CFB playoff: Alabama, Penn State still contenders despite losses
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“One Small kick for Seth, one giant leap for Aggiekind” T-shirts sold separately in College Station):
FIRST QUARTER: DOWN GOES ‘BAMA, AND OTHERS WILL FOLLOW
For the first time since 2014, the power trio of Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson all have lost before mid-October. But here’s the thing: both the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes still made the College Football Playoff that season, with Ohio State winning it all. So the sky is not falling in Tuscaloosa or Columbus (Clemson is another matter; wear a hard hat if you’re on campus).
Fact is, there are plenty of pathways for one-loss teams to still reach the playoff because the remaining field of unbeatens will be weeding itself out. There are 13 left, and eight of them play each other at some point: Kentucky at Georgia Saturday; Michigan at Michigan State Oct. 30; SMU at Cincinnati Nov. 20; and Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Nov. 27. The winners obviously will enhance their playoff resumes, and the losers could still be in the mix as well. (Some of those teams will probably lose before those games are played.)
Of the other five, only two are in Power 5 conferences and in realistic consideration for the playoff if they run the table: Wake Forest and Iowa. The Demon Deacons are a pleasant surprise story, with their first 6-0 record since 1944—a time when the student body was 100 percent white and 79 percent male, and the college was actually located in Wake Forest and not Winston-Salem, some 100 miles away. But the Demon Deacons have won their last two games by field goals at the end against mediocre competition; their time is coming. Iowa, with its formidable belief in the fundamental tenets of the game, could go deep into this season without a loss, but it’s hard to see the Hawkeyes going 13–0. Maybe 12–0, but that 13th could be the hard part.
Outside of the unbeatens, here is how The Dash would order the current one-loss teams in terms of playoff viability:
Alabama (1). How bad is the loss: three points at the gun on the road in front of 100,000 fans isn’t terrible, but Texas A&M was an unranked, two-loss team going into the game. How good are the victories: beating Mississippi by three touchdowns is strong; surviving at Florida is pretty strong.
Even with the loss, the Crimson Tide (5–1) control their own destiny in the SEC West—win out, and they’re going to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference championship game. The hard part is what would happen if they get there, likely needing to beat Georgia to make the playoff. It’s possible that a two-loss Alabama team could still get in if they play the Bulldogs close, but for now that is definitely the hard way. The Tide has proven to be a shaky road team thus far, especially defensively. (Remaining road games: at Mississippi State Saturday and at Auburn Nov. 27.) If Alabama gets to 11–1, it still could be outside the top four—but beating Georgia could ultimately be the best win any team has on its playoff resume.
Penn State (2). How bad is the loss: three points on the road against a top-five team is hardly enough to knock a team out of contention. Then factor in the injury to quarterback Sean Clifford, who left the game with the Nittany Lions leading 17–3. That’s a huge mitigating factor. How good are the victories: beating Auburn is good; beating Wisconsin and Indiana is OK.
Ultimately, the Big Ten East will sort itself out between Oct. 30 and Nov. 27, when the four teams at the top of that division all play each other. But if Penn State can get through the slate 11–1 and head into a potential rematch with Iowa in the Big Ten title game, the opportunity is there. Of course, it’s also impossible to see the Nittany Lions doing that if Clifford is out for any of the key games left on the schedule. They might be able to beat Illinois without him after an open date to bring backup Ta’Quan Roberson up to speed following his painful outing at Iowa, but that’s about it.
Oregon (3). How bad is the loss: of the teams on this list, the Ducks lost to the weakest team in Stanford (3–3). But they also had a boatload of circumstances that must be taken into consideration: offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead missed the game with an illness; leading rusher C.J. Verdell left the game in the third quarter with an injury; and Stanford tied the game on an untimed down at the end of regulation after a controversial penalty in the end zone. How good are the victories: beating Ohio State in the Horseshoe while shorthanded defensively, in a game where Oregon was clearly the better team that day, is the best win any team has had this season.
Unfortunately for the Ducks, the remaining schedule doesn’t offer a lot of quality-win opportunity. Every remaining regular-season opponent has lost at least twice. It’s possible that one-loss Oregon and one-loss Arizona State meet up in the Pac-12 championship game, which would help the winner’s resume. But the Ducks also are dealing with so many injuries that they might not be able to get there at 11–1. And a two-loss Pac-12 team definitely isn’t going to the playoff.
