The Power 5 conference title games could up serving as de facto playoff quarterfinal matchups
It was billed as the best weekend in college football and it wasn’t hard to see why.
Three games involving a pair of top-10 teams and another four more between ranked opponents. It had all the ingredients of an extra wild weekend in the best sport in the country.
As the sun rose on Sunday morning however, the 30,000-foot view of Week 11 was actually that it didn’t quite live up to all that early hype. There was not a ton of drama in blowouts among those three top-10 battles and there was only one true upset in Stanford beating up Washington on Friday night. Soon-to-be No. 1 Alabama was on the ropes at Mississippi State and previously No. 17-ranked Virginia Tech fell at Georgia Tech but that was pretty much the extent of the eye-openers.
But what we lacked in drama this past weekend, we more than made up for in terms of the College Football Playoff race. Given the results and ensuing chaos from South Florida to the Plains to Columbus to the West Coast, we may finally be barreling toward the one thing that a lot of fans have been clamoring for: a hypothetical eight-team playoff.
Think about it. We’re close to the point where the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 title games essentially act as quarterfinal matchups. Four of the eight spots are locked up after Saturday and we have a good idea of the other half of the bracket given the standings. There’s your eight-team playoff.
The winner of the Iron Bowl — either the top-ranked Crimson Tide or Auburn — against a one-loss Georgia would produce at least one team for the four spots and very likely land any of the three in the Sugar Bowl. That’s especially the case for the Tigers, who played Clemson close on the road earlier in the season and add three victories over top-10 teams in the month of November. The Bulldogs’ blowout loss likely ruled out the SEC from placing two teams in the final four but as we’ve seen numerous times over the years, whoever captures the title in Atlanta will likely get that No. 1 ranking the following Sunday.
Up the road in Charlotte, the winner of the Clemson/Miami ACC Championship Game is almost a lock given how impressive the two have looked. Both have secured their spots in the title game and it seems pretty likely they’ll both be a combined 22-1 heading into that Dec. 2 contest with everything to play for. South Carolina in a rivalry game setting is the biggest obstacle at the moment to all this happening but the Tigers have come through adversity with flying colors after beating Florida State (and covering) on Saturday. It doesn’t seem like Virginia at home or a trip to play lowly Pitt (which lost to 1-8 UNC at home) will stand much chance against the turnover chain either.
The Big 12 Championship Game may prove to be a little interesting but it will be, at a minimum, a play-in game for Oklahoma in Arlington. The Sooners would not only be the best one-loss team in the country, but they’ll have the opportunity to win the deepest Power 5 league and rack up an impressive number of top-15 wins going into Selection Sunday. TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia are the other potential opponents (see No. 6 below) but it seems likely that the Horned Frogs will have a rematch with Baker Mayfield and company a few miles from their campus in early December.
If Gary Patterson’s group would be able to pull off the upset at AT&T Stadium to avenge one of their two losses, they’d also have a decent case to be in the final four themselves with at least two top 10-15 wins and a conference title from one of the best leagues in the country.
Then there’s the Big Ten.
Let’s get this out of the way: if Wisconsin runs the table and is an undefeated Power 5 champion, the Badgers are in. They will likely play Ohio State out of the East Division, which still has a pretty good shot to make it in if they convincingly win out (see No. 4 below).
The Pac-12 has all but played themselves out of the running as USC, Washington State, Washington or three-loss Stanford would all lose the argument against any of the other teams above (outside of, perhaps, a one-loss Big Ten champ Wisconsin). The same could be said for Notre Dame, which made the committee’s job much easier by getting run over by Miami on Saturday and would need a huge amount of help to sneak into the final four. So much, in fact, that the Irish might be behind an undefeated UCF squad in the pecking order.
That leaves us with four games on championship weekend in Atlanta, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Arlington that are all going to be win-and-in quarterfinals.
One wrench in the whole thing? Alabama wins out in the regular season but loses in Atlanta to a one-loss Georgia team in a close game. That could be enough for the committee to keep the two SEC squads in the playoff at the expense of the winner of the Big Ten. That is, unless Wisconsin is undefeated at the time.
