Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (popcorn sold separately in Oxford, at reduced prices):
FIRST QUARTER: THE SIX DEBATES THAT COULD LOOM OVER THE PLAYOFF
It was a good weekend for College Football Playoff housekeeping. We discarded quite a bit of clutter—out went September flashes Arkansas, Mississippi, Notre Dame and Maryland. We dusted off a relic (Michigan) and put it back on display alongside a shiny new addition (Cincinnati). And we kept mantel space reserved for two prized possessions (Georgia and Alabama).
But there will always be different opinions about how to accessorize a place, and nothing creates debate like the playoff mansion. Here are the six looming squabbles that could spice the next several weeks:
Two teams from the Southeastern Conference (1). Even among the most obstinate scolds who believe that a team should have to win its conference championship to advance to the playoff, it’s impossible at this point to argue that both Georgia and Alabama aren’t among the four best teams in the land. If they continue to roll through the regular season 12–0 and meet in what would be a doozy of an SEC championship game, they’d both be all but assured of spots in the CFP.
This would conjure a lot of kvetching, furthering concerns outside the South that the SEC is verging on a dominance that diminishes national interest in the sport—not just now but in the future when Oklahoma and Texas arrive. Fear of an SEC Planet—and its ESPN moon—would only intensify.
Two from the Big Ten (2). With four current unbeatens plus one-loss Ohio State, don’t discount the increasing possibility of at least two Big Ten teams being in the argument deep into the season. The winner of the Iowa–Penn State game Saturday will be elevated into prime position—and if that winner is the Hawkeyes, the rest of the schedule looks manageable. In the East, the five-Saturday stretch from Oct. 30 through Nov. 27 could be all kinds of fun, with Michigan (5–0), Michigan State (5–0), the Nittany Lions (5–0) and the Buckeyes (4–1) all playing three games against one another.
If a team from the East emerges either unbeaten or with one loss and meets a 12–0 Iowa in the Big Ten title game, that could present an argument for two bids from the nation’s oldest conference.
(Something else to keep in mind, if we progress toward any kind of résumé contest that involves Georgia, Alabama and Penn State: All three will have played Auburn. The Nittany Lions beat the Tigers 28–20 at home in September; the Bulldogs visit them this week; and the Crimson Tide plays at their ancient rival Nov. 27. Results against that common opponent could influence perceptions of the three.)
One-loss Oregon vs. one-loss Ohio State (3). This could be an interesting argument if both keep winning: Do the Ducks remain ahead of the Buckeyes in the playoff hierarchy, even if overall strength of schedule likely would skew heavily in favor of Ohio State? The Dash believes that Oregon’s loss Saturday to Stanford is not a playoff killer, for two reasons: The Ducks lost in part due to an untimed down after a controversial flag in a game where their offensive coordinator was out due to illness; the Ducks own the best nonconference win of the season, beating Ohio State in Columbus.
Until further notice, Oregon should remain ahead of the Buckeyes with all right-thinking humans. Naturally, the poll voters failed to grasp that, dropping the Ducks one spot below Ohio State in the AP poll and two spots below in the AFCA Coaches Poll. Because why bother with head-to-head results when inflating the biggest brands comes so naturally?
Oregon may be too injury-riddled to get through the rest of the slate with just that one loss—but if they do, it’s a loss with a lot of extenuating circumstances. And there was nothing flukey about its win in the Horseshoe. But if Ohio State beats Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa while going 12–1, that’s a strong résumé.
The debate would be: results on the field between the two teams vs. overall body of work. Of course, if they both finish 12–1 they might both be in and this argument is moot.
Cincinnati’s résumé (4). The Bearcats (4–0) are in position to break the Power 5 playoff cabal, and should be considered a playoff team if the whole thing ended today. But it doesn’t, and we’ll have to see whether the résumé holds up over time. They’ve done what they needed to do with double-digit road victories over Indiana and Notre Dame. They never trailed and largely dominated in South Bend, breaking the Fighting Irish’s 26-game home winning streak. But Notre Dame carried the unmistakable whiff of overrated into that contest, and the Hoosiers are now 2–3. If they both pick up additional losses the rest of the way, how much does that devalue Cincy’s signature victories?
While Power 5 leagues hog the spotlight from now into early December, the American Athletic Conference won’t offer its flagship program a lot in terms of big games. The Bearcats’ next six opponents—Temple, Central Florida, Navy, Tulane, Tulsa and South Florida—are a combined 9–19. A Nov. 20 home game against SMU (5–0) looms large and the AAC championship game should produce a solid opponent, but Cincinnati needs to root hard for Notre Dame and Indiana to win games the rest of the way.
