Analyzing each College Football Playoff contender after Week 7 in the SEC
Notre Dame is back again.
The Fighting Irish made fans, rivals and the College Football Playoff committee sit up and take notice by toppling top-ranked Clemson, 47-40, in double overtime on Saturday in South Bend, Ind.
Notre Dame rose to No. 2 in the new Associated Press poll and, if they were to issue the first rankings today, the CFP voters would certainly have them no worse then-No. 3 and probably No. 2.
That could be a problem for the SEC. Georgia is done as a CFP contender after their loss to Florida on Saturday, leaving three conference teams in the race: Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M. If Clemson runs the table from here (we’ll get to that), the ACC could get 2 teams into the Playoff.
Clemson is far from out of it, of course. The Tigers are very likely headed to a rematch with the Fighting Irish in the ACC Championship Game and, presumably, would have a healthy Trevor Lawrence for that second meeting. Clemson led late in Saturday’s game behind a freshman quarterback, so if you factor in Lawrence, the Tigers have much better than a 50-50 chance to beat the Irish if the teams meet again.
At last, the Pac-12 made its debut with conference favorites Oregon and USC winning on Saturday. But the Pac-12 has not been considered on the same level as the other major conferences for a couple of years, and these teams are starting from way behind in schedule and in perception. We’ll wait to see more before making a case for any Pac-12 team.
Finally, we will account for 2 teams outside of the Power 5 this week: Independent BYU and American Athletic Conference leader Cincinnati. If they both finish unbeaten and somehow no Power 5 team does, the CFP committee could have a heck of a dilemma on its hands. But no team from a Group of 5 league, and certainly no independent outside of Notre Dame, has made much headway toward securing a playoff spot. UCF went undefeated in the regular season 2 years in a row, 2017 and 2018, as the AAC champion and never got higher than No. 8 in the CFP rankings in any week during that span. The Bearcats and Cougars will face similar hurdles regarding strength of schedule.
Here’s a look at the top 8 CFP contenders in order of the current Associated Press poll. A reminder, the first CFP rankings come out in late November.
A week off gave the Crimson Tide some time to scout their competition. We don’t mean LSU, the next Alabama opponent, because the Tigers were off on Saturday too. We mean their very likely SEC Championship Game opponent, Florida. Assuming Bama arrives at the SEC title game safe and sound (and unbeaten), this team won’t face a better quarterback than Kyle Trask or a bigger matchup headache than Kyle Pitts. Still, the Tide’s defense has come a long way in a few weeks.
We said last week that the Fighting Irish needed to win a track meet to topple No. 1 Clemson. They did it. Now Notre Dame has sole possession of first in the ACC and a quarterback, Ian Book, who had his biggest performance in slaying a big-time opponent. Book had 310 passing yards and 68 more rushing against Clemson, but Notre Dame was far from perfect. Their vaunted defense gave up 473 yards — almost all (439) in the air thanks to Clemson freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.
The Buckeyes went about their business on Saturday in beating Rutgers, but Ohio State is still not running the ball well. OSU had 141 yards on 32 carries for a 4.4-yard average against Rutgers, about what the Buckeyes have done all season. Those numbers aren’t bad, but mixing QB Justin Fields back into the running mix — carefully — might solve some issues down the road. The quarterback has just 3 rushing yards on 12 carries in the past two games combined.
The Tigers saw their 36-game regular-season winning streak end on Saturday, but not their title hopes. However, there are dangers in just assuming that Clemson will wax Notre Dame in a rematch for the ACC title and waltz into the Playoff. The passing game wasn’t the problem for the Tigers against Notre Dame — it was the running game, and especially the defense. Clemson has allowed 21, 28 and 47 points (the last in 2OTs, of course) in the past 3 games and sacked Book only twice on Saturday.
A rout over South Carolina on Saturday continued an impressive run for Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies. The Texas A&M offense has scored at least 28 points in each of the past 4 games, and the defense owned the Gamecocks, allowing just 9 first downs and 150 total yards. A&M is particularly excellent on 3rd down on offense, converting 62 percent (49-of-79). That figure leads the nation if you don’t count an Oregon team that just played its first game over the weekend.
The Gators prevailed over Georgia in what was essentially a loser-leave-town match for CFP contention. Florida has not solved all of their defensive woes, but the Gators have held their past 2 opponents under 300 yards of total offense. What was more encouraging about the win over the Dawgs was that the so-called “third and Grantham” situations were no problem, as Georgia was held to 2-for-13 on 3rd-down conversions. That came a week after Missouri went 3-for-15 on 3rd downs against UF.
The Bearcats remained undefeated by rolling past Houston 38-10. But the Bearcats and fellow unbeaten BYU, face the same problem in the eyes of the CFP voters: A weak strength of schedule. Cincinnati is 76th of 121 teams in SOS, according to College Football Reference. G5 teams lost their nonconference opportunities to make a splash — though the original schedule wasn’t going to help much, either. Before COVID-19 hit, UC’s best nonconference game would have been at Nebraska.
The Cougars had an ambitious slate lined up in 2020 as an independent. BYU would have faced six Power 5 teams, including Michigan State and Minnesota from the Big Ten and Missouri from the SEC. Alas, after all of the coronavirus-related shuffling, BYU faces zero Power 5 teams, and the team’s best win came Friday against Boise State. The result? The Cougars are No. 77 in SOS, one spot below Cincinnati. Of course, it’s unlikely that BYU would have been unbeaten now against 6 teams from major conferences.