Can anybody overcome Alabama? The Crimson Tide are the top team in this week's College Football Playoff Bubble Watch.
Of all the terms used during the College Football Playoff rankings, 'game control' quickly became one of the most controversial topics after selection committee chairman Jeff Long used it during his weekly interview last Tuesday. Florida State lacks it, and that’s costing the Seminoles at the top of the rankings. Marshall has an abundance of it, yet that hasn’t helped the Thundering Herd even crack the top 25.
Let’s delve into what game control means and why, if applied correctly, it’s a logical determinant in considering who should play in the playoff. Game control is a slightly fancier version of the eye test: How did a team look in the game it played?
It’s pretty easy to see why this would harm Florida State. The Seminoles have had to overcome a halftime deficit five times this season despite playing a fairly easy schedule. They’re not blowing teams out like last year’s national championship squad did. So how should the committee factor that in while considering that Florida State remains undefeated? After all, it eventually came back from all five of those halftime deficits.
Yes, questions like “how many games did you win?” and “who did you play?” should matter, but when teams rank similarly in those first two questions, the committee needs to consider one over the other. If the teams didn’t play head-to-head or don’t have a lot of common opponents, the only way to really separate them is to assess at how they looked in their wins and losses.
Alabama Crimson Tide (10-1)
Case for: Even after playing Western Carolina, Alabama still boasts the top strength of schedule among the playoff hopefuls. The Crimson Tide have a quality win over Mississippi State, the only win over a top-four team by a team in the playoff hunt. If Alabama doesn't lose, no one is leapfrogging the Crimson Tide.
Case against: Although the Tide’s defeat at Ole Miss isn’t a terrible loss, the Rebels’ struggles in the second half of the season have made Alabama’s loss worthy of a little more attention.
Verdict: In. Alabama can rest easy about its playoff case. Its remaining schedule, however, requires more concern.
Path to the playoff: There’s plenty between the Tide and a playoff bid. Alabama has to take down Auburn in the Iron Bowl this weekend. If it’s successful, a date with either Missouri or Georgia in the SEC Championship Game awaits. Nick Saban’s team certainly can’t afford to lose focus.
Oregon Ducks (10-1)
Case for: Oregon’s comfortable 42-30 win at UCLA continues to look better and better as the Bruins have rallied in the latter half of the season. That victory, plus the Ducks’ nonconference takedown of Michigan State, gives Oregon the best pair of wins of the playoff hopefuls. Arizona also remains in contention in the Pac-12 South, so the Ducks’ loss now looks much more understandable, especially given their offensive line injuries against the Wildcats.
Case against: The Ducks’ strength of schedule leaves something to be desired. It’s still better than most of the other teams in playoff contention, but the dearth of quality teams in the Pac-12 North has hurt Oregon.
Path to the playoff: It’s hard to tell what to make of Oregon State, the Ducks’ foe this week. The Beavers have lost five of their last six but beat Arizona State for their lone win in that stretch. After the rivalry game, Oregon faces a stiff test from either UCLA, Arizona State or Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. If the Ducks win out, they’re playoff-bound and an Alabama miscue away from the top seed.
Florida State Seminoles (11-0)
Case for: Somehow, someway Florida State continues to find ways to remain undefeated. The Seminoles’ ability to pull out wins this season is amazing. Louisville and Clemson hang around the edge of the top 25, giving Florida State a pair of decent wins. Those two are critical because the Seminoles’ early marquee win over Notre Dame means a lot less now that the Fighting Irish have plummeted.
Case against: There’s that game control factor again. Yes, the wins matter, but Florida State just never seems to look comfortable in any of its wins. It’s worth noting, however, that the Seminoles’ win over Boston College was actually one of their least dramatic of late. Despite needing a last-second field goal to secure the 20-17 victory, Florida State never trailed the Eagles.
Verdict: In. Florida State stands very little chance to make the playoff if it loses, but the Seminoles won’t fall out of the top four without a loss.
