Seven-Step Drop: Taking Stock of the College Football Playoff Field

With new quarterback Ian Book leading the charge, Notre Dame is building its case for a playoff spot

If you were hosting a friend from another country and wanted to show them what college football was all about, this past weekend might have been a perfect opportunity to take them on a tour of what this sport is all about.

 

South Bend and Montlake under the lights in primetime were fantastic while the Whiteout at Happy Valley remains one of the top two or three atmospheres in football at any level. Mix in some close calls early in the day and a handful of wild endings late and it goes without saying that Week 5 more than delivered on drama and excitement.

 

All told, seven teams fell from the ranks of the unbeaten and just 14 programs are left without a blemish on their records as a result of all the action on Saturday.

 

As we move into the second (well, technically third) month of the season, it’s time to hit pause and take stock of the College Football Playoff field. Some names are a surprise, others are not — all remain on upset alert after the wild weekend we just got through. There are still major landmines ahead, to say nothing of potential injuries or fluke plays in close games.

 

Still, these are your contenders for the national title... and what some teams need to do to find themselves in the thick of the race by season’s end.

 

Cruising: Alabama, Notre Dame

 

The only drama the Crimson Tide faced this weekend was whether or not they would cover the 50- (or 48.5 in some places) point spread or if Nick Saban would take the pedal off the metal against a former assistant’s overmatched Louisiana team. After a 49-0 halftime lead, the latter won out but not without the offense looking impressive once again — including a trend of scoring more points than plays run until the final few minutes of the game.

 

At this point, Alabama’s toughest opponent in October will likely be themselves in practice from Monday until Friday. Missouri may well prove to be somewhat interesting if Drew Lock gets hot but that game will be in Tuscaloosa and the Tide’s young secondary is so far holding up just fine and will have a season’s worth of experience under their belts. LSU still has not proven they have an offense that can be threatening enough to pull off an upset and games against Mississippi State and Auburn are not quite looking as dangerous after five weeks as they did in August.

 

All of which is to say, Saban’s death star is aimed squarely at Georgia in Atlanta the first week in December and whoever might stand in their way in a semifinal.

 

Though their path is slightly harder than the Tide’s, it’s time to start talking to your kids about an undefeated Notre Dame after the Irish passed their biggest hurdle remaining against Stanford in imposing fashion. Ian Book has given life to the offense that is far more balanced than we’ve seen in past years and the defense remains stout up front and feisty in the back. Brian Kelly has experience navigating an undefeated regular season in South Bend and this year’s team seems to be quite comfortable in the spotlight with no concerns regarding all the high expectations.

 

A night game in Blacksburg this upcoming weekend may yet prove to be tricky but Virginia Tech, without QB Josh Jackson, should not be the team to trip up Notre Dame. In fact, while you would normally expect a bit of a letdown/look-ahead combo to take hold among the Irish players, hitting the road to play in an atmosphere like this will nip that right in the bud.

 

After that though, we might not hear about this team until the closing throws of November. A trip to Northwestern will be a de facto home game. Syracuse, in Yankee Stadium, likely will be the stiffest challenge left on the docket. The USC game right after Thanksgiving represents the most talented team left but the Trojans could go about 1,000 different directions between now and then. One underrated aspect of being a football independent is that there’s no conference title game to trip this group up with either.

 

Going 12-0 isn’t just a fantasy in South Bend, it’s likely the expectation at this point based on what we’ve seen and what’s ahead for Notre Dame.

 

The rest of the elite: Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, Georgia

 

Though Alabama seems to have put a bit of distance between itself and the next tier of teams, this group (and Notre Dame) still have to be happy with where they’re at.

 

Ohio State can breathe easy after surviving that trip to Penn State but that was a perfect encapsulation of the fact that you tend to need a few breaks to make it to the postseason as the year wears on even if you sport an elite roster. The Buckeyes have a bona fide Heisman candidate in Dwayne Haskins, a good offensive line and two incredible options at tailback. The defense still needs work with their penchant for giving up big plays (as well as allowing Trace McSorley to run over, around and through them) but you still get the sense that this is a special team in Columbus.

 

Like several compatriots, their season now comes down to essentially two games: at Michigan State and home against Michigan. The Buckeyes will likely be decisive favorites in both and neither the Wolverines nor Spartans have an offense that strikes much fear in you at the moment. With a tiebreaker in hand over the Nittany Lions, the biggest question for Urban Meyer might be how he can get his team back to AT&T Stadium (where the team has been great historically) and avoid a trip to the Orange Bowl.