Either way, people have been clamoring for an eight-team playoff since plans for the current postseason iteration were first announced. After this weekend, we’re one step closer to it becoming reality as we barrel toward another exciting pair of semifinal games.
Here are the other takeaways from a wild week:
2. The U is almost all the way back
There were not a ton of jaw-dropping surprises in Week 11 but the way that Miami absolutely dominated third-ranked Notre Dame was the eye-opening takeaway of the weekend.
The Irish couldn’t run the ball (and Heisman contender Josh Adams appeared to get injured), couldn’t throw it without tossing an interception and could barely get a stop defensively. Maybe the biggest feather in the cap of the ‘Canes was how they utterly dominated the line of scrimmage, causing plenty of issues for that highly touted wall on the left side of the offensive line and limiting pressure on Malik Rosier as well.
All those close games earlier in the season shaped our perception of Miami being a team that was more lucky than good, as the Hurricanes narrowly squeaked out wins and needed some wild fourth-quarter comebacks against Florida State and Georgia Tech. Now it’s finally time to admit that Mark Richt’s team is both lucky and very good. It goes without saying that this young roster is a year ahead of schedule in their rebuild and it’s time to acknowledge that an undefeated run, an elusive ACC title and a playoff bid are not out of the cards.
The “U” is not back just yet but after that energy-filled game at Hard Rock Stadium with numerous appearances from the famous turnover chain, it’s pretty clear the swagger around the program is back and better than it has been in the past 15 years. There’s still work left to do for this team before the date with Clemson in Charlotte but this dream season continues unabated for another week.
3. Pac-12 isn’t elite, but it is at least interesting
Let’s face it, the Pac-12 isn’t in the playoff race this season but that doesn’t mean the conference isn’t intriguing — and we’re not just referring to the strangeness of #Pac12AfterDark.
USC has locked up the South division and has quietly started to play like the team we expected in August. QB Sam Darnold has been better at holding onto the football and the Trojans’ defense is pretty underrated all things considered given how well they rush the passer. This isn’t an elite-level team in the same category of the Auburns, Ohio States and others, but it’s turned into a solid team that looks very much like the favorite to capture USC’s first conference title since 2008.
Elsewhere in the South, Arizona’s Khalil Tate remains must-see TV when he’s playing late at night — he had another 70-plus-yard touchdown run on Saturday — and UCLA and Josh Rosen are fighting hard to make a bowl game push after being left for dead a few weeks ago. Even Arizona State and Colorado are capable of beating anybody given the right circumstances.
Up in the North division, all Mike Leach’s team needs to do to make it to the title game is beat their rival Washington in two weeks. The Cougars’ defense has been amazing this season and that was the case once again when they went in to Salt Lake City and clamped down on Utah. The offense still seems to be of varying effectiveness depending on the day but there’s no doubt that Luke Falk can light you up if you’re not comfortable defending the Air Raid. Now they’ll have a bye week to rest up before the Apple Cup and have a good shot at knocking off their rivals in Seattle for the first time in a decade.
That’s not even getting to Stanford, which continues to win ugly but kept their own hopes for a division title alive by putting the foot down on the Huskies last Friday. This has not been an easy campaign for David Shaw given issues on both sides of the ball but a healthy Bryce Love seems to make all the difference in the world and the Cardinal may still have a little left in the tank when Notre Dame rolls into the Farm at the end of the month too.
All of which is to say that while many are forgetting about the Pac-12 as the playoff race unfolds elsewhere around the country, there’s still plenty to tune in for out West.
4. Ohio State isn’t dead yet
When I was looking at the playoff picture late Saturday night and tweeted that the Buckeyes are still alive to make the playoff, the reaction from around the country was unanimous: you’re crazy. Well, to be honest, it’s really not.
Lots of folks are judging Ohio State by who they lost to: getting run over at home by Baker Mayfield and blown out on the road by an Iowa team that rarely puts up bunches of points like that. However, the committee has been pretty consistent on valuing more who teams beat than who they lost to. Urban Meyer’s team, even with two losses, could have a good enough resume to take advantage of the current chaos we find ourselves in.
