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Seven-Step Drop: Separating Conference Title Contenders From Pretenders

Seven-Step Drop: Separating Conference Title Contenders From Pretenders

Seven-Step Drop: Separating Conference Title Contenders From Pretenders

We’re just about to the halfway mark of the college football season and, in a week-to-week sport, that means we’re approaching a small milestone for just about every team in the country: a decent sample size.

At this point on the calendar, we have a pretty good idea about how each team plays (outside of those weekly swings when anything can happen) and are even starting to see the College Football Playoff race narrow as it inevitably does. While the focus is naturally on the postseason for some, large swaths of the country are starting to get dialed in on their respective conference title races.

Thanks to a wild Week 6 that started to create some separation between contenders and pretenders, here’s how each conference is shaping up and where things go from here:


Group of 5 chances: Theirs to lose

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In the lead: UCF

In the chase: Cincinnati, USF, Houston

Playing for a bowl: Memphis, Navy, SMU, Temple

Rebuilding: Tulane

Hiring a search firm: Tulsa, East Carolina, UConn

The skinny: The American isn’t quite as stellar as it was a year ago when the Tigers, Owls and Bulls (among others) all made big leaps to help elevate the overall status of the league. Still, it remains the best overall Group of 5 conference and seems like a lock to produce this year’s bid to the New Year’s Six yet again.

As good as the Knights have been, a second consecutive undefeated run still seems like something to bet against from a historical perspective. The Bearcats are one of the biggest surprises of the year and they and Charlie Strong’s USF squad will make it a fun East Division race. Houston has not played up to their potential so far this season but still are the class of the West division and will put their head coach firmly on the hot seat if the Cougars are not in the AAC title game.

Conference USA

Group of 5 chances: Nil

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In the lead: Middle Tennessee

In the chase: FIU, Marshall, FAU, UAB, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss

Playing for a bowl: UTSA

Rebuilding: Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, Rice, UTEP

Hiring a search firm: Charlotte

The skinny: No league has had a more up-and-down first half of the season than Conference USA, which has peaked in wins over SEC foes and yet still seen a number of teams continue to struggle to get things together. Lane Kiffin took his first conference loss since arriving in Boca, which leaves the Owls trying to play catch-up to Middle Tennessee in the East. Blue Raiders QB Brent Stockstill can beat just about anybody and his team has already knocked off its top two competitors for the division the past two weeks and can almost wrap things up if Middle Tennessee can beat FIU and hold on from there the rest of the year.

In the West, North Texas still is probably the favorite but has come back down to earth in recent weeks and will have to hope the Bulldogs take another loss along the way. Southern Miss and UAB remain dangerous in the conference and the Blazers in particular are quite tough at home. The bottom of CUSA is very much in a rebuilding situation but there’s a healthy middle class with about half of the league capable of creating chaos the rest of the way.


Group of 5 chances: Slim but not nothing

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In the lead: Buffalo

In the chase: Ohio, Akron, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan

Playing for a bowl: Ball State

Rebuilding: Kent State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan

Hiring a search firm: Bowling Green

The skinny: We’ll have a much better idea about the MAC soon as Buffalo hosts Akron and then travels to Toledo after that. The Bulls have the talent and coaching to be the team to beat this year and it’s not inconceivable that they can lock up the division before midweek games get underway in earnest.

If the Rockets can get things clicking during the upcoming month, they’re the favorite to come out of the West Division but after that we’ll play the waiting game. The Huskies are already 3-0 in MAC play but they’ll only have one game that’s not a toss-up until the end of November and the jury still isn’t quite in on Western Michigan. This is always a league that can get kind of wild as the weather gets colder and you can expect that to be the case once again in 2018.

Mountain West

Group of 5 chances: Dropping

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In the lead: San Diego State

In the chase: Utah State, Boise State, Fresno State

Playing for a bowl: Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada,

Rebuilding: Colorado State, Air Force, Wyoming, San Jose State

Hiring a search firm: UNLV

The skinny: There was a time where the early read was this was the Broncos’ league to lose and that Bryan Harsin’s team could be the Group of 5 selection. That’s no longer the case as their offensive line woes have been exposed and they were beat up in a loss to San Diego State this past weekend. Given how well the resurgent Aggies have played, that end-of-the-regular-season meeting could be for the division.

