Column: Louisville's ugly loss clears up playoff picture

That big sigh of relief you heard Friday came from the folks charged with deciding who's in and who's out of the College Football Playoff.

Thanks to Louisville, they've got one less team to worry about.

Those big cheers you heard? They came from the Big Ten, which suddenly has a much better chance of hoarding half of the four-team playoff field.

Louisville, led by Heisman Trophy favorite Lamar Jackson, had been preemptively seething about the possibility of winding up with the short end of the stick after being judged No. 5 in the most recent rankings put out by the selection committee.

The Cardinals should have been more concerned with taking care of business on the field.

After a dismal performance Thursday night at Houston, they've got no room to complain.

Louisville fumbled away the opening kickoff and was already behind just 11 seconds into the game. It only got worse from there, as the Cardinals trailed 31-0 at halftime on the way to a 36-10 drubbing.

''We got beat by their offense, we got beat by their defense, we got beat by their special teams,'' coach Bobby Petrino said. ''It was just one of those games where you get your butt beat.''

With Louisville off the board, let's take a look at four teams likely to be playing in the national semifinals on New Year's Eve:

ALABAMA - The defending national champions are the only unbeaten team left from the Power Five ranks, and there seems little chance that Nick Saban's squad will stumble between now and selection day. The Crimson Tide (10-0) faces road-kill Chattanooga on Saturday before closing out the regular season against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Given the way the Tigers were exposed by Georgia, failing to make even one first down in the second half, they have no chance of pulling off a massive upset at Bryant-Denny Stadium. After that, Alabama must go through the motions of the Southeastern Conference championship game against whoever emerges from the Least - uhh, make that East - Division. Then, it's on the playoff and a shot at the fifth national title of Saban's decade-long tenure in Tuscaloosa.

OHIO STATE OR MICHIGAN - The Big Ten behemoths won't have any trouble this weekend. Michigan is hosting lowly Indiana, while Ohio State travels to Michigan State to take on the three-win Spartans. Then, it's on to the Playoff for the Playoff, otherwise known as The Game. Playing at the big horseshoe, Ohio State will be the favorite. Should the Buckeyes win, they might even get to avoid the potential stumbling block of the Big Ten championship game. That honor would go to Penn State, assuming the Nittany Lions win their final two games to claim the tiebreaker by virtue of a stunning 24-21 win over Ohio State last month. No matter who plays for the Big Ten title, the Michigan-Ohio State winner is headed for the playoff.

CLEMSON - The Tigers, who were runners-up to Alabama last season and figured to be the Crimson Tide's strongest challenger again, stumbled badly with a home loss to Pittsburgh. Still, Clemson (9-1) can lock up its spot by closing the regular season with wins over improving Wake Forest and rival South Carolina, before taking out someone from the weak side of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the league's championship game. The Tigers' resume is a bit lacking now that Louisville's second loss takes some of the luster off their best win. But the selection committee would surely go with Deshaun Watson & Co. at 12-1, especially if the alternative was taking a couple of two-loss teams.

A SECOND BIG TEN TEAM - If Penn State and Wisconsin both win out, and Ohio State beats Michigan, the winner of the Big Ten title will be in prime position to claim the final playoff spot. What about Washington? Yes, the Huskies (9-1) are still very much in the running, even after an ugly home loss last weekend, but it's hard to see them winning out. They close the regular season with a very challenging road game against on-the-rise rival Washington State (8-2). Even if they get past that, there's still the Pac-12 championship game and a possible rematch against Southern Cal, the team that just beat up Washington 26-13. Another possibility is a two-loss Oklahoma team, should it win the largely overlooked Big 12. At this point, though, the Sooners are merely a backup option should someone falter.

No matter what, the committee doesn't have to worry about Louisville mucking things up.

''We blew it,'' Petrino said bluntly.

With that, the playoff picture got a whole lot clearer.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberr .

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For more college football coverage: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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