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Seven-Step Drop: The SEC and Cincinnati are Doing Their Part to Help Push College Football Playoff Expansion Along

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati Bearcats Football

Desmond Ridder and Cincinnati made a massive statement on the field in beating Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday

Getting caught up in the excitement and euphoria of each college football Saturday can make even the most veteran of fans, media members and coaches a bit myopic. That rush one gets from a wild upset or seeing the Top 25 littered with teams taking surprise losses often centers the focus on what just happened.

But this sport very much lives by the mantra that it’s a marathon and not a weekly sprint. Camp begins as early as July, the season starts in August and the whole thing wraps up in January. Folks on the sidelines often mark the transition between phases of the weekly calendar by going from shorts to jackets to parkas in certain sections of the country.

In the past few years however we have also come to be conditioned that once the action is over, each week is a referendum on the College Football Playoff. Somebody is in, somebody is out and the focus remains not on the joy that the hours of games bring us but who is going to make the final four — a platform obtainable by only a literal handful of programs in a sport that sees 130 play at this level.

Week 5’s final score lines and a confluence of factors nationally seemed to bring much of this to a head and allow for the results in the moment to perhaps affect the much larger issues down the road.

Last Tuesday saw the CFP Management Committee (i.e. conference commissioners) and Board of Managers (i.e. the presidents) meet in Chicago. Not long ago many expected this meeting to result in a rubber stamp of approval on postseason expansion to 12 teams. That was far from what ended up happening — with leadership channeling Lee Corso and yelling, "Not so fast." Instead, the word out of an airport hotel conference room and subsequent Zoom meeting was mostly that we’re entering a phase of purgatory after a vote wasn’t even scheduled.

Much of this has to do with the SEC’s poaching of Oklahoma and Texas, sending another shockwave of realignment that has seen upheaval at the Group of 5/Big 12 level. The grand Alliance between the ACC/Big Ten/Pac-12 wants to be seen as doing something so they’re trumpeting the talking point of needing extra time to consider all ramifications after not being invited to the drawing board.

Make no mistake, the issue of broadcast partners beyond ESPN is a very pressing hurdle to overcome but one that remains solvable. The format and deciding where and when quarterfinals and semifinals are played can also be hashed out soon enough. Yet here we are in limbo.

“We have time,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock told the Associated Press. “Because if the event is going to change before the end of the term, into the 12 years, we have three or four months. If it’s going to change in year 13, then we have a couple of years. So, we have the luxury of time.”

Except maybe some of the conferences don’t have much time at all thanks to the way the 2021 season has unfolded in just five weeks.

Look just at the contenders for those precious four spots. Alabama is, well, Alabama despite the loss of another cadre of NFL talent that barely seemed to make a difference in dismantling a top-10 foe in Ole Miss at home. Georgia has broken perennial power Clemson already and may have done the same to Arkansas after that dominant shutout between the hedges.

The rest of the SEC pack chasing them don’t appear like they’ll put up much of a fight either — Florida lost to Kentucky, LSU and Texas A&M both sport multiple losses and Auburn recently had to fend off a middling Sun Belt team — so you would be forgiven if you think this is all just a bunch of fluff the next few months before actualizing this year’s destiny of a pair of meetings between the Tide and Bulldogs in both Atlanta and Indianapolis.

When two SEC teams met in the 2012 title game, it wound up as the accelerant needed to get us an actual playoff. Bama’s memorable walk-off against UGA in 2018 gave life to expanding beyond four sooner rather than later. Could a third time be the charm needed to get us to 12 by the end of the year?

Don’t discount leadership in college football doing the unwise thing given their penchant for doing so but maybe this time around the thought of Greg Sankey’s smirk on Selection Sunday will be just the motivator needed for holdouts to vote yes on 12 for the 2023 season and not have us wait around further.

We’re also blessed with a bonafide Group of 5 contender too thanks to Cincinnati winning (and covering) in South Bend. Even if Notre Dame doesn’t quite look like a national power, the symbolism of that 24-13 victory will be worth the weight of a golden dome for the Bearcats when you stack it on a resume that includes another Power 5 road win at Indiana and the momentum from last year’s campaign that saw them go toe-to-toe with Georgia.

SMU could be tricky for Luke Fickell’s crew but the path to an undefeated run is there for the taking and UC gets the benefit of starting the year with perception running as high as ever for a Group of 5 contender.

