Making the case for OSU, 5 others in the Playoff race
The final week before the conference title games looked like a pretty ho-hum lineup.
Then LSU rolled into Gainesville and, for 1 night, the on-field chaos that permeates every normal college football season appeared in this 2020 season, which has been bizarre for a lot of other reasons.
The Gators threw a shoe, then threw away their national title hopes on Saturday in The Swamp. That loss knocked them out of the College Football Playoff race and left 6 contenders with a real shot — and 3 more teams that think they might have a shot but really should not.
Let’s look at these contenders and argue for why each of them deserves a chance, or why a few do not. Rankings are from last week’s CFP poll.
Alabama: Isn’t it obvious?
The Crimson Tide have to be in the Playoff even if they lose to Florida in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. There’s no way the committee could look at this Alabama team and think, even with a stumble against the Gators, that there are 4 better teams in America. Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith form one of the best offensive triumvirates college football has seen in eons. But the defense is the real story lately. After giving up 7.5 yards per play to Ole Miss and 5.9 ypp to Georgia, Alabama has not allowed even 5 yards per play in the 6 games since. Bama has allowed 100 yards rushing just once in the past 5 games, and Florida struggles mightily to move the ball on the ground. So it will all be on Gators QB Kyle Trask against the Tide. He’s excellent, but Alabama is just that much better all around on offense. Not only the CFP, but the No. 1 seed and choice of semifinal site (Sugar Bowl, duh) awaits Bama.
Notre Dame: Joining the ACC — and maybe winning it
The powers that be at Notre Dame had a decision to make. By either shutting down (temporarily) or scheduling just 1 nonconference game (or none), the Fighting Irish could have been left in the lurch. Except tradition, common sense and that sweet, sweet network TV money dictated that college football and Notre Dame find a way to move forward in the pandemic-affected 2020 season. Hence, the usual semi-autonomous existence for Notre Dame (bound to play 5 ACC teams per year but still free to have its own television deal and dictate the rest of their schedule) became a full-fledged, 1-year partnership with the league. To say that it has worked well for both sides is an understatement. Even Clemson, which lost in South Bend on Nov. 7, would have a hard time arguing that. The No. 2 Irish are undefeated, Clemson gets another shot at ND on Saturday and the ACC has a better chance than the SEC of putting 2 teams in the CFP. Who could have seen that coming a year ago?
Clemson: Split decision
The real Clemson is coming on Saturday. But did it ever go away? Apart from a 2-week period when quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined after a positive COVID-19 test, nobody in the ACC has come close to Clemson in 2020. Clemson really has a simple mission in Saturday’s league title game against Notre Dame. The CFP committee has already put the Tigers at No. 3, so it’s obvious that if they win, they’re in as the No. 2 seed (unless Alabama loses, then Clemson is No. 1). If the Irish win, Clemson is out. So the Tigers need to earn a split with Notre Dame, something they seem quite capable of doing considering that the previous meeting — 1 of the 2 games Lawrence missed — went to double overtime. Each season is supposed to be its own story, but surely the CFP voters know Clemson’s recent terrific Playoff history. That’s not supposed to matter, but it’s not nothing.
Ohio State: Show it on film
Just 5 games? That’s the whole regular season when we were supposed to get 8 games from Big Ten teams? Plenty of folks argue the Buckeyes don’t belong in the CFP because of their truncated schedule. But CFP voters have said all along in 2020 that a) there is no minimum number of games for teams and b) the first thing they are considering this season is the “eye test” — the exact opposite of the BCS days when computers ruled the roost. Y’all hated that, right? All we ever heard was how every college football fan hated that, right? OK, that’s not this. This is the year of the eye test, and in that vein, OSU absolutely looks like 1 of the 4 most talented teams in the nation. One has to ask of any CFP candidate: Can this team hang with Bama or Clemson or Notre Dame? Well, remember last year’s Clemson-OSU Playoff semifinal? OSU might be a tiny bit down from that 2019 squad, but it’s hard to tell looking at film. It’s also hard to argue for anyone else if OSU beats Northwestern in Saturday’s B1G Championship Game.