 

Georgia has a tougher path, to say nothing of almost assuredly having to play Alabama at the end of the year. Because of results elsewhere — particularly with Notre Dame — it’s no given that the SEC title game loser will make it in for what in all likelihood will be a rematch a few weeks later in the semifinals. The Bulldogs haven’t been as sharp the past two weeks, against Missouri and Tennessee, as they were earlier in the year but there’s still a wealth of playmakers on both sides of the ball for Kirby Smart to utilize.

 

And don’t think it goes unnoticed that freshman dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields is starting to carve out a much more defined role with the eye on upcoming tests.

 

Still, there are games against LSU (in Death Valley) and Florida next month and the surprisingly tough back-to-back of Kentucky (road) and Auburn. It’s hard enough to go undefeated in college football but as good as UGA might be, there very well could be at least one loss out of that group. They can still make the final four by winning the league but this won’t be the cakewalk to Atlanta many had predicted after this team laid it on South Carolina.

 

Then there’s Clemson, who is both good and lucky this season. The Tigers have not yet met the lofty preseason expectations many had for this group but the upside is still there for Dabo Swinney’s team. If quarterback depth can be figured out (soon), then you can probably still pencil this group in for another semifinal. Undefeated NC State has had Clemson’s number the past few years even if the Wolfpack haven’t been able to get the job done but that will take place in Death Valley after a bye. Beyond that, perhaps Miami will make things interesting at the end of the year but the guess is still that Saturday’s close call will serve as more of a wake-up call for the Tigers as they start shifting to higher gears with aims of peaking in December.

 

As for the final team in this band, Oklahoma is in the most precarious situation. Mike Stoops’ defense is improved from last year but remains nothing to write home about compared to a few of their peers. Still, they only need to get a few key stops in big games because the offense might be even more dangerous than it was a year ago — no easy thing to say with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.

 

Kyler Murray is on a path to securing a second straight Heisman in Norman and he’s coming off a game against Baylor in which he accounted for seven scores. He also set a Big 12 record with the highest passer rating by an FBS player (348.0) in at least the past two decades. With Lincoln Riley calling plays and this incredible receiving corps making plays on a regular basis, outscoring everybody along the way is a very real possibility.

 

Of course, the road ahead won’t be easy for the Sooners. They’ll play two tough defenses in Texas and TCU in the next three weeks and that trip to Lubbock could prove to be interesting. Bedlam and going to West Virginia will be on tap in November. The Big 12 looks like the second-best conference and has a lot more depth than just about any other so this will be a winding path to the playoff for OU. If there’s anybody from the group above that could survive a loss, it might be this team given how they will have a chance to avenge it later on in the conference title game.

 

Work left to do: Wisconsin, Washington, Stanford, LSU, West Virginia

 

It seems like everybody has written off the Badgers after they inexplicably lost to BYU at home but if they can get back on track, there’s no question they’ll be able to have a resume as good as anybody. That includes games at both Michigan and Penn State ahead, plus a likely shot at Ohio State in Indianapolis. That’s a brutal path, but still doable for a team that has allowed just seven touchdowns all year.

 

Also lurking out there is Washington. The Huskies breezed past that same BYU team at home on Saturday in a game most of the country missed while focusing on the second half in Happy Valley and South Bend. If they run the table the rest of the way (including at Oregon and against Stanford) they’ll just need a little help — particularly in the ACC and Big Ten. The offense still isn’t clicking on all cylinders but there’s progress being made each week on that side of the ball for the Huskies.

 

The Cardinal are in a similar boat and while that comeback against Oregon is looking solid, the road loss to Notre Dame isn’t cause to write this group off. David Shaw has won the Pac-12 with less talented teams so you can’t rule anything out, but they’ll have to fix the 3.4 yards per carry if they have any hopes of making a dark-horse run.

 

LSU had their best offensive performance of the year on Saturday from a wet Tiger Stadium against Ole Miss but there’s still some apprehension surrounding Ed Orgeron’s group. A lot of that has more to do with what’s ahead (at Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama) than what they’ve accomplished so far. It’s pretty simple: win the SEC West to have a chance. Outside of that though, a New Year’s Six Bowl is what this team is aiming for.

 

Finally, West Virginia has done what they’ve needed to every week of the season. Though they seemed to let up against Texas Tech for a few minutes, they’ve done everything that’s been asked and looked even better on both sides of the ball than expected. In fact, it’s that surprisingly salty defense that might give Mountaineers fans hope that this could be more than a special season in Morgantown. Go ahead and book this group at 7-0 heading into their season-defining stretch at Texas, against TCU, at Oklahoma State and against OU. Win three of those four and this might be a team the committee will examine a lot closer.

