EUGENE, Ore. -- When conference commissioners hashed out the format for the College Football Playoff in 2012 and ’13, they knew it would generate more discussion than the BCS did. They had no idea it would dominate the conversation as thoroughly as it has. "I've been a little surprised that there was so much focus on who the four would be from the first week of the season," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said on Saturday night. "It would be nice if I could enjoy the regular season a little bit more. It's been an amazing regular season."
Perhaps this is how we'll experience the regular season from this point forward. We want an explanation after every game involving a top-15 team as to how the result will affect that team's playoff hopes. We still savor games for the drama during those 60 minutes -- Auburn-Ole Miss would have made for incredible theater no matter the postseason format -- but, because so many more teams are still in the mix at this point in the fall, the playoff adds another layer of drama. It also doesn't hurt that this season features exactly zero dominant teams and a whole lot of pretty good ones. "There is heightened tension certainly across our league, but whether that's got to do with the playoff or more parity, more depth and more close games is really hard to say," Scott said. "Certainly in our league, every team has felt that they're in most games, and that's different. Our league feels very different than it did last year."
Scott isn't sweating the playoff selection committee's rankings. With one-loss Oregon in the North, one-loss Arizona State in the South and the possibility of chaos opening the door for two-loss teams in the field, the Pac-12 is set up as well as any conference. "Our teams are in good shape," Scott said. "No one is overly worried about it. We've got several teams that feel like they're in control of their destiny. But you don't know what's going to happen in the other leagues."
Exactly. The butterfly effect will be even more pronounced in the playoff era than it was in the BCS era. A game such as Pittsburgh-West Virginia in 2007 could impact multiple teams in multiple leagues. The playoff also means real answers will come later than ever. In the BCS era, a Saturday such as the one ahead could lay waste to the national title hopes of as many as half of the remaining contenders. That won't happen this year. We'll know more after Alabama-LSU, Oregon-Utah, Notre Dame-Arizona State, Baylor-Oklahoma and Kansas State-TCU, but we won't be able to eliminate most of the top teams. There is too much football left, and more games have high stakes than in the BCS era. (Remember when the guys in charge said a playoff would ruin the regular season? Riiiiiiight.)
As a showdown weekend approaches, it seems like an ideal time to examine the best- and worst-case scenarios for every Power Five league. While Scott and his colleagues have no real reason to worry about events outside their teams' control at the moment, things could get quite odd in the coming few weeks.
• Best-case scenario: Florida State wins its remaining games and makes the playoff.
• Worst-case scenario: Florida State loses a game and doesn’t make the playoff.
The ACC’s playoff scenarios are simple, perhaps to offset the scenarios that would produce a seven-way tie at 4-4 in the league’s Coastal Division. The Seminoles’ odds of making the playoff are far better than the odds of the Coastal teams being equally mediocre, but there’s always next year.
• Best-case scenarios: TCU wins out or Kansas State wins out (and Auburn either finishes in the top three or loses two more games) or Baylor wins out.
• Worst-case scenarios: Every league team finishes with at least two losses or Kansas State wins out and Auburn finishes 10-2 without winning the SEC West.
The Horned Frogs’ thrilling 31-30 escape from Morgantown sets up the league’s marquee matchup of the season on Saturday in Fort Worth. Whether TCU or Kansas State wins doesn’t necessarily matter. Each would have a good chance to make the playoff at 11-1. TCU’s loss came on the road against a Baylor team that clicked into video-game mode in the fourth quarter on Oct. 11, while Kansas State missed three field goals in a 20-14 loss to Auburn on Sept. 18. The tricky part would come if the Wildcats finish 11-1 and Auburn -- owner of the nation’s gnarliest schedule -- goes 10-2 with a road win at Kansas State. That would pit the value of head-to-head wins against conference titles against strength of schedule in the committee room. The winner would likely be Auburn, by virtue of its head-to-head win and tougher schedule.
The Spartans are handcuffed by their 46-27 loss at Oregon on Sept. 6, but it isn’t a deal-breaker. That game was closer than the final score indicates, and if Oregon keeps winning, the Ducks would likely be seeded better than No. 4. That would leave a slot for Michigan State. Plus, Oregon must play at Utah on Saturday and will face a quality team in the Pac-12 title game, so it isn’t out of the question that the Ducks could lose once or twice more. That also might free the Spartans from their tether. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 could be the albatross that keeps the Big Ten from participating in the inaugural playoff. It’s tough to imagine the committee selecting a team that lost to a five- (or six- or seven-) loss foe.
