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Seven-Step Drop: Playoff Field Narrows After Weekend of College Football Carnage

Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart

Carnage. Everywhere.

At least it felt that way heading into Sunday morning after a college football slate that will dredge up memories from a decade ago – of the weekly chaos that happened seemingly every Saturday back in 2007. Unlike that bizarre season that will forever go down in the sport’s lore for its wackiness, this time around we’re dealing with a postseason picture that involves four national title contenders instead of two.

But while the field has expanded, the results from this most recent weekend have only further served to narrow the options the College Football Playoff selection committee has to consider. So let’s break down the chase once again and who’s still got a chance to reach a semifinal and who needs just a little bit of help.

Leaders of the pack: Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame

It’s very simple for these three, win out and you’re in. If any of them lose though, all bets are off and it seems more likely than not that they’ll be left out. Yes, that might include the Crimson Tide too even if we all rightfully give them the benefit of the doubt.

Remember, Top 25 wins are always going to be a big deal in terms of making the playoff. The SEC does not help either the Tide or the Bulldogs in this regard and it seems to reason that Alabama could have just two (Mississippi State, Georgia) come Selection Sunday while UGA would not be much better with three (Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Alabama). When you factor in the potential loser in Atlanta wouldn’t have a conference title either, things could get dicey when looking at them vs. a potential one-loss Big 12 or ACC champ.

Still, those are questions to discuss down the road. For now, all three of these teams just need to keep playing like they have been and posting win after win.

In good position: Oklahoma, TCU, Clemson, Miami

The Tigers and Hurricanes will have a de facto play-in game in Charlotte during the ACC Championship Game if things shake out like they should (even if Miami loses to Notre Dame on Saturday). Oklahoma and TCU have strong enough resumes, especially the Sooners, that if either wins out they will almost certainly be in. Depending on how the final month goes in the Big 12, they also likely will have more Top 25 wins than their ACC counterparts and can avoid a trip to the Sugar Bowl against the SEC champion. That alone will be a big factor down the stretch.

It will be more interesting to compare the ACC and Big 12 champions to the loser of the SEC title game if such a scenario plays out but if that does indeed happen, don’t be shocked if both of these make it in thanks to that conference title they can hold over the runner-up of a weaker league.

Outside looking in: Wisconsin, Washington, Auburn

If anybody benefited most from the chaos of Week 10, it was the two UW’s who are still hovering on the fringes of the postseason debate but figure to remain in the conversation until the final weekend. The Badgers improbably moved to No. 3 in the Coaches Poll but nobody outside of the diehards in Madison (and even they’re realistic) believe this is one of the three best teams in the country.

That said, Paul Chryst does have a very good – and just as important, consistent – team. The Badgers win in the second half, they run the ball, they don’t turn it over, they play solid defense. The program has won 30 games in the past three seasons and if they wind up prevailing in Indianapolis to cap off a perfect run, they have every right to try their luck in the playoff.

As for the Huskies, the team has not looked anything close to last year’s edition that went to the Peach Bowl but there were some encouraging signs in their blowout of rival Oregon. Jake Browning threw some of his best passes in months against a solid Ducks defense and the offensive line/run game was impressive in a way they haven’t been since September. As you would expect from a Chris Petersen-coached team, execution is typically pretty high on a weekly basis and the defense remains one of the best groups west of the Mississippi.

The biggest obstacle for Washington is its thin margin for error is magnified by not having many good wins. The Huskies have beaten just one team that’s bowl eligible at the moment (Fresno State) and may wind up with just two Top 25 wins if they’re able to secure the Apple Cup against Washington State and then get some revenge against USC in the Pac-12 title game. Two good wins just won’t cut it when we’re talking about the final four and it’s not hard to see a two-loss Oklahoma or Notre Dame having a better resume (and pass the eye test) than the Huskies. Maybe they flip the switch and turn it on this month but there’s a reason they’re in a group that needs a lot of help.

Auburn remains a dark horse but if they can upset the top two teams in a three-week span to win the SEC, that should be more than enough to clear a path to a semifinal and enter the dance (however unlikely as it seems now).

All told, that’s 10 programs for four spots. You’d like to think that should be enough without the committee having to dip into the ranks of the two-loss teams and ignite a firestorm of debate over including an Ohio State, USC or UCF that simply wouldn’t have the quality wins to be in the conversation.

Don’t be shocked if the chaos we experienced this past weekend carries over into the upcoming Saturday, when there will be seven games involving two ranked teams and three matchups of top-10 teams on the slate. Teams to remember win in November and we’re seeing once again just how hard that is to do in college football. The playoff field has narrowed and will do so again after Saturday as we come to realize that sometimes four might just be the right number after all when it comes to determining the national champion at the end of the season.

