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Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Paths Seem Crystal Clear After Wild Weekend

Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Paths Seem Crystal Clear After Wild Weekend

Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Paths Seem Crystal Clear After Wild Weekend

We entered this past weekend in college football with a confluence of events that delighted fans from coast-to-coast as a marquee slate of games featuring ranked teams was paired with the return of the remaining few conference holdouts to this pandemic-induced season. There were the rare sights of a 9 a.m. PT local time kickoff in an empty and soulless United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum combined with a cringe-worthy field storming in South Bend after the No. 1 team in the polls fell.

And "Mahalo" to our friends in the islands as we were gifted our first Hawaii home game of the year to push the college football Saturday time card past the 14-and-a-half-hour mark. It was billed as a big one and it delivered in so many glorious ways — somehow even fitting in seamlessly with some rather momentous news events across the country as well.

Combine the results of Week... uh, 10ish plus what's ahead on the immediate upcoming slate and we're entering a fascinating time on the calendar where we can start to feel a real concrete shift at play on the national landscape. The College Football Playoff and national title chase has mostly been theoretical and talked about with broad brushstrokes at this point, but it's safe to say that's no longer the case now. Barring something totally unforeseen — which, yeah, 2020 — the field of potential contenders for all four semifinal spots has been narrowed to an even more shortened short-list and the path each has to a trip to either the Rose or Sugar Bowls is pretty much set in stone.

What are they? Here's the rundown with just two more weeks until the Selection Committee goes under the hood for real and starts spitting out top 25s we'll all love to hate.

Team: Alabama (6-0)

The case: Nick Saban, a prolific offense and one of the truly elite rosters in college football keeps getting better and better.

What's behind them: Beat Texas A&M (52-24) and Georgia (41-24)

Landmines ahead: at LSU, vs. Auburn, at Arkansas, SEC title game

The path: It's pretty clear for the Tide, they can still lose once along the way and have a roughly 90 percent shot of making it into the final four. Taking a blemish to the schedule might hurt the overall perception of their ability to win the title but only two losses could keep them out of the CFP.

Team: Ohio State (3-0)

The case: Justin Fields looks like a Heisman front-runner and this might be the most complete team in the country with the elite talent to match.

What's behind them: Beat Penn State (38-25)

Landmines ahead: at Maryland, vs. Indiana, vs. Michigan, Big Ten title game

The path: Win and in. It's that simple for the Buckeyes, who look like locks to make it to the Rose Bowl at this point. They could potentially suffer a loss to anybody other than Indiana but the limited Big Ten schedule does make that margin for error shrink a bit. It's fair to question the competition level but this is a national title-caliber program that pushed to return to play for a reason.

Team: Notre Dame (7-0)

The case: Upper echelon program finally broke through with a marquee win unlike any other, solid across the board with a veteran group of players.

What's behind them: Beat Clemson (47-40, 2OT)

Landmines ahead: at Boston College, at North Carolina, ACC title game

The path: If the Irish make it to the ACC title game undefeated for a rematch with Clemson, that contest would turn into what might end up being a quarterfinal where the only thing at stake was not elimination but seeding for the next round. Getting to Charlotte unscathed would be massive for Brian Kelly as a result but, even if they do trip up, they'll have a win better than anybody in the country. Winning out also could help assure Notre Dame of missing the Alabama/Ohio State combo in the semifinals.

Team: Clemson (7-1)

The case: Star quarterback and a host of key defenders were out in a close, double-overtime loss on the road against a fellow playoff contender.

What's behind them: Beat Miami (42-17), lost to Notre Dame (47-40, 2OT)

Landmines ahead: vs. Pitt, ACC title game

The path: Simple: win out. Dabo Swinney and company have been in almost this exact same scenario before when in 2017 they went on the road to Syracuse and lost with their backup signal-caller. The committee basically gave them a free pass and that will likely be the case again in 2020. It does eliminate the margin for error in their final four games though so Trevor Lawrence will need to start a new winning streak upon his full return.

Outside looking in:

Team: Texas A&M (5-1)

The case: The second-best team in the SEC? Seems like it with a veteran group finally playing to the level their title-winning coach expects.

What's behind them: Lost to Alabama (52-24), beat Florida (41-38) and Arkansas (42-31)

Landmines ahead: vs. LSU, at Auburn

The path: Win out with just one loss, keep building momentum as conference play continues and hope for a little chaos. Will need Notre Dame winning out too so that Clemson has two losses.

Team: Florida

The case: Close road loss to a good team, one of the best offenses in the country and quality wins.

What's behind them: Loss to Texas A&M (41-38), beat Georgia (44-28)

Landmines ahead: vs. Arkansas, vs. LSU

The path: Win out and become SEC champions. The Gators are hurt by the fact that they have a head-to-head loss to fellow SEC contender Texas A&M but the opening is still there if they can use the next month to prepare to face Alabama in Atlanta.

Need lots of help:

Team: Cincinnati

The case: AAC is not unlike this year's edition of the Big 12, Big Ten, ACC (minus Clemson/Notre Dame), Pac-12, etc. and they have the combination of a super salty top notch defense with a dynamic offense that can beat you a lot of different ways.

What's behind them: Beat Army (24-10), SMU (42-13), Memphis (49-10), Houston (38-10)

Landmines ahead: at UCF, at Tulsa

The path: Need SMU, Tulsa and UCF to keep winning and rise in the rankings, hope for Alabama/Ohio State/Notre Dame to win out while Texas A&M and the Pac-12 champion take another loss. They have it better than BYU due to strength of schedule but it's still a tough path.

Team: BYU

The case: Likely undefeated, star Heisman-caliber quarterback, good defense and guys in the trenches to match up with bigger names.

What's behind them: Beat Houston (43-26) and Boise State (51-17)

Landmines ahead: vs. San Diego State

The path: The Cougars were hurt the most by Notre Dame's upset of Clemson as that narrowed their ability to sneak into the final four. They'll have to hope Boise State runs the table the rest of the way to win the Mountain West and maybe they can schedule a last-second game against Liberty, Army or somebody else to help boost the schedule. They remain a long shot to make the playoff but can still win out and be assured of a New Year's Six game.

Team: Oregon/USC

The case: Potential undefeated Power 5 champion with plenty of talent

What's behind them: USC opened with a comeback win over Arizona State, Oregon ran wild over Stanford

Landmines ahead: The Trojans' most difficult game is out of the way but they do travel to Utah in a few weeks. The Ducks have a tricky trip to Berkeley followed by a game against rival Washington.

The path: Win out convincingly, hope for the top three to do the same, and have Florida/Texas A&M take additional losses. The Ducks/Trojans will have to state their case they're better than the Bearcats/Cougars are despite the shortened schedule but being in a Power 5 league can result in a bump.

So there you have it, 10 contenders for four spots and each one has a pretty clear path to the CFP. Four teams essentially control their own destiny when it comes to the final four while a few others need some help the rest of November/early December. This disjointed season has thankfully taken a bit of a spotlight off the national title race to focus on more local matters but after this past Saturday at least, it seems the attention can start to turn toward the ever-important postseason in a meaningful way now.

Here are six other thoughts from the weekend in college football:

2. Notre Dame's win in the long term

Speaking of South Bend, credit to Brian Kelly's attitude and belief in his Fighting Irish team in getting the job done. While we all know that coaches are optimistic publicly about their chances each and every week, there was something different in the way Kelly approached this season and this game in particular.

Was it supremely confident? Yes, almost to the point of being brash. That was slightly out of character on this kind of stage but was also refreshing. More notably, his squad backed him up by getting the job done between the lines. You couldn't help but be impressed that the head coach had even reminded his team beforehand to get off the field quickly after they secured the victory because he thought fans would storm the sidelines.

There's being present and being prescient and Kelly appeared to be both following the 47-40 outcome.

"With COVID being as it is, we've got to get off the field and get to the tunnel," the head coach told reporters postgame. "Now I beat 'em all to the tunnel. So that didn't go over so good, but they reminded me that I did tell them that, so my skills of prognostication were pretty good today."

As mentioned above, the win doesn't change the outlook for Notre Dame all that much in terms of their playoff or even ACC title path. Despite that, it was truly meaningful for the simple matter of proving to others that the program Kelly has continually been building can truly beat another elite team. They snapped a 36-game regular-season win streak — that's meaningful. They beat one of their recent boogeymen in Clemson — that's meaningful. They showed they had athletes on both sides of the ball that were not out of place for a game that big — also, you guessed it, meaningful.

