Winners and losers: Who are the College Football Playoff contenders and pretenders after Week 9?

Sam Cooper

Through nine weeks of the college football season, the College Football Playoff picture continues to crystalize. The top four teams in the country — No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Clemson — are all undefeated and obvious CFP contenders. What about the rest of the field?

A few teams like No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 9 Auburn suffered their second losses on Saturday, pretty much sealing their CFP fate. But there are a bunch of other teams still in the mix. Below we’ve broken down the teams we think are in contention for a CFP berth and the teams that will soon fade from the pack.

No. 5 Oklahoma: CONTENDER

Oklahoma deserves to tumble in the rankings after losing to Kansas State on Saturday, but it is still a College Football Playoff contender. After all, the Sooners made it to the playoff with a regular-season loss the past two seasons. In 2017, OU lost to Iowa State in early October before winning out. Last year it was a loss to Texas that briefly got the Sooners off track, but they still ended up as the No. 4 seed. There’s no reason to think the 2019 Sooners cannot do the same.

The Sooners will play Iowa State next before traveling to face undefeated No. 14 Baylor, the team atop the Big 12 standings. Games against TCU and Oklahoma State won’t be cakewalks either. Oklahoma has to win out and then win the Big 12 title game. If that comes to fruition yet again, OU will be stacked up against a slew of others (perhaps a one-loss Pac-12 champion or a second SEC team) when the selection committee establishes the field.

No. 6 Penn State: CONTENDER

At this point in the season, you have to consider Penn State a contender. The Nittany Lions improved to 8-0 by grinding out another Big Ten victory. This time, it was a 28-7 road decision over Michigan State. Wins at No. 17 Iowa and at home against No. 16 Michigan preceded Saturday’s victory, putting two ranked victories on PSU’s resume.

Penn State now gets a week off before the home stretch of the season, beginning with a trip to play undefeated Minnesota. But the game we’ve all got circled on Penn State’s schedule is the Nov. 23 trip to face No. 3 Ohio State. The winner will likely be the Big Ten East champion and the loser could ultimately on the outside looking in from the College Football Playoff.

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 26: Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) and quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrate Freiermuth's second quarter touchdown during a college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions on October 26, 2019 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had three TD catches in the win over Michigan State. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 7 Florida: PRETENDER

With a loss to LSU under its belt, Florida has no margin for error the rest of the way. The 7-1 Gators had a bye this weekend with the cocktail party against No. 10 Georgia looming next Saturday. The winner of that game assumes the position of favorite in the SEC East; the loser has two losses and will be all but eliminated from playoff contention.

If Florida gets past Georgia, the rest of the regular season schedule — vs. Vanderbilt, at Missouri, vs. Florida State — is manageable. If the Gators get through that stretch unscathed and win the East, either a rematch with LSU or a meeting with Alabama looms. The Gators will be heavy underdogs against either of those teams, even though the game will be played on a neutral site in Atlanta. It’s hard to envision this Florida team winning five straight and reaching the playoff.

No. 10 Georgia: PRETENDER

The loss to South Carolina and last weekend’s rain-soaked win over Kentucky showed that Georgia has some serious issues to sort through on offense. Perhaps this off week gave Kirby Smart and his staff the requisite time to get things straightened out. If the Bulldogs come out next week in Jacksonville and smoke Florida, will we look at them like we did earlier in the year when most considered UGA the top competition to Alabama in the SEC?

Beyond Florida, Georgia still has Missouri, Auburn and Texas A&M remaining on its schedule. If the offense doesn’t take some significant steps forward, it’s hard to envision the Bulldogs making a serious run to the CFP. Even if Georgia manages to win the rest of its regular season games, do you see the Bulldogs putting up a serious fight against the SEC West champion? Based on what we’ve seen lately, it’s hard to make that leap.

No. 11 Oregon: CONTENDER

With a last-second field goal, Oregon defeated Washington State 37-35 at home on Saturday for its seventh straight victory. The Ducks are undefeated in Pac-12 play and will be favored in every game the rest of the regular season, starting next weekend with a trip to USC. Following a bye, Oregon rounds out its schedule with Arizona at home, Arizona State on the road and Oregon State at home.

USC and Arizona State won’t be easy, but if Oregon gets through the rest of the regular season without a loss and wins the Pac-12 title game — particularly over a quality team like Utah — the Ducks are going to have a legitimate CFP argument. Larry Scott and the Pac-12 have not beaten the drum for expansion to this point in the CFP’s existence. But what happens if a Pac-12 champion Oregon team with only a last-second loss to Auburn on its schedule gets left out? That’s going to be a tough pill for the conference to swallow, especially if Auburn wins a few of the difficult SEC games remaining on its schedule.