• Best-case scenarios: Oregon wins out or Arizona State wins out.
• Worst-case scenario: Utah beats Oregon and Notre Dame beats Arizona State.
If the Ducks and Sun Devils keep winning, they’ll meet on Dec. 5 in Santa Clara, Calif., with a likely playoff berth on the line. If either one wins out, the opposing division champ’s record won't matter. A 12-1 Pac-12 champ probably gets in. But if both pick up another loss, Scott will have to hope for chaos in the other leagues.
• Best-case scenarios: Mississippi State and Auburn win out or Alabama wins out and Mississippi State wins everything except the Alabama game.
• Worst-case scenario: The SEC East champ wins the league.
Those first two scenarios would likely put two SEC teams in the playoff. In the former case, Mississippi State would be 13-0 and Auburn would be 11-1 with its only loss coming at Mississippi State on Oct. 11. The latter case would leave Bama at 12-1 and Mississippi State at 11-1, with the Bulldogs’ only defeat coming at Alabama on Nov. 15. Each of those scenarios seems a fairly airtight way for the SEC to claim half of the playoff field. Yet the worst-case scenario could get really ugly. Absent absolute chaos in the other leagues, it’s tough to imagine the committee placing any of the teams with a shot to win the East in the field. Missouricontrols its destiny, but the Tigers lost at home to Indiana (currently winless in the Big Ten) on Sept. 20 and got shut out at home by Georgia on Oct. 11. Georgia has two bad league losses (South Carolina and Florida) and still has to play Auburn and Georgia Tech. Florida -- yes, the Gators can still get to Atlanta; more on that later -- already has three losses and still must play Florida State. So, which team would the committee select from the SEC? The West champ that just got beat by the East champ that wasn’t good enough to make the playoff? Or the West runner-up that wasn’t as good as the team that got beat by the East champ? Good luck with that one, selection committee.
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Florida State
The Seminoles leapfrog Mississippi State on the strength of a narrow road escape from what appears to be a quality Louisville team. The emergence of freshman tailback Dalvin Cook as a home-run threat in the running game and a reliable safety valve in the passing game adds two needed dimensions to the offense, and Cook's rapid improvement in pass protection has made it possible to get him on the field more often. Still, with quarterback Jameis Winston hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in a 42-31 win over the Cardinals, it will be even more imperative for Florida State's offensive line to shore up its pass blocking. If Winston can't move and the blocking looks like it did on Thursday night, a team with elite pass rushers will put Winston on the ground with alarming regularity.
2. Mississippi State
Arkansas put a scare into one of the SEC's best once again. And while the Razorbacks are clearly improved -- even if their conference record doesn't show it -- that makes it two consecutive weeks that the Bulldogs have lived dangerously against teams a national title contender should beat soundly. Mississippi State will waste everyone's time by playing Tennessee-Martin on Saturday. Then the Bulldogs will get ready to go to Tuscaloosa to prove themselves once and for all.
The Ducks' banged-up offensive line looked better in a 45-16 rout of Stanford on Saturday, and quarterback Marcus Mariota looked like the nation's best player. But right tackle Matt Pierson injured the MCL in his left knee and could miss Saturday's game at Utah. That means freshman Tyrell Crosby would have to fill in against a salty Utes’ defense. If the Ducks can survive Salt Lake City, they could have Pierson and tackle Andre Yruretagoyena back for a clash with Colorado on Nov. 21. That would be the deepest Oregon's line has been since facing Michigan State on Sept. 6.
If the Horned Frogs can beat Kansas State -- the only team in the Big 12 without a conference loss -- TCU has an excellent chance of winning the league title. It's difficult to imagine the Frogs losing to Kansas, Texas or Iowa State. It is easy, however, to imagine them losing to the Wildcats.
A random ranking
Saturday is the 178th anniversary of Milton Bradley's birth. Here are the top 10 board games.
1. Trivial Pursuit
5. Apples to Apples
8. Connect Four
Play of the week
With his job on the line, Georgia tailback Nick Chubb running wild and the passing game nowhere to be found, Florida coach Will Muschamp had to do something drastic. So, trailing 7-0 with 8:32 left in the second quarter on Saturday, Muschamp called a fake field goal. “I’m just a risky guy when it comes to those things,” Muschamp cracked later to reporters.
