Four Downs: College Football Playoff Picture Gaining Focus

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November promises plenty of chaos and shake-ups to the College Football Playoff landscape. Nevertheless, the scope of the national championship race is beginning to narrow.

Notre Dame’s blowout of USC Saturday night in South Bend functioned as the first real elimination game of the College Football Playoff race. The Fighting Irish certainly are not in — not with the absurdly difficult schedule still ahead of them — but they bounced the rival Trojans out of the picture.

Clear front-runners have emerged heading into the final week of October. Alabama sets the pace, with fellow undefeateds Penn State, TCU, Miami, Wisconsin and Georgia right behind out of the Power Five. One of either Alabama or Georgia is guaranteed a loss; should the two navigate the regular season unscathed, they’ll meet in Atlanta with the SEC Championship Game and Playoff positioning at stake.

In a somewhat surprising twist, Alabama has one of the weaker resumes among the unbeatens, save maybe Miami. TCU beat Top 10 Oklahoma State on the road, Penn State scored its first resume Saturday with a rout of Michigan, and the only team to get a bigger bump from Notre Dame’s deconstruction of USC than Georgia was Notre Dame itself.

Alabama’s signature win in its customary, neutral-field opener has backfired, with Florida State suffering its fourth loss of the season to kick off Saturday’s action. Miami’s come-from-behind win over Georgia Tech is now a better victory than Florida State.

Could anyone have projected that development? How many saw the collective mediocrity of the SEC beyond two teams coming? Anytime you might think you have a handle on where the college football season is headed, the results on the field render your inclinations moot.

And the same is likely to happen with the current College Football Playoff picture, even if it is less fuzzy than it was a month ago.

This is Four Downs.

FIRST DOWN: Notre Dame’s Resume

Notre Dame’s independent schedule is a regular source of derision and criticism. Now that the Big 12 has adopted a stupid and needless conference championship game, the Fighting Irish avoiding a 13th game is amplified; it renders them the only “power conference” program with a College Football Playoff that cannot play 13 games.

Should Notre Dame navigate its schedule to 11 wins and a Playoff bid this year, however, there should be no criticism.

The Irish’s rout of USC adds the first of what could be several signature victories on the back-half of the slate. Notre Dame enters a brutal stretch featuring one-loss NC State, a Playoff contender in its own right; undefeated Miami; and a road trip to face a Stanford team that has seemingly figured it out since dropping two early to USC and San Diego State.

Notre Dame could, in theory, have played the champions of the ACC Atlantic, ACC Coastal, Pac-12 North, Pac-12 South and SEC East. It’s not far-fetched.

What’s more, Notre Dame could conceivably pair one of the most impressive schedules in college football with a true, championship-quality lineup. Saturday’s beat-down of USC highlighted Notre Dame at its best: The offensive line physically battering a good USC defensive front, paving the way for Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush to both reach 100 yards rushing; the defense overwhelmed the Trojans, forcing pivotal early turnovers.

This looked like a College Football Playoff contender. Now, can the Fighting Irish continue that level of play into the next month?

SECOND DOWN: Pac-12’s College Football Playoff Squeeze

USC’s for-all-intents-and-purposes elimination from the College Football Playoff picture casts a consider pall over the Pac-12’s chances to land a participant in the field. The Trojans were the highest-ranked team from the conference coming into the week, and at No. 11, had considerable work to do.

Washington and Washington State both have just one loss still, each with marquee matchups against Stanford still to come. Best case scenario, both are 10-1 for the Thanksgiving weekend Apple Cup.

But even then, unimpressive non-conference slates complicate the road to the Playoff. Other one-loss contenders like Clemson and Oklahoma boast impressive out-of-conference wins.

Notre Dame’s emergence into the picture adds another element. As it stands, the College Football Playoff offers four spots with five power-conference champions. A minimum of one is guaranteed to be excluded.

