Analyzing CFP race after Week 4 of 2021 season
Saturday’s Week 4 action gave us some interesting College Football Playoff possibilities and permutations, and almost guaranteed us a changing of the guard from the 2020 CFP field.
First off, the ACC is dead. More specifically, Clemson’s not going to repeat as a Playoff participant. Clemson’s CFP run ended with Saturday’s loss to NC State. The only two unbeaten teams left in the ACC are also unproven: Boston College and Wake Forest. Those don’t sound like CFP contenders at this point.
The Tigers have been in the Playoff the past 6 seasons, consistency that’s only matched by Alabama (the only other program to participate in 6 of the 7 CFPs since 2014). Clemson not only has 2 losses this season, but the remaining schedule simply does not provide any opportunities to improve the résumé enough to break into the top 4 because, well, the ACC is so awful.
The SEC, on the other hand, has an abundance of contenders. There are 5 SEC teams in the top 12 of the latest Associated Press poll: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 10 Florida and No. 12 Ole Miss. This situation will shake itself out on the field, of course. The Razorbacks have to face all of the other 4 top-12 teams except for Florida; the West trio of Bama, Arkansas and Ole Miss all still have to play each other.
The Big Ten has 5 unbeaten teams — No. 4 Penn State, No. 5 Iowa, No. 14 Michigan, No. 17 Michigan State and unranked Maryland — plus No. 11 Ohio State lurking at the edges of the CFP race. Oregon alone carries the hopes of the Pac-12; Oklahoma looks to be the only viable contender out of the Big 12 (though No. 19 Oklahoma State and No. 21 Baylor are unbeaten as well).
These 12 teams are listed in the new AP poll rankings order. The initial CFP rankings will come out later this season.
The challenge is about to get a lot tougher for the Crimson Tide defense, with Ole Miss rolling into Tuscaloosa. The Rebels lead the nation in scoring at 52.5 points a game but Bama is 4th at 46.5 ppg and the Crimson Tide have faced a tougher schedule. In other words, the scenario sets up similarly to 2020, and that Bama-Ole Miss game was a 63-48 thriller. Saturday could be similarly exciting.
Is Georgia’s defense that good or is Vanderbilt’s offense that bad? Yes and yes. The Dawgs tied for the 3rd-largest shutout victory in the history of SEC conference games, dating to 1933, by walloping the Commodores 62-0. Georgia has allowed just 741 total yards and 23 points all season through 4 games. This week’s game against No. 8 Arkansas could be a defensive slugfest.
The Ducks rolled in their Pac-12 opener, beating woeful Arizona 41-19 though the Wildcats outgained Oregon 435-393. Preseason All-American defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux returned for Oregon for a while in the first half but left again in the second half. Even without him, the Ducks lead the nation in turnover margin (+3 per game) and are 1 of 3 FBS teams that have not thrown an interception.
The Nittany Lions moved up 2 places in the poll, not so much for beating FCS Villanova but probably because Oklahoma and Iowa were so unimpressive in winning on Saturday. In contrast to the usual staid image of Big Ten football, the Nittany Lions are 18th in FBS in passing offense (307.8 yards per game) but 111th in rushing offense (113.5 ypg). The showdown at Iowa (see below) lurks Oct. 9.
The Hawkeyes continue to get it done with defense, scoring just 24 points in a comeback victory over a Colorado State team that lost to Vanderbilt. Iowa is 3rd in the nation in scoring defense, 13th in total defense and 1 of 3 teams in FBS to score 3 touchdowns on defense this season. But the offense is a continued source of concern — Iowa is ranked 122nd in total offense and last of 14 teams in the B1G.
Another week, another game when winning just does not seem to be enough in Norman. Despite being undefeated, Oklahoma has slipped from No. 2 in the preseason AP poll to No. 6. After trailing West Virginia for most of Saturday’s game, the Sooners needed a last-second field goal to win. The offense (37th in the nation total, 32nd in passing) isn’t bad, it’s just not very Oklahoma-like.
The Bearcats, on a bye week, got to scout their next opponent, Notre Dame. Cincinnati travels to South Bend to face the Fighting Irish this Saturday with a chance to leap beyond its perceived limitations within the American Athletic Conference. Cincy needs to watch its back for the Group of 5 berth in the New Year’s 6 bowls as well — No. 13 BYU and No. 16 Coastal Carolina are still unbeaten.
Welcome to life as a CFP and SEC West contender, Razorbacks. Arkansas has perhaps the best pair of wins in the country, handing Texas and Texas A&M their first losses. Arkansas is ranked 8th in FBS in fewest passing yards allowed and most rushing yards gained, a combination that’s bound to lead to success. Now what? A trip to Athens to face No. 2 Georgia. That’s SEC life.
In 2021, the Fighting Irish have just never looked like the team that went to the Playoff in 2020. And Saturday’s 41-13 win over Wisconsin in Chicago was not as comprehensive as the score made it look (ND returned 2 INTs for scores in the final 2:13). But give Brian Kelly and crew credit for keeping some semblance of offense going after starting QB Jack Coan left injured. Cincinnati offers a big test this week.
The Gators still own Tennessee, but do they own the key to winning the SEC East? Georgia looks absolutely impenetrable, but Florida might have a formula for challenging the Bulldogs: Strong rushing (3rd in the nation), good at bringing pressure (9th in FBS in sacks) and decent on 3rd down (50%, ranked 21st). But this week, UF must deal with unbeaten Kentucky first.
Second in the nation in total offense, 89th in total defense even after shutting down an awful Akron team. Suddenly, Ohio State is the Ole Miss of the Midwest. The Buckeyes are allowing 410 yards a game even after holding the Zips to 229. It would seem that the next 3 games are pretty winnable (at Rutgers, Maryland, at Indiana), but ask Michigan: The Scarlet Knights are not an easy out anymore.
The Rebels lead the nation in total offense at 635.3 yards per game and got to enjoy a bye week before traveling to Tuscaloosa next week to face the Crimson Tide. Matt Corral has moved himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation and, perhaps, game film from the second half of Bama’s game against Florida will give Ole Miss some pointers. But can the Rebels slow down Alabama’s offense?