Ohio State (4). How bad is the loss: the Buckeyes were beaten by a good team in Oregon, but did so at home and never led in the game. Their best argument for downplaying the result is that it was the second week of the season with a young team still figuring itself out. How good are the victories: routing Maryland made a statement, but we’ll see if it still holds up later in the season (the Terrapins have a habit of collapsing as the year goes along); beating Minnesota isn’t bad.
Like the rest of its loaded division, Ohio State’s heavy lifting lies ahead. If the Buckeyes keep up their offensive onslaught of recent weeks, they will be tough to beat. Should they get through Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa at 12–1, they’re in great shape—unless they’re still boxed out by Oregon. Ohio State fans should root for the Ducks’s demise to free themselves of that potential roadblock to the playoff.
Baylor (5). How bad is the loss: good opponent, bad performance. It was a double-digit defeat on the road against a currently unbeaten team (Oklahoma State), in a game the Bears trailed for the final 55 minutes. We’ll see how good the Cowboys end up being. How good are the victories: beating Iowa State is the signature win to date, and it’s not exactly a flag-planter at this point. Baylor has done nothing of note on the road.
The Bears (5–1) do have some opportunities ahead, and they’re all in Waco. The next two games are against ranked opponents (BYU and Texas), and Oklahoma comes to town Nov. 13. And there is the possibility of another big game in the Big 12 title game. But Baylor is a fringe playoff contender until it can prove otherwise by stacking up some other quality wins.
Notre Dame (6). How bad is the loss: losing by 11 at home will leave a mark, but the opponent was undefeated Cincinnati. As noted above with Baylor, that’s a good-opponent, bad-performance defeat. How good are the victories: not very. The Fighting Irish have a trio of three-point wins over mediocre teams that were pulled out at the end, plus bigger margins of victory against Big Ten disappointment Wisconsin and Big Ten mid-pack team Purdue.
It’s hard to find a path for Notre Dame to get to the playoff at 11–1. A schedule that appeared to have some juicy matchups before the season has fallen apart, with Wisconsin, North Carolina and USC all tanking. If your best argument is losing to a really good team, that isn’t much. And even against middling competition, it’s hard to see this Irish team going the rest of the way with only one loss.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
How The Dash would set the bracket if today were Selection Sunday:
Orange Bowl: top seed Georgia (7) vs. fourth seed Michigan (8).
The Bulldogs (6–0) have been the best team in the nation all season, but there now is no arguing it with Alabama’s comeuppance in College Station. Georgia continued to roll with Stetson Bennett at quarterback in place of injured JT Daniels, but mostly it rolled at Auburn behind its ridiculous defense. Auburn’s long running play of the game: nine yards. Georgia is allowing 5.5 points per game, with nobody else in the nation holding opponents to single digits.
Next for Georgia: Kentucky between the hedges Saturday in a big one.
The Wolverines (6–0) are the new arrival in the bracket, after their closest scrape of the season at Nebraska. Michigan was pushed on the road by the Cornhuskers, but produced a late turnover and then converted the winning field goal. Jim Harbaugh’s offense is becoming more versatile, with some big moments in the passing game and the advancement of Hassan Haskins as second weapon in the running game alongside Blake Corum.
Next for Michigan: Northwestern at home Oct. 23.
Cotton Bowl: second seed Iowa (9) against third seed Cincinnati (10).
The Hawkeyes (6–0) did what they do so well Saturday, beating Penn State with takeaways and field position and knocking the Nittany Lions’s quarterback out of the game. Quarterback Spencer Petras overcame an awful start to the game to deliver a huge touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and Iowa eked just enough out of its running game to keep the Nittany Lions defense honest and set up that TD pass. The postgame field storm was one for the memory banks for all involved.
Next for Iowa: Purdue at home Saturday.
The Bearcats (5–0) did what good teams do, dominating an inferior opponent and allowing no hopes of an upset. In crushing Temple 52–3, Cincinnati ran for a season-high 279 yards, with Jerome Ford having his best day as a Bearcat (149 rushing yards, two touchdowns). Cincinnati also racked up a season-high six sacks against the Owls.
Next for Cincinnati: Central Florida at home Saturday, in what looked like a big game before the injury to Golden Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel.
Dropped out: Penn State.
Also considered: Michigan State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon, Penn State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State.