No. 12 Utah: PRETENDER

Utah has been cruising since its Week 4 loss at USC. Saturday night’s 35-0 win over Cal was its fourth straight victory. The Utes are essentially in the same position as Oregon: get through the rest of the regular season unscathed, win the conference title game and you’ve got an argument. But it won’t be as good of an argument as Oregon. A road defeat to three-loss USC will not be viewed the same as a neutral-site, last-second loss to Auburn. It just won’t be.

No. 14 Baylor: CONTENDER

When Oklahoma and Baylor meet in Waco on Nov. 16, it figures to be the biggest regular season Big 12 game of the year. Before that, the unbeaten Bears (who had a bye this weekend) will host a below average West Virginia team and face TCU on the road.

The expectation that Baylor wins both of those games moves it into contender category. Baylor would be 9-0 at that point with Oklahoma coming to McLane Stadium. Even with a loss there, Baylor would be in position for a potential rematch in the Big 12 title game. Like Oklahoma, Baylor could find itself as a one-loss Big 12 champion ready to be stacked up against several others for a CFP spot.

No. 17 Minnesota: PRETENDER

Minnesota deserves a lot of credit for starting the season 8-0, but the Gophers have played just one FBS team with a winning record: Georgia Southern (4-3). That’s it. Before we can label the Gophers as legitimate contenders, they have to play at least one good team. That will happen after next week’s bye when fellow unbeaten Penn State visits TCF Bank Stadium. With a win there, Minnesota will be taken seriously.

Here are this week’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

USC: USC avoided a bad loss to remain in first place in the Pac-12 South. The injury-filled Trojans overcame a 31-21 deficit and beat Colorado 35-31 with two fourth-quarter TDs on Friday night. The game-winner was a 37-yard pass from Kedon Slovis to Michael Pittman with 2:15 to play. The Trojans are now 5-3 on the year and 4-1 in Pac-12 play. And because the Trojans beat Utah head-to-head, they hold the edge in the divisional race right now. Would a division title save Clay Helton’s job?

SMU: It was closer than the Mustangs expected, but they remained unbeaten with a 34-31 win over Houston on Thursday night. SMU allowed TD receptions of 75 and 96 yards from UH’s Marquez Stevenson in the second half, the latter of which cut SMU’s lead to three with 4:47 to play. But SMU’s defense ultimately got the stop it needed. Now 8-0, the Mustangs are the favorite among Group of Five teams angling to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. But three more tough games remain: at Memphis, at Navy and Tulane.

Indiana: Indiana has clinched a bowl game and it’s not even November. After going 5-7 in Tom Allen’s first two seasons, Allen seems to have something cooking in Year 3. The Hoosiers improved to 6-2 with a 38-31 road win over Nebraska. With the win, Indiana registered its third-straight Big Ten win for the first time since 1993. With games against Northwestern and Purdue remaining, IU is poised to make this one of the best seasons in recent memory. IU hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2007 and hasn’t reached the 8-win mark since 1993. IU has twice reached nine wins: 1945 and 1967.

Indiana head coach Tom Allen runs to celebrate with supporters after Indiana's win over Nebraska in an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Navy: It’s time to take Navy — a team that went 3-10 in 2018 — seriously in the AAC title race. The Midshipmen improved to 6-1 (4-1 AAC) with a 41-38 win over AAC West foe Tulane. Navy jumped out to 24-0 lead but needed a last-second 48-yard field goal from Bijan Nichols to pull out the win. Navy has UConn and Notre Dame on the schedule before hosting unbeaten SMU on Nov. 23. First place in the AAC West could be on the line in that game.

Illinois: Illinois has realistically put itself in position to make a bowl game for the first time since 2014. The Illini broke a four-game losing streak by upsetting No. 6 Wisconsin last week and got back to .500 on Saturday with a 24-6 road win over Purdue. Now 4-4, Lovie Smith’s team still has home games against Rutgers and Northwestern on its schedule. Playing in the postseason would be a big accomplishment for a program that won a combined four conference games in Smith’s first three seasons in Champaign.

UCLA: Maybe it took longer than we all expected, but it seems like Chip Kelly is getting things going at UCLA. The Bruins have back-to-back Pac-12 wins under their belts after upsetting No. 24 Arizona State 42-32 on Saturday night. And the game wasn’t as close as the final score may indicate — the Bruins led 42-10 after three quarters. UCLA is now 3-5 overall but 3-2 in Pac-12 play, good for third in the Pac-12 South behind USC and Utah.

