Saturday was a win for college football, a significant victory for the sport that is already enjoying a wildly unpredictable and thrilling regular season.
Losses by Notre Dame and Georgia went a long way to guaranteeing heavy drama for championship weekend three weeks from now. It cleared up the College Football Playoff picture yet kept the participants in doubt.
It sets up the possibility of winner-take-all championship games in the ACC (Clemson-Miami), SEC (Georgia-Alabama), and Big Ten (Ohio State-Wisconsin), the victor selected to compete for a national championship, the loser going to a meaningless bowl game. Add in the Big 12 final, where Oklahoma will almost certainly be playing for its playoff life, too, and it has the makings for the most dramatic championship weekend since the playoff was installed four years ago.
Obviously, the final two weeks of the regular season could change this, but as it stands, those conference finals will be pseudo-elimination games, like an extra round of playoffs. Compare that to last year, when Ohio State made the playoff even without playing in its conference title game, while the other three entrants, Alabama, Washington and Clemson, faced non-contenders.
Start in the SEC, where Georgia’s ugly 40-17 loss at Auburn makes it unlikely the conference gets two teams. The Bulldogs now have to beat Alabama (or Auburn if it knocks off the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl) in the SEC title game. And, let’s say for argument sake, Alabama loses. The Crimson Tide isn’t a lock. Their best win would be Auburn, and really their only victory of significance unless you count LSU.
Moving over to the ACC, Miami’s rout of Notre Dame sets up a showdown with defending national champion Clemson for the conference crown. Both teams’ résumés are strong, each with several wins over ranked opponents, but Clemson could use a top-10 victory.
In the Big Ten, Wisconsin is one of four undefeated teams left in the country, and a win over Ohio State would be the signature victory the Badgers need. The Buckeyes, while saddled with two losses, have wins over Michigan State and Penn State now, and would have a legitimate argument if they can add Wisconsin to that group.
Aside from Ohio State and Clemson, in each conference, the loser would have an argument, but wouldn’t feel safe. The winner would be assured of a spot. This is what the playoff was intended to do, create interest, make championship weekend worth tuning in for. This year, it seems, it will deliver.
Two for the show
A lot would have to happen, and the smart money is against it, but this may finally be the year a two-loss team reaches the playoff. Auburn has the best chance, because the Tigers are in control of their destiny. They’re a third of the way there, after overwhelming Georgia on Saturday. Beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl in two weeks, and follow that up by knocking off the Bulldogs again in the SEC title game, and Auburn is headed to Pasadena or New Orleans.
The other two-loss team that has a puncher’s shot is Ohio State, as detailed above. It will happen eventually. Why not in this crazy year?
Everyone so certain Wisconsin and Miami were pretenders — myself included — has some egg on his face. Sure, there is time for them to slip up, and both will have massive challenges in their respective conference championship games, Wisconsin likely facing Ohio State, Miami meeting Clemson. But it is a lesson not to nitpick victories.
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Both were criticized for soft schedules and the unimpressive manner of their wins. But merely prevailing matters, whomever the opponent, however it is done. Miami proved its legitimacy by manhandling Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in consecutive weeks while Wisconsin made a similar statement by routing Iowa a week after the Hawkeyes bulldozed Ohio State. At this point, overlooking either program would be a mistake. Just look at the zero on the right side of the win-loss column.
1. Alabama (10-0) (Last week: 1)
Nick Saban’s juggernaut actually looked mortal for once, struggling on the road against Mississippi State. Of course, the Crimson Tide still found a way to win, rallying from three different deficits to remain perfect.
2. Oklahoma (9-1) (5)
If the Sooners’ defense is going to perform like this, limiting explosive TCU to just 20 points Saturday, Oklahoma is a co-national championship favorite alongside Alabama.
3. Miami (9-0) (6)
Was it really this season Miami was struggling with the likes of North Carolina and Syracuse? It sure doesn’t feel like it, after watching the Hurricanes treat Notre Dame and Virginia Tech like a pair of JV teams the last two weeks.
4. Clemson (9-1) (4)
Dabo Swinney and Co. clinched a third straight ACC Atlantic crown Saturday, further establishing themselves as the conference’s premier program.
Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow makes a catch.Getty Images
5. Wisconsin (10-0) (7)
Sure, the location was different — Wisconsin was at home, Ohio State on the road — but the Badgers walloping Iowa a week after the Hawkeyes annihilated the Buckeyes is certainly interesting.
6. Auburn (8-2) (NR)
Kerryon Johnson, big strong, decisive and fast, has some Adrian Peterson in him, and Georgia had no answers for the bulldozing junior, who gashed the Bulldogs for 233 total yards and a touchdown in a 40-17 rout.
7. Georgia (9-1) (2)
The Bulldogs looked a bit like Mike Tyson against Buster Douglas on Saturday at Auburn, unable to take a punch. After nine games of domination, it was Georgia who was dominated, offering little resistance.
8. Ohio State (8-2) (NR)
You have to drive a stake through the Buckeyes’ heart to finish them off. They came back from the dead with a 48-3 thumping of Michigan State, inching closer to the Big Ten East crown and keeping alive their long-shot playoff hopes.
9. Notre Dame (8-2) (3)
The Irish’s playoff hopes are all but over after they were exposed as pretenders by Miami in a 41-8 throttling.
10. USC (8-2) (NR)
Since the undressing at Notre Dame, the Trojans have won three straight games by a combined 135-76 to clinch the Pac-12 South crown.
Dropped out: Michigan State (7-3), Washington (8-2) and TCU (8-2).
QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Another flawless performance (18-of-27 for 333 yards, 3 TDs) against a high-caliber opponent in TCU has the senior signal-caller sitting pretty with three games to go.
RB Bryce Love, Stanford
This was just a reminder: When heathy, Love is the most electric running back in the sport, torching Washington and its fourth-ranked run defense for 166 yards and three touchdowns in an upset victory.
RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Over his last six games, Barkley has averaged 63.5 rushing yards per game, and over the past three games, just 2.8 yards per carry, a stunning lack of productivity considering how he started the season.
RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
The freshman from New Jersey has now reached 100 yards seven times, found pay dirt in all but two games, and is third in the nation in rushing yards (1,525).
QB Jalen Hurts, Alabama
With his team on the ropes, the sophomore elevated his play when needed the most, engineering a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives.