Predicting or projecting the College Football Playoff final four with half the season played is a fool’s errand. And there are plenty of fools – apologies, fellow scribes – willing to run that errand.
The carnage from this weekend is evidence enough that college football is our favorite sweetheart because she is so damn unpredictable. Four top 10 teams lost road games and how they lost made sense only in hindsight.
Freaky Friday the 13th saw Clemson fall at Syracuse and Washington State at Cal. The defending national champions had stockpiled victories over Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech (those last two on the road) but lost to a Syracuse team that lost to Middle Tennessee in Week Two.
The Cougars ventured from Pullman for just the second time and caught turnover fever in a 37-3 loss at Cal.
Washington, the last unbeaten Pac-12 team, lost that status against the defensive juggernaut known as Arizona State. The Sun Devils had given up 30 or more in 11 consecutive games but kept the Huskies scoreless for 54 minutes and posted the 13-7 upset. (Plus, what’s the deal with college kickers … am I right, folks?)
Auburn appeared to have its act together after its Week Two loss at Clemson and still had hopes of making the final four with one loss. Those hopes were rising when the Tigers jumped to a 20-0 lead in Baton Rouge, where they had not won since 1999.
The streak lives as LSU rallied for a 27-23 victory. And two weeks after the posse was closing in following a home loss at Troy, Ed Orgeron has won two “no chance” games and the posse is now a welcoming committee.
So about the CFP final four. The field has narrowed to six unbeaten teams from Power Five leagues plus 14 one-loss teams in the Big Boy conferences.
While highly unlikely, the possibility exists for four undefeated teams in the final four – TCU, Miami (Fla.), winner of the SEC title game (Alabama-Georgia) and winner of the Big Ten title game (Penn State-Wisconsin).
But let’s talk reality – that won’t happen. Plus, let’s also arbitrarily eliminate some of the remaining one-loss teams – Kentucky, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Michigan State are almost certain to suffer at least one more loss.
So instead of projecting/predicting, here’s an assessment of the viable candidates that the CFP committee will select from. Let’s start with the undefeated teams.
Nick Saban’s program defies convention. When you speculate about the Crimson Tide’s remaining schedule, it’s difficult to discern a game where the opposition can keep the score within two touchdowns.
Granted, the season-ending rivalry game at Auburn will be challenging but the (paper) Tigers appear to turn into kittens when faced with strong opposition.
Remaining games: Tennessee, LSU, at Mississippi State, Mercer, at Auburn, SEC championship game.
The Bulldogs have a challenging “back nine” with opponents holding a combined record of 21-10. Georgia gets a week off before starting a five-week stretch run by playing Florida in the annual cocktail party in Jacksonville.
Common sense leads one to believe the Dawgs will stumble once. If not and the SEC title game matches unbeaten teams, the loser – especially if it’s Alabama – will have a strong argument to be included in the CFP.
Remaining games: Florida, South Carolina, at Auburn, Kentucky, at Georgia Tech, SEC championship game.
The Hurricanes have won consecutive games in the final seconds. The Football Gods usually make sure that sort of good fortune evens out. Miami’s three-game stretch of Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia will define its season.
The good news is that all three games are at home. The bad news is that those three foes are currently a combined 15-3.
Remaining games: Syracuse, at North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia, at Pitt, ACC championship game.
Thanks to weather delays, it took the Frogs about seven hours to finish its 20-6 victory at Kansas State. That appeared to be a dangerous game for TCU, but the Wildcats are mild cats. Much like Miami, the Frogs have a three-game make-or-break stretch when the play Texas followed by road games at Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
If TCU is undefeated going to Lubbock, Texas Tech will be an especially dangerous team because of the opportunity to give the Frogs their first loss.
Remaining games: Kansas, at Iowa State, Texas, at Oklahoma, at Texas Tech, Baylor, Big 12 championship game.
Penn State (6-0)
Both of the two Big Ten teams still undefeated have done so against questionable opposition. That changes for the Nittany Lions starting Saturday. Penn State will be at home against Michigan followed by road games at Ohio State and Michigan State.
Win all three and the Nittany Lions will be huge favorites to carry a 12-0 record into the Big Ten title game.
Remaining games: Michigan, at Ohio State, at Michigan State, Rutgers, Nebraska, at Maryland, Big Ten championship game.
The Badgers have not beaten a team that currently has a winning record. Only one other Big Ten West team (Iowa at 4-2) has a winning record. The most challenging game remaining is a home date with Michigan. If Wisconsin goes 12-0, that accomplishment will be questioned because of its opponents’ lack of success.
Remaining games: Maryland, at Illinois, at Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, at Minnesota, Big Ten championship game.
Now to take a look at the other CFP contenders carrying a loss.
Winner of USC-Notre Dame
The Trojans’ three-point loss at Washington State was devalued by the Cougars getting declawed by 34 points at Cal. Plus, USC has had nail-biting victories over Texas and Utah. Saturday’s game in South Bend will be against a Notre Dame team coming off a bye week while the Trojans have a long list of injuries.
The only loss for the Irish was a 20-19 decision to Georgia, one of the six remaining undefeated teams. Notre Dame’s remaining schedule includes games with North Carolina State and Miami, another team on the undefeated list.
A victory over USC could set up the Irish making a run at the final four … but they’ll be the only candidate without that coveted 13th “data point.” Prepare for Argument Armageddon.
Winner of North Carolina State-Clemson
This game on Nov. 4 – mark that date on your calendars, folks; it’ll be a doozy of a day – could be rendered moot. The Wolfpack have won six in a row after losing the season opener to South Carolina. But N.C. State travels to South Bend the week before it takes on the Tigers in Raleigh. If the Wolfpack knocks off the Irish and Clemson, they become a Cinderella Story candidate.
Clemson, meanwhile, lost its margin for error Friday night at Syracuse. Still, if the Tigers don’t stumble again, they’re certain to earn a playoff spot.
Winner of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State
Another Big Game on Nov. 4, Bedlam in Stillwater has lost some luster thanks to TCU beating the Cowboys and Iowa State stunning the Sooners. If either team can win out, including a victory in the Big 12 championship game, it would be a one-loss conference champ with a salty resume.
Winner of Washington-Washington State
The Apple Cup (Nov. 25) has a worm in it after the weekend’s results. And before the Huskies and the Cougars can worry about winning the rivalry game that could/might/maybe win the North Division, they each have to deal with Stanford, a team that is on a serious roll behind Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love.
Winner of Ohio State-Michigan
The Buckeyes travel to play That Team Up North on Nov. 25. The Wolverines have mastered the art of winning ugly
The Big Ten East figures to be a cage match over the second-half of the season. Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State are undefeated in league play and still have games against each other. The Wolverines are at Penn State Saturday; if they suffer their second loss, their CFP hopes will be finished.