UCF: The Knights may have fallen out of the weekly conversation when they lost to Cincinnati a few weeks ago, but they are right in the mix among the AAC’s top teams after a blowout 63-21 win over Temple on Saturday night in Philly. UCF rushed for a whopping 385 yards in the win and is now 6-2 (3-1 AAC) on the year. UCF can still get back to the AAC title game, but will need Cincy to slip up a few times.

LOSERS

Colorado: Colorado had a golden opportunity to snap a three-game losing streak by beating USC for the first time in program history, but Mel Tucker punted it away. The Buffs held a 35-31 lead with just over six minutes to go and Tucker opted to send his punt unit onto the field rather than go for it on fourth-and-4 from the USC 38-yard line. He even instructed his team to take a delay of game to give his punter more room. The punt pinned the Trojans at the 11, and they proceeded to march the length of the field for the winning touchdown. Following a promising 2-0 start to the season, the Buffs are now 3-5 overall with a 1-4 mark in Pac-12 play.

Iowa State: Iowa State blew a big opportunity on Saturday in a 34-27 home loss to Oklahoma State. Because Oklahoma was upset by Kansas State earlier in the day, the Cyclones could have put themselves in a tie for second place in the Big 12 alongside OU, behind only Baylor. With games against Oklahoma and Texas coming up, ISU would have been in much better position to contend for a spot in the Big 12 title game.

AMES, IA - OCTOBER 26: Cornerback A.J. Green #4 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys tackles quarterback Brock Purdy #15 of the Iowa State Cyclones as he scrambled for yards in the second half of play at Jack Trice Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Ames, Iowa. The Oklahoma State Cowboys won 34-27 over the Iowa State Cyclones.(Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
Oklahoma State upset Iowa State 34-27 in Ames on Saturday. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

Michigan State: Michigan State lost its third straight game on Saturday, dropping a 28-7 decision to Penn State on a miserable afternoon in East Lansing. MSU struggled mightily on offense yet again, scoring just seven points while committing four turnovers. In losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, the Spartans have been outscored 100-17. But hey, Mark Dantonio — the guy who refuses to make any changes to his program’s offensive approach — is just pleased not to be 2-7.

Mississippi State: Things are not going well in Starkville for Joe Moorhead. Mississippi State lost its fourth straight SEC game, dropping a 49-30 decision on the road to Texas A&M. While the MSU offense turned it over three times, the defense was gashed for 441 yards. Now 3-5, the Bulldogs need to win three of their last four games just to reach a bowl game for the 10th straight season. One of those games is Alabama, but the other three — Arkansas, Abilene Christian and Ole Miss — are winnable.

ACC Coastal: The ACC Coastal is the worst division among the Power Five conferences and it’s not even close. Consider Saturday’s action a worthy example. Virginia, the division leader, lost 28-21 on the road to Louisville. Pitt, who demolished Syracuse last week, lost at home to Miami, the team that just lost to Georgia Tech. And because UVA lost, North Carolina’s 20-17 win over Duke — that had a wild ending — means UNC is tied for first in the division in Mack Brown’s first year. Yes, the 4-4 Tar Heels are a first-place team. What a mess.

Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi paces the sideline as his team plays against Miami During the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Pittsburgh. Miami won 16-12.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Arizona: Remember when Arizona was on a four-game winning streak? Kevin Sumlin’s Wildcats dropped their third straight game on Saturday, this time losing to Stanford, 41-31. Sure Stanford got starting QB K.J. Costello back, but the Cardinal was generally anemic on offense when he was healthy. Against Arizona, Stanford was able to put up 472 yards. Now 4-4 with games against Oregon, Utah and Arizona State to go, the Wildcats could miss a bowl game for the second straight season under Sumlin.

Missouri: Missouri has become the most unpredictable team in the SEC. The Tigers opened the season by losing to Wyoming before winning five straight games. Since then? Losses to Vanderbilt — a team that had just gotten blown out by UNLV — and now Kentucky, a team with wide receiver Lynn Bowden starting at quarterback. Bowden rushed for 204 yards in the 29-7 win. Missouri had 289 yards as a team.

Army: What is going on with Army? A year after going 11-2, the Black Knights are having a really rough season. Jeff Monken’s group dropped to 3-5 on Saturday with a 34-29 home loss to San Jose State. It marked the team’s fourth consecutive loss after a 3-1 start that included a near-upset of Michigan. Since then, the Black Knights have losses to Tulane, Western Kentucky, Georgia State and now San Jose State.

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