 

Outside looking in (for now): Penn State, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, Auburn, Kentucky, Miami, UCF

 

This is about the extent of the playoff pool this season (sorry NC State). All need lots of help, to say nothing of winning out.

 

You could perhaps talk about the Nittany Lions getting bumped up a rung given how well they played against Ohio State but they still have a few big tests upcoming and a trip to the conference title game might be a huge stretch. The sneaky option out of this group might be Miami, which could play off their lone loss on not having their current starting quarterback and could go into Charlotte with a one-off chance to knock off Clemson and make things interesting.

 

And yes UCF fans, while CFP executive director Bill Hancock did say last week that there’s a path for your team to the final four, even an undefeated season won’t make that happen. Playing perfect is one thing but the Knights need absolute chaos in at least three of the Power 5 conferences.

 

One can’t rule it out in a sport like this but you can’t count on it either.

 

Six other takeaways from the past week of college football:

 

2. Trevor Lawrence starts, then shows why 2-QB systems are good

It took just a half (really only 37 plays) for Lawrence to prove, in his first start, why teams with two quarterbacks need to keep things that way. Clemson's freshman quarterback was scrambling to pick up additional yardage against Syracuse when he dove and was hit squarely by a defender, sending him to the locker room not to return with concussion-like symptoms.

 

The entire Tigers team, and the fan base, held their collective breath the rest of the second half as Chase Brice helped eke out a win against the Orange. The third-stringer about four days prior did make some huge plays, responding well to an early (awful) interception by throwing a dart on fourth down at midfield and scampering for 17 yards to keep the momentum going on what would become the game-winning drive. His heroics however, underscore just how important health is to teams if they want to win big games.

 

Case in point, this was Dabo Swinney’s quarterback depth chart coming out of spring practice:

 

1. Kelly Bryant

2. five-star true freshman Trevor Lawrence

3. five-star redshirt freshman Hunter Johnson

4. three-star, top-100 redshirt freshman Chase Brice

 

This was what it looked like in the fourth quarter on Saturday:

 

1. Brice

2. WR Hunter Renfrow

3. Uh, lots of wildcat formations

 

We’ll see what happens with Bryant going forward, who might find the pull of his team in need enough reason to put aside the emotions of being demoted last week. Still, what played out at Clemson (and has cropped up in places like Nebraska already) is a great reminder that depth is hugely important in college football. It’s also why Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and others have quite the luxury in their quarterback rooms in 2018.

 

3. Kentucky continues to be the surprise of the season

The Wildcats moved to 5-0 on the season and remain one of the biggest surprises in the sport, checking in at No. 13 in the AP Poll on Sunday after dispatching SEC East rival South Carolina in Lexington. Even the 24-10 final score didn’t really indicate how well UK played in this one as the second half saw the team lose momentum and trail off a bit.

 

Still, this group took it to a stout Mississippi State team in the trenches the week prior and then turned around and bottled up South Carolina’s speedy skill position guys on Saturday. While it remains to be seen just how close the Wildcats can come to challenging Georgia in the division, Mark Stoops has unquestionably gotten the program to the No. 2 spot and UK could very well wind up in the same bowl tier as the Auburns and LSUs of the SEC come December if they keep rolling.

 

Heck, there’s even whispers of a New Year’s Six Bowl on the horizon and a glance at the schedule shows that’s not as crazy as it sounds (ok, it still sounds a little crazy).

 

More to the point, this is a Kentucky squad that is constructed to do the things you have to do well in the conference – run the ball and limit big plays. Benny Snell Jr. has been terrific between the tackles and the defense continues to get better with each passing game. It’s the first time the Wildcats are 3-0 in SEC play since 1977.

 

Stoops, who very well may have locked up SEC Coach of the Year honors already, was 10 the last time that happened.

 

He’s 51 now and loving every minute of this revival in Lexington.

 

4. Mike Gundy goes from mullet media darling to local media bully

Oklahoma State beat Kansas 48-28 in a game that was off just about everybody’s radar unless you had ties to either school. While the end result was predictable, the far more interesting battle in Lawrence took place between Gundy and the media afterward.

 

For those who haven’t been caught up on the story, senior wide receiver Jalen McCleskey surprisingly announced he was transferring last week and cited playing time as the reasoning. McCleskey is one of the highest profile players to utilize the new redshirt rule so far and it goes without saying the decision shocked many in Stillwater.

 

While Gundy handled the initial news about the receiver fairly well on Monday, things have deteriorated from there. On Tuesday after practice, OSU sports information department staffers told local beat writers that the school would ban player interviews for the rest of the season if anybody asked any of the Cowboys about McCleskey’s departure. As you would expect, this resulted in a firestorm that was not limited to just those around the program.