Oklahoma’s rep vs. Oklahoma’s résumé (5). With Notre Dame now ushered out of the top 10, the Sooners are the undisputedly most overrated team in America at the moment. Their combined winning margin against four FBS opponents is 21 points, and the combined record of those FBS opponents is 9–12. Oklahoma hasn’t put anything on paper—or on tape—that suggests it belongs in the playoff argument any more than rival neighbor Oklahoma State, but brand name matters more than it should. Inflated with blueblood helium, the Sooners are ranked sixth in the AP poll and fifth in the coaches poll.
Oklahoma has the Red River game against Texas (4–1) Saturday, and the winner will likely get a fresh layer of acclaim—that’s what happens when bluebloods play bluebloods, regardless of how good they actually are. So keep in mind that the Longhorns lost by 19 to an Arkansas team that just lost by 37 to Georgia. The game that (for now) matters most on the Sooners’ schedule is the regular-season finale against the Cowboys, in Stillwater. Then the two could conceivably meet again the following week in the Big 12 championship game.
BYU … or even Coastal Carolina (6). If chaos ensues—which seems entirely possible, given the national season arc to date—does either have a chance? Maybe not, but let’s see how wild things get. The Cougars (5–0) have risen to 10th in both polls and have seven games against Power 5 opponents. The downside: Only Arizona State has fewer than two losses at this point among those seven opponents, and the demise of Boise State doesn’t help. The Chanticleers (5–0) have been dominant so far, but the competition is soft: Citadel, Kansas, Buffalo, Massachusetts and Louisiana-Monroe. Coastal does have a road game against Appalachian State Oct. 20 and a potential Sun Belt Conference title game against Louisiana, but that only helps the résumé so much.
Can we get another spontaneous matchup between these two like we had last season? The winner would come out with its best victory of the season.
(While the playoff remains a fantasy at this point, The Dash will continue to stump for Coastal quarterback Grayson McCall to get Heisman Trophy recognition. His nation-leading pass efficiency rating has now jumped to 224.98 after going 13-for-13 for 213 yards and two touchdowns in a rout of UL-Monroe. Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral just saw his Heisman bandwagon get squashed by a crimson elephant Saturday, so it’s time once again to consider alternate candidates.)
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
The Dash’s weekly view of how the College Football Playoff would look if today were Selection Sunday:
Orange Bowl: top seed Georgia (7) vs. fourth seed Cincinnati (8).
The Bulldogs (5–0) applied the cold slap of reality to Arkansas with a 37–0 beating that was over after a quarter. The nation’s best defense added more to its sizzle reel with a second consecutive shutout and allowing just 162 total yards. At present, the Dawgs are statistically on pace to be the most dominant D since Alabama’s 2011 national championship team. Georgia didn’t even need starting quarterback JT Daniels, going with tested backup Stetson Bennett IV while trying to get Daniels back to full health.
Next for Georgia: at Auburn.
The Bearcats, as noted above, got their validating victory in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus and with a lot of red in the Notre Dame Stadium stands. They won fairly easily despite missing two short field goals. (If you want a red flag for Cincy, kicker Cole Smith is it—he’s just 2 of 6 this season.) Receiver Alec Pierce, a tall and tenacious deep threat who wins a lot of jump balls, had the best game of his career against the Fighting Irish with six catches for 144 yards.
Next for Cincinnati: Friday night at home against Temple.
Sugar Bowl: second seed Alabama (9) vs. third seed Iowa (10).
The Crimson Tide (5–0) embarrassed Lane Kiffin and Mississippi, rolling to a 35–0 lead and coasting in for a 42–21 victory. Bama rushed for more than 200 yards for the first time this season against an SEC opponent, controlling the game and limiting the explosive Rebels to their lowest totals of the Kiffin era in plays, yards, yards per play and points. Nick Saban lets Lane talk the talk while he walks the walk.
Next for Alabama: at Texas A&M, in a matchup that has lost a lot of luster.
The Hawkeyes (5–0) took their proclivity for letting the opposition beat itself to new heights Friday night, watching Maryland melt down with seven turnovers in a 51–14 blowout. For the season Iowa is now a staggering plus-12 in turnover margin, leading the nation in takeaways (16) and interceptions (12). Quarterback Spencer Petras had the best efficiency game of his career against the Terrapins, with a 182.52 rating; since it seems reasonable to believe Iowa will at some point need to win a game with offense, that’s a good sign.
Next for Iowa: Penn State comes to Iowa City for a big one.
Dropped out: Oregon, Arkansas.
Also considered: Penn State.