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Forde-Yard Dash: The College Football Playoff Race Is Heating Up

Ahead of the playoff selection committee releasing its first rankings on Tuesday, the Dash answers key questions about top contenders.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where Bowling Green’s Scot Loeffler made like a basketball coach and got himself ejected from the Falcons’ 56–44 win over Buffalo: 

MORE DASH: Volatility, Meet Texas | Fourth-Down Attempts | .500 Blues

FIRST QUARTER: NOW THE PLAYOFF RACE GETS REAL

The College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first set of rankings Tuesday night, giving us an initial glimpse into what that group is seeing and how much it aligns or diverges from the AP and coaches polls. And yes, it does matter where you start.

Last year, the CFP top four remained the top four every week, in varying order: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame. From 2015 to '19, 12 of the 20 teams that wound up in the playoff were ranked top four in the first reveal. Only twice has a team made the field of four when ranked outside the CFP top 10 (Oklahoma in 2015 and Ohio State in 2014).

So where are the tension points and key questions heading into Tuesday night? The Dash has a list:

The first big question: Has the dragging of Cincinnati (1) begun? The Bearcats (8–0) are fighting to become the first Group of 5 program to make the playoff, and the fans should expect Establishmentarian resistance from various corners.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit had two from the SEC (Georgia and Alabama) and two from the Big Ten (Michigan State and Ohio State) in his top four Sunday. His ESPN colleague, Heather Dinich, tweeted Sunday that ESPN’s Stats and Information department would rank an undefeated Cincinnati as worse than any team that made the playoff from 2014 to '19. (To which The Dash says, show your work).

And there were some quick Twitter triggers calling the Bearcats into question Saturday for briefly trailing Tulane in the second quarter.

And we all remember last year, when the committee went scouring for teams to move in front of the Bearcats as they went undefeated through the regular season. As the saying goes: just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. For some mystifying reason, an American sporting public that loves underdogs in college basketball is predisposed to hating them in college football.

Cincinnati has the second-best road victory in the country to date, handling 7–1 Notre Dame easily in early October. The rest of its schedule to date isn’t much: Indiana has cratered, and the other two nonconference opponents were Miami (Ohio) and Murray State. The American Athletic Conference has yet to muster a compelling challenger, although a Nov. 20 date with SMU and a potential league championship game against Houston or the Mustangs would help a bit. The Bearcats have controlled what they can control, with an average winning margin of 25.6 points and only one game decided by a single score.

If Oklahoma (2) is ahead of the Bearcats, the fix is in. The Sooners (9–0) are fourth in the major polls, but shouldn’t be in the top seven. They have struggled in six of their wins, and those struggles came against teams with a combined record of 18–31. The two FBS opponents they have beaten handily are TCU and Texas Tech, and what do those teams have in common? They have “parted ways” with their coaches. There is more meat on the bone of a cattle skull in a Western movie than on Oklahoma’s résumé.

The Sooners should be closer to where Wake Forest (3) is ranked than to Cincy. The Demon Deacons (8–0) have beaten one team in the Sagarin Ratings top 50 (No. 44 Virginia), another in the top 60 (No. 57 Louisville) and two in the top 70 (No. 65 Syracuse and No. 68 Florida State). That’s not a lot, though the schedule does offer some chances to improve that against Clemson (No. 18 in Sagarin, and a team that has dominated the Deacons) and North Carolina State (No. 25). Maybe there is a matchup with Pittsburgh (No. 20) to come in the ACC title game. Wake is battling the polls’ slot-voting tendencies, which means teams that begin the year unranked have a hard time fighting their way past some who did have that advantage—an issue that shouldn’t exist with the committee.

The second big question: Will the committee do what the pollsters have not and rank Oregon (4) ahead of Ohio State (5)? The nonsensical gap between the two has at least narrowed, with the No. 7 Ducks now only one spot behind the Buckeyes in the AP poll and two behind them in the coaches poll. They have the same record (7–1) and Oregon won head-to-head in convincing fashion on Ohio State’s home field without its best player, Kayvon Thibodeaux.

If they both keep winning, here is the issue for the committee to decide: head-to-head result vs. overall schedule strength, and what assuredly will be Ohio State’s claim that it was a young team that needed to make a defensive coordinator change when they met on Sept. 11. Do the Buckeyes get credit for growth and improvement over the course of the season? Ideally, yes. But that shouldn’t take precedence over head-to-head results—not when the body of work will be only 13 games.