That’s a trio unlike one we’ve seen in the playoff era and one that would rightfully apply pressure to those left out. The Pac-12, who saw flag-bearers Oregon and UCLA both lose, can’t risk perception falling further at another three seasons being removed from the national conversation. Clemson’s failings have left the ACC all but assuredly sitting at home for the semis. The Big 12, ironically enough, might not have enough offensive punch in the state of Oklahoma and beyond to hold up over the course of 12 weekends. The Big Ten has a clear path and a plethora of contenders — all of which are severely flawed on one side of the ball or the other.

The commissioners in charge of these leagues are supposed to look at the broader picture when it comes to this entire playoff expansion process but quibbling over minor details is becoming increasingly untenable in the face of events on the field. It was always going to be a tough sell to announce a new format and then wait around several years. The results this weekend and the prospect of four Power 5 leagues fighting over one spot is not the kind any of these commissioners want to be in.

So perhaps expansion proponents should all be sending a thank-you note to Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Luke Fickell this week for their efforts in speeding things along and injecting a sense of urgency that we haven’t seen since the prospect of a 12-team playoff was first broached. If the leagues holding up the process don’t want to keep sitting out in the cold this winter and beyond, perhaps they’ll be changing their tune soon when it comes to giving the sport the postseason structure it badly needs.

Seven Up This Week

— Mark Stoops continues to elevate football in Lexington
It’s time to talk to your kids about undefeated Kentucky, which continues to see the program take step after step in elevating the level of play on the gridiron at a school whose primary focus remains basketball. In the 33 years before Stoops arrived, the Wildcats notched just one win against Florida. Now he’s won two of the last four meetings and emerged victorious in Gainesville and Lexington for the first time by a UK coach since the 1970s. It hasn’t always been pretty — slugfest is an apt descriptor — but this group plays tough defense, is solid on special teams and is finally starting to break out of their shell offensively with timely big plays. The SEC East looks like a grab bag after Georgia but Kentucky has taken the biggest step yet to be labeled second-best.

— Spencer Rattler bounces back
We’ve been waiting for the Oklahoma quarterback to look more like he did during last season’s closing stretch and it seemed like he finally did against Kansas State. The stat line wasn’t anything miraculous (243 yards, 2 TDs) but it was Rattler’s command of the game while OU had the ball that stood out, especially given the hostile environment in the Little Apple and a pretty feisty Wildcats defense. The run game also got going a bit more than it has been and perhaps we’re starting to see the offensive line gel a bit more. It was by no means an overall effort that will make Lincoln Riley uber-confident going into next week’s showdown against Texas but this just might be the most balanced Sooners team we’ve seen in the last few years.

— Pitt’s offense leading Panthers' resurgence
Anytime you pass Dan Marino in the record book, you’re doing something right. Kenny Pickett is doing just that at Pitt so far this season, moving past the Hall of Famer on Saturday by throwing the most TD passes in a three-game span in school history. The senior is second in FBS passing efficiency and touchdowns while the Panthers lead the country in scoring at 52.4 ppg. That WMU loss looks more and more bizarre with each passing week, doesn’t it? Given what’s happened elsewhere in the ACC, this just might be the Coastal favorites and it seems like anything can and will happen in Charlotte. Thanks to Pickett, who had one of Sam Howell/D.J. Uiagalelei missing out on an All-ACC berth in the preseason?

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— Josh Heupel gives Vols entertainment, hope, and a big road win
Tennessee fans who were lukewarm about the hire of Heupel could at least take solace that this team would be far more entertaining than past editions. Depth will still be a pressing issue in 2021 but at least there would be offense enough to make it worth tuning in. Well, that was certainly the case against Missouri when UT was stopped just once all day. The Vols scored 41-plus points only once in SEC play under Jeremy Pruitt (vs. Vanderbilt). By halftime of his second game in the SEC, Heupel had matched it. In fact, he matched the same number of 60-plus-point SEC games as the previous four coaches combined.

— Bo Nix goes full Bo Nix vs. LSU
LSU-Auburn has been a strangely mesmerizing series that has often defined the season trajectory for either side. Coaches have been fired after Tigers vs. Tigers and hot seats have been lit aflame if they weren’t. No matter what, it seems like each contest has some sort of strange, improbable highlight that makes you go, “wut?” LSU had won the last 10 meetings vs. Auburn in Death Valley but that streak was no more as Nix gave us all quite the experience in notching AU’s first win in Baton Rouge since 1999.

