Sizing up each conference's playoff outlook as rankings near; Punt, Pass & Pork
The College Football Playoff selection committee will be crammed into a conference room in Grapevine, Texas, this time next week deliberating over its first rankings of the season. But since so many teams the committee will consider for the top of its list are off in Week 9, we can hazard guesses at what some of the discussions will be. In the process, we'll try to determine contenders' most likely paths into the playoff.
With Alabama, LSU, Baylor, Michigan State and Ohio State on bye this week, a solid portion of the teams that will be in contention for the top four won't play again until after the first rankings are released. The safest bet is even though the Buckeyes looked great in a 49–7 win at Rutgers on Saturday, the committee likely won't agree with the polls on placing them at No. 1. After that, it's pretty much anyone's guess. So, let's go conference by conference and try to figure out who remains in the hunt, and where the committee will land.
This one is fairly easy for the committee as long as Clemson keeps on winning. The Tigers looked like a playoff team in their 58–0 annihilation of Miami that ultimately cost Al Golden his job. A trip to play NC State in Raleigh this week and a visit from Florida State next week are the toughest remaining challenges on Clemson's schedule. If the Tigers get through those—and if they keep playing the way they recently have been, they will—they'll occupy one of the top four spots in the committee's rankings.
The only other ACC playoff scenario that seems plausible involves Florida State beating Clemson and going 12–1. This scenario would also include the Seminoles defeating Florida on Nov. 28, as the Gators could win the SEC East and possibly more. Still, after watching the way Georgia Tech limited the Florida State offense in a 22–16 upset on Saturday, it's tough to imagine the 'Noles winning out.
The ACC Coastal Division features a trio of one-loss teams (Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh), but the Tar Heels play the Panthers on Thursday and then the Blue Devils on Nov. 7. Duke and Pitt then play on Nov. 14. Chances are the division rivals will hand one another their second losses.
This also seems like as good a place as any to talk about Notre Dame, which plays five games against ACC schools and whose fate could be tied to the ACC favorite. If the Fighting Irish keep winning, they're absolutely in contention for the playoff. They've beaten USC, which remains in contention in the Pac-12 South. In this scenario, they'd also have wins against Temple, Pittsburgh, and a season-ender at Stanford. Combine that with a narrow loss at Clemson, and the committee would have to seriously consider Notre Dame for the playoff if the Tigers are in the top three.
This league has the most potential for crazy, and the Big 12's backloaded schedule could produce some wild swings in where its teams are ranked by the committee from week to week. It will be interesting to see how the committee handles Baylor, which has hammered its opponents by an average of 36 points but has yet to play anyone ranked higher than No. 33 in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings. Plus, the committee is supposed to take injuries into account, and Bears junior quarterback Seth Russell is out after breaking a bone in his neck in a 45–27 win over Iowa State. The committee will eventually get a chance to watch freshman Jarrett Stidham pilot the offense, and it will also get a chance to watch Baylor play against superior competition, but it may need to see some of both before moving the Bears into the top four.
TCU is 7–0 but has lived dangerously because of a banged-up defense. The Horned Frogs made narrow escapes from Lubbock and Manhattan but remain undefeated heading into Thursday's home game against West Virginia. As with Baylor, nothing about TCU's nonconference schedule will excite committee members. They'll want to see the Frogs beat the best teams in the league come November.
If TCU beats West Virginia and Oklahoma State (7–0) can win at Texas Tech on Saturday, it would set up the first major showdown of the Big 12's loaded November. The Cowboys get visits from TCU (Nov. 7), Baylor (Nov. 21) and Oklahoma (Nov. 28) in the span of four weeks. Oklahoma State leads the nation in sacks per game (four) thanks in part to redshirt junior defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who has eight on the year. The Cowboys may have seemed charmed in wins over Texas and Kansas State, but if they can beat the Frogs, the committee would have to take notice.
The wild card in the Big 12 is Oklahoma (6–1), which is playing like a team that can beat anyone but has a head-scratching loss to Texas on its résumé. Ohio State won the national title last season despite its early head-scratching loss to Virginia Tech, so expect the committee to keep an eye on the Sooners.
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If Michigan State stays perfect and then beats Ohio State on Nov. 21, the committee will have an easy choice. If Ohio State stays perfect and then beats Michigan State and Michigan (Nov. 28), the committee will also have an easy choice. An undefeated Big Ten champion might not necessarily be the No. 1 seed in the playoff, but it's probably in.