Maybe just as big for Kelly was it reaffirmed he's still the guy in South Bend after skepticism kept creeping into the fan base after so many close calls in similar spots over the years.

Ever a perfectionist, Kelly and his coaching staff will need to get the team refocused in a tricky spot against Boston College next week while knowing they'll have to be better in a potential rematch with the Tigers. You can't give up that many passing yards (as in the most ever at the storied institution) and expect to win a second time around. And it says plenty that the game was even in overtime despite Clemson missing so many starters. Ian Book turned in his best outing in an Irish uniform and remains underrated over his career arc yet still has room to grow and raise his ceiling in these big-time games (as that fumble into the end zone indicated).

That win against Clemson will be brought up for years to come inside and outside the program but fixing those minor issues down the stretch in 2020 will go a long way to seeing just how meaningful it was in the long run — something a forward-focused coach like Kelly will have no need to predict.

3. USC's delayed arrival helps "Big Noon" Pac-12 debut

The Pac-12 finally (finally!) got going on Saturday and it was every bit as strange and weird as you would expect in the year 2020.

And then the games got started and delivered us some fascinating finishes and a few improbable outcomes.

You can start in Los Angeles where the momentum the "Big Noon" debut on FOX for USC and Arizona State was supposed to generate for the league was spoiled somewhat by election news and the network's pre-game hype machine getting sidelined due to contract tracing. That aside, it was still something that the bosses in San Francisco have to be happy about from the 1,000-foot view even if it did need a miraculous finish from the home team and rare playoff contender to secure a win in the end.

Make no mistake about it, this was a sloppy game but not a sleepy one — perhaps expected given the body-clock issues combined with a lack of practice most of this fall. The Trojans seemed lifeless for the most part and really showed no sense of urgency for about three quarters in a must-win game for their division, conference and national hopes. But in rather improbable fashion Clay Helton's team flipped the switch by utilizing the big play to great effect — something the Sun Devils seemed to have no recourse for as the clock ticked down. The tip-drill touchdown to Bru McCoy sparked the comeback, complete with a miraculous onside kick recovery and then another fourth-down conversion for a score to football and basketball player Drake London, who was excellent. Not like how the coaching staff drew it up but what more can you say other than it worked out in the end.

All told USC converted five fourth downs (four in the four quarter). Over 12 games last year, they managed just six such conversions on 10 attempts. That is wild and a credit to their overall resiliency even if maybe they shouldn't have been in that spot with the talent disparity at hand. The performance won't quiet the skeptics of the USC head coach one iota as penalties, turnovers and a dreadful short-yardage run game all stood out. But they found a way and caught a couple of lucky breaks, to say nothing of taking advantage of a tired ASU defense down the stretch that also was a bit banged up.

The Trojans may need style points to make it to the playoff but at this point, a win is a win for a team that had to overcome a lot to even play. We'll see if they can look a little crisper next time out but their most threatening opponent appears to be behind them.

Elsewhere in the self-proclaimed conference of champions (in sports other than football), Karl Dorrell beat his alma mater and old coaching stop during his debut at Colorado, Washington State appears to have found themselves a fun QB to build around in true freshman Jayden de Laura and Oregon fans have to be lamenting Joe Moorhead wasn't the OC last season after a stellar first game running around Stanford in primetime.

It's good to see the sport return to the West Coast as this unpredictably crazy year rolls on with the final puzzle piece.

4. Insane ending keeps Liberty's momentum rolling in Blacksburg

College football has produced some truly incredible endings over the years but it is still hard to fathom what happened in Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon as Liberty and Virginia Tech showed how thin the line is between good and lucky.

The two teams played each other pretty close most of the afternoon and as things got even tighter, remarkably saw the two trading TDs down the stretch — almost allowing each other to score so they could each get the ball back.

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Eventually though, the Flames got into position for a very long 59-yard field goal attempt for the win. In a manner that could only happen in CFB, the kick was blocked and returned for a touchdown by the Hokies. Shouts of "Beamer Ball" rang throughout the country and pandemonium set in on the sidelines.

Except on the box score, it never happened. Justin Fuente had called a timeout to ice the kicker (ironically telling reporters he wanted a different FG block team on) and takes the score off the board. Liberty ran another play with a few seconds left and VT's prevent defense allowed an easy short pass to set up an even shorter field goal. Flames kicker Alex Barbir calmly nailed the 51-yarder to secure the win and first 7-0 start in school history, leaving the Hokies stunned and wondering how everything wound up transpiring in the first place.

