Flaws that could eliminate Playoff contenders as we race toward Selection Day
The conference title game picture is becoming clearer throughout the land. With it, the College Football Playoff chase solidifies as well.
It’s all happening Dec. 19. Florida vs. Alabama. Clemson vs. Notre Dame. Northwestern vs. Ohio State (probably — more on this in a moment).
Unless there are truly astonishing upsets, like Arkansas beating No. 1 Alabama or Michigan defeating No. 4 Ohio State, the top 7 now should be the top 7 going into Championship Weekend.
Now that the SEC and ACC title games are set, we can completely forget about No. 8 Georgia and No. 10 Miami, who won’t play for league titles and will be, at best, 3rd in their own leagues. Toss aside No. 9 Iowa State and No. 11 Oklahoma — it’s fantastic for the Cyclones that they get to play for the chance at their 1st conference title since 1912, but there is no way a 2-loss Big 12 team breaks into the top 4.
As for the Pac-12? All 3 of that league’s undefeated teams going into this weekend were ranked behind Sun Belt unbeaten Coastal Carolina (which did us all a favor by getting rid of BYU). Coastal, No. 18 last week, will rise Tuesday and leave the whole Pac-12 trailing again.
That leaves 7 contenders, but what factors might keep any of these teams out of the CFP? Let’s look at them in the order that they were ranked in last week’s CFP poll.
Alabama: Florida’s offense
Again, unless the No. 1 Crimson Tide somehow lose to Arkansas this week, Bama should go to the CFP even with a loss to Florida in the SEC title game. Here’s one scenario, however unlikely, where the Tide could get left out: The Gators’ offense goes nuts in Atlanta and clobbers the Tide. Then Clemson barely beats Notre Dame, meaning the CFP committee could well take both Clemson and Notre Dame from the ACC (those teams would have split 2 narrow games). Ohio State gets to the B1G title game and rolls, remaining unbeaten. UF, of course, would leap past Texas A&M and Alabama for the 4th entry. There’s every reason to think the Ole Miss game was an aberration for Bama’s defense. Then again, there’s reason to think Kyle Trask and the Gators, ranked 12th in the nation in total offense, fear nobody.
Notre Dame: A better Clemson offense
The No. 2 Fighting Irish, of course, beat Clemson in double overtime in South Bend on Nov. 7. Freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei had a terrific game for the Tigers, throwing for 439 yards. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that Clemson’s offense is at its best under Trevor Lawrence, who missed the Notre Dame game after a positive COVID-19 test. If that weren’t true, Uiagalelei would be starting, right? (Remember Dabo Sweeney benching Kelly Bryant for Lawrence?) So it will presumably be a Clemson offense firing on all cylinders that the Fighting Irish will face on Dec. 19 in Charlotte — and a Tigers offense not operating at 100% racked up 473 yards and 40 points in the 1st meeting between the teams.
Clemson: Proving ground
All that stuff we just said about No. 3 Clemson in the entry above overlooks one fact — the Tigers gained just 34 yards on 33 rushing attempts against the Fighting Irish a month ago. And that had nothing to do with Lawrence being out. It seems insane to question any rushing attack that features Travis Etienne, but that Notre Dame game was in the middle of a 3-game stretch where Clemson averaged less than 4 yards a carry in each game. Clemson is just 69th in the country in rushing offense at 158 yards per game, and Notre Dame brings a fierce defensive front ranking 1st in the nation in Stuff Rating (percentage of carries stopped for no gain or negative yards) according to Football Outsiders.
Ohio State: A 6th game
Just like last week, a question very typical of 2020 lingers in Columbus: Will the Buckeyes get to play this week? After a spate of coronavirus cases within the OSU program wiped out the game against Maryland, the Buckeyes were uncertain to face Michigan State on Saturday. That game happened and OSU won by 40, bolstering the CFP case for the No. 4 Buckeyes. Now comes the same question: Will OSU get to play archrival Michigan this week after a slew of positive tests within the Wolverines program last week led them to cancel their game? The Big Ten has said teams need to play 6 games to qualify for the title game, and OSU is 5-0. Would the B1G change its mind about a minimum-games requirement to win a division — a requirement no other league imposed? How would the CFP committee react if OSU is 6-0 (after a division crossover game during Championship Week) but not a conference champion?
Texas A&M: Lack of impending opportunity
Stop us if you have heard this before: The Aggies are in a weird spot for a team ranked No. 5 in the first 2 CFP polls. They can’t win the SEC West — Alabama already clinched that. So they can’t go to the title game. Texas A&M has 2 games left, against 4-4 Ole Miss and 2-6 Tennessee. No matter what the margin, neither win would impress the CFP folks. A&M really had 2 chances at glory and split them: The Aggies defeated Florida, but got crushed by Alabama. That Crimson Tide game, fairly or unfairly, defines A&M more than any of the 7 wins so far. The Aggies need a lot of help: Basically, root for the Gators, Buckeyes and Clemson Tigers to lose big somewhere in the next 2 weeks. Simply, A&M had 1 chance to control their fate. It happened in Tuscaloosa. It likely will not happen again.
Florida: Lack of a running game
For all of the accolades Trask is receiving in his Heisman Trophy campaign, and they are all deserved, there is one glaring flaw with the Florida offense. UF is ranked 101st in the country in rushing. It’s an indicator of how good Trask has been — has had to be — that a team ranking 10th in scoring and 12th in total offense is so poor at running. Saturday against Tennessee, the Gators gained 19 yards on 17 carries, their fewest since they had 11 yards against Michigan in 2017. That was the 4th time this season Florida has run for less than 100 yards. Dameon Pierce is the leading rusher for UF in 2020 with just 417 yards and 3 touchdowns. Again, the aerial attack coming out of Gainesville is awesome, but do you think Alabama fears UF’s running attack the way Florida needs to fear Najee Harris? Didn’t think so.
No, not the fact that the school is in Cincinnati. We mean location as in outside the Power 5. The fact that the undefeated leader of the American Athletic Conference is even in this conversation is pretty amazing. That goes double in a year when the Bearcats didn’t have a chance to prove themselves with a big nonconference win as Group of 5 teams often do. Cincinnati was ranked higher last week than any Group of 5 team has ever been, and they should stay at No. 7 Tuesday. The Bearcats also face a ranked team: No. 24 Tulsa is ahead on Saturday and, no matter the result, the Bearcats and Golden Hurricane will stage a rematch on Dec. 19 for the AAC title. Beating Tulsa twice is OK, should coach Luke Fickell’s team do so. But like Texas A&M, Cincinnati just doesn’t have a chance for a truly big-name win in the next 2 weeks, and there are too many teams in front of the Bearcats.