While that was a massive win for Bryan Harsin in his first year on the Plains, the flip side is it almost completely cemented Ed Orgeron’s status as Gene Chizik redux. Coach O delivered one of the most magical championship seasons ever but he’s 8-7 since with a string of bad coordinator hires.

— Iowa’s defense is the real deal
Poor Taulia Tagovailoa. The Maryland QB tried to keep a positive face on Friday night but kept running into the buzz saw that was the Hawkeyes defense, which picked him off five times. The second quarter was about as good of a quarter as a football team can have (31-0 Iowa in the frame) and it doesn’t really matter how much you nitpick the offense if head coach Kirk Ferentz is getting that kind of production from the other end. The schedule is about to ramp up considerably and plus-12 is a turnover margin that’s probably unsustainable but this start has been magical in Iowa City.

— Sickos Game of the Week delivers between UConn and Vanderbilt
Triple-icing timeouts before the game-winning field goal, an incredible UConn fourth-down conversion between two defenders, five fourth-quarter scores, two lead changes under two minutes to go… did any game between two bad teams deliver quite like that one in Nashville did? The crushing loss for the Huskies does have one silver lining: the Sickos Game of the Week travels with them to Amherst next week for their meeting with 0-5 UMass.

Seven Down This Week

— Mario Cristobal’s late-game management surfaces again
Oregon isn’t completely dead when it comes to making the College Football Playoff and the committee will surely be forgiving of that Stanford loss considering the Ducks were without their offensive coordinator, starting center plus their star running back for a key stretch. But it was how UO lost that once again calls into question Cristobal’s game management skills in a close fourth quarter. His team led by a touchdown with seven minutes to go and lost to a team that was far less talented despite chance after chance. Fans in green and yellow will cry bloody murder about the bad officiating (it certainly was) but Oregon never should have been in the position to give up three drive-extending penalties to the Cardinal on their march to the end zone to force OT.

Yet they were and once again Cristobal is coming under fire for the way he’s closed out games. The Ducks gave up 22 points in the final quarter to Oregon State and were scoreless in the second half against Cal in losses last year. The year prior they blew a 21-6 lead against Auburn. In the head coach’s first big test, they blew a big lead and eventually lost at home in OT to Stanford on national TV. Not the best of looks for somebody who has recruited like a mad man but has not squared away a few things on the field when things get tight.

— Mizzou defense is offensive
Eli Drinkwitz earns a lot of praise for the way he can dial things up with his play-calling but it sure looks like he’s whiffed on figuring out the defense in Columbia. Hiring Steve Wilks was a big name to bring in but bringing in an NFL guy like that also can backfire when it comes to recruiting the right fits and dealing with the diversity of offenses in CFB. The Tigers fired DL coach Jethro Franklin on Sunday but that’s just a move one makes after giving up 62 points and you need to send an external message. The team is No. 122 in scoring defense so far this season and they haven’t even faced four of the best teams on their slate. Not great.

— Memphis hits reverse
Speaking of Tigers, Memphis is having their own issues to deal with as AAC play ramps up. Following their controversial win over Mississippi State, Ryan Silverfield’s unit has blown a three-touchdown lead and lost at home to UTSA and then were largely outclassed by league bottom-dweller Temple. It’s enough to lead some to start throwing out suggestions that Hugh Freeze would fit in nicely at the school and judging how the administration dealt with their NCAA basketball cases, that kind of hire and attitude does seem like it’s up their alley.

— Clock strikes midnight on Indiana
The poor Hoosiers’ glass slipper has fully broken off after being shut out by Penn State on Saturday. While that meeting with the Nittany Lions a year ago largely sent each program in opposite directions, it’s clear by now that IU has regressed back into the kind of team we’re used to seeing. The offense remains a mess and it sure seems like Michael Penix Jr. getting hurt was just a cherry on top of that punt-fest in State College. While most expected a return to Earth in 2021, this has been a tough to watch for Hoosiers everywhere after creating all those magical moments a year ago.

— Jimbo Fisher not worth a pretty penny
It might not be quite accurate to say that Texas A&M is one of the most disappointing teams in college football just yet but the Aggies are sure on their way. Yes, it’s bad luck to see your starting quarterback go down but we’ve been hearing for some time about how depth and overall talent level is the best it’s ever been in College Station. Apparently not as Jimbo Fisher’s contract extension that nobody would advocate for looks even worse in retrospect after a 0-2 start to SEC play with Alabama looming. Was there really somebody that was going to beat down Fisher’s door after one good year in maroon and white? The answer is no, even as much as some wanted to connect dots to Scott Woodward being the AD at LSU and growing signs of a change in Baton Rouge. Now the school is on the hook for $95 million over next decade for a coach who isn’t changing his offense with the times.

