Saturday game against resurgent USC, but nobody has come close to the Huskies (9-0) in Seattle in their current six-game home winning streak. Average victory margin: 35.8. After that comes a visit from an Arizona State team that has lost six straight Pac-12 road games, and then it gets interesting with the road trip to play Washington State the day after Thanksgiving. A Pac-12 title game against someone (Colorado?) would theoretically be competitive, but Washington still would likely be a touchdown favorite. Chances of making the playoff: Strong. But not a lock.

Michigan (4). The Wolverines (9-0) have been dominant, and that shouldn’t change this weekend at Iowa against a team that has scored 14 or fewer points in four of six Big Ten games. Against the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, the Hawkeyes may struggle to put three on the board. After that is a home game against Indiana and then the Armageddon game against Ohio State. The Dash would slightly favor Michigan on a neutral field, but the Horseshoe will be anything but neutral Nov. 26. A close loss there would keep the Wolverines in the playoff picture. Chances of making the playoff: Slightly better than 50-50, since they could conceivably survive a loss and stay in the mix.

Ohio State (5). The Buckeyes (8-1) are facing two consecutive road games, but they should be low-stress: at Maryland on Saturday and Michigan State on Nov. 19 – the Terrapins have lost four of their past five and the Spartans have dropped a staggering seven straight. Then comes Michigan. Given home-field advantage, The Dash would make Ohio State about a one-point favorite at present. A win there catapult the Buckeyes into the Big Ten title game, perhaps against a Wisconsin team it already has beaten in Madison. Chances of making the playoff: Fifty-fifty, since Ohio State doesn’t have Michigan’s wiggle room to afford another loss and that game looks like a tossup.

Louisville (6). The Cardinals (8-1) need to win out – which is quite conceivable against a lineup of Wake Forest, at Houston and Kentucky – but also get some help. Having Michigan take out Ohio State would be a big assist. So would a Washington loss, or some combination of events that would produce a Pac-12 champion with one or more losses. But even then, Louisville would have to argue for inclusion over a couple of conference champions, and a schedule that included neither of the top teams in the ACC Coastal (no Virginia Tech, no North Carolina) doesn’t help. Chances of making the playoff: If this were a horse race being run down the street from Louisville’s stadium at Churchill Downs, the Cardinals would be 15-1.

Wisconsin (7). Three winnable games remain: Illinois, at Purdue, and Minnesota for the Paul Bunyan Axe. Then would come the big test: beating Michigan or Ohio State, two teams that already have beaten the Badgers, in the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin (7-2) probably would get more benefit out of facing and beating Ohio State, since even a Big Ten champion Badgers squad might lose the résumé test to the one-loss Wolverines. Wisconsin should hope that LSU, which it beat in the season opener, avoids a post-Alabama tailspin (see below). Chances of making the playoff: Don’t bet your bratwurst on it – but there is a scenario where it could happen.

Auburn (8). The most important and arduous task is slaying the ‘Bama dragon – and beating Georgia in Athens this weekend first, plus the scrimmage against Alabama A&M on Nov. 19. If the Tigers (7-2) beat what everyone considers to be the best team in the land, on the road, then wins the SEC title, we will have a two-loss team with a compelling argument. The losses are to good teams – Clemson and Texas A&M – although both came at home. This would be a most interesting test case for the committee. Chances of making the playoff: Better than winning the Iron Bowl on another Kick-Six play, but still slim.

WHY THE CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES WILL STINK

The grand climax of the college football regular season comes the weekend of Dec. 3. That’s the weekend when the conference championship games are played, which will lead into the CFP committee unveiling its final rankings on Dec. 4.

Except it figures to be anything but grand.

For the most part in the Power Five leagues, the divisions are less balanced than a tightrope walker with vertigo. One division tends to be far stronger than the other, especially at the top. The result will be conference championship games that either are mismatches or will expose the more accomplished team to an upset that jeopardizes their playoff chances.

Have fun with that.

The Dash looks at the four power conferences that play title games, and the competitiveness (or lack thereof) between their divisions:

SEC (9). The West is 9-1 against the East this season, with Kentucky striking the only blow for its bedraggled division by beating 3-5 Mississippi State at home on a last-second field goal. Florida, which leads the East for the moment, lost by three touchdowns to an Arkansas team that is tied for fifth in the West. Georgia, still in the running to win the East, lost by 31 to Mississippi, which is last in the West. Tennessee was bludgeoned by Alabama and beaten by Texas A&M. And so forth.