Path to the playoff: Florida should be motivated to send Will Muschamp out with a stunning win, so Saturday’s matchup with the Gators can’t be taken lightly. After facing three straight power-run teams, a battle against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense in the ACC title game won’t be fun either.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-1)
Strength of schedule: 39
Quality wins: vs. Auburn
Losses: at Alabama
Case for: With only a five-point loss to the No. 1 team, Mississippi State is about as close to an undefeated team as it can be. The defeat to Alabama is hardly a negative, and the Bulldogs still have their 38-23 win over Auburn from Oct. 11.
Case against: As the SEC West cannibalizes itself, determining what is an impressive win has become much more difficult. The only truly great wins right now are Ole Miss’ over Alabama and Alabama’s over Mississippi State. Had the Rebels beaten Arkansas on Saturday, a win in the Egg Bowl on the road would have been another remarkable victory for the Bulldogs. It’d still be notable, but without playing in the SEC Championship Game, which can’t happen unless Auburn beats Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Mississippi State won’t have another chance for a standout win.
Verdict: In. With only a loss to Alabama, it’s hard to knock the Bulldogs. A great showing against Ole Miss on Saturday would make for another nice line on Mississippi’s resume.
Path to the playoff: The best-case scenario for Mississippi State is for the Bulldogs to beat Ole Miss, have Alabama lose, and then Mississippi State win the SEC title game. No one knows yet how much the committee will factor in conference championships and whether a Big 12 title would allow either TCU or Baylor to pass the Bulldogs if they don’t get to Atlanta.
TCU Horned Frogs (9-1)
Case for: TCU still has a Kansas State-sized edge over Baylor in strength of schedule. Minnesota’s win over Nebraska was also critical as it keeps the Golden Gophers in the top 25. The Horned Frogs are the only team that has beaten three members of the committee’s rankings, so don’t expect Baylor to catch them just yet.
Case against: Losing to Baylor is a respectable loss, except when you’re fighting with the Bears for possibly the final playoff spot. The loss was close enough, especially given the game was in Waco, for TCU’s other strengths to keep it ahead of the Bears. But Baylor would close the gap a lot if it can beat Kansas State in two weeks.
Verdict: Out. Even with its trio of wins over ranked teams, the only really outstanding win of the bunch is the 41-20 victory over Kansas State. Minnesota, though ranked is on the outer edge of the top 25, and Baylor beat Oklahoma by a much wider margin -- 34 vs. TCU’s four -- and did it in Norman.
Path to the playoff: TCU needs to win out. Iowa State won’t offer much of a challenge in two weeks, but the Horned Frogs have to get past a tough trip to Texas on Thanksgiving. TCU will need some help, too, with a loss from one of the top-four teams. That is likely to occur, but Baylor might take advantage of it to steal TCU’s spot instead.
Baylor Bears (9-1)
Strength of schedule: 59
Quality wins: vs. TCU, at Oklahoma
Losses: at West Virginia
Case for: Baylor’s win over TCU is one of the top victories of the season, even if it was a narrow margin at home, and the Bears augment that with their beatdown of Oklahoma in Norman. Since losing the West Virginia, Baylor’s case has gotten stronger and stronger with decisive wins over Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Saturday’s win over the Cowboys was enough to convince AP voters that the Bears should be ahead of TCU; was the committee persuaded, too?
Case against: Baylor needed West Virginia to stay relevant in the Big 12, and that hasn’t happened. Since beating the Bears, the Mountaineers have gone 1-3 to fall to the bottom half of the conference standings. The committee said Baylor’s body of work doesn’t come close enough to TCU’s yet for its head-to-head victory to win out. West Virginia is looking more and more like an anchor on the Bears’ hopes.
Verdict: Out. Between the poor strength of schedule – the lowest of all the playoff hopefuls – and the nagging loss to West Virginia, Baylor has too many cons to its resume right now.
Path to the playoff: The good news for Baylor is that, while the Big 12 lacks a conference title game, the Bears still have one more marquee opponent on their schedule to impress the committee. Baylor’s Dec. 6 matchup with Kansas State is critical, and the Bears have to beat the Wildcats by a similar margin to TCU’s 41-20 win over Kansas State. That’d leave a great lasting impression that might be enough to get Baylor’s body of work closer to TCU’s standard.
