Analyzing each College Football Playoff contender after Week 9 in the SEC
Only 4 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 lost on Saturday, and 3 of them fell to other ranked teams.
Other than a bit of upheaval in the predicted Big Ten pecking order, not a lot changed for College Football Playoff contenders.
Ohio State remained atop the B1G, but now, instead of undefeated upstart Indiana, the Buckeyes now need to keep an eye on undefeated upstart Northwestern, OSU’s likely B1G Championship Game foe. Ryan Day and the coaching staff won’t let their players look that far ahead to Indianapolis on Dec. 19, of course, but we can.
As for the SEC, Alabama and Florida won easily to stay on a collision course for the league title game on Dec. 19 in Atlanta.
Two outsiders won again to remain undefeated, but will Cincinnati or BYU be able to break the glass ceiling for teams that are not in the Power 5 conferences? What happens if the Pac-12, with just a 6-game regular season then a title game, produces an unbeaten champion?
We won’t have to wonder much longer, because the 1st CFP rankings will be released on Tuesday.
Here’s a look at the top CFP contenders in order of the current Associated Press poll, released Sunday.
The Crimson Tide swatted away Kentucky with no fuss and have maintained their roll on offense even after losing Jaylen Waddle to a season-ending injury. Only 2 MAC teams with 3 games under their belt (Kent State — Nick Saban’s alma mater, no less — and Western Michigan) are averaging more points per game than Alabama’s 49.4. It’s even more remarkable that this is happening with an all-SEC schedule. Even by Bama standards, it’s mind-boggling. And that defensive nightmare against Ole Miss is receding in the distance. But speaking of bad dreams: Recent losses to archrival Auburn will be mentioned once or twice this week across the state, we think. Alabama will know the history well.
The Fighting Irish, coming off of a bye, had an extra week to prepare for North Carolina, which can put points on the board in a hurry. UNC has scored 48, 41, 56 and 59 points in its past 4 games (though 1 of those was a 44-41 loss to Virginia). The Tar Heels are 4th in the country in total offense, and in their past 2 games, Notre Dame has allowed 40 points to Clemson (in double OT) and 31 to Boston College. Fans of teams trying to bust into the CFP should root hard for North Carolina, and it’s not a lost cause. Of course, the Tar Heels need to start playing defense for the upset to happen. But it might.
Big Ten East Division title? Yep, almost in the bag after the Buckeyes beat Indiana 42-35. A perfect team on the way to the CFP? Nope. Ohio State had genuine defensive concerns coming into Saturday’s game, and they have even more after IU quarterback Michael Penix tore up the Buckeyes for 491 passing yards and 5 touchdowns as the Hoosiers, once trailing 35-7, twice had possession in the final minutes with the chance to drive for a tying TD. The scarlet and gray stiffened at the right time, but OSU is dead last in the B1G in passing defense (allowing 290.3 yards a game) and is 6th in total D. At least the rushing defense is legit, allowing less than 100 yards a game after holding Indiana to minus-1 yard.
At what point does rust become a concern? Like Texas A&M, Clemson has not played since Nov. 7. The Tigers’ scheduled game against Florida State was suddenly called off hours before kickoff because of a positive COVID-19 case in the Clemson program. Trevor Lawrence has already missed 2 games, including the loss to Notre Dame, after a positive coronavirus test. The final 2 regular-season games should present no problem on the way to a rematch with the Fighting Irish in the ACC Championship Game — we say should, but Saturday’s foe, Pitt, is one of the most unpredictable teams in the country.
The Aggies keep waiting. With 2 straight games postponed because of coronavirus, Texas A&M has not taken the field since beating South Carolina on Nov. 7. This is a much better team than LSU and should win on Saturday, but, much like Alabama, Jimbo Fisher’s crew must regard LSU as a big rival and an even bigger potential banana peel just based on history. A&M has won just once in its past 9 meetings against LSU, and that was the unforgettable 74-72 7-OT affair in 2018. LSU still has the worst passing defense in the SEC, so Kellen Mond should have a post-Thanksgiving feast.
The No. 6 Gators cruised past winless Vanderbilt without ever really needing to get out of 2nd gear. Kyle Trask’s Heisman Trophy campaign is a boost for the Gators as a program, but how much will that enter the minds of the CFP voters? Florida is 9th in the nation and 3rd in the SEC in total offense, but the defense (No. 9 in the SEC) is still a question mark. The 17 points scored by Vanderbilt matched the season low that UF has allowed. Still, the Gators are the last team on this list (except for maybe No. 11, weirdly enough) that we can say with a fair bit of certainty would be in the CFP for sure if it runs the table, including the SEC title game.
So now the Bearcats have survived a close one. No. 7 Cincinnati trailed UCF on the road 14-3 after 1 quarter on Saturday. In a weird way, the fact that UCF — probably still in the voters’ minds as the Group of 5 team with all the buzz just a couple of years ago — gave Cincinnati a great game is a boost to the Bearcats because it shines a positive light on the American Athletic Conference as a whole. And Luke Fickell’s team closes out with a currently ranked opponent in No. 24 Tulsa, which is quietly also undefeated in the AAC and has lost only to Oklahoma State.
The No. 8 Cougars kept rolling with another lopsided win, but it doesn’t matter. Beating North Alabama is a nothing result even by SEC Cupcake Week standards. Unless No. 8 BYU figures out a way to get another game scheduled, the Dec. 12 matchup against San Diego State is all that remains. We keep harping on the schedule, but it must weigh heavily in any discussion of BYU among the CFP voters. The best win was against Boise State; the only other 2 foes with winning records are both from Conference USA, UTSA and Louisiana Tech. According to sports-reference.com/cfb, BYU’s strength of schedule ranks 97th of 127 teams. New Year’s Day 6 bowl contender? Sure. CFP? No way.
And 3 others
The teams ranked 9th through 11th in the AP poll are Oregon, Miami and Northwestern. The No. 9 Ducks are 3-0, but their total point differential is +38. That’s almost an average week for truly elite teams. I don’t think they’ll stay unbeaten. … No. 10 Miami only has a single loss, but it was by 25 points against Clemson. Unless the Tigers slip or Notre Dame somehow loses twice, UM has no path to the ACC title game or the CFP. … No. 11 Northwestern is intriguing. The Wildcats are pretty blah on offense, but at least their defense looks the part. And of these 3 teams, Northwestern probably has the clearest path to the CFP — of course, that path runs through Ohio State in the B1G Championship Game. But if NU caps a perfect season with that upset, they’d be in.