 

As detailed fully by The Oklahoman, Gundy was naturally asked about this entire episode after beating KU and seemed to double down on his incredible directive. A snippet of the exchange:

 

Gundy: “I gave you guys all the information you needed, and I didn't feel comfortable with you guys talking to the players, based on, that's not something they should have to comment on. That's a decision I make, and that's their buddy, so I just wasn't comfortable with it. You guys could've asked, if you wanted to. I didn't keep you from asking.”

 

Reporter: Well, the word was if we did...

 

Gundy: “Well, I know, but I'm not that powerful. You still could've asked. But anyway, I didn't feel comfortable with those guys. I just didn't want to put them on the spot. It's almost like being in school, and you have a kid get in trouble, and then they ask the other kid what he did, and then if he rats him out, then he's a snitch to his buddies, and if he doesn't rat him out, the teacher gets mad at him.”

 

It’s understandable that Gundy would want the focus on what happens between the lines with his team — just as it’s understandable that the media should do their job and ask team members who are going through the day-to-day of the program and can provide greater context to the events. It’s not a state secret that McCleskey was unhappy with his role in the offense, he said as much and even went so far as to transfer. His teammates aren’t “ratting” him out talking about things at all and if they are having to process things, that’s something Gundy should be working with them to do.

 

But to give the media an ultimatum — for doing their jobs — like that has turned Gundy from a darling to a bully. Instead of apologizing, perhaps explaining away things as a misunderstanding with his SIDs and trotting out a well-spoken team leader to discuss things, he basically doubled down and continued to imply that this was a no-go zone. There are so many ways this could have been handled and OSU has picked the worst option among many.

 

If the Cowboys keep winning, remember how poorly handled this entire episode was and how a one-game story has now blossomed into a multi-week distraction.

 

5. Separation between Pac-12 North and South keeps growing as year goes on

The early read in August was that the Pac-12 South was going to be anybody’s to take. With the calendar turning to October however, the division is rapidly becoming the best of a bad lot of options.

 

USC escaped their road trip to Arizona in a game that neither team really looked all that interesting in making plays to win. Utah gave up an 89-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to blow a lead at Washington State. Colorado is the league’s only undefeated team but the Buffaloes remain untested and the rest of the lot is questionable at best:

 

 

What is crystal clear is that the North has quite a bit of distance on their rivals for what seems like the sixth time in seven years. Washington, Stanford and Oregon are all in the top 20, Cal is much improved and Washington State is 4-1. Even lowly Oregon State has been better than winless UCLA through the first five games.

 

Put it this way, if you matchup the top teams from each division against each other it would like this:

 

Washington-Colorado, Stanford-USC, Oregon-Arizona State, Washington State-Utah, Cal-Arizona, Oregon State-UCLA. Factoring in games that have already been played, the North looks like they’d take this slate by at least a 5-1 margin, if not sweep the whole thing.

 

Larry Scott is already fretting about the league’s status in the national picture but the divisional imbalance in the Pac-12 is an issue already.

 

6. Scott Frost, Chip Kelly and other newbies together in misery

When Frost and Kelly were together at Oregon, they went 46-7 together and had win streaks of 13, nine, 12 and seven games. The pair as head coaches is a combined 0-8 and have even longer seasons ahead in both Westwood and Lincoln.

 

There are issues on offense. There are a ton of problems on defense. Special teams is iffy for both. The two most celebrated hires of the offseason may very well wind up a combined 2-22 (or worse) when all is said and done in 2018.

 

It’s not time to sell all your stock in either head coach given their track records but it is time to acknowledge that the reason the two were hired in the first place is because there were some serious cracks in the foundations of both programs.

 

7. End is near for Bill Snyder, Bobby Petrino?

At halftime of Kansas State’s eventual 19-14 loss to Texas, one would have been justified in wondering if the Wildcats were the worst team in the Big 12. Against Power 5 teams, they had mustered just one touchdown up to that point and would finish the weekend with a total of three.

 

There was a moment caught by the FOX cameras showing Bill Snyder slamming his play sheet binder together and showing off one of the angriest looks we’ve seen from the College Football Hall of Famer in a while. It was pure frustration. K-State eventually made things interesting in the second half but that image stuck with me as the team drops to 2-3 on the year and will need several upsets to even make it to 6-6 the rest of the way.

 

Heck, even that game against Kansas is no longer the gimme many assumed. Considering that this KSU team had so much going for it coming into 2018 — including being a trendy Big 12 dark horse for many — this is rapidly becoming the most disappointing season in the Little Apple since the Ron Prince days.