Virginia Tech has been no stranger in allowing regional opponents some marquee wins (see Old Dominion two years ago and James Madison a decade ago) but this might have been even worse given those events in the final 10 seconds of a game that could well have lingering effects on a program that simply hasn't been as mentally fortified as they once were — jarring inconsistency from week-to-week that has fit right into the ACC Coastal lately but has been unwelcome to a program that once went eight straight years with double-digit wins.

The coaching carousel aspect of this particular outcome is pretty fascinating too. Fuente has never quite been fully embraced by the fan base since taking over for Frank Beamer and been fairly meddling aside from a division title during his first year in Blacksburg. If winning the topsy-turvy Coastal was set as the bar as a result of that debut, he's not come particularly close to clearing it recently and has regressed with more of his recruits on board. Add in the bad taste in many fans/administrators' mouths after a somewhat open flirtation with the Baylor job last year and you can see why there's a bit of an increasing simmer under his seat. Days like Saturday — not just losing to Liberty but losing in that fashion — only add a douse of lighter fluid to the fire.

Complicating things is Fuente's buyout being roughly $12.5 million according to USA Today (plus a little more for assistants, etc.). Given COVID-19's impact on finances that might be untenable in today's market. But college football has a healthy way of reminding you that fans of programs — especially those as passionate as Virginia Tech's — will sometimes be irrational when it comes to numbers like that and it just takes one or two boosters with the deep pockets to help write the big check.

After all, it was not long ago that UCLA ponied up roughly the same amount to oust Jim Mora from a similar spot and the Bruins are in even worse shape financially than the Hokies. All of which is to say: keep an eye on things even if nothing is likely to pass.

As for Freeze, he is undoubtedly in a good spot as part of this image rehab. At least publicly, his stock has never been higher since he left Ole Miss and his name has already popped up among the media and fans from Southern Miss to the SEC and beyond. There are two issues at hand however, the first being that his past will simply be too much for most schools to be comfortable with beyond the initial background check. A few rabid boosters may push to bring him in but most level-headed athletic directors will balk at taking on the PR hits when more suitable options exist.

The second may be money, with Freeze reportedly in the range of $2 million per year. While his buyout is unknown, that figure is still one of the better paid Group of 5 gigs in the country and not at all far from what lower-level Group of 5 gigs are at (especially if this year's undefeated record is leveraged into a raise). An SEC program plucking him remains far-fetched and he's in a good enough place where he can be picky about a next step. Taking a pay cut to take over a Conference USA or Sun Belt program doesn't make much sense and he may simply be boxed in with other aspects elsewhere.

Still, that won't prevent Freeze's name from popping up in connection with every opening after delivering a program-defining win that won't ever be forgotten by the Flames and Hokies alike.

5. Michigan, Penn State hit new lows

We're just three weeks into the Big Ten season yet it might be safe to say that three major storylines have developed already that are defining the East division — now and perhaps years to come. You can start with Ohio State's flirtations with perfection and the hardware they're chasing though that's far from the sexiest of items to focus on.

No, the other two have the common thread of Indiana — now ranked in the top 10 no less — being exceptional and how down on their luck the twin blue bloods of Michigan and Penn State are.

You can start with the Hoosiers, who may have solidified themselves as the second-best team in the league after this hot start. While Michael Penix Jr. gets most of the love as the starting quarterback, he's far from alone in helping contribute to the real big red machine in the Midwest. Whop Philyor was familiar to plenty to plenty of Big Ten fans based on his name alone but he suddenly has a budding running made in senior Ty Fryfogle (142 yards, TD on Saturday). The receiving corps was just abusing Michigan's corners for most of the day and tailback Stevie Scott III was quite the closing statement in the second half with his two short touchdown runs.

But let's face it, as good a story as IU is, so too is the sudden downfall of Michigan. After a debut that could not have been scripted any better, Jim Harbaugh now finds himself in the middle of a full-blown rebuild — both of talent and confidence. The same will be said at Penn State with James Franklin. While many words have already been spilled about the state of each of their programs, Saturday was a low point for both and they still don't have any let-up in the upcoming slate either.