Things are a little more muddled in the MWC West. The Aztecs, if they can get healthy, are probably the league leaders but the Bulldogs and, perhaps, the Rainbow Warriors, won’t be going away. The stretch run will be fascinating to see and two conference losses might still be enough to win either division. Overall, the league is in much better shape than it’s been in recent years but there’s no elite Group of 5 team making noise like we’ve seen in the past.

Sun Belt

Group of 5 chances: Slim but not nothing

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In the lead: Troy

In the chase: Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern

Playing for a bowl: Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, ULM

Rebuilding: Georgia State, South Alabama, Texas State

The skinny: The Fun Belt is indeed quite fun this season. Both Troy and Appalachian State are top 25-caliber squads and it’s possible others like the Red Wolves and Eagles are right there in the thick of the division races by the time all is said and done. This is the first year with a conference title game so we could be in store for some twists and turns before somebody holds the title but the top two teams are really on a collision course at the end of the regular season.


College Football Playoff chances: Hit or miss

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In the lead: Clemson

In the chase: NC State, Miami

Playing for a bowl: Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Pitt, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Florida State, Syracuse, Boston College

Hiring a search firm: North Carolina, Louisville

The skinny: No conference has really coalesced in to separate bands of similar teams quite like the ACC. There’s an elite team in Clemson that still has tremendous upside and there’s two potential challengers in the Wolfpack and the Hurricanes — of which both are still a bit of a mystery. Then there’s a large middle class that has the bulk of the league teetering on being either just okay or thoroughly mediocre. Add in the Tar Heels and Cardinals at the bottom and the ACC has a pretty clear title chase ahead. If anything, at least there should be a huge number of bowl-eligible squads even if the overall play isn’t all that great.

Big 12

College Football Playoff chances: Dwindling

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In the lead: Texas

In the chase: Oklahoma, TCU, West Virginia

Playing for a bowl: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Baylor

Hiring a search firm: Kansas, Kansas State

The skinny: Now things get interesting in Big 12 country. The Longhorns already have wins over both of the preseason favorites and remain in the driver’s seat given those tiebreakers. A second Red River Showdown is not out of the question given the Sooners were just a defensive stop away from extending that wild game in Dallas and appear to be re-tooling on that side of the ball with a coaching change. You can’t yet count out the Horned Frogs but the more intriguing question is how the Mountaineers will handle their brutal final stretch of the schedule. There’s very much an "anybody can beat anybody" feel to the league again, which is a good sign of overall depth but increasing looks like it will result in the Big 12 passing on the playoff.

Big Ten

College Football Playoff chances: Safe bet

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In the lead: Ohio State

In the chase: Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin

Playing for a bowl: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern

Rebuilding: Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue

Hiring a search firm: Rutgers

The skinny: This is may not be the most interesting title chase of the Power 5 leagues but there’s a ton of drama left on the table given all the big games upcoming between the major powers ranked in the top 15. The Buckeyes remain in pole position but they really won’t get pushed at all until meeting the Wolverines, whom they get in the Horseshoe. Urban Meyer knows his defense needs to start preventing the big play better but with Dwayne Haskins looking on pace to shatter a number of school records, outscoring everybody by a country mile will allow time to get that fixed.

We’ll have a much clearer picture as to which team OSU’s biggest threat is when Michigan and Wisconsin play this weekend, even though the Badgers are still are the clear favorite in the West Division regardless the result. The Nittany Lions are still on track for a New Year’s Six bid if they can keep rolling but don’t discount the Hawkeyes putting together a special season too. The big mystery is if something will eventually click for the Spartans given that they have the talent and experience but have looked like a team full of freshmen on the field.


College Football Playoff chances: On life support

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In the lead: Washington

In the chase: Oregon, Stanford, Colorado, Utah

Playing for a bowl: Washington State, Cal, Arizona, Arizona State

Rebuilding: Oregon State, UCLA

Hiring a search firm: USC

The skinny: The North Division looks like it will all come down to this weekend’s showdown between Pacific Northwest rivals Oregon and Washington. The Huskies have more talent and should remain the favorites but going into Autzen won’t be easy and the Ducks have had extra time to prepare and revenge set on their minds. Stanford’s inability to run the football remains puzzling (with and without Bryce Love) and the Cougars are the one team nobody’s talking about but could prove to have a say in which team goes to Santa Clara given their style of play. Nobody east of the Mississippi will pay much attention, but there’s some potential for fun in one half of the conference.