Georgia players might have known something was amiss had they recognized the Gators had switched holders from Kyle Crofoot to Michael McNeely, but they didn’t. By the time the Bulldogs did realize what was happening, Florida tight ends Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton had blasted open a gaping hole that McNeely burst through for a 21-yard touchdown that energized the Gators and helped pave the way for a 38-20 win.
McNeely, a senior walk-on from Clearwater, Fla., was awarded a scholarship in August. Two weeks ago he was accepted into Florida’s medical school. For now, he remains a bagger/cashier -- or a “bagshier,” McNeely told reporters on Saturday -- at a Publix supermarket near Florida’s campus.
“I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life,” McNeely told Chris Harry of Gatorzone.com. Neither will fans of either team. When they talk of the most famous -- or infamous, depending on the rooting interest -- moments in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, they’ll mention Fourth and Dumb, Run Lindsay and the Bagboy Fake.
Big Ugly of the week
This week’s winner is Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, who probably would have been honored last week for his win-clinching sack against Penn State but for the airborne heroics of trailblazing Arkansas guard Sebastian Tretola. (C’mon. When a 350-pound dude throws a touchdown pass, I have no real choice here.) But this is no make-up call. Bosa, a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., added two more sacks in a 55-14 win over Illinois on Saturday. If the 6-foot-5, 278-pound Bosa can get more acquainted with Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook next weekend, the Buckeyes will have a much clearer shot at the Big Ten title.
1. When I visited Ole Miss in early October, staffers raved about receiver Laquon Treadwell’s team-first attitude. He came in as a blue-chip recruit, but he worked like a walk-on trying to earn a scholarship. Treadwell’s injury on Saturday, and the Rebels’ subsequent 35-31 loss to Auburn because of what happened on the play, was a brutal gut punch for the Ole Miss program. But someone did a great job of putting everything in perspective on Sunday. His name is Laquon Treadwell.
2. The “College Kickers” meme has gathered steam for much of this season as critical kicks have sailed astray -- even Florida State’s typically automatic Roberto Aguayo missed a field goal attempt on Thursday at Louisville -- but two kickers earned their unlimited meals on Saturday. TCU’s Jaden Oberkrom hit a 37-yarder in Morgantown to lift his team over West Virginia and keep the Horned Frogs in position to compete for the Big 12 title. Later, in Tempe, Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez made a 36-yarder in overtime to beat Utah and give the Sun Devils sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South. Arizona State coach Todd Graham never had any doubt in Gonzalez. “I’m just worried about the snap,” Graham told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t worry about him. He has a personality that gives you a lot of confidence. He’s the best I’ve been around. If he lines up right, he’s going to make every field goal he tries.”
3. I mentioned earlier that I would explain how Florida could still wind up playing for the SEC title, so here goes. It’s unlikely, but it is possible. First, the Gators would have to win their remaining SEC games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Until Saturday, they had offered no evidence that was possible, but now the notion does not seem so far-fetched. The more difficult part is somehow getting Missouri and Georgia to finish their SEC schedules with three losses to set up a three-way tie in which the Gators would have the tiebreaker based on a superior East division record. The Georgia part is easy. The Bulldogs host Auburn on Nov. 15. The Mizzou part is tougher. The Tigers would have to lose two of their last three SEC games, and one loss would have to come at Tennessee on Nov. 22. While the Volunteers look like a different team with Josh Dobbs at quarterback, their young offensive line should struggle mightily against Missouri’s excellent pass rush. If all of that happened, though, Florida would win the East based on a 4-1 division record.
That would probably save Muschamp’s job. So, too, would winning out in the SEC and beating Florida State, which seems about as unlikely as the above scenario. But if the Gators can beat Vandy and South Carolina -- and Eastern Kentucky; after Georgia Southern last year that can’t be taken for granted -- and are competitive against the likely playoff-bound Seminoles in Tallahassee, that might be enough to earn Muschamp another year. Remember, athletic director Jeremy Foley doesn’t want to fire Muschamp. He’ll give him a chance to earn the job back.
But can Florida win those games with an offense that completed 3 of 6 passes for 27 yards on Saturday? Sure, as long as the Gators can run for 418 yards on 60 carries as they did against the Bulldogs. “I know I’ll still disappoint a bunch of Florida fans,” Muschamp said, “but why stop running the ball when you’re gaining yards running it?” The Gators will likely need to strike a better run-pass balance, but if they can run the ball anywhere near as effectively in the next four weeks as they did in Jacksonville, they just might win Muschamp another year.
