Sizing up the state of the playoff race after a wild Week 11
College football chaos twists us into so many knots. Imagine the average Ohio State fan on Saturday. He drank his pre-game beers. He ate his pre-game burgers. He watched his team smash Maryland by 59 points. Then, hours later, he stood in his den screaming at some freshman walk-on in Iowa to miss a kick so Michigan could win.
These are the bedfellows the chase for the College Football Playoff hath made, and in that particular shotgun marriage, the Wolverines spent Saturday night on the couch. Why? Because Michigan's 14–13 loss in Iowa City means an Ohio State win against the Wolverines on Nov. 26 might send Penn State to the Big Ten championship game. Got all that?
If not, don't worry. It only gets more complicated after a historic day of upsets. The College Football Playoff selection committee's second-, third- and fourth-ranked teams all lost Saturday. It was the first time in 31 years that teams ranked in those positions all lost on the same day. But on Oct. 19, 1985, A-Ha's "Take On Me" ruled the charts and being in the top four didn't matter in quite the same way it does now.
Despite recent post-game chanting to the contrary, it doesn't seem anyone actually wants Bama. The top-ranked Crimson Tide remained above the fray Saturday by crushing Mississippi State 51–3 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Hours later, Alabama clinched the SEC West title when Auburn fell 13–7 to Georgia.
Two hours northeast of Athens, the real fun had begun. Pittsburgh and Clemson played a see-saw affair that featured 888 combined passing yards. It seemed the Tigers would survive because Pittsburgh kicker Chris Blewitt missed a second-quarter extra point. (College kickers, man.) That tiny service break seemed as if it would suffice because how could either team expect a defensive stop after trading touchdowns all day? But then Clemson's Wayne Gallman got stuffed on fourth-and-one from the Pittsburgh 35 with 59 seconds remaining. Pittsburgh's Nathan Peterman ran for nine yards and completed two passes to move the Panthers 25 more. Then Blewitt stroked a 48-yard field goal through the uprights and crushed the dreams of every headline writer in America. After Pittsburgh's 43–42 win, he'll have to change his name to Chris Madeit.
Across the country, No. 20 USC and No. 4 Washington were about to kick off in what was supposed to be the marquee matchup of an otherwise boring day. College football always does this to us. When we think it plans to serve duds, it serves whoppers. To call USC's 26–13 win against Washington an upset would be a disservice to those who had work or a wedding and couldn't see the game. The better team won. The Trojans, who have undergone a metamorphosis since Sam Darnold took over as the starting quarterback in late September, dominated the Huskies. Darnold, not Washington's Jake Browning, looked like the Heisman Trophy contender.
Then, in Iowa City, maddeningly consistent Michigan finally laid an egg. The Wolverines couldn't move the ball on the Hawkeyes, who went from allowing 8.6 yards a play in a 41–14 loss at Penn State a week earlier to allowing 3.3 yards a play against their toughest opponent of the season. And because the little things get magnified when chaos strikes, two odd special teams penalties played a role. Iowa clung to an 11–10 lead for 15 minutes, 10 seconds before Michigan took that lead back with a field goal following a drive that was prolonged by a rarely called roughing the long snapper penalty that seemed a tad harsh given the softness of the contact. Michigan would get its taste of the questionable at the worst possible moment. As Desmond King returned a Kenny Allen punt in the closing moments, the hand of Michigan's Mike McCray scraped across the side of King's helmet and over King's facemask. The rule forbids grabbing of any opening, but it seemed McCray had not grabbed at all. Still, the Hawkeyes moved 15 yards closer to their destiny. They would move another 21 before Keith Duncan, the aforementioned freshman walk-on, took the field. Duncan, from Weddington, N.C., is at Iowa in part because former Hawkeyes kicker/punter Jason Baker—who played for the Panthers and settled in the Charlotte area after his NFL career— recommended that Iowa coaches consider Duncan. After he split the uprights as time expired, Duncan will never have to buy a beer in Iowa again. Once he reaches the legal drinking age, of course.
So what the heck happens now? Let's sift through the carnage of Saturday's upsets and try to piece together the possibilities. We'll just go team by team using last week's committee rankings.
The Crimson Tide will celebrate SEC creampuff week by facing Chattanooga. A week later, they'll face Auburn. If tailback Kamryn Pettway isn't back for the Tigers, this one might be pretty boring. So might the SEC title game. Alabama will play either Tennessee or Florida. The Tide beat the Volunteers 49–10 in Knoxville on Oct. 15. Florida, meanwhile, has lost nine starters to injury in the past two games.