This adds to a chronic imbalance in the league. The West has won the last seven SEC championships, taking those title games by an average margin of 23.4 points. It can be argued that this simply is a cyclical turn, and historians will point out that the SEC East won six straight championships from 1993-98. But there is no sign at present of another Steve Spurrier in the East, and maybe not even another Phil Fulmer. Times are tough in that division.

ACC (10). The Atlantic is 7-3 against the Coastal, and it appears to have the two best teams in its division in Clemson and Louisville. A rematch of those two in Orlando would figure to be more compelling than the Tigers taking on Virginia Tech or North Carolina, but that isn’t going to happen. The Atlantic – which is to say, Clemson or Florida State – has won five straight league titles. Some of those title games were close and competitive, some were not. But once Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney got established in year three at their respective programs, they have ruled the league.

Big Ten (11). The inter-division scoreboard is dead even this season at 9-9, but that’s largely because Michigan State and Rutgers have held the East back from hegemony over the West. The best two teams are in the East and three of the top four – Penn State’s beatdown of Iowa and Ohio State’s crushing of Nebraska cemented that. Teams that currently reside in the Big Ten East – before that they were the immortally pompous Legends and Leaders divisions – have won three straight league titles. There isn’t a single coach in the West that has won an outright Big Ten title.

Pac-12 (12). North leads South 10-7 this season, but there are several significant matchups remaining in a league where every team plays four cross-divisional games a year. This is the only Power Five conference wherein one division doesn’t have the league’s two highest-ranked teams – Washington of the North is No. 4 in the AP poll, and Utah of the South is next at No. 13. Then comes Colorado of the South at No. 16 and Washington State of the North at No. 22. But it remains to be seen whether anyone can beat the Huskies. If not, it would continue the North’s five-year reign – three by Stanford, two by Oregon – since the league expanded to 12 and split into divisions.

SORTING OUT COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES

The Dash has reduced the field to a dandy dozen coaches who are doing the best work out there. The list, in alphabetical order:

Craig Bohl (13), Wyoming. The case for Bohl: After dominating the FCS level at North Dakota State, Bohl took over a program that was declining in the final years under Dave Christensen but hadn’t yet bottomed out. Rock bottom hit last year, when the Cowboys went 2-10 with losses to North Dakota, Eastern Michigan and Appalachian State. This year, Wyoming is 7-2, 5-0 in the Mountain West and in the Mountain Division driver’s seat after taking down Boise State. Last time Wyoming won more than eight games in a year was 20 years ago, when the coach was Joe Tiller.

Paul Chryst (14), Wisconsin. The case for Chryst: Took on what has been the nation’s toughest schedule so far and has gone 7-2 against it. The only losses have come by a touchdown apiece to Michigan and Ohio State. Chryst benched senior quarterback Bart Houston in the third game of the year, turning over the starting job to redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, but has skillfully brought back Houston for spot duty along the way. Chryst’s single best coaching move might have been hiring Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator after losing Dave Aranda to LSU.

P.J. Fleck (15), Western Michigan. The case for Fleck: The Broncos have never been 9-0 in school history – until now. Four years of remarkable recruiting successes and endless motivational stratagems have produced the dominant team in the Mid-American Conference and one that could be headed to the Cotton Bowl – an inconceivable achievement at a place where the entire bowl history consists of the Bahamas Bowl, Idaho Potato Bowl, Little Caesars Bowl, Texas Bowl, International Bowl, California Bowl and Aviation Bowl. Only four of those still exist.

James Franklin (16), Penn State. The case for Franklin: At 2-2 and coming off a thrashing at Michigan, things were bad enough that athletic director Sandy Barbour had to state publicly that Franklin’s job was safe all of 30 games into his Penn State tenure. After surviving Minnesota at home in overtime, the Nittany Lions (7-2) have been on a roll. They’ve won their past four games by an average margin of 23 points, with a signature upset of Ohio State thrown in that run. Franklin revamped his coaching staff in the offseason partly by necessity and partly by choice: He brought in Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to run the offense, then replaced standout defensive coordinator Bob Shoop by promoting linebacker coach Brent Pry. It’s all worked, and Penn State is three manageable games away from its first 10-win season since 2009.