4. Monkey removal was a recurring theme in college football on Saturday. After his first win over Georgia in four tries, Muschamp pretended to take an object off his shoulders. “Let me lift this thing off my back,” Muschamp said. “One less thing for you to write about.” A few hours later and 3,000 miles away, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich celebrated his team’s first win over Stanford since 2011. The Cardinal had kept the Ducks from winning the Pac-12 each of the past two seasons, and Oregon ended that streak with a cathartic victory. “Was there ever an actual monkey on my back?” Helfrich asked. “A primate? Was there?”
5. Maryland won a game on Saturday, but the Terrapins’ captains embarrassed themselves and their school when they refused to shake hands with Penn State’s captains before the game. “That is not who we are,” coach Randy Edsall told ESPN immediately after the Terps’ 20-19 win. “Our emotions got the best of us, and we’ve got to be above that. So I just want to say ... I apologize for that. Feel bad for that.” Later, Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson released a statement. “We are extremely disappointed in the actions of our captains involved in today’s coin toss,” Anderson said in the statement. “Their behavior is not a reflection of how our student-athletes should conduct themselves in athletic competition.”
Expect this rivalry to heat up in the next few years. Penn State coach James Franklin was once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting, but that plan was scuttled when former Terps coach Ralph Friedgen was fired. Franklin specializes in recruiting the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, so these two programs will lock horns over players frequently. If the two teams can keep it a little classier than Maryland did on Saturday, it could be the most fun new rivalry in the realigned Power Five, because these programs are going to absolutely hate each other.
6. The result probably had more to do with an opponent that came in winless in Big Ten play than the forced resignation of the school’s athletic director a day earlier, but Michigan players appeared to be having much more fun in a 34-10 homecoming win over Indiana. The breakout star was Wolverines tailback Drake Johnson, who carried 16 times for 122 yards with two touchdowns.
The departure of AD Dave Brandon on Friday signals that change is coming to Michigan, but the Wolverines still have something to play for this season. If they can win two of their final three games (at Northwestern, Maryland, at Ohio State), they’ll make a bowl. That might not be enough to save coach Brady Hoke’s job, but it would give Michigan 15 extra practices to help develop less experienced players like Johnson. “They’re playing for each other,” Hoke said. “They really have done a nice job of going to work. They’re no different than any Michigan fan, coaches or anybody else. They have high expectations, and they've been able to, for some of the youth, they've been able to focus on what’s next. That’s what they’ve done. I wish I could tell you there’s a secret to it, but that's what I’ve seen them do.”
7. After bailing on his postgame press conference without taking questions following Saturday’s 45-42 overtime loss to Tennessee, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier did answer questions during his regular Sunday teleconference. The frustration that was evident during his terse statement on Saturday seems to have evolved into a sort of resignation that this season -- which began with high expectations on the heels of three consecutive 11-win campaigns -- might not end with even a trip to a lower-tier bowl. To reach one, the Gamecocks will have to win two of their final three games (at Florida, South Alabama, at Clemson).
“Obviously I’d like to beat teams that look like we’re supposed to beat them,” Spurrier said on Sunday. “I’ve had some losses that I’m not used to having, especially this year. Three or four that looked like winnable games and something’s happened to us that hasn’t happened in the past. I guess if you coach long enough, the odds are you have some games like this. Certainly we’ve had our share this year. Again, we have to move on. I’m not the only coach to lose a heartbreaking game. You have to learn from them and come back and be ready to play the next one as best as you can. That’s what we’re going to do.”
8. What has happened to Texas A&M? We in the media are partially to blame for overhyping the Aggies after a 52-28 blowout win on Aug. 28 over a South Carolina team that we have learned is not very good. But they should be better than a 21-16 escape from Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday. Was there really a quarterback competition after Texas A&M’s 59-0 loss at Alabama on Oct. 18? Or was Kenny Hill just suspended for two games and freshman Kyle Allen pressed into the starting role? Either way, the Aggies have enough talent on the offensive line and at the skill positions to score on anyone. The lack of production is a mystery. What’s clear is that Texas A&M spent a lot of money to push Kyle Field’s capacity over 100,000, and the Aggies aren’t giving fans much reason to show up.
