Analyzing each College Football Playoff contender after Week 5
Week 5 in the SEC gave us a glimpse at one College Football Playoff contender, but a few more had the week off.
Of course, “Week 5” is a pretty loose definition anyway.
Yes, this past week was Week 5 in the SEC. Except at Florida or Vanderbilt, where Week 3 seems to be an infinite loop because of COVID-19. A few more teams have played 4 games. Outside the SEC, the picture is even murkier. This weekend was Week 1 in the Big Ten and Mountain West. You could check out Conference-USA, where it could have been anywhere from Week 1 (for Rice) to Week 7 (Middle Tennessee and UTSA). And of course, in the Pac-12 and MAC, opening games are still more than a week away.
Does anybody really know what week it is?
Amid the coronavirus-related chaos, at least a few things have become clear. Alabama and Clemson are still Alabama and Clemson. It’s only one game against a weak opponent, but Ohio State still looked like Ohio State. Oklahoma State could yet force its way into the CFP conversation. And Cincinnati, No. 7 in the AP poll, and No. 11 BYU will be desperate to make their cases for a team outside the Power 5 conferences to break into the CFP party. (I still have pretty much zero belief that this is going to happen, so we can move on to other topics.)
Now that we have seen a week’s worth of Big Ten competition, a couple of teams join our CFP contenders’ list — again a reminder, we won’t yet consider the Pac-12 until we see those teams, which will happen on Nov. 7.
So here is our analysis of contenders for the College Football Playoff, listed in order of current AP rankings because, of course, we won’t have CFP rankings until late November.
Syracuse got within 27-21 early in the third quarter on Saturday. But a defensive touchdown and 2 scoring runs by Travis Etienne put an end to any thoughts of the Orange upsetting Clemson like they did in 2017. No. 1-ranked Clemson, 2nd in the country in scoring offense behind Alabama among teams that have played more than one game, pulled away without ever needing to get out of second gear.
The season-ending injury to star receiver Jaylen Waddle would definitely test any college football roster, even one as deep and talented as Alabama’s. The No. 2 Crimson Tide walloped Tennessee anyway and, by the looks of things, nobody in the SEC West can keep up with Alabama in 2020 even without Waddle. But his loss is huge, and Tide quarterback Mac Jones will need to spread the ball around more.
The Buckeyes finally took the field Saturday and, after a somewhat slow start, routed Nebraska. The No. 3 Buckeyes looked as explosive as ever in the passing game, with Justin Fields having a near-perfect day (20-of-21 passing). OSU needs more from their running game than the 89 yards on 23 carries from their top two running backs they got Saturday. This weekend against a suddenly desperate Penn State club, that could spell trouble.
A 45-3 manhandling of Pitt was Notre Dame’s most complete game this season. The No. 4 Fighting Irish outgained the Panthers 434-162 and might have answered some questions about the passing game. Ian Book threw for 312 yards, his 7th career 300-yard game but his first in 2020. And the defense (273 yards per game, 4th-best among teams that have played more than 2 games) is stout.
The Bulldogs travel to Kentucky this coming week to take on an unpredictable Wildcats team that routed Tennessee one week and lost to Missouri the next. The No. 5 Bulldogs took a bruising in their loss to Alabama on Oct. 17 but still lead the nation in rushing defense (65 yards per game) among teams that have played more than 2 games.
Coach Mike Gundy’s crew passed a pretty good test Saturday, topping then-No. 17 Iowa State to remain undefeated. The No. 6 Cowboys are on a trajectory to own the Big 12, considering that Oklahoma and Texas have 2 conference losses. No. 16 Kansas State is the only other unbeaten team in Big 12 play; those teams clash on Nov. 7.
At No. 8, the Aggies have the 5th-best rushing defense in the nation (75.5 ypg) among teams that have played at least 2 games, and they even held Alabama to 109 rushing yards (granted, the Crimson Tide passed for 435 in that game). Texas A&M could well run the table in the West the rest of the way; if they do, they would make a solid case for a CFP spot if results fall the Aggies’ way elsewhere.
After waiting for months to even play, the Badgers wasted no time getting started on Friday, pounding Illinois and gaining a measure of revenge for last season’s upset loss to the Fighting Illini. The Badgers also introduced Graham Mertz to the B1G as the freshman quarterback was 20-of-21 for a school-record 92 completion percentage. Also in Wisconsin’s favor: The Badgers miss Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule. One huge caveat: Mertz reportedly tested positive for COVID. A second positive test would force him to miss 3 games.
The No. 10 Gators have had 2 weeks off because of positive COVID-19 tests among coaches and players. The first priority is to make sure everyone is healthy, obviously, but this also means that Florida has had a long time to chew on the frustration of an Oct. 10 defeat against Texas A&M. The defense, in particular, is an on-field area of concern as the Gators rank 13th in the SEC in total defense at 495 yards allowed per game.