Jim Harbaugh (17), Michigan. The case for Harbaugh: It’s an easy one. The Wolverines are undefeated and second in the polls just 22 games into his tenure, after taking over a program that was 20-18 the three seasons before he arrived. After losing defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to the head-coaching job at Maryland, Harbaugh brought in Don Brown from Boston College and saw that unit get better this year. He’s also gotten great production from first-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight – a guy who was a fifth-stringer in the spring of 2015. If the Wolverines get to 12-0, it will be hard to give the award to anyone else.

Any coach of the year discussion has to involve Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. (Getty)
Any coach of the year discussion has to involve Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. (Getty)

Dana Holgorsen (18), West Virginia. The case for Holgorsen: In the defensive wasteland that is the Big 12, there is one team still committed to keeping opponents out of the end zone. That would be Holgorsen’s Mountaineers, who are 7-1 and lead the league in scoring defense at 20.6 points allowed per game. In conference games the average is 20.2, which is nearly nine points ahead of second-place Oklahoma State. Credit Holgorsen, among the first wave of hurry-up-no-huddle offensive minds, for swallowing some ego and paying attention to the other side of the ball. West Virginia has never finished higher than third in the Big 12, but it holds its conference destiny in its own hands and gets league leader Oklahoma in Morgantown on Nov. 19.

Mike Leach (19), Washington State. The case for Leach: You start the season 0-2? It’s tough to calm the masses. You start the season 0-2 and one of the losses is to an FCS opponent? Forget calming the masses – light up your team and take the offensive. That’s what Leach did, with the desired results. Ripping the players publicly might not work for every coach and every team, but it worked for Leach and Washington State. The Cougars are now 7-2 and steamrolling toward what could be the biggest Apple Cup game ever against unbeaten, No. 4-ranked Washington. And this hasn’t just been a chuck-and-duck, outscore everyone approach by Leach – the Cougars are on pace for their fewest points allowed per game (24.7) since 2003, and they’re averaging their most yards rushing (118.4) in a decade.

Mike MacIntyre (20), Colorado. The case for MacIntyre: The depths this program had plumbed in the previous five years are staggering: a 14-48 record, 5-40 in conference play. But Colorado showed some glimmers of hope last year, going 4-9 and losing four Pac-12 games by a touchdown or less. Those glimmers have become a beacon of joy in 2016: The Buffaloes are 7-2 and first in the Pac-12 South, riding a stunningly improved defense to the program’s best season since the Gary Barnett Era. Colorado leads the Pac-12 in fewest yards allowed at 296.9, lowest by the school since 1998. With games left against woeful Arizona on the road and Washington State and Utah at home, the road to the Pac-12 South title runs through Boulder. That was an inconceivable statement in August.

Chris Petersen (21), Washington. The case for Petersen: The Huskies have crossed the divide from good to great in Petersen’s third season, morphing into a well-rounded power that is on pace for the best Washington season since winning a share of the 1991 national championship. Petersen has helped turn sophomore quarterback Jake Browning into the nation’s most efficient passer and a Heisman Trophy candidate, but the Huskies don’t start and end there. They’re first nationally in turnover margin, first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and first in rushing offense, too. No overt weaknesses – and Petersen is just getting started in Seattle.

Bobby Petrino (22), Louisville. The case for Petrino: There may not be a better offensive game-planner or quarterback builder than Petrino, who has the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense and Heisman Trophy front-runner in the third season of his second stint at Louisville. In the first stint, he went 41-9 and had the nation’s most efficient quarterback in 2004 (Stefan LeFors) and second-most efficient QB in ’05 (Brian Brohm). This time around, having embraced the dual-threat quarterback trend, Petrino has a guy who is on pace to account for more touchdowns than anyone in college football history (Lamar Jackson, 45 and counting). And Jackson will be back next year.

Nick Saban (23), Alabama. The case for Saban: Because it is expected shouldn’t make it any less impressive. Saban is the greatest coach of his era and in the argument for greatest coach in college football history. After winning five national titles, he might just have his best team this year – a juggernaut that is winning by an average of 27 points per game and has been challenged only once. And he’s doing it with a true freshman quarterback. Saban hasn’t won an SEC Coach of the Year award since 2009, so let’s just check that box now and think seriously about giving him the national award, too.

Dabo Swinney (24), Clemson. The case for Swinney: Everyone who has been waiting for the upward trajectory to change for the Tigers is going to have to wait a while longer. Clemson is a win away from its sixth straight season of double-digit victories, and four wins from its second straight ACC title and College Football Playoff berth. This time around the Tigers are doing it with seven new starters on defense after major losses to the NFL. Doesn’t matter. Clemson has mastered the ability to win close games – sometimes with luck, but more often with will and skill and poise. Swinney’s name isn’t mentioned in the same breath with some of the other coaching giants in the game, but that’s due to change.