Plus, if there's one thing 2020 on the whole has taught us, it's that things can always get worse. Given the records being what they are and how there's not really much of anything left to play for, it wouldn't be shocking to see that each coach's biggest remaining challenge is not the opponents on the field, but inside their own locker room as they try to keep convincing their own players to keep giving it their all.

Not exactly where either thought they would be in January, August, or even October.

6. Cocktail Party turns blue

Dan Mullen was hired at Florida largely as a result for his ability to perform some offensive wizardry and put up points to delight a fickle fan base. On this front, he has done that in spades, turning the Gators into one of the more prolific units in the country and developing not one but two Heisman Trophy candidates in Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts.

Despite positive steps in this turnaround experiment, there was still the manner of getting over the hump in the SEC East against the recruiting juggernaut that Georgia has become under Kirby Smart. On Saturday we got at least a temporary answer that Mullen could get the job done in a fashion that was particularly on-brand: a good offense beat a good (but safe to say not great) defense.

The 44-28 final score really doesn't even convey just how far in control Florida was most of the afternoon in Jacksonville. There were big plays galore from Trask and company to complement a Todd Grantham defensive effort that was sure to inspire confidence after how they looked in previous outings. The signal-caller became the first in league history to throw four (or more) TDs in five straight games and the group overall might be Alabama's greatest challenge in the SEC.

That said, was this a byproduct of the Bulldogs' lack of a quarterback or a potential changing of the guard?

It may well be too soon to say but Mullen has yet to elevate the program into the upper echelon of recruiting machines you need to be at if your aspirations are beyond division titles (which at UF, they clearly are). That hasn't exactly been the head coach's normal game since he's so good at development but that is one department that could lead you to pause slightly at this being a canary in the cocktail party-type of win and think it's a long-term shift in the rivalry. Georgia will figure out their QB situation at some point and pairing that with an elite roster will be hard to beat if the Gators don't have the firepower to match.

Still, getting over the hump and knocking off the Bulldogs this season for the first time in charge is a good start for what is suddenly becoming a team with quite the swagger from the head coach on down.

7. Friday night lights

While the bulk of the major action happened on Saturday, there was some fun under the lights on Friday night too.

You can start in Raleigh, which upstaged the later game out West in terms of fireworks in a fun one between NC State and Miami. The teams traded scores for much of the first three quarters before Christopher Dunn nailed a 53-yard field goal to give the Wolfpack a double-digit fourth-quarter lead.

But as fans of the program know all too well, that was really just playing with fire for Dave Doeren's crew and despite momentum firmly on their side, things ended predictably down the stretch. Following Dunn's… interesting celebration, State's defense preceded to give up three scoring drives while their offense was planted firmly in reverse: eight plays, six yards, one turnover and one tough blown lead.

Of course, D'Eriq King had a lot to do with that as well with the dual-threat quarterback truly carrying the team on his back in impressive fashion (he was responsible for 86 percent of their total yardage and all of their touchdowns. He was so good that he put together a stat line that has only been done five other times in the past two decades. In fact, the last player to throw for 400-plus yards, five touchdowns plus rush for 100-plus yards like King did tonight for Miami? That would be…. D'Eriq King while playing for Houston against USF in 2018.

The result was enough to keep the Hurricanes in the thick of the ACC title game race and may have been enough to secure a New Year's Six bowl if they can avoid a face plant against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Wake or North Carolina the rest of the way. One shudders to think where they'd be without their transfer QB but here they are, lending credence that the U is back on the right path.

A few time zones over, BYU-Boise State garnered a lot of hype for the showdown on the blue turf but turned out to be somewhat of a dud. Much of that likely was the result of the Broncos' offense not quite being at full strength. Normal starter Hank Bachmeier was out again and backup Jack Sears was knocked out due to concussion protocol after a QB sneak just minutes into the game. That put a lot of extra pressure on third-stringer Cade Fennegan, who was so-so against a good defense and certainly not to the level you need to pull off an upset like that.

More to the point, the outcome is meaningful for both teams in the larger picture. For BYU of course, it was a prime opportunity to keep Zach Wilson's Heisman campaign going strong against little competition (359 passing yards, three total touchdowns) while at least adding a marquee name to their list of pelts on the wall this season. Having blowout wins against a potential Mountain West champ may not help truly elevate the Cougars into the playoff discussion but it sure does solidify their chance at making it to the New Year's Six.