Playoff Pulse: Michigan State miracle; Alabama rising
Michigan State needed a miracle to stay undefeated and keep its claim to the title best Big Ten team north of Ohio.
Alabama again looks like the best team in the Southeastern Conference, even if the Crimson Tide still need help just to win their division.
The College Football Playoff race is starting to come into focus. At the very least, a path can be seen for the teams in contention.
In a wild finish, right up there with Auburn's Iron Bowl Kick-Six or any Hail Mary, the seventh-ranked Spartans beat No. 12 Michigan 27-23 on a fumble return touchdown on the last play of the game. Wolverines punter Blake O'Neill fumbled the snap and Jalen Watts-Jackson grabbed the giveaway and went 38 yards for the score as time expired.
It is hard to know what to make of the Spartans (7-0), who came into the game not playing particularly well, but winning nonetheless.
''That's why football is loved so much in America,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''It's because things like this happen. Every now and then, they happen.''
They played the Wolverines toe-to-toe in Ann Arbor and the schedule still sets up fairly well to arrive in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 21 undefeated and ranked in the top 10 when they play No. 1 Ohio State.
But we're getting to the point in the season where the how doesn't really matter. Connor Cook and Michigan State are unbeaten and if they stay that way, all the close calls probably won't keep them out of the playoff.
Of course, if they win the Big Ten with one loss, how does the College Football Playoff committee look at a game that very well should have been another L for the Spartans?
As for Michigan, the Wolverines look very much like legitimate Big Ten contenders and threats to Ohio State when the Buckeyes finish the regular season at the Big House.
Playoff hopes for Harbaugh's team? Don't count them out completely. It would take some wild races in other conferences also producing two-loss champions, but if a two-loss team is going to get into the playoff, why not one with a fluky loss like that and one the opening weekend at Utah?
There was nothing fluky about No. 10 Alabama beating No. 9 Texas A&M 41-23 in College Station, Texas. Running back Derrick Henry was a beast for the Tide and its defense had three interception return touchdowns.
If anything, the Tide's home loss to No. 13 Mississippi is looking more and more like fluke.
Until the Rebels, who lost at Memphis on Saturday, take another conference loss, the Tide is stuck behind them in the SEC West standings. No. 6 LSU leads the division at 4-0. The Tigers beat No. 8 Florida 35-28 in Death Valley and have control of the West race. A daunting November awaits, though, with Alabama, Mississippi and Texas A&M all left on the Tigers' schedule. A&M and Ole Miss play next week in what is essentially an elimination game for the SEC West race.
Though at this point it would be best for the SEC's playoff hopes if the Rebels, who lost at Memphis on Saturday, were cleared out of the picture.
No. 11 Florida State used a big second half to pull away from Louisville and No. 5 Clemson had a lopsided victory against Boston College on Saturday. The Atlantic Coast Conference divisional rivals are unbeaten and pointing toward a game of the year against each other in Death Valley on Nov. 7 that could ultimately decide a playoff spot.
The American Athletic Conference might have been the weekend's biggest winner.
Memphis' 34-24 upset of No. 13 Mississippi, combined with Utah State's 52-26 pounding of No. 21 Boise State on Friday night, creates a clear path for the American champion to earn a spot in the New Year's Six bowls as the best champion from a Group of Five conference.
The Tigers (6-0) can expect to be ranked when the new AP Top 25 comes out Sunday, joining No. 23 Houston (6-0) in the rankings. Temple (5-0), which beat Penn State, was playing winless UCF on Saturday night. Plus, Navy's only loss is against Notre Dame and Cincinnati has beaten Miami.
The American is 7-11 against the Power Five and 4-3 against the Atlantic Coast Conference. The other Group of Five conferences are a combined 9-73 against Power Five teams.
Memphis, Houston and Navy, all in the West Division, still have to play each other. Temple, in the East Division, only plays Memphis. Plus, the AAC has a conference championship game, so there is plenty of time for those teams to beat up each other.
No. 22 Toledo from the Mid-American Conference looks like the team in best position to slip into the New Year's Six ahead of the American champion. The Rockets (6-0) crushed Eastern Michigan 63-20 on Saturday. The meat of their conference schedule comes in November.
But for now the former Big East, which was picked apart by conference realignment and relegated to second tier of FBS when the playoff was created, is making a good case for being the best of the rest.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP