Here's how the playoff picture is shaping up following another weekend of unexpected results across the country
Seven days ago this column was all about how the storylines surrounding college football were about to shift from disappointing teams like Notre Dame and Oregon being the talk of the sport to the chaos that inevitably happens.
Well, on Saturday the chaos came. And it came hard.
While the day did not start in Happy Valley, the biggest narrative shift occurred there just as Grant Haley crossed the goal line with 4:27 left to put Penn State ahead of previously undefeated Ohio State. The shocking upset did by no means knock the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff, but it did make their path a little harder and called into question just how much more talented the team was compared to their peers in the Big Ten.
It was not the only game to turn heads around the country on Saturday either.
There was Houston, getting not just beat but getting blown off the ball at SMU. Over in the Big 12, West Virginia continued its ascent by suffocating TCU and then grabbing a bonus victory when Oklahoma was unable to play any defense in a record-setter against Texas Tech.
Out west, the possibility that Colorado wins the Pac-12 South pulled closer and closer to reality with the Buffaloes’ ugly win at defending champion Stanford. Things got even more real at Utah, which finally got its offense going in a win on the road at UCLA and will head home this Saturday to play host to the biggest game Salt Lake City has seen in quite a while.
Then there’s the SEC, which saw several narratives flipped on their head in surprising fashion. Leonard Fournette needed just eight — eight! — carries to set a school rushing record against Ole Miss and force the Rebels to seriously consider the possibility of a bowl ban to help their NCAA case (it’s better than the Birmingham Bowl, after all). There was Texas A&M playing a loaded Alabama squad tough until the Crimson Tide do what they do best and put even more distance between them and every other team in the country. Perhaps no game was as shocking as seeing what Auburn did to Arkansas though, literally running over, around and through the Razorbacks on its way to a few conference records.
It was proof positive that as the leaves start to turn colors and the last of the warm weather signals that autumn is arriving, chaos is about to rear its ugly head in college football.
So where will it come from next? Here’s a look at the biggest obstacles for each potential playoff team and what needs to happen for them to make it into the final four.
Biggest obstacle: Themselves.
Biggest game: Auburn, Nov. 26
What needs to happen: Even at this point, it would be hard to argue that Alabama is not one of the four best teams in the country, even if the Crimson Tide were to, say, drop next week’s game at LSU. The defense might be one of Nick Saban’s most complete units and the offense and special teams are continuing to grow with each snap. Winning back-to-back national titles is one of the hardest tasks imaginable in the game but we’re getting to the point that many believe it’s going to be inevitable.
Biggest obstacle: Ohio State
Biggest game: at Ohio State, Nov. 26
What needs to happen: We’re starting to re-evaluate that early schedule of Michigan’s and it might be time to say those wins over Colorado, Penn State and Wisconsin might be a little better now than they were earlier in the month. The defense has been phenomenal and like Alabama, the offense continues to progress each week. It’s pretty simple for Jim Harbaugh and company: win and you’re in — and whatever you do, don’t lose to the Buckeyes.
Biggest obstacle: Florida State
Biggest game: ACC Championship Game
What needs to happen: The way things have gone, Clemson is probably the team best positioned to take an October (or even November) loss and still make it to the playoff. The Tigers haven’t been all that sharp this season but if you look at their team, they’ve got the talent and are the overwhelming favorites to win the ACC. Even if they lose to FSU, they’re still in the driver’s seat for just about everything as long as they don’t lose again (and they host Pitt in their toughest game left after this Saturday’s trip to Tallahassee). One side note to think about though: staying perfect the rest of the way likely helps avoid being the No. 4 seed and facing a potential rematch with Alabama in a semifinal instead of the title game.
Biggest obstacle: Washington State
Biggest game: at Utah, Oct. 29
What needs to happen: Because of the weak non-conference schedule and the way the Pac-12 North has cratered, it would be wise for the Huskies to win out and leave no doubt as to which one of the best four teams is. Things typically don’t operate that way in the Pac-12 based on what we’ve seen over the years but if they did have to drop a game, the only one that would be “best” for them to do so and then still make the final four would be this upcoming week’s contest at Utah. Like Oregon two seasons ago, dropping one against the Utes could be made up for later in the year if they beat them in the conference title game. One nightmare scenario though? Washington State wins out until the Apple Cup and then beats their rivals from Seattle. That could knock Washington out of the playoff, the Pac-12 title game, and almost assuredly the Rose Bowl.
Biggest obstacle: Clemson
Biggest game: at Houston, Nov. 17
What needs to happen: Nobody suffered a bigger blow over the weekend than the Cardinals, which saw one of the few chances to get a marquee win likely take a hit when Houston lost again. Still, if Lamar Jackson and company were to go there and lay it on the Cougars, they still have a slim chance at cracking the playoff with some additional help. The best case is for FSU and, say, Pitt or Syracuse to surprise Clemson and give the Cardinals back the division lead. That seems remote though. They can make it tough on the committee by blowing out their remaining opponents and campaigning to say that a six-point loss on the road shouldn’t keep them out. Some additional chaos in the Big 12 (two-loss champion) and Pac-12 (Washington State winning the league) also would help their cause.
Biggest obstacle: Michigan
Biggest game: Michigan, Nov. 26
What needs to happen: Win out — and they certainly have the talent to — and the Buckeyes are still in a good position to make the playoff. It’s that simple. All of their toughest remaining games are in the Horseshoe and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Ohio State channels what Oklahoma did last year and goes on a tear after suffering its first unexpected loss.