Two weeks ago, Dabo Swinney sat beneath Doak Campbell Stadium and claimed that the Tigers were built to win the kind of tight games they'd been winning. He ignored the possibility that dancing on the edge of a knife could lead to a deep cut. This team, while one of the nation's most physically gifted, has had a little 2014 Florida State or 2015 Ohio State in it all year. That caught up with the Tigers against Pittsburgh. Can Clemson still make the playoff? Absolutely. In fact, Clemson may not drop out of the top four. The committee probably will keep the Tigers ahead of Louisville because the teams each have one loss and Clemson won the head-to-head meeting in October.
Like Clemson, Michigan's path to the playoff remains fairly clear even though the Wolverines also had a dagger plunged in them by a kicker. If Michigan can regroup following the loss, the Wolverines could wind up a 12–1 Big Ten champ. That likely gets them into the playoff.
Now it starts to get tricky. Entering Saturday, the committee considered the Huskies the weakest of the undefeated Power Five teams. The way USC won on Washington's home field will give committee members pause, but those same members also will recognize that this is a very different USC team than the one that lost 52–6 to Alabama in the season opener and started 1–3. Washington still controls its path to the Pac-12 title. If the Huskies beat Arizona State and Washington State, they'll win the North Division. (The Apple Cup is no gimme, either.) It's safe to say they'd rather not see the Trojans again, but that's not a guarantee. The most likely scenario for USC to win the South would involve Washington State beating Colorado in Boulder this week. Then Colorado would beat Utah the following week in Boulder, handing the Utes their third Pac-12 loss. USC would win the division by virtue of its head-to-head win against Colorado. If Utah wins the next two, the Utes would get a rematch with the Huskies, who beat them 31–24 in Salt Lake City on Oct. 29. If Colorado wins its next two, the Buffaloes would win the South. The question now is whether the committee will consider a one-loss Pac-12 champ better than a one-loss non-champ from another league. (Particularly Ohio State.)
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes face the oddest situation. In the playoff's first two years, the committee didn't select any teams for the final four that didn't win their conference. Several commissioners—including the Big Ten's Jim Delany—made sure a conference title was a key criterion for committee members. But if Penn State beats Rutgers and Michigan State (currently a combined 1–13 in Big Ten play, and the lone win was the Spartans' victory over the Scarlet Knights on Saturday), Ohio State cannot win the Big Ten title. In that scenario, a Buckeyes win against Michigan would send the Nittany Lions—who beat Ohio State on Oct. 22—to the Big Ten championship game. So what if the Big Ten champ is two-loss Wisconsin? Would the committee pick the 11-2 Big Ten champ Badgers or the 11–1 Buckeyes who won in overtime in Madison on Oct. 15?
The Cardinals were on the verge of taking themselves out of the mix when they finally awoke against Wake Forest on Saturday. After trailing 12–0, Louisville scored 44 unanswered points—34 of them in the fourth quarter—to win comfortably. As odd as it sounds, Clemson's loss probably hurts the Cardinals. Unless Clemson falls to Wake Forest next week, the Tigers will win the ACC Atlantic Division. Louisville would have been better off as the 11–1 non-champ of a conference with a 13–0 champ. Now, the Tigers look weaker, and the Cardinals have to stay behind them in the playoff rankings unless Clemson loses again.
The Badgers have the best shot at becoming the first two-loss team to make the playoff. They've played Michigan and Ohio State close, and they seem well-suited for a matchup against Penn State. They must avoid slipping up against Purdue and Minnesota, and after this weekend, nothing is a given.
8. Texas A&M
Goodbye, Aggies. You probably shouldn't have been here last week after losing to Mississippi State. You definitely don't need to be here after losing to Ole Miss.
Goodbye, Tigers. You've now made the SEC an Alabama-or-bust league.
10. Penn State
James Franklin watched Michigan lose. He knows his players did, too. That's why he sent this message moments after Duncan's kick sailed through the uprights. Can't take any chances if chaos is in the air.
Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, complete focus on Rutgers nothing else!— James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) November 13, 2016
Here we reach the feedback loop for the playoff. Even if Oklahoma finishes 9–0 in conference play and wins the Big 12, how would the committee select the Sooners over a one- or two-loss Ohio State team that hammered Oklahoma 45–24 in Norman on Sept. 17? It can't happen. That's why West Virginia feels like the only plausible Big 12 playoff participant. But the Mountaineers need to beat Oklahoma, Iowa State and Baylor and hope Oklahoma State loses along the way.
We could go on, but for any team below this group to make the playoffs, we'd need to see another Day of Chaos like the one we just watched.
We can dream, can't we?
A random ranking
Somehow, a discussion of the late Alan Rickman broke out on Twitter during a day of epic upsets. These things happen. Here are Rickman's top five roles.
1. The Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves*
2. Hans Gruber, Die Hard
3. Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series
4. Metatron, Dogma
5. Judge Turpin, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
* I'm aware that most of you will be appalled that I ranked any role ahead of Hans Gruber. Think of it this way. Rickman co-starred in a Robin Hood movie that should have been terrible because the guy playing Robin Hood couldn't be bothered to speak in an English accent. Yet Rickman's performance makes that movie completely re-watchable. That's a towering achievement. Also, the scene I selected includes one of my favorite lines ever uttered on film.
Projected College Football Playoff bracket
At least this one was easy.
2. Ohio State
If the Buckeyes we've seen the past two weeks face Michigan, they can win that game. Unfortunately, their Big Ten fate is out of their control. Penn State might lose to Michigan State because the Big Ten may have one more piece of dynamite to throw into the mix. But Ohio State is positioned now to become the first non-conference champ to make the playoff.
Even though the Tigers have been wildly inconsistent, they can still make the playoff by closing strong these next three weeks. Louisville will help buoy Clemson if the Cardinals keep winning.
This is a projection of who I think will be in the playoff based on what we know—not a prediction of Tuesday's rankings. Because there's no way the committee will rank Michigan below a two-loss Wisconsin team the Wolverines beat. The Big Ten didn't even really want a playoff, and one of the factors it and other leagues had built in—primarily to keep the SEC from getting multiple teams in the playoff—was an emphasis on conference titles.
Now the Big Ten could be the first league to get two teams into the playoff. But it would be weird. In the scenario I've projected here, Ohio State hands Michigan a second loss. That would mean the Wolverines would have the same record as the Badgers and a head-to-head win against Wisconsin. But in this scenario, the Badgers would be Big Ten champions. Would the committee ignore its mandate from the commissioners to give preference to conference champions? This probably would ignite some fierce debate in the committee room. (Because it involves Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez would have to wait outside. Fortunately, there are excellent cookies just outside the committee meeting room.) For this debate to happen, the Badgers need to keep winning. They need LSU to keep winning and establish itself by season's end as the SEC's second-best team. Then they need to win the Big Ten title game convincingly.
Big Ugly of the Week
Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie started for the second consecutive game and the second time in his career in place of the injured Nathan Bazata, but Ekakitie didn't play like a backup. He was a huge reason the Wolverines averaged only 2.8 yards a carry in Iowa's win.
Jaleel Johnson made the tackle on De'Veon Smith for the safety that gave Iowa its first points because Michigan declined to block him, but closer inspection of that play reveals that Ekakitie split a double team and would have met Smith at the goal line had he escaped Johnson. In the fourth quarter, Ekakitie blew up a third-down toss to Karan Higdon and dragged down Higdon for a loss of six. Instead of continuing to drive toward the end zone, Michigan had to settle for a 51-yard field goal attempt.
1. Oregonian columnist John Canzano got an intriguing message for former Oregon athletic director/Ducks megabooster/friend-of-Phil-Knight Pat Kilkenny shortly after the Ducks got creamed 52–27 by Stanford on Saturday. While in midair on his jet, Kilkenny asked Canzano for some time Monday on Canzano's afternoon radio show. So what does Kilkenny want to say? In his column, Canzano speculated that Kilkenny might address the tweet last week from ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell that suggested Knight is willing to help Oregon pay more than $10 million a year for a proven winner to replace Mark Helfrich. Canzano didn't think Kilkenny would attempt to undermine successor Rob Mullens and discuss Helfrich's job status, but it will be intriguing to hear what one of the program's biggest power brokers has to say. Canzano's Bald Faced Truth radio show begins at 3 p.m. ET on Monday.
2. How bad are things for Steve Addazio at Boston College? Former Eagles coaches are volunteering on Twitter to replace him.
Embarrassing. I can't even watch this. Let me know when you want to be relevant again! You deserve better.— Jeff Jagodzinski (@CoachJags) November 12, 2016
Jeff Jagodzinski tweeted that
Friday as Boston College fell to 4–6 with a 45–7 loss at Florida State. Jagodzinski, you'll recall, went 20–8 as the Eagles' head coach from 2007-08. He was fired for interviewing for the New York Jets' head coaching job against the wishes of then-Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo. That's right. Boston College fired an ultra-successful coach because an NFL team wanted to kick the tires on him.
It obviously wouldn't be so easy to win now at BC.
The ACC is an upgrade in competition from the Big East. Pardon the mistake. Realignment has fried my brain. Boston College was in the ACC then, but the Atlantic was made considerably easier than it is today by late-career Bobby Bowden at Florida State and about-to-be-fired Tommy Bowden at Clemson. But Jags thinks he deserves another shot. The operative question, however, is whether BC will give Addazio another shot.