Ohio State Buckeyes (10-1)
Strength of schedule: 55
Quality wins: at Michigan State, at Minnesota
Losses: vs. Virginia Tech
Case for: Since Week 2, Ohio State has done just about everything it could to show it deserves a playoff spot. The Buckeyes have run through the Big Ten, including two notable road wins over Michigan State and Minnesota. Jeff Long said those two victories really impressed the committee and contributed to Ohio State jumping past Baylor in last week’s rankings.
Case against: Yeah, but about that Week 2. No amount of wins can make committee members forget the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech. It’s far and away the worst loss of any team in the playoff hunt, even if J.T. Barrett has looked like a completely different quarterback since struggling in that game. Ohio State also lacked game control in its win over Indiana, trailing the Hoosiers late in the third quarter.
Verdict: Out. Ohio State’s strength of schedule is almost as bad as Baylor’s, so there just aren’t enough opportunities for the Buckeyes to play their way into the playoff without some serious help.
Path to the playoff: Beating Michigan this week won’t change much for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will have to root for Wisconsin to beat Minnesota, so they can play the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game. That would be one more opportunity for a quality win. After that, Ohio State needs some upsets from the teams ahead of them, probably at least three.
UCLA Bruins (9-2)
Strength of schedule: 9
Quality wins: at Arizona State, vs. Arizona
Losses: vs. Utah, vs. Oregon
Case for: Who would have thought after UCLA dropped its second straight game on Oct. 11 that the Bruins could re-enter the playoff race? But five straight victories have moved UCLA to the top two-loss team. The Bruins have a strong strength of schedule and a nice pair of quality wins of the Arizona teams. Their thrashing of USC on Saturday offered another boost to their candidacy.
Case against: UCLA’s losses to Utah and Oregon – both at home – still leave the Bruins facing an uphill battle to the playoff. As good as UCLA has looked in the past three weeks, it may not even be the two-loss team with the best chance to make the playoff. Georgia could pass the Bruins if Missouri slips up and allows the Bulldogs a shot at Alabama in the SEC title game.
Verdict: Out. UCLA’s playoff shot is slim, but it’s there. That’s more than could have been said for the Bruins over a month ago.
Path to the playoff: If UCLA beats Stanford to clinch the Pac-12 South and then takes down Oregon in the conference title game, the Bruins will gain a third quality win and eliminate one of the teams ahead of them from playoff contention. UCLA will also need a barrage of upsets; Ole Miss and Auburn taking down their rivals would help, as would Kansas State beating Baylor.
The Road Ahead
No. 5 TCU at Texas, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
While you polish off the last bite of pumpkin pie, TCU will kick off its last hurdle to an 11-1 season. Texas’ defense has shown renewed vigor and allowed just 39 points over its past three games, all wins. The Longhorns held Baylor to 29 points, but their offense was too feeble to make a game of it. Texas’ attack won’t resemble TCU’s or Baylor’s, but if it can at least stay on the field long enough to keep its defense from being worn down, the Longhorns may have a shot.
No. 4 Mississippi State at No. 8 Ole Miss, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
The Rebels are reeling after losing to Arkansas, but they can still play spoiler to their rival’s playoff hopes with a win in the Egg Bowl. Mississippi State fell to Alabama because the Crimson Tide’s defense pressured Dak Prescott into mistakes. Ole Miss’ 'Landsharks' are capable of doing the same.
No. 14 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama, Saturday at 7:45 p.m.
It’d be nearly impossible for this year’s Iron Bowl to live up to last year’s, but the stakes aren’t much lower. There’s just a division title and a playoff berth on the line for Alabama. Gus Malzahn bested Nick Saban last year and in 2010, but the ability to pull out critical games that carried Auburn last year seems to have deserted the Tigers in the second half of the season this year.
Strength of schedule rankings come from Jeff Sagarin's ratings.