1-1-ohio-state-forde

College football has always been a sport where every game matters, and teams must be as ready early as they are late in the season. If Ohio State had the wrong guy calling defensive for the first two games, that’s their problem, not Oregon’s or the committee’s.

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If a fourth spot in the playoff ultimately comes down to a choice between 12–1 Oregon and 12–1 Ohio State, it will be one more compelling reason for an expanded playoff.

The third question: Alabama (6) ahead of the Ducks and Buckeyes? Or behind them? The ordering of one-loss teams will be of interest, since it seems unlikely that the four-team playoff will be comprised of all undefeated teams. The polls currently place the Crimson Tide at the head of that line. A month from now it may not matter—if Bama gets to Atlanta 11–1 and defeats Georgia, it is going to the playoff. If Bama loses to the Bulldogs, it may well be out since we’ve yet to have a two-loss team in the playoff field.

The fourth question: where does Michigan (7) land among the one-loss crowd after dropping an epic game at Michigan State (8)? In terms of a “quality loss,” this was it. The Wolverines were on the road, led for more than 44 minutes of game clock, had every borderline call go against them, and ultimately lost by four points to an undefeated team. What they’re lacking is a signature victory, although winning big at Wisconsin is taking on additional sheen as the Badgers regroup. As has been the case in years past, Michigan’s playoff worthiness could well hinge on beating Ohio State.

The fifth question: Is Georgia (9) as strong a No. 1 as any we’ve seen in the first CFP rankings? The other top teams in the initial CFP rankings: Alabama in 2020; Ohio State in 2019; Alabama in 2018; Georgia in 2017; Alabama in 2016; Clemson in 2015; Mississippi State in 2014. Of those, the Crimson Tide in 2018 and ’16 were pretty dominant No. 1s … and neither of them went on to win the national championship. These Bulldogs have yet to be seriously threatened, winning all six SEC games by at least 17 points. Nobody has come close enough to beating Georgia to find out whether Stetson Bennett can successfully quarterback a big-time, showdown game.

The final question: does Notre Dame (10) have any playoff path? It’s a tough sell. The Fighting Irish (7–1) would obviously have to be 11–1, and likely would need some help elsewhere. Almost every team they’ve beaten to date has had a disappointing season, and the remaining opponents (Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Stanford) won’t do anything to substantially change that. Without the chance for a quality win in a league championship game, Notre Dame probably would need to have a lot of current one-loss teams become two-loss teams between now and December. (That said, Brian Kelly has done a very nice job coaching this team to this point.)

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FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

The Dash’s weekly opinion on how the playoff would break down if today were Selection Sunday:

Orange Bowl: top seed Georgia vs. fourth seed Oregon

The Bulldogs had one of their more satisfying Cocktail Party triumphs, beating rival Florida 34–7 and subjecting Gators coach Dan Mullen to a lot of heat over how far Georgia is ahead of Florida on the recruiting trail. The game was close late in the first half, and then the Dawgs overpowering defense broke it open. Always playing with a lead has allowed Georgia to rely on its increasingly powerful running game while picking its spots to throw. No stopping this freight train anytime soon.

Next for Georgia: Missouri comes to Athens for what could be a fearful beatdown.

After three straight stressful games, the Ducks finally had a bit of a breather against overmatched Colorado. Quarterback Anthony Brown had one of his best games at Oregon, throwing for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman running back Byron Cardwell had a breakout game with 127 rushing yards on just seven carries. It still remains to be seen whether the Ducks have the defense to win out, but they’ve answered the bell so far.

Next for Oregon: at Washington Saturday.

Cotton Bowl: second seed Michigan State vs. third seed Cincinnati

The Spartans (8–0) move up another spot after the dramatic win over Michigan. Kenneth Walker III established himself as the Heisman Trophy front-runner with a 197-yard, five-touchdown performance, and the Spartans made several do-or-die plays in the passing game and on defense to pull out the victory.

Next for Michigan State: at Purdue, in what has all the makings of a trap game.

The Bearcats started slowly again, but wound up beating Tulane far more easily than Oklahoma did earlier in the season. Cincinnati has outscored its opponents 171–61 in the second half this season. Quarterback Desmond Ridder’s second-half pass efficiency rating is 47 points higher than the first half.

Next for Cincinnati: Tulsa comes to Nippert Stadium Saturday.

New arrival: Oregon.

Dropped out: Michigan.

Also considered: Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wake Forest.

MORE DASH: Volatility, Meet Texas | Fourth-Down Attempts | .500 Blues

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