A few other takeaways from a wild Saturday:

2. B1G time shakeup thanks to Ohio State

No conference experienced a more disappointing weekend than Jim Delany’s league as the Big Ten went from a trio of playoff contenders to possibly just one. While you could kind of see Michigan State’s upset of Penn State coming – the Nittany Lions on the road again after an emotional loss, the Spartans playing everybody close – what happened to Ohio State in Iowa was downright shocking. In fact, many Buckeyes probably moved on from shock to celebrating the comedy of the moment by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.

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While some may think that last year’s humiliating defeat to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal was the worst loss of Urban Meyer’s career, I still think it was this absolute no-show performance in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes had beaten OSU just three times in the past 30 years (though they obviously haven’t played every season) and entered the game as a 21-point home underdog. To not only lose but get run off the field was borderline unfathomable for a preseason No. 2 team that has the same amount of talent as Alabama, Georgia and Clemson.

J.T. Barrett went from playing nearly perfect at quarterback to turning the ball over at will. It really seemed like the Buckeyes went from playing a winnable game from behind to unravelling completely once DE Nick Bosa was ejected. OSU gave up 31 points in the first half and suffered just its second road loss under Meyer since he arrived in Columbus as a result. The fact that you didn’t even need to tune in for the second half said as much as anything.

Ohio State can still win the Big Ten East and, eventually, the conference with wins over the next few weeks (Buckeyes will be favored the rest of the way). But after yet another shocking loss – made even worse by the opponent and the final score – it’s hard to view 2017 as anything but a massive disappointment after all the stars were aligned for another national title run. While other programs in the Big Ten measure themselves in terms of conference championships, that’s not the case with the Buckeyes and that is only further underscored after that return home from Iowa.

3. Bedlam track meet

For those too young or who never played, Saturday’s edition of Bedlam was one of the closest games of actual college football that we’ve seen come close to replicating what it was like to play the NCAA Football video game on the freshman level settings (the other that comes to mind also involves Oklahoma last season). It was clear coming in that the offenses would control this one from the start and we’d be in store for a track meet but even the most veteran observers of the series had to be shocked at the lack of defense being played in what amounted to a 7-on-7 show in Stillwater.

Oklahoma Sooners QB Baker Mayfield

That said, there’s a reason for all of it because the offenses were just that good. The Sooners wound up with 785 yards and averaged 10.3 yards per play. The 114 points were a series record for the two rivals and QB Baker Mayfield shattered school records for both passing yards and total offense. It was a devastating blow to the Cowboys’ hopes of making it to the Big 12 title game and may end up being the difference in them sneaking into a New Year’s Six bowl as well.

What really struck me was just how routine it all felt, especially after OU recovered from some early mistakes in the shadow of their own end zone.

“Winning around here is expected. Winning against Oklahoma State is expected,” said Mayfield after the game.

He’s not wrong. While we like to think of this as one of the more competitive rivalries in college football that was Oklahoma’s 87th win in the series against just 18 losses to the Cowboys. OSU has won just two of the past 15 meetings and never pulled an upset of a higher ranked OU team during Bedlam. The Sooners are an incredible 15-1 if both sides are ranked so this isn’t completely a case of a dominant program beating up on an overmatched in-state rival either.

Mayfield and company will have no time to celebrate the victory and rest on their laurels however, as TCU comes to town for a potential Big 12 Championship Game preview. There should be a lot more defense being played in that one even if that means the game won’t be quite as fun and high scoring as Bedlam was.

4. SEC coaching changes

It’s looking more and more like a good year to be a coaching agent or a successful head coach of a Group of 5 school with SEC ties. That’s because it’s looking more and more like the SEC is going to making wide-scale changes across the league after another weekend of several teams falling on their faces.

Reports are already surfacing out of College Station that the thing everybody predicted – Texas A&M parting ways with Kevin Sumlin – will happen as soon as the season wraps up as even getting to 8-5 is starting to feel like a stretch following such a lackluster effort against Auburn. The Aggies will not be alone in making a change however and that was certainly reinforced on Saturday.

At Tennessee, Butch Jones further angered his fan base by burning the redshirt of Will McBride in what was otherwise a lost season that could at best end with a 6-6 mark going into a bowl game. Florida is of course already open, as is Ole Miss. The expectation around the industry is that Mississippi State will be open as the question is becoming where Dan Mullen departs to and not when. Plus, let’s just say that Arkansas needing a second straight fourth-quarter rally to beat a terrible team (now 1-8 Coastal Carolina) is likely going to be the extra push AD Jeff Long needs to finally sever ties with Bret Bielema.

