Nine undefeated teams entered Week 9. Seven of them went on the road. Now only five remain unbeaten.
Three days before the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first ranking of the season, the schedule put the playoff hopefuls to the test. The ones who emerged unblemished solidified their status at the forefront of the race as four previously perfect teams suffered their first losses of the season.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the week:
1. The Big 12 is definitely out of the playoff (most likely)
Sure, you can probably envision a scenario in which the Big 12 still makes the playoff. Perhaps Oklahoma wins out with a perfect conference record or Baylor or West Virginia recover from their losses. It theoretically could happen. But it would require a lot of chaos in the other Power 5 conferences, certainly more than we’ve seen in either of the first two years of the playoff.
No. 8 Baylor and No. 10 West Virginia both squandered control of their playoff destinies with losses Saturday on the road. The Bears fell to Texas 35–34 as Longhorns running back D’Onta Foreman ran all over Baylor for 250 yards and Bears quarterback Seth Russell completed just 14 of 28 passes. Oklahoma State upended West Virginia’s bid for a perfect season with a 37–20 win sparked by 273 yards passing and three touchdowns from quarterback Mason Rudolph against the typically stout Mountaineers defense. Now no team remains undefeated in the Big 12.
Baylor has almost no shot to get back in the playoff mix. With a nonconference slate of Northwestern State, SMU and Rice and a conference schedule that as of now includes no ranked opponents, the Bears needed to go undefeated to finish in the top four. West Virginia’s nonconference foes were a bit tougher—Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU—but the Mountaineers will also suffer from the weak state of the conference.
Ultimately the only hope for the Big 12 is a two-loss Pac-12 champion (which doesn’t look likely) and even then a one-loss runner up from the ACC, Big Ten or SEC might leapfrog the Big 12’s champ. At very least, the conference has lost control of its playoff fate. And in all likelihood, the Big 12’s playoff dreams are over.
2. Clemson and Washington strengthened their cases
Both the No. 3 Tigers and No. 4 Huskies faced stiff tests on the road as Clemson visited No. 12 Florida State and Washington traveled to No. 17 Utah. For the Huskies, it was easily their biggest obstacle of the season so far and possibly the biggest they’ll face during the regular season. The wins did not come easily, which makes the fact that both remain among the elite group of five unbeatens all the more meaningful.
Washington trailed Utah for less than three minutes of game time, but the Huskies were never able to put away their conference foes. Chris Petersen’s team only built a lead of larger than seven points once and remained tied with the Utes until deep into the fourth quarter. Finally Dante Pettis’s 58-yard punt return touchdown with 3:25 remaining gave Washington the lead for good.
Clemson appeared to be on the ropes when Florida State running back Dalvin Cook broke loose for a 70-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to put the Seminoles up 28–20. After the Tigers retook the lead 29–28 midway through the fourth quarter, Florida State again appeared poised to take down the defending ACC champions when Cook’s fourth touchdown of the game gave the Noles the lead with 3:23 left.
But Deshaun Watson authored a signature clutch drive, marching the Tigers down the field with three completions to tight end Jordan Leggett, the last one a 34-yard score in which Leggett performed some nifty acrobatics to extend the ball across the goal line. Clemson’s ferocious front seven then sealed the win with its fourth and fifth sacks of the game.
Though both the Tigers and Huskies are 8–0 in Power 5 conferences, their playoff paths are a little different. The strength of the ACC and Clemson’s nonconference win over Auburn (which continues to look stronger and stronger as Auburn knocked off Ole Miss for its fifth straight win Saturday) assures the Tigers of a playoff berth if they win the ACC with one loss or fewer. And with a win over Louisville, Clemson can afford to drop a conference game and still control its fate in the ACC Atlantic. So a loss to Florida State would not have sunk the Tigers’ playoff hopes all that much. Still, maintaining that margin for error may prove crucial, and the Tigers could secure themselves a high seed if they win out.
Washington does not hold the benefit of a strong conference record or a tough nonconference victory. Saturday’s win over Utah is the Huskies’ only victory over a currently ranked opponent. While the Big 12’s implosion certainly eases Washington’s path to the playoff, the only guaranteed road for the Huskies is to go undefeated. Who knows how a one-loss Washington might compare with a one-loss Louisville when the Cardinals’ only loss is to an undefeated Clemson team on the road?
3. Wisconsin may get another shot at either Ohio State or Michigan
The Badgers lost to Michigan in the Big House by a touchdown and took Ohio State to overtime, so there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t beat either of those two opponents in a rematch on a neutral field—say, Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 3. No. 11 Wisconsin took a big step toward earning that rematch Saturday when it pulled out an overtime win over previously unbeaten No. 7 Nebraska 23–17.
Paul Chryst’s squad coughed up a 17–7 fourth quarter lead thanks to two interceptions and made things even harder on itself when kicker Andrew Endicott missed a go-ahead 45-yard field goal with 1:43 left in regulation and an extra point in overtime. But the Badgers’ defense, which entered Saturday allowing under five yards per play on the season and held the Cornhuskers to 4.2 on Saturday, responded each time, getting a stop to force overtime and then forcing a turnover-on-downs on Nebraska’s OT possession to clinch the victory.
Wisconsin still trails Nebraska in the Big Ten West standings, but the Badgers have to be considered the favorites to win the division by the end of the season. Nebraska travels to Ohio State next week, and while the Buckeyes have been sloppy lately, losing to Penn State last week and narrowly holding off Northwestern on Saturday, they’ll certainly be favored at home against the Cornhuskers. With Wisconsin now holding the tiebreaker with Nebraska, it’s in prime position to win the division and earn a trip to the Big Ten championship game.
Who it might face there is still unclear, though Michigan continues to look every bit as good as advertised, adding a 32–23 defeat of rival Michigan State to its résumé Saturday.
4. Western Michigan is now the unquestioned leader of the Group of Five conferences
It would have been interesting to see how the playoff selection committee compared Western Michigan to Boise State. The AP ranked the Broncos of the MAC No. 20 while the Broncos of the Mountain West rode a higher strength of schedule to a No. 13 ranking. It’s likely the playoff committee would have similarly held Boise State higher, giving coach Bryan Harsin’s team the inside track to the Group of Five’s guaranteed spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Now that discussion is moot. Just Houston handed the reins to Boise State, Boise State handed them to Western Michigan on Saturday night as Boise State fell to Wyoming 30–28. The Broncos’ dreams of a perfect season crumbled in Laramie as quarterback Brett Rypien fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone with 1:25 to play. The safety gave Wyoming a 30–28 lead, its first of the game, which it clung to for the upset.
Now Western Michigan will certainly be the highest ranked Group of Five team in the committee’s ranking Tuesday. Coach P.J. Fleck’s team has a solid shot at going undefeated, which would book the Broncos a spot in the Cotton Bowl, a remarkable turnaround for a program that went 1–11 just three seasons ago.