Where things would get really interesting is if Ohio State beats Michigan State and then loses to Michigan. The Big Ten's tiebreaker procedure calls for the team ranked highest by the selection committee to win the East Division in that scenario. (Unless the two highest ranked teams are within one spot of each other; then it would be the winner of the head-to-head matchup.) So, if all that happens, the affected teams would have to wait until Tuesday, Dec. 1 to learn who would play in the Big Ten title game.
And what does the committee make of Iowa? The Hawkeyes are undefeated, but the best team they've played to date—
and probably the best team they will play in the regular season—is Pittsburgh. Don't expect Iowa to open the rankings too close to the top four, but don't dismiss the Hawkeyes as a product of a lucky schedule draw, either. If Iowa keep winning, it'll get its chance to face an elite team in the Big Ten title game.
We come to our first Power Five league with no undefeated teams. This probably means the Pac-12 will be left out of the top four in the committee's first rankings, but it doesn't mean the conference will be left out forever. Like Oklahoma, Stanford (6–1) has an out-of-character loss (at Northwestern on Sept. 5) on its résumé that it can likely overcome by ripping through its remaining schedule. Utah's 42–24 loss at USC is also probably forgivable so long as it's the Utes' only loss.
Should every team in the league take a second loss—remember, Stanford hosts Notre Dame on Nov. 28 and Utah has to play five more conference games—the Pac-12 might need some 2007-style chaos to place a team in the playoff. Fortunately for the league, a little 2007-style chaos may be in order.
It seems logical that the committee would place unbeaten LSU in the top four—maybe No. 1 overall—of its first rankings. That would obviously change if the Tigers lose to Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 7, but if LSU keeps winning, the committee won't need to make any hard choices involving the Tigers. If Alabama wins that game, however, things would get far more complicated.
Florida is probably the only SEC East team with a shot at the playoff, and it will be interesting to see where the committee slots the Gators if they beat Georgia on Saturday and all but clinch the East title. (Any combination of a Florida win or a Vanderbilt loss would win the East for the Gators in that scenario. Florida plays Vandy on Nov. 7.) If Georgia wins on Saturday, the SEC's playoff hopes likely rest on the West.
With a win at Alabama in hand, Ole Miss (6–2) also controls its fate in the division race. And the more the Rebels win, the more interesting things get. In fact, if Ole Miss wins out, it brings into play the playoff chances of …
The Group of Five
Memphis has beaten Ole Miss. The committee will probably put a good amount of stock into this, but likely not enough to vault the Tigers too close to the top four in that first ranking. The committee was tough on Group of Five teams last fall because of their strength of schedule. Even if Marshall had gone undefeated, the Thundering Herd wouldn't have sniffed the playoff since they didn't play a single Power Five foe.
But it's different this year for The American. The conference is fairly deep. Its teams have already beaten Power Five opponents. Temple took down Penn State on Sept. 5. Houston beat Louisville on Sept. 12. Memphis, as we've mentioned, has beaten Ole Miss. Things would become even more interesting if undefeated Temple upsets Notre Dame (6–1) on Saturday in Philadelphia.
It still feels as if the best chance for a Group of Five team to make the playoff field—and not just get the contractually mandated spot in a big-money bowl—is for Memphis to go undefeated and for Ole Miss to win the SEC West. (Or, even better for Memphis, the entire SEC.) That would make the Tigers awfully difficult for the committee to ignore. Of course, they still have to get through a stretch that includes a visit from Navy (Nov. 7) and road games at Houston (Nov. 14) and Temple (Nov. 21). The Tigers would probably have to beat Temple again on Dec. 5 in the conference championship game, but if they could do all that, the committee would have a very interesting choice on its hands.
The committee will begin making a series of interesting choices this time next week. The only rankings that count won't be out until Dec. 6, but that won't stop us from hanging on every pick.
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Projected College Football Playoff
1. LSU (7–0)
If you look at my previous few projected playoffs, you'll notice LSU isn't in there. Upon further consideration of what the Tigers can do when sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris is on, I've decided to place them here, which is essentially the spot reserved for the least flawed team in the nation (this week). And if you're reading between the lines, you've probably also guessed who I'm picking in the LSU-Alabama game on Nov. 7. If the Crimson Tide prove me wrong, I'll swap them right back in.