— Miami boots Manny Diaz onto the hot seat
Playing with your third-string quarterback against any Power 5 opponent is going to make things tough but Miami shanking a field goal to blow what could have been a nice comeback against Virginia hurts a little extra for Diaz. The Hurricanes are now 2-3 and haven’t looked great at all against any Power 5 competition. Diaz is in his third season at The U but 16-13 overall with too many no-shows by his team that have highlighted the fan base’s angst. It’s not just the coaching staff that has come under fire the past week either, as the administration is taking significant heat too. Given the deluge of former players who air grievances after every loss and the current state of affairs in Coral Gables does not appear to be an environment conducive for turning things around. The school would have to raise a lot of money to make a change but even if we don’t reach that point, it seems like Diaz will have this situation hanging over his head for the rest of 2021.

— Barry Alavrez’ big day gets ruined
Saturday was supposed to be a celebration at Camp Randall as the school welcomed back the former head coach/AD to name the field after the man responsible for the Badgers being a banner of consistency. Instead, the Wisconsin team on said field put up a performance that was not unlike one from the pre-Alvarez days. Graham Mertz had another rough outing before being injured and the offensive line and run game looks unlike anything we’ve seen in Madison for years. Michigan winning at Camp Randall for the first time since 2001 was massive for Jim Harbaugh but quite the downer for fans that just wanted to jump around and jump start a reversal of fortunes amid this 1-3 start.

Tweet of the Week

Play of the Week

Stat of the Week

Make It Make Sense Item of the Week

Minnesota loses to Bowling Green, one of the worst teams in the country the past few years and one picked to finish last in the MAC, then turns around and beats Purdue 20-13. The boat seems like it’s rowing with one oar.

No Really, Make It Make Sense

The middle class of the AAC had a wild one. As mentioned above, Memphis was knocked off by Temple, Tulane was thrashed by East Carolina and Tulsa was uncompetitive against Houston just two weeks removed from pushing Ohio State. Then there’s UCF, which blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead to a previously winless Navy team that fired and rehired their OC recently. Who the heck knows at this point what the rest of the year holds.

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: Alabama RB Brian Robinson
Team of the Week: Kentucky
Goat of the Week: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Heisman Five: 1. Bijan Robinson (Texas), 2. Bryce Young (Alabama), 3. Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State), 4. Matt Corrall (Ole Miss), 5. Drake London (USC)
Projected Playoff: 1. Alabama, 2. Georgia, 3. Penn State, 4. Cincinnati
Projected New Year’s Six: Orange Bowl — Alabama vs. Cincinnati, Cotton Bowl — Georgia vs. Penn State, Rose Bowl — Oregon vs. Iowa, Sugar Bowl — Ole Miss vs. Texas, Fiesta Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Ohio State, Peach Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

The Super 16

Here’s my ballot in this week’s FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

1. Alabama
2. Georgia
3. Penn State
4. Iowa
5. Cincinnati
6. Oklahoma
7. Ole Miss
8. BYU
9. Arkansas
10. Texas
11. Kentucky
12. Michigan State
13. Michigan
14. Ohio State
15. Coastal Carolina
16. Oklahoma State

Pre-Snap Reads

Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas)
Do we really know anything about these teams at this point in the year? Each has plenty of talent relative to their Big 12 peers and some of the best play-callers in the game at head coach. OU’s defense has been stellar and UT has been terrific since making the change at QB in the wake to a loss at Arkansas. This feels like another Red River Showdown that comes down to the final possession. The Pick: Texas +3.5

Arkansas at Ole Miss
How many times have we seen a team get broken after playing Alabama? How many times have we seen the same after what happened to the Hogs in Athens? Both head coaches have a huge challenge ahead of them but we’ll lean with Lane Kiffin getting that Rebels offense going again at home in a contest that could have Sugar Bowl implications come December. The Pick: Ole Miss -4.5

Penn State at Iowa
Given these two defenses — and their corresponding offenses that both have their flaws — will the first to 10 points be the winner? Neither QB seems super trustworthy keeping the ball out of the other team’s hands but we’ll give a slight edge to the visitors after they’ve been tested a bit more this season. The Pick: Penn State +2.5

— 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.