CFP Chase: Assessing contenders after Week 12
How much will Tua Tagovailoa’s hip injury hurt Alabama in the long run?
Perhaps enough to keep the Crimson Tide out of the College Football Playoff.
The star quarterback’s season-ending injury, an agonizing moment for college football fans everywhere to watch, has to change the way the CFP committee looks at coach Nick Saban’s team.
It was pretty much universally agreed that Alabama needed to crush Auburn on Nov. 30 in the Iron Bowl — piling on both the style points and the actual points to make the Crimson Tide’s best victory of the season emphatic. Coming off of a close loss to LSU, that seemed like a pretty good recipe to stay in the top 4 and make the CFP semifinals for the 6th year in a row.
Then came Tagovailoa’s painful moment in Starkville and everything changed.
Now the question is, will Alabama — which has a long injury list far beyond Tagovailoa — even beat Auburn at all?
Which also raises the most interesting of all: What if Bama beats Auburn in a close game?
If that happens, and Oregon goes on to win the Pac-12, then Crimson Tide fans can correctly claim that their team beat the team that defeated Oregon. (As can LSU and Georgia.) And with Bama’s only loss coming against No. 1 LSU by 5 points — when Tagovailoa was already hobbled weeks after ankle surgery — what reason would the CFP have for keeping Alabama out?
Well, CFP voters always say they start with a blank sheet of paper every week. If that’s true and if Oregon beats a top 10 Utah team convincingly in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 7, then the Ducks will have a better win on their résumé than Alabama does even if the Crimson Tide defeats Auburn.
Who you lose to matters. But who you defeat also matters. That’s why Georgia, with its wins over top 20 teams Florida and Notre Dame, was ranked higher than Alabama last week even though UGA has an inexplicable loss to South Carolina. Now the Dawgs own a win over Auburn as well.
Oh yeah, and conference titles matter. Under the scenario spelled out above, Oregon would own a league championship and Bama would not (you can’t win the SEC without winning the SEC West).
The Ducks, with Justin Herbert, would also have one other thing Alabama does not have: A healthy star quarterback.
Around the country, none of the top 7 teams in last week’s CFP rankings lost on Saturday. But we did say goodbye to 2 unbeaten teams seeking respect: Minnesota and Baylor. The No. 8 Golden Gophers ran into too tall of a task at Iowa and the No. 13 Bears squandered a 28-3 lead at home against Oklahoma. Minnesota and Baylor were too infrequently tested this season thanks to very weak nonconference schedules, and paid for it with their low rankings.
They are still nice stories in the 2019 season, but both are done as CFP contenders.
That leaves us 9 teams who we think have a decent chance at making the Playoff. Some control their fate — for sure the top 4 do — while others need help.
This is our take on how we think the committee will rank these contenders on Tuesday.
What a shootout at Ole Miss. There are lingering questions about the defense. But does anybody relish the task of facing Joe Burrow and LSU’s offense in the CFP? Clyde Edwards-Helaire might be the secret key to a national title run — his running gives defenses something to think about besides Burrow and all of those weapons he has on the outside.
The Buckeyes just keep rolling. With Saturday’s win over a moribund Rutgers program, OSU became the first team since Nebraska in 1971 to win each of its first 10 games by at least 24 points. Buckeyes games have become so lopsided that it’s fair to wonder how the team, under first-year coach Ryan Day and sophomore quarterback Justin Fields, will respond when they face a real fight.
Speaking of teams that keep on rolling. Remember when Clemson almost lost to North Carolina and everybody was wondering what was wrong with Trevor Lawrence? You bet the Tigers do because they have scored at least 45 points in every game since and have not allowed more than 14 points in any of those games. Make it 26 consecutive wins for Dabo Swinney’s bunch.
The Bulldogs still have the inside track to a CFP berth and are one of those 4 teams we mentioned that truly control its fate. As for Saturday’s 21-14 win over Auburn, it’s hard to read which Dawgs are for real: The ones who led 21-0 after 3 quarters, or the ones who allowed 2 touchdowns in the 4th and had to sweat out a late Auburn drive?
The CFP committee is supposed to simply analyze what a team has done so far, not what a team is going to do in the future. Still, CFP voters would not be human if they did not at least consider the impact of Tagovailoa’s injury and how the Crimson Tide will cope going forward. There has rarely been so much riding on the Iron Bowl for Alabama — and there’s always a lot riding on the Iron Bowl.
Knocking at the door
It’s funny. Last week’s CFP rankings only had 2 Pac-12 teams, while 3 teams from the American Athletic Conference made the Top 25. It’s mathematically possible that the Pac-12 will have just 5 bowl-eligible teams. Yet the league has one huge edge: Two teams that seem headed for 11-1 regular seasons. So here the Ducks are as very serious CFP contenders. Funny. (Well, maybe not in Tuscaloosa.)
The Utes crushed UCLA and stayed on that collision course with Oregon for the Pac-12 title and perhaps a berth in the CFP. It is problematic that Utah had such a weak nonconference schedule, featuring BYU, Norther Illinois and Idaho State. But at least the Utes don’t have to answer any questions about having a loss to Auburn on their résumé.
The Sooners are in a weird spot. When OU has gone to the Playoff it has usually made a good accounting for itself, but the Sooners have not reached a CFP title game in 3 appearances. And they roared back from a 28-3 deficit to win Saturday at previously unbeaten Baylor. But did that help? Or will voters think, “See, told you Baylor was overrated.” Really, the entire Big 12 in in a weird spot and a bad one.
Still hanging on
This inclusion might be a bit controversial seeing as how the Nittany Lions, No. 4 in the first CFP rankings, lost to the Minnesota team nobody believed in, then Minnesota finally lost just like most pundits thought they would at Iowa. Only 2 paths here: Either the Nittany Lions win Saturday at Ohio State and make the CFP voters really reevaluate them, or PSU loses and falls off the CFP map.
Dropped out: Minnesota, Baylor