As the race for College Football Playoff bids heats up, equally notable are some of the teams who have long since fallen out of the race. Notre Dame, Michigan State and Oregon each began the year with hopes of finishing in the top four yet now appear more likely to end the season with just four wins. All three teams are 2–5 entering Week 9, stunning collapses for programs who have been among the best in college football in recent seasons.
So with bowl eligibility the only thing left to salvage for the Fighting Irish, Spartans and Ducks, whose flop has been the most surprising? Or is another team's breakdown even more stunning than those three? SI and FOX Sports’ college football experts made their picks:
Pete Thamel, SI: Michigan State
Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has emerged as a paragon of consistency and reliability. While there were questions with Connor Cook leaving for the NFL, the Spartans had been so reliable filling holes over the years that it was hard to imagine they'd flop like this. The most perplexing result amid their five-game losing streak came against Northwestern. Losing to the Wildcats is acceptable, but giving up 54 points at home to a team that scored seven points against Illinois State was astonishing. It's starting to become apparent just how valuable former coordinator Pat Narduzzi was to that Michigan State defense.
Bruce Feldman, FOX Sports: Notre Dame
I thought about saying UCLA—and the Bruins have been a dud—but looking at the teams the Irish have lost to this season (Texas, Michigan State, Duke, NC State and Stanford), not a single one of them is ranked now. Heck, none of those teams even received a single vote in the latest AP or Coaches polls. And the Irish are still only 2–5?! This is a team with two talented, experienced quarterbacks and some gifted offensive linemen and it still doesn’t rank in the top 50 in the country in offense. Defensively, it’s been even worse. Only two teams in the country have fewer sacks, and this is a group that some on the coaching staff thought had as much talent as any group they’d had. Now Notre Dame is staring at a 4–8 season, which is brutal for a team that was in the preseason top 10 in both polls.
Stewart Mandel, FOX Sports: Michigan State
First of all, I'd like to give myself a little pat on the back for predicting Notre Dame, Michigan State and Oregon to flop, but even I thought that would look more like 7–5 or 8–4, not 4–8. I could see the Ducks’ and, to a lesser extent, the Irish’s defensive struggles coming, but the Spartans’ are far more surprising. Opponents are scoring nearly 30 points per game on them, up from 21.7 in 2015. Throw in a mess at quarterback and an underperforming rushing attack and Michigan State, the defending Big Ten champ, is one of two winless teams in conference play. The other is Rutgers. Stunning.
Lindsay Schnell, SI: Stanford
I'm most puzzled and troubled by Stanford's fall from the top. I thought we (the media) finally got smart when we picked the Cardinal to win the Pac-12 after an impressive run of success from David Shaw & Co. Now they're losing at home to teams like Colorado (No offense, Buffs). Certainly Washington is really good, but Stanford has been so blah in other areas. Christian McCaffrey has all but disappeared from the Heisman Trophy conversation, which is understandable given his team's record but also startling considering what he did last year. The conclusion, I think, is that Kevin Hogan was much better than any of us gave him credit for. Who knew?
Brian Hamilton, SI: Michigan State
The Spartans appeared to be in retooling mode when they walloped Notre Dame in their second game of the year—not a perfect squad but one with enough answers to work through the remaining questions. It turns out they just played a horrid Notre Dame team, with four straight losses following that. Not having an adequate quarterback replacement for Connor Cook has been a significant failure. But even more unbelievably, a defense with ample returning talent ranks 74th nationally in the Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings, sandwiched between Ohio and Rutgers. A quarterback hiccup can happen. A defensive implosion never should, not at Michigan State.
Joan Niesen, SI: Michigan State
For me, it has to be the Spartans. They just don't do this under Mark Dantonio; since he took over in East Lansing in 2007, Michigan State has had just one losing record and never fewer than six wins. This Spartans team will be lucky to eke out five wins (looking at their remaining schedule, I realistically see four), which will mean it'll have gone from a playoff team in 2015 to missing a bowl in 2016, certainly the biggest year-over-year flop of any team in football.