Forde-Yard Dash: The Fourth Playoff Spot Is Up for Grabs

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (rowboat repair kit sold separately in Minneapolis):

MORE DASH: Intriguing Matchups | Harbaugh or Orgeron?Pac Is Back

FIRST QUARTER: WE NEED A FOURTH, ANY TAKERS?

All those people who are always saying we need to expand the College Football Playoff? Have you all looked at what’s transpired this season? We don’t need expansion, we need contraction. That’s right, a three-team playoff.

Let Alabama and Ohio State finish cruising through their conferences. Then take the winner of Clemson-Notre Dame this Saturday. That’s it, that’s the field. Let them play a little round robin tourney. If one of them goes 2-0, that’s your national champion. If they all go 1-1, let the polls decide it like the old days. (That was always free of controversy, right?)

OK, maybe not. Maybe we can scare up a fourth team sometime between now and Dec. 20. Whoever it is can serve as this year’s Oklahoma, getting pole-axed by one of the Big Three. (But this year’s Oklahoma will not be Oklahoma. The Sooners and the rest of the Big 12 are out of contention at this point.)

So who will it be? Who can rise from the swamp of this season to claim that fourth place? You know The Dash has the appropriate list, in order from most to least likely:

Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney (right) greets Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly before 2018 Cotton Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at AT&T Stadium.

Clemson-Notre Dame loser (1): Whoever doesn’t win Saturday in South Bend could still find themselves in good position. That’s especially true if it’s Clemson, which has the Trevor Lawrence COVID-19 Get Out of Jail Free Card should it need to play it. But playing the scenarios out past Saturday, it would not be a shock to see the winner of that game go 11-0 and the loser 10-1 heading into a rematch in the ACC championship game. If the result is the same, then the 10-2 team just lost to a heck of an opponent twice. If the result is reversed, they’re both 11-1 and looking good.

Texas A&M (2): If the CFP selection committee winds up staring at a handful of two-loss teams, watch out for the Aggies sneaking in through the back door and making a case for themselves. Committees past have refrained from picking a two-loss team thus far, and at 9-1 A&M could present an alternative. Their only loss is to Alabama—and while it was a 28-point beatdown, keep in mind that the Crimson Tide has beaten everyone by at least 15 points thus far. Texas A&M’s best-case scenario might involve Florida winning the SEC East, since the Aggies own a victory over the Gators that is their only quality win. The rest of the schedule is pretty manageable on paper: South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, LSU, Auburn. Combined record of those opponents: 12-15. Auburn is the only one currently with a winning record.

Florida-Georgia winner (3): Whoever captures the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party game this weekend in Jacksonville will be the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC East. If that ultimately means taking a 9-1 record to Atlanta for the league title game against Alabama, a loss there would not be terrible. If that’s Georgia, the Bulldogs would be 0-2 against the Crimson Tide and 9-0 against the rest of the league. If it’s Florida, a 9-1 Texas A&M that defeated the Gators could loom as an impediment.

Cincinnati (4): Are the Bearcats poised to make the best argument in CFP history for including a team from outside the Power 5? Yes. We’ll see how they finish, but in the past couple of weeks Cincy (5-0) has untracked its offense to complement an outstanding defense. The Bearcats hung 42 on SMU and then 49 on Memphis the past two games, piling up big rushing totals. They’re in the top 12 nationally in both scoring offense (39.6) and scoring defense (12.0), which is something only Clemson and BYU can also say among teams that have played more than one game. Cincy’s two drawbacks at present: no ranked opponents remaining on the schedule, and finishing with three straight road games after a COVID-related postponement of the game against Tulsa.

Pac-12 champion (5): All 24 playoff spots have gone to Power 5 teams, and the Big 12’s flop presents a golden opportunity for the Pac-12 champ to claim the league’s first CFP bid since 2016. But is there a team good enough to go undefeated? The Dash will provide a quick overview of the league in a later quarter, but on paper there does not seem to be a dominant power. If that leads to a bunch of evenly matched teams beating each other, that doesn’t help from a playoff perspective. The short schedule (six regular-season games, plus one postseason) theoretically increases the chance of someone going undefeated, but would, say, a 7-0 Oregon deserve a bid more than 11-0 Cincinnati?

Big Ten West champion (6): The division currently has three unbeatens: 2-0 Purdue and Northwestern and 1-0 Wisconsin. The Badgers may be the best of the three, but their COVID issues are significant and may well impact what could be a pretty important Wisconsin-Purdue game Saturday. (Even if they do play, breakout quarterback Graham Mertz and his backup are out.) If one of these three wins the West undefeated and then loses to Ohio State, that record would be worthy of consideration. Although, if it’s Wisconsin and the Badgers are 6-1 with a pair of canceled games, that resume could meet some resistance in the committee room.

BYU-Boise State winner (7): There is a very big game out West Friday, when the undefeated Cougars and undefeated Broncos meet on the blue turf. Both are hungering for a quality win to flesh out a resumé that otherwise might not end up with much meat on the bone. BYU does have a December game against San Diego State (2-0), and Boise does have 2-0 San Jose State plus a potential Mountain West championship game, but at present this is easily the Game of the Year for both teams.

Indiana Hoosiers defensive back Jaylin Williams (23) and defensive back Devon Matthews (1) and defensive back Jamar Johnson (22) celebrate a defensive stop against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Indiana (8): Is it inherently hilarious to put the Hoosiers on a list of College Football Playoff contenders? Yes, yes it is. But a 2-0 start in an eight-game regular season gives one license to dream. If Indiana can get through its schedule with only a loss to Ohio State, it would be 7-1 in the regular season with wins over Wisconsin and Purdue. Add a quality win in the Big Ten’s East-West jamboree weekend (for lack of a better term), and the Hoosiers could have a case.

Coastal Carolina (9): The overall strength of schedule will probably preclude the Chanticleers (6-0) from serious consideration. But they do keep rolling, and in fact keep getting stronger as they roll. Their 51-0 destruction of Georgia State Saturday marked their largest margin of victory since becoming an FBS program in 2017, and largest victory margin in a conference game since 2012. There are some decent opponents remaining in Troy (4-2), Appalachian State (4-1) and Liberty (6-0), but at this point the Proud Roosters might be favored in all of those games.

Marshall (10): The Thundering Herd (5-0) is facing the same strength-of-schedule drawback as Coastal Carolina. They have just three remaining regular season games, and all three opponents are bad (Massachusetts, Middle Tennessee State and Charlotte have a combined record of 4-9). Nor is there a quality opponent to play in the Conference USA championship game. Marshall would need complete chaos and upheaval to merit any consideration, but could be in the mix for a New Years Six bowl bid.

Compiling this list underscores what The Dash wrote about a few weeks back: it’s going to be absurdly difficult for the selection committee. They have to compare disparate schedules in terms of number of games, plus a dearth of common opponents. Good luck to all involved—and don’t be afraid to think playoff contraction this year instead of expansion.

MORE DASH: Intriguing Matchups | Harbaugh or Orgeron? | Pac Is Back