 

“All losses are painful. There is a variety of different reasons why we did not win the ball game,” said Snyder afterwards. “I think we became a little better football team, not necessarily because of the game but because of the way we practiced this last week.”

 

Games like that though, provided the Wildcats keep trending in the wrong direction will only further lead to more speculation that the Wizard of the Little Apple has held on too long. It is painful to watch this team on offense and Snyder’s decision to elevate several inexperienced internal staffers in the wake of the loss of Dana Dimel to UTEP is proving to be quite an issue. Instead of infusing the program with some new ideas, the insular program became even more so for the most part.

 

That might have been fine if KSU was winning. Now that the Wildcats are not, it’s time to wonder what lies ahead.

 

Might it be enough to signal to Snyder that retirement is near? Or even, perhaps, provide the excuse the administration needs to start what will surely be an emotional coaching search? We probably won’t know those answers until December at the earliest but the fact that we’ve reached this point the final week in September says a lot about the state of affairs in Manhattan.

 

As for Petrino, his seat is warming up faster than just about any coach in the country and has his entire fan base piping mad after he called a pass — which was promptly intercepted — on first down at the Florida State 21-yard line. The Seminoles hit a big 58-yard touchdown after getting the ball back and snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat that certainly will leave Willie Taggart thankful for his luck.

 

“I look back on it and I guess I should have run the ball,” Petrino lamented afterward.

 

Well no kidding.

 

While it would have been questionable to many in August, there’s an increasing chance that Louisville brass finally decides enough is enough with Petrino and puts a stop to this slide before things get worse. He’s never been a top-notch recruiter in his career and that’s getting exposed more and more post-Lamar Jackson. While some would normally cut him some slack for losing a Heisman winner at quarterback, the fact that he’s stocked his coaching staff with questionable hires and is feeling heat in a season in which rival Kentucky is winning big only turns up the pressure.

 

Looming even larger: he no longer has protection from above. The AD that hired him, Tom Jurich, is out of a job and the administration at the school is nearly all new from the president on down. His $12.25 million buyout is hefty, yet manageable, and favored son Jeff Brohm has his offense rolling at Purdue after an early stumble and is recruiting featured playmakers like Rondale Moore.

 

The Cardinals have two Friday night home games coming up and, with basketball season around the corner, it wouldn’t be shocking if swaths of empty seats at the stadium show the school all they need about what will have to happen in late November with their head coach. Petrino is no stranger to swiftly hitting the exit doors after brief success in his coaching career so it will not be surprising at all if it happens yet again in his second stint at Louisville.

 

Stat of the Week

 

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Trace McSorley, Penn State

Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 3. Will Grier (West Virginia), 4. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State), 5. Trace McSorley (Penn State)

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

Team of the week: Fresno State

Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: James Franklin, Penn State

Quote of the week: “We honestly look one of the most undisciplined teams in the country, and it kills me.” — Nebraska’s Scott Frost.

 

Play of the Week

 

Was a heck of a Saturday for incredible catches in big, close games.

 

 

 

The bonus non-catch Play of the Week is something that probably only happens in college football.

 

 

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 6.

 

1. Alabama

2. Notre Dame

3. Ohio State

4. Oklahoma

5. Georgia

6. Clemson

7. West Virginia

8. Penn State

9. Washington

10. Stanford

11. LSU

12. UCF

13. Kentucky

14. Wisconsin

15. Michigan

16. Oregon

 

Best of the rest: Auburn, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Texas A&M, NC State, Texas, Miami, TCU, Syracuse

 

Pre-snap Reads

 

Texas vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)

I would be cautiously optimistic if I were a Longhorns fan going into the Red River Showdown given the series has produced some crazy upsets in the past. This Texas team can shorten the game up with long drives and it wouldn’t surprise if the 'Horns were able to nab a turnover or two as well. The Sooners still get the win at the Cotton Bowl, but it will be hard-earned and come by less than two scores.

 

LSU at Florida

Still no idea what to make of this one other than the fact that it seems like a lock to be low scoring. Bet on at least one trick play from each side and field goals to the primary source of scoring. The Tigers have a little bit more on both sides of the ball so they get the W, but it will need to be earned on the road.

 

Kentucky at Texas A&M

The dream season for the Wildcats will hit a speed bump in College Station as the Aggies force a few turnovers and take advantage of good field position. Kentucky will storm back in the second half to threaten to get the win but Jimbo Fisher ultimately beats his first ranked team at A&M with Kellen Mond getting back on track in the passing game.

 

— 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.

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