In the South, Colorado passed their first legitimate test to remain undefeated and will be able to confirm their status as the front-runners with a win in Los Angeles against a Trojans squad that is not well coached at all. Utah showed a few flashes in that trip to Palo Alto on Saturday night but still need to show more consistency before being taken seriously. The rest of the division could produce a few #Pac12AfterDark moments but seem very much ready to sim forward the rest of the year.


College Football Playoff chances: Two teams or just one?

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In the lead: Alabama

In the chase: Georgia, LSU

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Playing for a bowl: Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Missouri, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn

Rebuilding: Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas

The skinny: Can anybody beat the Tide is a question that not only has national implications but also is a reality for the rest of the league that has the Nick Saban train barreling down on them. We’re still on track for what amounts to a playoff quarterfinal in Atlanta if Georgia keeps rolling too but there’s at least a little intrigue in the East now with Kentucky and Florida looking much more dangerous than each did a month ago. Maybe a team like Auburn or Mississippi State can start to put things together but it sure looks like the entire SEC is just waiting for the mega-clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium the first week in December.

LSU is technically still alive in the West and host both Georgia this weekend and Alabama at the beginning of November. Still, nobody is convinced that the Tigers have the offense to complement their defense so they can topple one of the elite programs just yet. Perhaps the biggest remaining question mark is if Jimbo Fisher can firmly plant the Aggies as the league’s third-best program in year one because he’s got a shot to do just that.

Six other takeaways from the past week of college football:

2. Texas... is back? Mike Stoops is not

The Longhorns are not officially back until they win 10 games or enter the national title conversation but boy does it sure seem like they’re back in the thick of the Big 12 race after beating two of the preseason favorites in back-to-back weeks.

I know a lot of people wrote Texas off after the loss to Maryland but there was still reason to believe that this team could turn in some special performances once things started to click offensively like they have in recent weeks. As impressive as it was to build a 45-24 lead on Oklahoma or drive for the game-winning field goal, that was the overall kind of performance that Tom Herman imagined his team turning in when he first took the job and has been building toward: dominating in the trenches, winning on 3rd/4th down and tough when it counts.

It may very well be hard to replicate that the rest of the way in 2018 but this still young group has already shown more in the last three weeks to give the Burnt Orange faithful some hope of returning to the elite of the sport than at any point since 2009. UT isn’t fully back given the standards on the 40 Acres but the signs are finally there in ways they haven’t been recently.

It was a breakout game in particular for quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who was clutch when he needed to be and accounted for five touchdowns and a whopping 77 percent of the Horns' offense at the Cotton Bowl. 

While there are still moments where the sophomore looks like he comes a bit over his skis, he’s become a lot more consistent moving the ball and has really developed a nice chemistry with his budding studs at wide receiver. Ehlinger set a school record for attempts without an interception and has accounted for 17 touchdowns in six games against just two interceptions and a fumble.

There are still enough minefields left on the schedule that Texas needs to be on their toes but a trip to the Big 12 title game looks increasingly likely. Win that and make it to the Sugar Bowl and then all that talk about the team being back will be less of a joke and more of an accurate statement.

Somebody who won’t be back is Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who was let go on Sunday in a move many around the program saw as an eventuality after that side of the ball has held back the team in big games over the years. The Sooners are not as awful as some of the numbers suggest given the way football (especially in the Big 12) is being played but the picture isn’t bright either: 96th nationally in total defense, 79th in scoring defense and dead last in red zone defense alongside East Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee among others.

Let’s face it, the writing was on the wall for all parties heading toward a divorce for some time now. While head coach Lincoln Riley made his first major staff move since being put in charge after Bob Stoops retired, he’s probably second-guessing the decision to bring Stoops back in the first place this offseason when that Rose Bowl disaster would have been a good moment for everybody to move on. In Riley’s three losses as a head coach, his team averaged 41.3 ppg so it’s clear what is holding the program back from being right there with the other elites in the sport.

All that said, nobody should be writing this group off in both the Big 12 and with regards to the College Football Playoff. Kyler Murray is that good and this offense might be the only one that is capable of going point-for-point with Alabama’s. The impact of the coordinator change probably won’t show up right away but it was a move made to give this team a chance to rebound.

Who knows, wouldn’t it be fun to see a rematch with the Longhorns in the “other” Cotton Bowl of AT&T Stadium? Sure sounds good to many of us after what we saw on Saturday from Fair Park and the repercussions from the game sure to affect both sides going forward.

