Potential Playoff Participants' Portfolios
Takeaways from a chaotic weekend when four of the top eight teams in college football (No. 2 Georgia, No. 6 West Virginia, No. 7 Washington and No. 8 Penn State) were all upset:
Big Four: The current top four all have a very good shot at getting into the playoff. No. 1 Alabama is clearly the cream of the crop this year. Even with an unexpected loss at LSU or in the SEC Championship game, Coach Nick Saban’s juggernaut would almost certainly still be in the top four. No. 2 Ohio State has been the second most impressive team to this point and might survive an upset loss to Michigan.
No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Notre Dame have had some close calls this season, and while both will be favored in the rest of their games, there are several potential potholes. The Irish must win at USC and beat Syracuse, Northwestern and Florida State at home. Clemson must negotiate unbeaten NC State this week, and some potential traps (Florida State, BC and South Carolina), plus that pesky ACC Championship game.
Contenders: If anyone falters, the top challengers waiting in the wings are No. 5 LSU, No. 6 Michigan, and the winner of this weekend’s game between No. 8 Georgia and No. 11 Florida.
LSU has had the best resume in college football so far—with wins over ranked (at the time) Miami, Auburn, Mississippi and Georgia. Michigan will get in with a win over Ohio State and a victory in the BIG Championship game; an early season loss to Notre Dame, before transfer QB Shea Patterson got comfortable, wouldn’t disqualify the Wolverines.
Big 12? Notice I didn’t include any teams from the Big 12, where defense is a lost art. Since No. 7 Texas, No. 13 West Virginia and No. 9 Oklahoma all already have one loss, and each team has one or more tough games remaining, there doesn’t seem to be a realistic path to the top four.
Pac-12? Barring a miracle, the Pac-12 will be on the outside looking in for the fourth time in five playoff years. Oregon’s overtime victory over Washington eliminated the Huskies, who were already on the edge because of a previous loss to an Auburn team that now has lost three games.
The 12th-ranked Ducks should be in the thick of the playoff hunt, but they gave away the Stanford game with 1) a bad snap on the goal line that turned into a Cardinal touchdown and 2) a catastrophic coaching error in the final minute when the game was in hand. With no significant non-conference wins, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Oregon could climb into the top four, even if it runs the table.
Speaking of Stanford…
Must win at ASU: Now 4-2 after back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Utah, Stanford still controls its own destiny. If it wins out—which will be no small task given upcoming games with Arizona State, Washington State and Washington—it will win the Pac-12 North on the basis of head-to-head wins over the Ducks, Cougs and Huskies.
The first step is Thursday night’s contest in Tempe, where the Sun Devils are historically very tough.
The faltering Stanford defense must step up. After giving up just 23 points in its first three games, the Cardinal has allowed 109 in the last three. ASU has an excellent QB in Manny Wilkins, plus an emerging star in running back Eno Benjamin. (Things will get no easier next week, when Mike Leach brings his potent passing game into Stanford Stadium).
All of which makes this week’s contest a “must-win” for the Cardinal. And as we noted last week, we believe Coach David Shaw must open up the offense for Stanford to win.
Cal Blues: Things have gone from bad to worse in Berkeley, where Cal opened 3-0 and has now lost three straight, including an embarrassing 37-7 loss to previously winless UCLA on Saturday. With only one “winnable” game left—this weekend at Oregon State, which is no sure thing—the Bears will need a couple of major upsets to get bowl eligible.
The main culprit has been turnovers. The Bears have turned the ball over 14 times in the three losses. Quarterback Brandon McIlwain has been responsible for 11 of those turnovers, five of which have been returned for touchdowns. That’s not a typo—11 turnovers by the QB in three games, five of which have resulted in touchdowns for the opposing team.
Many fans are wondering why Coach Justin Wilcox was so quick to bench last year’s starter, Ross Bowers, and turn his team over to a promising yet undisciplined quarterback who does not take care of the ball. Bowers led the Bears to a 5-7 record last season and seemingly had the team poised to make some noise this year. It’s worth noting Bowers had only 12 interceptions all last season.
Replay Fiasco: If its on-the-field woes weren’t enough, the Pac-12 was humiliated once again last week when it was revealed that a critical targeting call in the USC-Washington State game was overturned at the suggestion of conference general counsel Woodie Dixon, who was in the replay booth providing “oversight.” How an administrator with no officiating experience was allowed to participate in the replay process, and offer an opinion that was apparently misconstrued as a directive, is hard to fathom.
But the Pac-12’s football officiating has been a national laughingstock for many years, and this will only serve to further advance that narrative.
Heisman Update: The clear leader in the Heisman race through the first half of the season is Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Through seven weeks, he has passed for 1760 yards and 21 touchdowns, with no interceptions, despite often playing little more than half the game.
Two other top quarterbacks—Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray—are a distant second and third behind Tagovailoa. West Virginia’s Will Grier and Penn State’s Trace McSorley fell back after losing efforts last weekend.