It’s not unlike what the team did back in 2014 on their way to a national title, albeit with the stain of a loss to the Hawkeyes. Still, they could conceivably beat top-20 teams like Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan during the final five weeks of the season and then add a victory over an undefeated or one-loss Wisconsin in Indianapolis. That is more “good” wins in a month than teams like Georgia, Miami, USC or TCU have been able to muster this season and adding a conference title could be a better bullet point in their favor than some people think. If there’s one spot left, the resume comes out favorable for the Buckeyes against just about anybody not named Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma.
Plus, let’s face it, this is still a very talented football team who would have a shot in a semifinal game against just about anybody.
You can bet all hell would be raised by folks around the country if the committee does indeed put them in, especially given everybody’s memory of what happened last season in putting OSU ahead of Penn State… and then seeing the Buckeyes lay a goose egg in the Fiesta Bowl. But this is a different set of circumstances in 2017 and when you’ve got a potential 11-2 conference champion with four top-25 wins, they’re going to have a case against potential one- or two-loss losers of conference title games.
There still needs to be a lot that has to happen, but if the cards break the right way it seems like Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes may still have a shot at another title despite being left for dead in Iowa City.
5. Stop discounting Wisconsin, the Badgers are flat out good
Speaking of the Big Ten, it’s time to stop discounting Paul Chryst’s team. This is a good college football team. Do I think they’d beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game? Not at the moment. But it doesn’t damper the incredible season the Badgers have had in Madison so far this year.
Wisconsin clinched their fifth trip to Indianapolis on Saturday in the seven seasons the league has put on the game. That’s a heck of a winning percentage even if the Badgers have benefited from being in the lighter division. This year’s team is following a similar formula to those past editions — running the ball and playing good defense — but this might be the most well-rounded bunch the school has seen and they’ve been terrific when it matters in the second half.
If Alex Hornibrook can avoid making some of the throws like he did against Iowa (two pick-sixes, one of which was tipped), you really can’t discount the possibility of winning out. Injuries have hampered the postseason ceiling this team could have but Wisconsin knows exactly what it needs to do on a weekly basis and execute better than team not named Alabama.
6. Big 12 title scenarios
The most impressive feat of the weekend might have been Baker Mayfield and the Sooners’ offense torching Gary Patterson’s highly touted defense in the first half of what looks to be a Big 12 title preview. The Horned Frogs are one of the few teams west of the Mississippi to really take playing defense seriously and their two-deep averages over a full season’s worth of starting experience.
Instead, the game was over after two quarters and now we can turn our attention to who will be playing at AT&T Stadium next month for the championship.
Oklahoma can clinch its spot on Saturday with a win over lowly Kansas. While the Jayhawks proved to be shockingly resilient down in Austin, we’ll go ahead and write the Sooners in as occupying one of the two spots. The team they just beat probably should be considered as the next favorite, and TCU could very well be primed to pull off an upset just a few miles from campus.
To get there, the Horned Frogs need to win out and they’d be in thanks to tie-breakers over the other contenders. The trip to Texas Tech and against rival Baylor won’t be walks in the park but if this is the Horned Frogs team we’ve seen earlier in the year, both should be victories to wrap up a rematch with OU. Should they lose though, the door opens to Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
The Cowboys would be best positioned to set up another Bedlam game as they get both Kansas and Kansas State at home to end the year. At the very least this team is playing for a New Year’s Six berth (likely the Cotton Bowl) so even if they don’t wind up getting help from TCU, Mike Gundy’s group could still benefit from a strong close. The long shot of the bunch is the Mountaineers, who need both the Cowboys and Horned Frogs to lose while they win out. The latter seems the most unlikely scenario given they host a dangerous Texas team and would need to upset Oklahoma on Senior Day in Norman to make it in.
7. AAC has locked up Group of 5 bid
You know who probably had the best weekend given all the upsets? That would be AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, whose conference almost assuredly locked up the Group of 5 bid given some of the results around the country.