Texas A&M: Surviving the tough tests
For years, folks have taken jabs at the SEC for scheduling soft nonconference games, especially in the week before Rivalry Week. Well, in a 10-game conference-only season, that has not been an option. And anybody that survives that SEC gauntlet with just 1 loss deserves serious consideration. That’s Texas A&M. The team faces Tennessee this week while all other contenders play conference title games. So the Aggies won’t get to add to their résumé. But let’s consider that résumé. First, of course, is that dramatic victory over Florida, which has spent all season ranked in the top 10. Then in the 5 games since, including wins over Auburn and LSU, Jimbo Fisher’s bunch has allowed an average of just 15 points per game. The No. 5 Aggies need help to get in the CFP, no doubt. The Aggies need Clemson or Ohio State to lose — and there’s a train of thought that maybe A&M needs both. But despite that 1 loss being a 28-point dud against Alabama, an 8-1 SEC record makes its own case.
Cincinnati: Sheer dominance
This is probably not going to be the year that the CFP committee invites a Group of 5 team to the party. The fact that Iowa State leaped over Cincinnati in the rankings last week makes that look pretty obvious. And Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game against No. 24 Tulsa is the only thing that the No. 8 Bearcats can control. A rout over the Golden Hurricane would be the final card that Cincinnati can play. But if that does happen, one could argue that no team this side of Alabama has dominated its league in 2020 more than Cincinnati. The Bearcats are 14th in the country in scoring offense and 5th in scoring defense. UCF gave Luke Fickell’s squad a heck of a game; Cincinnati won 36-33 on Nov. 21, the last time the Bearcats played. But no other AAC team has come within 21 points of Cincinnati, which is 6-0 in the conference. It would be interesting if Cincinnati got a shot at, say, Texas A&M in a bowl.
… And 3 teams that shouldn’t be invited
You’ll hear talk in the next week about how maybe the field of candidates isn’t limited to 6 teams. Certainly that thought gained traction when percentages to make the CFP, a tool that ESPN loves, were updated late Saturday. However, let’s swat those thoughts away here.
The Big 12 finalists
Iowa State and Oklahoma, both 2-loss teams, meet Saturday in the Big 12 Championship Game. Matt Campbell has done a spectacular job at Iowa State, bringing the perennial doormat to the brink of the program’s 1st league championship since 1912. Oklahoma started 1-2 then rallied, as Lincoln Riley seeks his 4th consecutive Big 12 title in his 4 seasons as coach and the program’s 6th in a row. But if Texas A&M’s 28-point loss to Alabama hangs over the Aggies’ CFP bid, what about ISU’s 31-14 loss at home to Louisiana? Yeah, Louisiana is ranked. I don’t care. A 17-point home loss to a Sun Belt team and another in conference (to Oklahoma State) does not inspire confidence that the Cyclones could hang with Bama. And the Sooners lost to Iowa State in the regular season. So if they win on Saturday? Congrats, you split with that team that lost at home to a Sun Belt squad. See you in the Cotton Bowl.
The Trojans are undefeated, just like Ohio State. The Trojans are 5-0, just like Ohio State. They certainly bring a name brand, just like Ohio State. That’s all fair. So why are we dismissing USC? Well, USC trailed Arizona State 27-14 in the 4th quarter before winning by 1. The Trojans trailed Arizona — a team so bad it just fired Kevin Sumlin as its coach — until the final seconds. On Saturday, USC trailed rival UCLA 28-10 then, after taking the lead, fell behind again with 52 seconds left in the game before rallying to win. Sure, USC has guts. But for the Pac-12 in a shortened season (the B1G was in the same boat) the best team had to dominate. Do you know how long Ohio State has trailed all season? 5 minutes and 5 seconds. Total. Nebraska scored a touchdown on their 1st drive in the opener; OSU tied it 5:05 later. And the Buckeyes have not been behind for a single second in 4-plus full games since. Assuming USC and OSU both win on Saturday, that’s the difference between a 6-0 CFP team and a 6-0 non-CFP team.