3. Lost amid all the upsets Saturday was LSU's utter demolition of Arkansas. The Tigers, who had lost two in a row to the Razorbacks, bounced back from their loss to Alabama with a 38–10 win in Fayetteville. This game was critical to interim coach Ed Orgeron's quest to land the permanent gig. In 2014 and 2015, Les Miles failed to get the Tigers off the mat after losing to Alabama, and they got soundly beaten by Arkansas. Orgeron, after an equally draining loss to the Crimson Tide, took LSU on the road and dominated. Now he has games against Florida and Texas A&M to make his final argument for keeping the job. So far, Orgeron has made a solid case for himself.
4. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen got really mad at the officials during the fourth quarter of the Mountaineers' 24–20 win at Texas on Saturday. The real reason—a dispute over a timeout—isn't nearly as funny as this made-up reason.
So what would customer Holgorsen's complaint be? Here are some ideas.
THESE ROLLS ARE STILL FROZEN INSIDE!
YOU SAID I WOULDN'T HAVE TO PAY EXTRA FOR PAINT SEALANT!
YOUR AD SAYS YOU ACCEPT ALL COMPETITORS' COUPONS!
5. Texas lost again, so that means we must examine Charlie Strong's job status this week. The Longhorns had the ball with a chance to win against a team that might win the Big 12. This one didn't seem as egregious as some of the Longhorns' earlier losses, but the best Strong can do is 7–5. We should know in three weeks what the Texas administration has decided with regard to Strong, but the tone seems to have shifted. If Strong's Longhorns can close with wins against Kansas and TCU, it seems he might still have a shot to stay.
6. After Chad Kelly was lost for the season to a knee injury, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze opted to burn the redshirt of freshman Shea Patterson. Patterson, whom recruitniks held in even higher esteem than Alabama's Jalen Hurts and South Carolina's Jake Bentley, did not disappoint. In his first start, he led the Rebels back from a 15-point deficit for a 29–28 win. At times, Patterson looked like a former Texas A&M quarterback who used to make jaw-dropping plays against Ole Miss.
7. Forget about who wants Bama. The question in Division III is who wants Mount Union? The answer? John Carroll. The Blue Streaks stunned the Raiders on Saturday with a 31–28 victory that snapped Mount Union's 112-game—you read that correctly—regular-season win streak. The celebrations—public and private—were epic.
8. Florida quarterback Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, won his first and last start at The Swamp on Saturday when the Gators beat South Carolina 20–7. Now Appleby will prepare to face LSU, which starts fellow Purdue transfer Danny Etling at quarterback.
"I'm a big Danny Etling fan. I wish him the best. I'm sure he'd probably say the same thing. We had a great relationship. At the end of the day, we play against defenses. It's not like we're going to go toe-to-toe. It's definitely going to be neat to run out there and give him a hug before the game."
9. Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich, frustrated at his team's effort in a blowout loss to Boise State, had the benches removed from the sidelines so his players couldn't sit and watch the carnage.
10. In a belated Veterans Day celebration, Northwestern players carried off linebacker Tom Hruby after Saturday's win at Purdue. Hruby, 32, is a retired Navy SEAL who served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What's Eating Andy
It's Cupcake Week in the SEC. Unfortunately that just means bad games and no actual cupcakes for me.
What's Andy Eating
When I was a student at Florida, we knew about the nearby town of Micanopy for two reasons.
• That's where Cafe Risque was.
The cafe was the first strip club experience for many a Florida student, but there weren't many return trips to Micanopy. The town's other major attraction—antique shops—didn't appeal to many college students. Shortly after the turn of the century, a place opened with a little more mass appeal.
The idea of a barbecue joint inside a gas station has been romanticized to the point that some places run restaurants that happen to have gas pumps outside. That's not Pearl Country Store and Barbecue. It's a typical Florida backroads gas station and country store that happens to serve amazing barbecue. You'd have to know it's there, because the bulk of drivers choose Interstate 75 a few miles west rather than deal with the occasional stoplight on U.S. Highway 441. But for those in on the secret, Pearl is an oasis in the barbecue desert of north central Florida.
The huge pork spare ribs are the stars. They're thick, juicy and the meat pulls off with a slight tug. The pulled pork and the chicken also make the trip off the beaten path worthwhile. For sides, order the collard greens, the macaroni and cheese or the cinnamon-dusted sweet potato fries. If you want two meals for $19.95, order the meat lovers combo. This includes two ribs, pork, brisket, a quarter chicken, two sides and Texas toast. If I can't finish it, you probably can't either.
Or just order a rack of ribs and start eating. When they kept saying "Nice pig, doc" during this town's brush with fame, maybe they were talking about the ribs the gas station down the street would start serving years later.