There are 10 teams that have (or at least should have) a reasonable case for the College Football Playoff. Here’s a concise look at all ten…
Alabama: Coming into Saturday night, there were only two knocks to possibly have against the Tide. They hadn’t beaten anyone and their defense—while still good—wasn’t nationally elite, like some of Nick Saban’s best units have been. After a 29-0 road demolition of third-ranked LSU neither concern can exist. Tua Tagovoila is cruising to the Heisman ad Alabama is cruising to the College Football Playoff. The noteworthy games left are Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Tide can likely withstand a loss and remain in the top four.
Clemson: The Tigers have a dominant defensive front four led by defensive tackle Clelin Ferrell, one of the best in the nation. After some early escapes against pretty good teams—Texas A&M and Syracuse—Clemson has come on strong of late. Trevor Lawrence at quarterback has given the Tigers a downfield passing game they didn’t have last year. The looming question—could they survive a loss and still make the Playoff? Boston College, Duke and South Carolina are all capable of springing an upset, but none are so good that they could be easily overlooked at this point of season.
Notre Dame: The quarterback change to Ian Book over talented, but erratic Brandon Wimbush probably saved Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes. Book is efficient and has a supporting cast that is both balanced, yet still with a clear go-to player in wide receiver Miles Boykin. The defense has playmakers in the front seven, led by Khalid Kareem and Jerry Tillery. The close calls at home against Ball State and Vanderbilt came when Wimbush was still the starter. But there was also a narrow escape against Pitt and upcoming foes Florida State, Syracuse and USC have at least as much potential as the Panthers.
Michigan & Ohio State: The Wolverines and Buckeyes are joined at the hip, with their November 24 rivalry game set to settle the Big Ten East and probably the conference title. There is absolutely no question that right now, Michigan is better. Their loss was at Notre Dame and it was close. Ohio State lost at Purdue and was blown out.
The Wolverines have blowout wins over Penn State and Wisconsin and a win at West Division leader Northwestern. The Buckeyes had to fight to survive woeful Nebraska at home. Michigan looks better as the season goes on, while Ohio State looks worse. The Wolverines have great defensive disruptors in Chase Winovich, Devin Bush and Josh Uche. The Buckeye defense is ranked 46th in the country and hemorrhaging.
Having said all that…based on recent recruiting classes, the Buckeyes still have more raw talent. They have the November 24 game in Columbus. They have owned Michigan in the 21st century. They have a dynamic offense with quarterback Dwayne Haskins providing an explosive element that often seemed missing in previous years. Ohio State has tough road games at Michigan State and Maryland that give them a chance to show progress before the Wolverines come south.
Georgia: In all likelihood, Georgia controls its path to the Playoff and would move ahead of the Big Ten champ if they win out and finish 12-1. But when that path mandates beating Alabama in the SEC title game, it’s more than a small technicality. The schedule also includes a talented, if underachieving team in Auburn and a rivalry game with Georgia Tech where the look-ahead factor to ‘Bama will be in play. The Bulldogs might well be better than Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame, but a schedule that included LSU, as well as Alabama could be their undoing.
Oklahoma & West Virginia: The one-loss hopefuls from the Big 12 still play head-to-head. Each is getting great play at quarterback. OU’s Kyler Murray would be the Heisman frontrunner in any year where Tagovoila wasn’t running away with it. Murray is efficient, he makes down-the-field throws, he runs and he avoids mistakes. West Virginia’s Will Grier isn’t far behind and he made the throw of the year on Saturday to beat Texas in the closing minute.
The Mountaineer’s edge is on defense. They rank 35th in the country, while the Sooners are 74th. West Virginia also has the November 24 showdown in Morgantown. Oklahoma has the better pedigree—at least in the Big 12, they’re the program with a penchant for winning games like this, while WVA is the one thatshoots themselves in the foot at the wrong moment. The Sooners schedule is also a bit easier, as the Mountaineers must still play TCU and Oklahoma State.
Ultimately, both teams have the Big 12 format working against them. The league’s top two teams play in Dallas for the conference championship on December 1, meaning OU-West Virginia could be on tap for two straight weeks, with the same team needing to win both games.
Washington State: The Cougars have become the class of the Pac-12 and this conference’s last hope for the Playoff. Quarterback Gardner Minshew is spreading the ball all over the field with a completion rate over 70 percent. He threw a late TD to beat Cal on Saturday night. Washington State has also beaten Oregon, Stanford and Utah. The defense, ranked 45th, is surprisingly above average for a Leach team. The November 24 Apple Cup rivalry with Washington will settle the Pac-12 North. A trip to Colorado and a potential conference title game against a mediocre South champ also await.
Central Florida: Do you believe an undefeated team from the mid-majors should get a shot, so long as there aren’t four unbeaten teams from the power conferences? I do, but won’t waste space arguing the bigger picture philosophical point here. Especially given that the Committee has all but decided to leave Central Florida by the wayside for a second straight year. But they do deserve at least a mention.
UCF gets good quarterback play from dual threat McKenzie Milton, although the 58% completion rate is a little low. The defense, led by edge disruptor Titus Davis, ranks 24th and the resume includes a blowout win over Pitt—the same Panther team that Notre Dame had to squeak by. The biggest problem UCF faces is that the road to perfection isn’t easy. Cincinnati and South Florida will be credible opponents. So will Houston in a potential AAC Championship Game. Even Navy, in the midst of a bad year, could spring an upset on Saturday.
My own projection as to how the New Year’s Six major bowls will shake out:
Cotton (Playoff Semi-Final): Alabama-Ohio State
Orange (Playoff Semi-Final): Clemson-Notre Dame
Rose: Michigan-Washington State
Fiesta: Georgia-Central Florida
Peach: West Virginia-Kentucky