3. Mini-rivalry week was fun

Typically we get a full-on rivalry week toward the end of the regular season but as we hit the halfway mark, we kind of got a mini version of one in Week 6 and it really wetted the appetite for this kind of thing to turn into something going forward if the schedule gods would allow it.

In addition to the Red River Showdown, there were fun games between LSU and Florida, Miami’s crazy comeback against Florida State and even budding Mountain West foes San Diego State and Boise State squaring off. Add in the bizarre battle for Columbia between South Carolina and Missouri (in monsoon conditions) and there was a little something for everybody in most of the TV windows that seemed to mean a bit more than usual.

Let’s all hope that the powers at be with FOX and ESPN don’t mind nudging conferences far and wind to up the ante at the midway mark of the season and make a mini-rivalry week a thing going forward. While it’s always nice to have these big games sprinkled throughout the season, a mid-year slate full of huge matchups between teams that don’t like each other sure sounds great.

4. Trio of unbeatens go down, who’s next on the list?

We saw three unbeaten teams go down this past weekend and are down to just 11 teams without a blemish on their record. In no particular order they are: Cincinnati, UCF, USF, Clemson, NC State, West Virginia, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Colorado, Georgia and Alabama.

Who among that group will be next?

Well, Clemson and NC State meet after off dates this weekend so one is at least guaranteed to take an "L" from that matchup. West Virginia’s red zone turnovers against Kansas at home don’t bode well for a tricky trip to Iowa State —  which might make the Mountaineers the betting favorite during the upcoming week — but the Buffaloes have back-to-back road trips to USC and Washington upcoming and would do well to split that pair.

After that? We might start stretching into the latter half of October before we start to see any larger number of these teams begin to falter.

Oh, and for the record there are just four winless teams still standing, which seems like a lower than usual number. Who among UCLA, San Jose State, UTEP or Nebraska can get off the schneid first? The Miners and Spartans have both seemed to improve the past few weeks and the Cornhuskers do have an FCS team on the docket before the end of the month, but we’ll go with the Chip Kelly’s Bruins after showing flashes at the Rose Bowl against Washington and two good opportunities upcoming.

5. NC State, Clemson clash in each team’s remaining challenge

Speaking of the Wolfpack and Tigers, it’s not at all crazy to think this game could be between a pair of teams that both wind up in the New Year’s Six while the winner takes the ACC title and books a trip to the playoff. While there are still a lot of unanswered questions on both sides, it does seem clear that this is each program’s stiffest remaining test of the season.

Clemson will enter 6-0 and looking nothing like the team that struggled against Syracuse after throttling Wake Forest 63-3 in a Saturday romp that allowed them to dictate just about every play of the game. The return of Trevor Lawrence and the big plays he produced offensively will be the takeaway many had in this game but the continued ability for the Tigers to run the ball down your throat and lean on that improving defense shows what has been true the past several weeks: this is a team looking to peak later in the season as they get better with each game.

The numerous stories about their all-star defensive line in the offseason seemed to produce inflated expectations that Clemson would simply be doing what Alabama currently is — laying waste to their opponents. That is rarely going to be the case for anybody in this sport and especially so for the Tigers under Dabo Swinney, who don’t mind playing things closer to the vest than most.

This is, however, a team that is growing with each passing week and making strides at improving in areas where they might be a little deficient in. The upside is still there for this group and with all due respect to Georgia, this is the most complete team in the country (not coached by Nick Saban at least) if things are clicking and everybody is playing to their potential.

Still, NC State has had Clemson’s number the past few years even if it hasn’t been able to close the door. The Wolfpack are perhaps the biggest mystery in college football, jumping out to a 5-0 record with questions abound at the play on the field (run game, turnovers, defense, etc.) even if the results look good.

Another close game with the Tigers for Dave Doeren isn’t out of the question next weekend in Death Valley because this team still has some guys who can make the big play. Ryan Finley has seen just about everything under center and Kelvin Harmon is really on the verge of being a household name beyond ACC circles as good as he has been. The defense and being able to get any sort of run game going will determine if things stay close but neither side is taking this one lightly.

Nor should they as both teams running the table afterward looks like a real possibility. NC State will certainly be favored the rest of the way and its trickiest game left might be against the Orange in the Carrier Dome a week later. Clemson figures to not play a ranked opponent until late November — if not later in the ACC title game. If each team takes care of business, don’t be shocked if the New Year’s Six talk is steady for both programs given the numbers that will accompany their names the rest of the way.