9. One school in the Texas A&M system is managing to put up copious points. On Saturday Division II Texas A&M-Commerce broke 90 for the second time this season with a 91-13 win over McMurry. Former Auburn signee Tyrik Rollison completed 7 of 10 passes for 203 yards with three touchdowns, while Texas castoff Joe Bergeron carried nine times for 86 yards with a score.
10. Notre Dame will have to play the rest of the season without middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. The former walk-on, who was one of the best players and top leaders on the Fighting Irish defense, dislocated and broke his ankle in Saturday’s 49-39 win at Navy. “I think everybody is going to have to pick up a little bit,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said in a teleconference on Sunday. “[Fellow linebacker] Jaylon [Smith] is going to have to pick up. I think the defensive line is going to have to be more assertive in making sure they're taking care of their end of things. I think our safeties, I think everybody is going to have to pick up the slack for the loss of a guy that really did most of the work.”
What’s eating Andy?
I’ve tried to avoid complaining about travel here, because someone senior to me has staked out that territory pretty thoroughly on this site. But I remain confounded by one particular phenomenon. I would conservatively estimate that 50 percent of the people who travel on planes have no idea what their luggage looks like. This week, I watched a woman peruse five or six different suitcases -- in various colors -- before finally selecting her own. This didn’t take place at baggage claim. This was no scam. This person was trying to find her own carry-on on the jetway after checking it before we flew a short route on a commuter jet. How can a person purchase, pack and transport a suitcase to the airport and then have no clue what that suitcase looks like?
What’s Andy eating?
Last week’s voyage west piled up the calories the way Oregon’s offense piled up the points against Stanford. I began with a visit to Rich Rodriguez in Tucson, and while I was interested in the Wildcats’ renaissance, I really came to try a Sonoran Dog from El Guero Canelo.
What’s a Sonoran Dog? It’s a hot dog wrapped in bacon and stuffed inside a cocoon of soft, sweet bread before being topped with beans, veggies and condiments. It’s basically a cross between a steamed Chinese bun and a Chicago dog, and it’s hopelessly addictive. Pro tip: Stuff the charred pepper that comes alongside your dog into the bun before biting down.
If that had been my only discovery on the trip, I would have been happy. But I was assigned to cover the Stanford-Oregon game, and I had an extra day between my visit to Arizona and game day. So, I decided to eat my way around Portland.
If I lived in Portland, I’d weigh approximately 700 pounds. (Also, the fury at being banned by state statute from pumping my own gas might make my head explode.) Like Austin, Portland is an incubator for creative cooks, and that means something delicious has popped up on nearly every corner. I began at Olympic Provisions, a charcuterie specialist with two locations in town. The house-made Italian sausage over a bed of polenta packed a savory wallop, but the star of the menu is among the appetizers. It's the pork rillette hand pie. Pork rillettes are something of a cross between Southern pulled pork and pate. Cubes of meat -- in this case, it looked like shoulder or Boston butt -- are cooked slowly in fat and then pulled apart until they can almost form a paste. At Olympic Provisions, the pork is then stuffed into a puff pastry. My only mistake was ordering one. I have two hands, therefore I should have eaten two hand pies.
Later, co-worker Lindsay Schnell introduced me to OX. This is an Argentinean-inspired spot near downtown that specializes in meat. The skirt steak was a perfect, juicy medium rare, and the chorizo exploded with spice. Perhaps the most impressive achievement at OX is the kitchen's ability to make cauliflower taste like meaty candy. Seriously, the caramelized cauliflower in golden raisin vinaigrette might be as good as anything on the menu that came from a cow.
On Friday night I visited Portland stalwart Pok Pok just to make sure it still makes the best wings in America. I had the Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce wings at the Brooklyn location, but I wanted to try the original. The quality remains consistent on either coast, and the spicy, salty fish sauce makes the wings impossible to stop eating. I could only be pried from the table by the promise of a visit to ice cream purveyor Salt and Straw. I had two scoops of the Stumptown Coffee and Burnside Bourbon flavor. If you're scoring at home, that's four vices (animal fat, sugar, coffee and bourbon) packed into one flavor.
Fortunately, I also managed some running, yoga and weights while on the trip. Otherwise, SI might have had to send a crew to break down the wall of my hotel room to extricate me so I could drive to Eugene to cover the game. Portland is dangerous, man.