2. Clemson (7–0)
Sophomore Deshaun Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and his ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage has raised the degree of difficulty for defending the Tigers. Until this season, when Clemson wanted to change a play, the entire offense looked over at the sideline. The time spent signaling gave defenses time to adjust. With Watson changing plays and signaling only to his affected teammates, defenses usually don't have time to make adjustments. Add to that a defense that makes quarterbacks miserable thanks to junior end Shaq Lawson, and the Tigers look like a national title contender.
3. Baylor (7–0)
I'm leaving the Bears here because they won by almost three touchdowns, in the rain, on a Saturday when their starting quarterback broke a bone in his neck. They'll have to prove they can keep winning with freshman Jarrett Stidham taking snaps. Art Briles is typically reluctant to play freshmen in his offense because he worries they won't operate it fast enough, so we'll have to see how Stidham performs.
4. Ohio State (8–0)
There may be something to this whole J.T. Barrett-at-quarterback thing.
A random ranking
The restaurant I reviewed for this week's "What's Andy eating?" section got me thinking about side dishes, so I figured it was time to provide a definitive side dish ranking. I realize I ranked the best Thanksgiving side dishes last year, but this list will be quite different. (Except for No. 1.)
1. Macaroni and cheese
2. Maduros (fried ripe plantains)
3. Waffle fries
4. Pork fried rice
5. Collard greens sprinkled with the juice of sport peppers
6. Toasted ravioli
7. Mexican street corn
8. Brussels sprouts with bacon chunks
10. Cream-cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeños
Big Ugly of the Week
It's against the rules to honor skill position glory boys here, but like the NCAA, I reserve the right to reinterpret the rules however I see fit. Perimeter blocking is the most important factor for creating big plays in a spread offense. The problem is most receivers picked their position because they prefer catching to blocking. That's why it's a joy to watch a potential first-round NFL draft pick mow down defenders on the perimeter to spring his teammates for huge gains. So congratulations, Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell. You're an honorary big ugly this week, and you are the winner of the Big Seven-Percent Body Fat of the Week Award. Treadwell is the one Rebels receiver who could probably get away with not blocking at all. The 6' 2", 210-pound junior does it anyway. That will serve him well in the future.
Now watch as Treadwell blocks two Texas A&M defenders on the same play as part of a 23–3 rout.
1. I attended Clemson's total beatdown of Miami on Saturday, and I wrote this after witnessing the carnage. In that column, I listed a few sitting college head coaches who could be potential replacements for Golden following his ouster at Miami.
2. There are a few other folks who aren't currently running programs who also deserve mention. You'll notice they all have something in common.
• Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal: Cristobal is a Miami alum with an excellent reputation as a recruiter, and he has been a head coach before. His 27–47 record at Florida International from 2007-12 is somewhat misleading because the program was such a mess when he took over, but it is still a 27–47 record. Cristobal would have to convince Miami leaders that this time would be different.
• LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron: This former Miami assistant was excellent as USC's interim coach in 2013 after the firing of Lane Kiffin. He was not so excellent when he went 10–25 as Ole Miss's head coach from '05-07. Orgeron would have to convince Miami leaders that this time would be more like his interim stint at USC and less like his stint at Ole Miss.
• Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: Kiffin has been invaluable in Tuscaloosa. He built a workable offense around quarterback Blake Sims last season that helped the Crimson Tide win an SEC title and make the inaugural playoff. But no one has forgotten his head-coaching stints at Tennessee, USC and with the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Kiffin would have to convince Miami leaders that this time would be different.
3. One coach who has deftly made the transition from elite coordinator to head coach is Pittsburgh's Pat Narduzzi. On Saturday the former Michigan State defensive coordinator called a daring late fake punt that helped the Panthers set up a field goal to beat Syracuse 23–20. Pittsburgh is now 6–1—the Panthers' only loss came on a late field goal at undefeated Iowa on Sept. 19—and finally gets a home game Thursday against North Carolina. Pitt has played two in a row and five of six on the road.
4. One of the nation's better mid-major jobs opened Sunday when George O'Leary retired at UCF, effective immediately. O'Leary needed to use the Steve Spurrier retirement plan because the Knights had fallen off the table while O'Leary tried to juggle interim athletic director and head coach duties for much of this year. After a 59–10 loss to Houston on Saturday, UCF fell to 0–8 on the season.
Still, this is a program that won a share of the American Athletic Conference title last year and won the Big East in 2013. The right coach could get the Knights winning again quickly, especially if there is a coaching talent drain following a very deep year in the American. If O'Leary's successor sticks around long enough, he might help the Knights earn a golden ticket into a Power Five league. When the inevitable next round of realignment comes as the conferences' current TV deals expire in the next 10-12 years, a winning UCF program could be very attractive to the big-money leagues. Orlando is still growing, and UCF's massive enrollment means plenty of potential donors will come of giving age at just the right time.
5. Stop me if you've heard this one before: The interim coach at USC appears to be doing a better job than the guy he replaced. Like Orgeron two years ago, Clay Helton has the Trojans believing. Saturday's 18-point whipping of Utah has USC in a pretty good position if it can keep the momentum going.
The Trojans have lost three games, but only two of those came in conference play. And both came against teams from the North Division. That means USC is still very much in the thick of the Pac-12 South race. It needs Utah to drop another conference game, but if the Utes play the way they did at the Coliseum, that's certainly possible. If that happens, Helton may get an extra game added to his audition for the full-time job.
6. Meanwhile, at LA's other Pac-12 school, it's good to be the quarterback.
7. After returning home from a four-overtime 54–46 loss at Arkansas, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took some time out to call Razorbacks freshman tailback Rawleigh Williams III, who had surgery after suffering a neck injury during Saturday's game. Williams is expected to make a full recovery, but Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said there is currently no timetable for Williams's return to action.
8. Elsewhere in the SEC West, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen punished quarterback Dak Prescott for throwing his first interception of the season by videobombing Prescott's postgame interview following the Bulldogs' 42–16 win over Kentucky.
9. No family had a better statistical Saturday than the McCaffreys. Older brother Max, son of former Stanford and Denver Broncos star Ed, led Duke with six catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns in a four-overtime 45–43 win at Virginia Tech. Later, younger brother Christian piled up 300 all-purpose yards (109 rushing, 112 receiving, 79 return) and two scores in Stanford's 31–14 win over Washington.
What's eating Andy?
Nothing to complain about here. Please keep the families who lost loved ones at the Oklahoma State homecoming parade in your thoughts.
What's Andy eating?
It sits between a psychic's storefront and a smoke shop and in front of a Wal-Mart shopping center. It has a neon OPEN sign and a scrolling LED board in the window. The main gate of Walt Disney World is only minutes away from this Kissimmee, Fla., location, placing it directly in the center of the seventh circle of chain restaurant hell. Nothing about Tropico Mofongo screams deliciousness.
Except the food.
What's Mofongo? It's a Puerto Rican dish in which green plantains are mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings. What's a plantain? It looks like a banana, but how it tastes depends on its level of ripeness. The green ones used in traditional Mofongo can also be fried to make tostones, which taste a lot like potato chips and are a common side dish in Caribbean cuisine. The ripe ones (yellow and black peels) are fried to make maduros, which are soft, alternately sweet and salty and—as noted in my random ranking above—are the second best side dish on the planet behind macaroni and cheese.
As Mofongo, plantains can be a side dish or part of the main course depending on how you choose to eat it. Eight-year-old Andy would have kept the meat (at Tropico Mofongo, you can choose from chicken, pork or skirt steak) and the Mofongo separate. Old-man Andy mashed it all together with his roast pork. The waiter also asked if I wanted pork cracklins in my Mofongo. This is the equivalent of going to the bank and having the teller ask this after your withdrawal: "Would you also like this $100 bill I just found on the counter?" Of course I wanted pork cracklins.
The Mofongo looked like skin-on mashed potatoes of a different color, but its more substantial chew made it more satisfying than any potato dish and a better foil for the pork than the yellow rice other Caribbean cultures prefer. The saltiness of the plantains blended beautifully with the garlic and the savory pork. The cracklins added another layer of flavor and some crunch. But as great as the Mofongo was, it couldn't compete with spending an extra dollar to get what the proprietors of Tropico Mofongo call Trifongo.
Trifongo has the same basic elements as Mofongo, but the cooks also mash in yucca and sweet plantains. The yucca adds little, but the ripe plantains sweeten the entire concoction without overpowering the other flavors. I had the Trifongo with the skirt steak, and the sweeter mash melded nicely with the heartier beef.
The portions are huge, so I don't recommend ordering two Mofongo dishes unless you're me. Get the $1 side of maduros, though, because there might not be a better value at any restaurant anywhere. Depending on what you're drinking, you're probably going to leave stuffed and happy for less than $17 before the tip.
That should leave plenty of money to go next door for a palm reading.