The league got a nice gift on Wednesday night when Ohio absolutely demolished a Toledo team that had only one loss (at Miami, a game in which it played better than the final score indicated). While the Rockets and Bobcats could still wind up as conference champions come Selection Sunday, their two losses and otherwise weak level of competition probably knocks the MAC out of contention. Toledo might have had a shot to secure the bid with just one loss but a second one will mean the league won’t be returning to New Year’s Day.
Out west, Boise State played a wild game at Colorado State in which it never led until overtime and had to mount a comeback from 28-3 early in the first half. The Broncos have righted the ship since some early losses but still are not playing at the level that other AAC teams are at the moment. Plus, the boys on the blue turf still have three relatively difficult games upcoming should they reach the MWC title game.
That should leave the AAC as the selection committee’s choice by default for what will likely be a Peach Bowl trip. UCF continues to impress and is the easy favorite given the way it is playing but Memphis (8-1, 5-1 out of the West division) and USF (8-1, 5-1 in the East) also control their own destiny for the bid if they win out. The Knights would get both teams at home after Thanksgiving but there’s really not a whole lot standing in the way of the league collecting a nice check and proving they can play with their “Power 6” brothers on a big stage at this point.
Plus, given all the discussion of teams like Ohio State, Wisconsin and Georgia making it into the playoff after Tuesday, there also will be plenty of calls (even if unrealistic) for an undefeated UCF to make it to the final four to boost the league’s perception even further. Aresco didn’t coach a team on Saturday but he certainly had the best week of any of his peers.
Stat(s) of the Week
This is the first time Alabama has allowed 3 rushing TDs in a game in the Nick Saban era.— Ben Jones (@BW_Jones) November 12, 2017
Lamar Jackson just became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.— LouisvilleFootball (@UofLFootball) November 11, 2017
Tweet of the Week
Tennessee's most recent game vs each SEC team:— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) November 12, 2017
Alabama - L 45-7
Arkansas - L 24-20
Auburn - L 55-23
Florida - L 26-20
Georgia - L 41-0
Kentucky - L 29-26
LSU - L 38-7
Mizzou - L 50-17
Miss State - L 41-31
Ole Miss - L 34-3
SCar - L 15-9
Texas A&M - L 45-38
Vandy - L 45-34
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State
Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Bryce Love (Stanford), 3. Khalil Tate (Arizona), 4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 5. Saquon Barkley (Penn State)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Clemson, 4. Ohio State
Team of the week: Auburn
Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Quote of the week: “They used to call us convicts, but we’re like first in the country in community service. I don’t think convicts do that — willingly at least.” — Miami QB Malik Rosier
Play of the Week
Joe Moorhead is pretty, pretty good. Helps to have Saquon Barkley too. pic.twitter.com/3610Qa3WCp— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 11, 2017
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 12.
3. Miami (FL)
9. Ohio State
10. Notre Dame
13. Oklahoma State
14. Washington State
16. Penn State
Best of the rest: NC State, Michigan, Iowa State, Stanford, LSU, Washington, Arizona, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech
Michigan at Wisconsin
If there’s anybody who can stop Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers’ ground game, it’s Don Brown’s defense given the push it gets up front and how well the linebackers fill running lanes. The problem is the Wolverines’ offense on the road, and in a place like Camp Randall with fans smelling playoff. This will be a close back-and-forth game but one where the home team sneaks out with a six-point win.
Texas at West Virginia
Not the best of slates for Week 12 but this is one intriguing game in the Big 12 considering the Mountaineers have some slim conference title hopes at the moment. The Longhorns’ defense is legitimate and it seems like they’re getting healthy enough on offense to become a more balanced squad. We haven’t had an upset under Tom Herman yet but Texas goes on the road to get the win in this one on Saturday.
FIU at FAU
Yes, it’s true — Butch Davis and Lane Kiffin battling for a division title is one of the three or four most interesting games on Saturday. The Owls have been close to perfect on offense since Conference USA play began and have the stronger roster among the two local rivals. Kiffin and company get things done at home in blowout fashion, hopefully upping their head coach’s Twitter game even more.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)