Cases also could be made for Urban Meyer at Ohio State or Gus Malzahn at Auburn or Tom Herman at Houston when all is said and done. They have huge games remaining that could redefine their seasons.

DUMPSTER FIRES – FORESEEN AND UNFORESEEN

Seven Power Five teams are winless in conference play as we head into the final weeks. Some of them are unsurprising. Some The Dash never saw coming. Let’s examine the big leagues’ biggest losers.

First, the unexpected:

Michigan State (25). Record: 2-7 overall, 0-6 in the Big Ten. This is a collapse of staggering proportion that just keeps getting worse by the week, in defiance of the belief that a Mark Dantonio team simply cannot be this terrible. But the Spartans are. To quote Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch after the rock-bottom game, a loss to inept Illinois, “The Spartans didn’t quit Saturday. They’re just that bad.” This is a program that went to the College Football Playoff in 2015. Now it can’t beat Illinois.

If Michigan State doesn’t beat Rutgers (which also makes this miserable list) at home Saturday, this likely will be the program’s worst season since 1917. Nobody wants to be part of a school’s worst team in a century.

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have plummeted this season and could finish without a conference win. (Getty)
Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have plummeted this season and could finish without a conference win. (Getty)

Duke (26). Record: 3-6 overall, 0-5 in the ACC. After winning 27 games overall and 15 in league play the past three years, most figured that an anticipated 2016 regression wouldn’t be too bad – but this one has been. It’s not that the Blue Devils have been blown out repeatedly – average ACC margin of defeat is eight points – but they haven’t found a way to win. The Blue Devils’ final home game of the season is Thursday night against rival North Carolina. If ever there were a time to win a close conference game, that would be it.

Arizona (27). Record: 2-7 overall, 0-6 in the Pac-12. Before the season began, Rich Rodriguez’s four-year record in Tucson was 33-20, but just 18-19 in conference play. Now the bottom has dropped out. Certainly Saturday was the nadir, getting crushed 69-7 at Washington State, a program that should never be nine touchdowns better than Arizona. “We should be embarrassed,” Rodriguez said afterward, and it’s safe to assume everyone associated with the program was. Funny thing is, Arizona took undefeated Washington to overtime in September. That seems like a different lifetime now.

Missouri (28). Record: 2-7 overall, 0-5 in the SEC. Two years ago, the Tigers were 11-3 and won the SEC East. The year before that, they were 12-2 and won the SEC East. But the league record since ’14 is 1-12 – especially disturbing when you consider how weak the division is. The warning signs began last year when Mizzou went 5-7, nearly boycotted a game due to campus unrest, saw the best coach in program history retire and then flailed in search of a successor. Barry Odom returned to his alma mater but didn’t bring any head-coaching experience, and thus far the Tigers cannot do anything consistently well. This is a program teetering on the brink of returning to the dark days of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s.

The expected:

Iowa State (29). Record: 1-8 overall, 0-6 in Big 12 play. After four competitive years under Paul Rhoads, the program eroded in his last two seasons and went 5-19. That necessitated a change, and thus far new coach Matt Campbell has not found a way to reverse the slide. (Losing his debut to FCS Northern Iowa was probably a good indication how this year would go.) As is program custom, Iowa State has played a lot of teams close and found a myriad of agonizing ways to lose – by three to Baylor, seven to Oklahoma State, five to Kansas State. Against Oklahoma last week, Campbell showed some sideline shakiness in decision-making, including calling a second-half timeout to avoid a delay of game on a punt – clearly it would have been smarter to give up the five yards than one of three timeouts in a game the Cyclones trailed. Saturday is liberation day for someone: Iowa State at Kansas.

Kansas (30). Record: 1-8 overall, 0-6 in the Big 12. David Beaty inherited hot garbage from Charlie Weis, promptly went 0-12, began this season with a win over FCS Rhode Island – and hasn’t won again. The Big 12 losing streak is 18. Other than a one-point loss to TCU, every Big 12 defeat this year has been by at least 24 points. The program is a complete disaster area, but Beaty has to be given more time to dig out. Certainly, Saturday presents his best opportunity for a league victory. If it doesn’t happen, Kansas probably will have to wait until 2017 – that, or drop the sport.