Biggest obstacle: Wisconsin
Biggest game: at Ohio State, Nov. 5
What needs to happen: The Cornhuskers best win to this point is likely Northwestern, followed by Wyoming. That means the margin for error is thin if this is to be a Cinderella run to the playoff for Mike Riley’s team. Things start with Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, which the Cornhuskers could theoretically lose and still be able to run the table but is best to be avoided. The more likely scenario involves beating the Badgers, losing to Ohio State but beating Michigan in the Big Ten title game. If that were to happen, you’d have a hard time keeping Nebraska out even if everybody is still somewhat skeptical of the Huskers through two months.
Biggest obstacle: Oklahoma
Biggest game: at West Virginia, Dec. 3
What needs to happen: Thanks to an atrocious non-conference slate and general skepticism about a team that is much thinner than their recent scores suggest, the bottom line for the Bears is to win out. That’s the only path to the playoff and it’s been the only path for the team the past few years. Their schedule is severely back-loaded and trips to Oklahoma and West Virginia will all but assuredly decide the Big 12.
Biggest obstacle: Alabama
Biggest game: LSU, Nov. 24
What needs to happen: There’s a scenario that still seems somewhat viable that would have the Aggies make the playoff as the SEC’s second team but a whole lot of chaos would have to happen for it to play out. First they’d need for two-loss Washington State or even Colorado, Utah or USC to win the Pac-12. Then they need Oklahoma to win the Big 12 and it wouldn’t be all that bad if they suffered another loss while doing so. At this point, they can start comparing their resume to other one-loss teams like Louisville and the door could be cracked open just a bit. A lot of things would need to happen but it’s not completely unrealistic and seems a little more likely than Ohio State/Michigan both making the final four or a Clemson/Louisville combo doing the same.
Biggest obstacle: Oklahoma
Biggest game: Oklahoma, Nov. 19
What needs to happen: Keep winning and it is probably going to be hard for the committee to keep the Mountaineers out. Their non-conference slate is superior to other options like Washington and this might be the team outside of the Alabama/Michigan contingent that can claim the best balance between a good offense and great defense. They get both Big 12 contenders (Baylor/Oklahoma) at home but beware of that road trip to Iowa State sandwiched in there. But still, it seems like a win-out scenario is the best path for Dana Holgorsen’s squad.
Biggest obstacle: Tennessee
Biggest game: at LSU, Nov. 19
What needs to happen: Beat Alabama in the SEC title game. That’s the only scenario that can see Florida making it into the playoff and the Gators may even be able to sneak in with two losses too. The problem is they have lost to the only good team they’ve played and we won’t know how good they really are until Florida begins a gauntlet in November with some tough road trips.
Biggest obstacle: Colorado
Biggest game: Washington, Oct. 29
What needs to happen: Win out and hope for a little help, including having Cal get to a bowl game at the very least. The Utes have been decimated by injuries this season but they’re still 7-1 and have a chance to win the league. Things start this weekend by beating Washington, surviving the trip to Boulder and then preferably beating a Washington State team. One added carrot to winning as much as possible is even if the Utes were to win the Pac-12 South and lose to the Huskies twice over the next three months, a Rose Bowl bid could still be there for the taking.
Stat of the Week
Notre Dame, Michigan State and Iowa were 34-7 last season. They all have a nation-leading, three-game home losing streak, tied with bottom-feeders Kansas, Rutgers and five others. One of those “others” is Bowling Green, which won the MAC and had 10 wins last year, but won’t be bowl eligible after playing just eight games.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Leonard Fournette, LSU
Heisman Five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. Jake Browning (Washington), 3. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan), 4. Jeremy McNichols (Boise State), 5. Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech)
Team(s) of the Week: Penn State, SMU, Auburn
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the Week: Barry Odom, Missouri
Quote of the Week: “I respectfully decline to answer that at the risk of getting a public reprimand or fine.” — Mike Leach.
Play of the Week
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 9.
4. West Virginia
7. Texas A&M
8. Ohio State
14. Penn State
15. Boise State
Best of the rest: Florida State, Nebraska, Baylor, Navy, Virginia Tech, LSU, Washington State, Western Michigan, North Carolina
Clemson at Florida State
Deshuan Watson and the Tigers have not been sharp at all this season and needed a few lucky bounces to remain undefeated. They are coming off a bye week however and should be fired up to finally get another big win in this budding division rivalry game. The Seminoles have the overall talent and will be playing in a fun home environment but they probably don’t have the horses on defense to ultimately get the win.
Washington at Utah
This game has been circled by those who’ve followed the Huskies ever since they dispatched Stanford earlier this season. The environment should be fun in Salt Lake City and Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham is a master of coming up with a defensive game plan that can slow even the most potent of offenses. Washington is simply too balanced to leave with a loss but a closer than expected game could be in store.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Is Nebraska for real is a question we’ve had to wonder about as the team has started 7-0 but against a relatively weak slate of opponents. We seem to have a grip on Wisconsin, which has one of the best defenses in the country for sure and is starting to see its offense run the ball as expected. Both quarterbacks in this one are bound to make a few mistakes but it seems like the Badgers are best positioned to take advantage of them and grab the win at home.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.