6. Pac-12 star power (or lack thereof)

There are a multitude of issues that Larry Scott has to deal with on a weekly basis. While most focus on the fact that the Pac-12 appears destined for their third cycle without a College Football Playoff bid, the disappearance of true star power out West has not gone unnoticed with guys like Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen pulling down wins on Sundays this year.

Bryce Love was the Heisman Trophy favorite coming into 2018 after finishing as the runner-up and, due to a combination of injuries and issues along the Stanford offensive line, has already missed two games this season and is so far off the national radar, nobody is even complaining about not getting to see him play late in the night. QB Khalil Tate was once one of the game’s most electric players but has been in witness protection at Arizona with a season-long run against FBS competition of a whopping 17 yards.

Washington’s senior leaders, while terrific players, are hardly the type to relish the spotlight and their head coach probably wouldn’t let them even if that were the case. Oregon QB Justin Herbert is very much on NFL radars in a big way but if he can’t beat the Huskies this upcoming weekend, he won’t be a name that comes up in the conversation after guys like Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray. And odds are long that Steven Montez becomes a household name but the Colorado signal-caller does get to throw to the most exciting player in the league so far in Laviska Shenault Jr.

Still, as bad as things have gone so far on the field in the Pac-12 this season, not having some marquee players to build some hype around might be the league’s biggest issue in what is trending toward a very irrelevant campaign on the gridiron.

7. Luke Fickell’s turnaround

We’re reaching the point in the season where teams are hitting the magic six-win mark that, for the most part, signifies bowl eligibility. The list after Week 6 includes the usual suspects: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia, etc.

One notable exception that might cause a few to do a double-take? Cincinnati.

The Bearcats are indeed on a six-game winning streak and off to their best start since 2012. Given the state of the team after a 4-8 debut under Fickell, the coaching staff has done a great job getting youngsters to step up and perform at a high level. The resulting play from guys like redshirt freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder and freshman tailback Tavion Thomas is good reason why the team is now looking dangerous in an increasingly fascinating AAC race.

While it became painfully obvious that the program was backsliding in the final few years under Tommy Tuberville, that energy and focus that Fickell has installed has done wonders after a full offseason to marinate. Following a few questionable losses in 2017, this is a team that looks like they barely even look at the scoreboard and have confidence in getting the job done no matter what they’re facing. They’ve gutted out comebacks and put together some huge drives to secure wins in the fourth quarter already this season and there’s a chance to do some real damage come November.

Though the consistency on offense has jumped out given all the young playmakers, it’s no surprise to see Fickell’s forte on the other side of the ball become the backbone of this turnaround either. Cincinnati leads the country in passing efficiency defense at the midway mark and rank just behind Georgia in scoring defense at 13.7 points per game.

We’ll see if the momentum can keep rolling in the Queen City in the second half but this has been one of the more remarkable turnarounds in college football so far in 2018.

Stat of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Quite a few savage tweets from school accounts after wins this week.

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: Brock Purdy, Iowa State

Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State), 3. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 4. Trace McSorley (Penn State), 5. McKenzie Milton (UCF)

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

Team of the week: Utah

Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Quote of the week: "It's great to see The Swamp back to being The Swamp again." — Dan Mullen.

Play of the Week

Super 16

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 7.

1. Alabama

2. Notre Dame

3. Ohio State

4. Georgia

5. Clemson

6. Oklahoma

7. Penn State

8. UCF

9. West Virginia

10. Michigan

11. Texas

12. Washington

13. Wisconsin

14. Texas A&M

15. Florida

16. N.C. State

Best of the rest: LSU, Colorado, Miami, TCU, Oregon, Kentucky, Iowa, Appalachian State, Stanford

Pre-snap Reads

Georgia at LSU

This looked like the Bulldogs' biggest test of the season prior to November and still does given the venue. Both teams will probably start slow and play it conservative but the playmakers Georgia has will eventually be too much in the fourth quarter.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia

Washington at Oregon

People are going to get a little cautious after the Huskies were not all that sharp against UCLA but that might just be Chris Petersen playing things close to the vest. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a defensive score coming from either side but the consistency of Washington on both sides of the ball allows them to eke out a close, fourth quarter win in Eugene.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Wisconsin at Michigan

Points will be at a premium in this one given the defenses and there will be plenty of ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ jokes with a low-scoring first half. Not sure anybody can fully put their trust into either quarterback but we’ll lean the home team by a touchdown in what looks like a total toss-up.

College Football Top 25: Michigan
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— 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.