With Notre Dame vying for a berth, the possibility of two conference champions outside the final four looms. Should complete chaos descend on college football, and multiple conference champions have two losses — not out of the realm of possibility with much of the ACC already sporting a loss, the entire Pac-12 with at least one L, and undefeated Big 12 champion TCU still awaiting the toughest stretch of its schedule — another layer’s added.

Could the Playoff committee, in good conscience, exclude an undefeated UCF or USF from the final four if multiple power Five champions have multiple losses?

It’s a scenario I personally hope to see come to fruition. Maximum chaos!

THIRD DOWN: Football in New York

The New York October sports scene has historically been dominated by the Yankees, the NFL franchises across the river or the start of the NBA season.

Well, the Yankees lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the Houston Astros Saturday, the Giants and Jets are both terrible, and the Knicks might be worse than either. Meanwhile, the state of New York has been an unlikely epicenter for some of the most interesting developments of the season.

First, College Gameday emanated from Times Square in a first for the ESPN flagship show.

Then, last week when Syracuse shocked defending national champion Clemson, and continued this Saturday.

In an overtime decision — there certainly were a lot of them this week, as we’ll discuss further — Army’s win over Temple elevated the Black Knights to bowl eligibility for a second consecutive season. Chalk another one up for the option offense revival.

With six wins, Army became the first team to accept a bowl invitation this season.

Down in the City, the most remarkable story of the season added its best chapter yet. Columbia — which hasn’t won an Ivy League championship since 1961 — won its matchup for first place over Dartmouth to remain undefeated.

Al Bagnoli’s Penn Quakers were in the mix for Ivy League titles perennially, but winning at Columbia is a whole different beast. If you have not yet done so, read Marc Tracy’s feature on the relationship between Columbia sports and its New York neighborhood. It sheds some light on why Columbia has been so historically bad — and touches on what makes Bagnoli’s turnaround historically significant.

New York isn’t exactly about to transform into a college football mecca rivaling Texas or the SEC footprint — sorry, Big Ten — but at this moment in time, it might be the most interesting state in the sport.

FOURTH DOWN: What A Way to Win (or Lose)

Saturday’s gameplay had its share of wild endings and the heartbreak that comes with such finishes. Eastern Michigan continued its run of gut-wrenching losses when it missed a chip-shot field goal in overtime against Western Michigan.

Whether that’s more heartbreaking or less than Cal having a gutsy, two-point conversion attempt deflected in the back of the end zone depends on perspective. Four Downs addressed coaches opting to go for two and the win last week when Utah and Eastern Michigan — of course Eastern Michigan — were both sunk on such gambles.

All are misfires, but when a two-point conversion call works, it’s one of the most exciting developments in the sport. Sometimes, it’s a decision made early in a game to set the tone, which Southern Utah did in its upset of No. 8-ranked Eastern Washington.

In other instances, it’s the result of having nothing to lose. The Charlotte 49ers were winless coming into Saturday’s matchup with Conference USA counterpart UAB. For Brad Lambert’s crew to even force overtime, they were already playing with house money.

The most jaw-dropping finish of the weekend, however, came in Bucknell’s overtime win over Lafayette.

EXTRA POINTS

“Video game football” is a phrase that’s come to mean uptempo, high-scoring games. However, football in pixelated form has given us some concepts that could never be executed in reality. Games like NFL Blitz and Mutant Football League combined elements of fighting games with football.

And while fights break out in football from time to time, unfortunately — hello, Miami-FIU — combat moves are not part of gameplay. At least, not until Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey introduced Kenny Omega’s signature move, The V-Trigger, to the college football world (h/t @TheJustinBecker).

Seriously, I see no differences between Dungey and Omega. Perhaps the Orange QB can be nicknamed The Cleaner?

And while ball-carriers hurdling defenders is spectacularly, it’s also nothing longtime college football fans haven’t seen before. But a player using a defender as a step ladder to the end zone? UCLA’s Bolu Olorunfunmi has to be the first.

Speaking of firsts, when you ask who’s leading the SWAC? First of all, you should know it’s Grambling.