Analyzing each College Football Playoff contender after Week 10 in the SEC
The first College Football Playoff rankings came out on Tuesday, and they helped to clarify a few things.
First, the SEC is still the king of the mountain with 4 teams in the top 9 (soon to be top 8, as we’ll explain). The Big 12 is toast as far as the Playoff, of course.
Oregon, a longshot anyway, is cooked after losing to Oregon State. And the remaining Pac-12 unbeatens (USC, Washington and Colorado, all 3-0) simply won’t have enough games to impress the voters. Northwestern came out of the initial rankings at No. 8 with a puncher’s chance of winning the Big Ten, but a loss to Michigan State ended all of that.
So with the Wildcats out of the way, there are really only 7 teams that started high enough to have realistic hopes.
Might we get 2 SEC teams in the CFP? Two ACC teams? Maybe both? How will CFP voters weigh a B1G champion in a truncated season? Is this the year we see a Group of 5 team break through the Power 5 hegemony and get into the playoff? We’re a little closer to knowing those answers than we were when the first CFP rankings came out, but only a little.
Let’s look at the 7 contenders (plus we’ll dismiss 3 others) in the order that they were ranked last week in the 1st CFP poll.
Behind Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith, the Alabama offense looks pretty unstoppable. The Crimson Tide defense is only ranked No. 37 in the country, but this is one of those situations where the numbers are deceiving because that Ole Miss game threw off the math. In the past 4 games, Bama has allowed a total of 33 points, against an all-SEC schedule no less. The last time the Tide allowed more than 20 points was against a top-10 opponent, Georgia. Even with coach Nick Saban sitting at home after a positive COVID-19 test, Auburn posed no threat to Bama in the Iron Bowl on Saturday. This team’s a machine.
The No. 2 Fighting Irish have had a way of staying on an even keel in a season of chaos. Notre Dame trailed North Carolina 17-14 early in the 2nd quarter of Friday’s game in Chapel Hill, an uneasy prospect against a Tar Heels offense that was ranked 4th in the country coming in. But the Irish didn’t allow a point after that, and Ian Book steadily drove the Notre Dame offense to 2 touchdowns in the 2nd half and the defense backed up its reputation, holding UNC to 5 punts and a turnover on downs in the 2nd half. Notre Dame should not be troubled by Syracuse or Wake Forest on their way to the ACC Championship Game and a near-certain rematch against Clemson.
After a layoff that must have felt like forever, the No. 3 Tigers finally got back on the field on Saturday. And Clemson looked like they hadn’t lost a step, taking a 31-0 lead after 1 quarter in a 52-17 cruise past Pittsburgh. Clemson allowed just 246 yards, perhaps calming some fears among the fans after the Tigers allowed 28 points to Boston College and 47 (in a double-overtime loss) against Notre Dame. More important, Trevor Lawrence is back. Freshman D.J. Uiagalelei did fine in Lawrence’s absence at quarterback, but this team’s Playoff hopes start with Lawrence, the team’s talisman for the past 3 seasons.
The No. 4 Buckeyes needed just 4 games to put together a resume good enough to convince the CFP voters that they’re 1 of the best 4 teams in the country. And it has been emphasized repeatedly that there is no number of minimum games that a team needs to play to make the Playoff. But after Saturday’s game against Illinois was canceled because of some positive coronavirus tests within the OSU program, the B1G’s best CFP hope is in danger of not playing enough games to qualify for the league title game. The B1G made a ruling that each team must play at least 6 of 8 games, assuming that the conference’s teams average 8 games played. If OSU plays only, say, 5 games, is that enough?
The Aggies didn’t hurt their CFP case with a 20-7 win over LSU, but they didn’t really help themselves, either. It’s rare that a team ranked No. 5 in the first CFP rankings seems so unlikely to reach the Playoff, but that is Texas A&M’s situation in a nutshell. Unless Bama somehow loses its final 2 games, A&M won’t win the West Division and won’t go to the SEC Championship Game. And without that, the Aggies don’t have much chance to break into the top 4 without some major help. A loss by either Clemson or Ohio State would indeed be major help, but the Tigers look to be back in top form, and the Buckeyes can’t lose if they don’t play. Also, that 28-point loss to Bama must linger in the CFP voters’ minds.
The No. 6 Gators cruised past Kentucky without ever really needing to get out of 2nd gear. Yes, we said the exact same thing last week about the Vanderbilt game. But style points don’t really matter for Dan Mullen’s crew. In a way, Florida has the easiest CFP situation to explain. If the Gators run the table and beat (almost certainly) Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, they’re in. No doubt. If they reach the SEC title game but lose, they’re out and will settle for another NYD6 bowl. If they stumble against Tennessee or LSU, then of course their CFP hopes are over. QB Kyle Trask has got Kyle Pitts, the best tight end in the nation, back now, so the UF offense should be at peak efficiency in December.
The Bearcats’ game against Temple was nixed because of COVID-19, so Cincinnati lost another chance to run up the score against an outmatched American Athletic Conference foe. A strength of schedule ranked 58th of 127 isn’t a strong argument for No. 7 Cincinnati, but it’s not terrible, unlike BYU (see below). The Bearcats are still a very remote longshot for the CFP, but 2 things work in their favor: 2 teams in front of them have to lose in presumptive conference championship games, and Cincy’s No. 7 spot is the best ever for a Group of 5 team. UCF was No. 8 for the final 2 weeks of the 2018 CFP poll. Cincinnati faces No. 25 Tulsa on Dec. 12 and likely will play the Golden Hurricane again for the AAC title.
And 3 others
Georgia was No. 9 in the first CFP rankings last week and will probably rise to No. 8 on Tuesday. It won’t matter. With 2 losses, the Dawgs would need Florida to lose twice, then beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, and even then get more help. Forget it. … Speaking of forgetting, we told you to forget about BYU. There was an outcry in some quarters about the Cougars being only 14th in the CFP, but I’m not sure why considering a strength of schedule ranked 87th of 127 teams. Coastal Carolina (9-0, SOS 96th) and Marshall (7-0, SOS 107th) are in a similar state and nobody’s shedding tears for them. … Miami was idle on Saturday and had the Dec. 5 game against Wake Forest postponed, which would have meant another week off for the Hurricanes. But the ACC scrambled its schedule so UM could play at Duke; Florida State had initially been slated to take on the Blue Devils. The Canes are in the same boat as Georgia: With 2 CFP contenders in their own conference in front of them, they need too much help to have a realistic chance.