Rutgers (31). Record: 2-7 overall, 0-6 in the Big Ten. In the Scarlet Knights’ first year in the league, they actually won three conference games. Last year that dipped to one, just part of the explanation for why Kyle Flood was dismissed. This year the number is zero, with two road games and a visit from rampaging Penn State left. Rutgers has taken some fearful beatings in Chris Ash’s first year – by 78 to Michigan, 58 to Ohio State, and even 17 by lowly Illinois. But the Knights have come close the past two games, losing to Minnesota and Indiana by a combined eight points. Maybe they’ve got an upset to spring yet.

ALABAMA-LSU, THE BIGGEST HANGOVER IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Now that we have reached the week after another Alabama-LSU slobberknocker, it’s time to dust off The Dash’s favorite ongoing stat in college football (32): the Crimson Tide has not scored a touchdown in the first quarter of the game after playing the Tigers since 2001. That’s 14 years without a first-quarter TD, despite being an extremely good team most of those years and despite playing middling Mississippi State in the game after most of those years. Last year the game against the Bulldogs was scoreless after one period. If Alabama can get in the end zone in the opening 15 minutes this year, maybe it is Saban’s best team ever.

On the other side of the hangover is LSU (33), which has had its own struggles lately rebounding from playing the Crimson Tide. LSU lost two straight after the ‘Bama game last year, and lost the next week after ‘Bama in 2014. Losing to the Tide is bad enough, but when it led to a late tailspin is a big part of what got Les Miles on the hot seat. Now it’s Ed Orgeron’s turn to deal with the aftermath.

COACH BOOM’S REVENGE?

Don’t look now, but Will Muschamp (34) is quietly dredging a decent season out of a talent-deprived South Carolina team in his first season as coach of the Gamecocks. They’re 5-4 and on a three-game winning streak, highlighted by an upset of Tennessee, and they’re trying to nudge near the top of the SEC’s sprawling middle class.

Will South Carolina coach Will Muschamp get revenge on his former school on Saturday? (Getty)
Will South Carolina coach Will Muschamp get revenge on his former school on Saturday? (Getty)

Muschamp has gotten surprisingly good results from freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, son of assistant Bobby Bentley, who should be a senior in high school right now but graduated after his junior year to join the Gamecocks. Bentley is the third QB to get extensive playing time this year for South Carolina and by far the most effective, completing 73 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions since taking off the redshirt three games ago.

Now Muschamp takes on a familiar opponent in Florida (35), the school that fired him in 2014 after a failed stint there. How much would Muschamp love getting his new team to bowl eligibility while simultaneously knocking his old team out of first place in the SEC East?

A PENN PLAYER’S GREATEST PLAY YET

The Penn Quakers are one of many programs that have a bone-marrow donor registry drive for their players and others in the campus community. After the latest drive, last spring, one player was discovered to be a match. Sophomore safety Sam Philippi (36)will donate his marrow to a leukemia patient after the Penn season ends in December.

What Philippi will do in December is more important than what he’s done on the field – but he’s been pretty impressive there, too. He’s played in every game of his college career and has six interceptions in 17 games – the most recent of which secured a victory for 5-3 Penn over Brown on Oct. 29.

Bravo, Penn. And bravo, Sam Philippi.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Rocky Long (37), San Diego State. His Aztecs have already locked up their division of the Mountain West Conference, defending that title from a year ago. Long now is 51-24 overall at SDSU, 35-9 in the MWC, and riding a 16-game league winning streak. That’s not bad work after New Mexico made the spectacularly bad decision to fire Long after the 2008 season. He’s moved on a lot better than the Lobos have.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Mark Dantonio (38), Michigan State. The Spartans’ disastrous season has been chronicled above. Dantonio has done enough to earn a mulligan on this year – but you can’t have two straight seasons looking this bad. Next year must be better.

POINT AFTER

When hungry and thirsty in Charlotte, The Dash recommends a meal at
The Dogwood Southern Table & Bar (39). Get the charcuterie plate appetizer and order a steak from the constantly changing menu. Accompany all that good meat with a Dale’s Pale Ale (40). The beer is made by Oskar Blues, a Colorado outfit that opened a second brewery in nearby Brevard, N.C., which has become a brewery boomtown in the Western North Carolina mountains. That’s close enough to a local beer, so drink it and thank The Dash later.

What to Read Next