That’s six openings and there’s always the potential for more due to performance (especially at Auburn in the home stretch) or other unforeseen circumstances (a surprise NFL poaching?). In what has been a wild year for the conference, things figure to look very different come Media Week in Hoover next year.

5. ACC collision course

As much as we make things out to be these epic, season-long quests to reach a conference title game, sometimes it just works out to where we get more of an NFL playoff-style march to a championship – especially as we enter the home stretch in November. Such has certainly been the case in the ACC, where we entered the week with four teams holding a realistic shot of winning the conference going into what amounted to a pair of semifinal games in Raleigh and Miami.

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Clemson still doesn’t look as sharp as it did earlier this season but the Tigers nevertheless managed to survive a late scare from NC State to escape with a solid road victory and basically lock up the Atlantic Division. The Tigers’ defense was uncharacteristically lax along their front and the lack of pressure at times allowed Ryan Finley to connect on a few big plays down the field. Also concerning was the running game, which featured a long Tavien Feaster gain but was otherwise held pretty in check outside of a few Kelly Bryant scampers.

Still, Dabo Swinney’s team will remain in the top five again this week and will likely be assured of a playoff spot if the defending national champs win out the rest of the way.

In the other half of the bracket, one has to take a step back and realize that Miami’s convincing victory over Virginia Tech should all but seal up the Hurricanes’ first division title since joining the league in 2004. While Mark Richt’s squad has been playing with fire the past month, the Hurricanes survived some turnovers Saturday night with a fast and physical defense and fed off the rare energy of the crowd to get some big plays and put this game away after controlling throughout.

There’s no question that Miami is lucky to be undefeated at this point in the year but it’s time to acknowledge that the ‘Canes are also good too. The combination of those two factors typically keeps a team in title contention and helps you win a lot of games too – as is the case for this ahead-of-schedule version of UM. In past years, people were quick to proclaim “The U” was back and then the team would fall flat in a big moment like on Saturday. In a pleasant surprise, the Hurricanes were not flat at all but ready for what was thrown at them by a very solid Hokies side that has both talent and coaching on their side.

It might not be quite the time to start buying tickets to conference title games but we’re getting very, very close in a number of leagues after this weekend’s results. While the Tigers may be experienced in making the trip up to Charlotte by now, it might be a little surreal to finally see Miami start making plans to join them after so many false starts over the years.

6. Comeback club

We’re entering the stretch where many teams around the country become bowl eligible as they reach that magic six-win mark on the season. While you can complain about how it doesn’t matter that much to some bigger schools or the fact that there’s too many bowl games, we’ve seen several programs get back to the postseason after posting a truly dreadful 2016 campaign. Case in point?

UAB is bowl eligible after blowing out Rice on Saturday despite the program not actually playing football the two years prior. Florida Atlantic (3-9), FIU (4-8), Fresno State (1-11), Virginia (2-10) and Marshall (3-9) were absolutely dreadful in 2016 and three of the programs made mid-season coaching changes. Now all will be in the postseason. Chad Morris’ SMU squad also will go to a bowl game for the first time since 2012 and for only the fifth time since 1985. Iowa State will be bowling for the first time since 2012 too.

It may be a routine at schools like Ohio State or USC or Alabama but in some places, hitting that magic number and getting an extra game in December does mean something. Kudos to all of the teams above on quite the comeback.

7. Cathartic victories

A final shoutout to Baylor, which blew out Kansas on the road for the program’s first win in just over a full year. The cathartic victory came after half a dozen agonizing chances this season and may be the Bears’ only shot at winning a game depending on what version of Texas Tech shows up in Arlington this Saturday. This has been a rougher season than anybody imagined in Matt Rhule’s first campaign but you can’t fault an overmatched team for giving up, as the Bears play others tougher than most major programs who gave up dreams of making a bowl game weeks ago.

Also a congrats goes out to Utah (ending a four-game skid by throttling UCLA), Eastern Michigan (an easy victory after six losses by one possession), Missouri (first three-game winning streak since the beginning of 2015) and Cincinnati (first road conference win in two years).

Stat(s) of the Week

Texas Tech is 1-26 when trailing at halftime under Kliff Kingsbury.

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

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Best player:Dante Pettis, Washington (New FBS record for punt return TDs)

Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Saquon Barkley (Penn State), 3. Josh Adams (Notre Dame) 4. Bryce Love (Stanford), 5. Khalil Tate (Arizona)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Notre Dame, 3. Oklahoma, 4. Clemson