The three biggest things we learned from Week 10 in college football, including the dwindling of contenders for the playoff.
When we look back on the season at its end, no week may have shaped who ultimately makes the College Football Playoff more than Week 10. Between three marquee conference showdowns and some stunning upsets, the playoff picture looks vastly different than it did entering Saturday, and the 11 undefeated teams that entered Week 10 have been whittled down to just six.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the week:
1. The number of legitimate playoff contenders is falling
Four days after the playoff selection committee unveiled its first rankings of the season, several teams vying for a berth in the top four saw their hopes go up in smoke.
No. 16 Florida State would have needed to go unbeaten the rest of the season, win the ACC title and hope for some help from chaos in the other Power Five conferences to make the playoff. After the Seminoles’ 23–13 defeat to Clemson, their hopes of a return to the semifinals are over.
So too are No. 13 Memphis’s playoff dreams. The Tigers already faced an uphill climb due to their Group of Five status and schedule, but Navy’s triple-option offense proved too much of a challenge. The Midshipmen rushed for 374 yards and forced three turnovers to give Memphis its first loss of the season, a 45–20 drubbing. Now Justin Fuente’s squad can only hope to recover, win the American Athletic Conference (it no longer controls its own destiny) and earn a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl.
No. 8 TCU was the highest ranked team to see its semifinal hopes likely disappear. The Horned Frogs had no answer for No. 14 Oklahoma State’s high-powered offense, which gashed TCU for 8.6 yards per play in a 49–29 rout. Quarterback Mason Rudolph had a phenomenal day, completing 16 of 24 passes for 352 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He outdueled Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin, who tossed four interceptions to help seal the Horned Frogs’ fate. Boykin’s Heisman hopes and TCU’s playoff aspirations are both on life support. It’s possible the Horned Frogs could play themselves back into contention with wins over Kansas, Oklahoma and Baylor to close out the season. But even if they win those games, they’d need help, as their chances of winning the Big 12 took a serious hit, too. The offensive masterpiece cements the Cowboys’ status as serious contenders for a Big 12 title and playoff berth. Oklahoma State is undefeated but lacked a win over a ranked team before Saturday. Now that the Cowboys have proven they can beat the Big 12’s best, Baylor and Oklahoma better take notice before their respective meetings on Nov. 21 and Nov. 28. The road to a Big 12 championship runs through Stillwater.
The most surprising playoff contender to fall Saturday was No. 7 Michigan State, which suffered a stunning 39–38 loss to Nebraska. Fitting with an emerging trend this season, the Spartans’ defeat was not without controversy as Brandon Reilly’s game-winning 30-yard touchdown reception came after he stepped out of bounds while running his route. However, officials ruled that he was forced out of bounds by the defender, making his eventual reception not an illegal touching penalty. Saturday’s victory offered a tremendous rebound for Nebraska, which fell to lowly Purdue last week to drop to 3–6 in coach Mike Riley’s debut season. For Michigan State, the Spartans will now have to win out, including a Nov. 21 trip to Ohio State, to have a chance to win the Big Ten. Even if they pull that off, there’s no guarantee it’ll be enough to send them to the playoff.
2. Alabama controls its destiny in the SEC and the playoff
After the Crimson Tide’s No. 4 ranking in the playoff committee’s initial top 25 was met with widespread criticism, they proved that, if anything, that ranking was too low with a resounding 30–16 thumping of No. 2 LSU.
Alabama’s front seven proved it was up to what appeared to be an impossible task: stopping Leonard Fournette. The Tide held the Heisman frontrunner to 31 yards on 19 carries, and only one of Fournette’s rushes went for more than four yards, as Alabama’s defensive line and linebackers swarmed to the ball to wrap him up. Quarterback Brandon Harris didn’t fare any better against the Tide’s secondary, completing just 6 of 19 passes for 128 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
On the other side of the ball, Derrick Henry charged through LSU’s defense for 210 yards on 38 carries with three touchdowns. The Tigers defense entered Saturday’s clash allowing just 3.3 yards per rush but was unable to contain the Alabama back, who may now be a Heisman frontrunner himself.
With Saturday’s win, Alabama pushed its Sept. 19 loss to Ole Miss to the distant past. The Rebels helped to make that possible, too, by falling to Arkansas 53–52 in overtime. That gave Ole Miss, which controlled its SEC destiny entering Week 10, its second defeat in conference play. Now if the Tide win out, they’ll win the SEC West and earn a trip to Atlanta to face Florida (which locked up the SEC East with an ugly 9–7 win Saturday) with a conference title and a playoff berth on the line. Since falling to the Rebels, Alabama has won six straight by a combined score of 189–77. It almost certainly won’t leapfrog No. 1 Clemson, but few teams could claim to be playing better right now.
However, if the Tide slip up, LSU will be waiting in the wings to take their place as the SEC’s top playoff contender. The Tigers hadn’t lost before Saturday, so one Alabama mistake would push the Bayou Bengals back in front in the SEC West, despite being the clearly inferior team in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.
3. Clemson backed up its status as the No. 1 team
Ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1981, the Tigers lived up to their billing by overpowering Florida State for a 23–13 victory.
After a sluggish first half in which Clemson lost the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball, the Tigers wore the Seminoles down, erasing a 10–6 halftime deficit with smothering defense and a balanced offense. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook broke through for a 75-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game and raced for 36 yards on his next touch. But Cook gained just 83 yards on the ground the rest of the game, and the Seminoles never returned to the end zone.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson came through on the biggest stage, completing 28 of 42 passes for 297 yards with a touchdown and rushing for a career-high 107 yards. Watson got help from running back Wayne Gallman, who gave the Tigers critical balance with 103 yards rushing. His 25-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter, followed by linebacker Ben Boulware’s strip, in which he ripped the ball away from Florida State’s Travis Rudolph, sealed Clemson’s win and turned a raucous Death Valley scene into a party. The Tigers faithful celebrated their first win over their ACC Atlantic rivals since 2011.
With wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, Clemson has now passed its two toughest tests of the regular season. Because of the weakness of the ACC, a single defeat will likely cost the Tigers a spot in the playoff. However, they now only have to beat Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina before a date in the ACC title game. Saturday’s win clinched the Atlantic Division title for Clemson, and it’ll likely face North Carolina in the conference championship game after the Tar Heels steamrolled Duke 66–31 on Saturday.