Who is No. 4?
That could end up being the most pressing question for the College Football Playoff committee. If we assume that Alabama, Ohio State and the ACC champion all make the playoff, who will be the fourth team that joins them?
The competition for the last spot is more open than it has been in years as five-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma is already sitting on two losses. While OU isn’t currently in first place in the Big 12, the Sooners can win out and take a sixth consecutive conference crown.
With Oklahoma out of the mix barring some chaos over the final six weeks of the regular season, here’s a look at who we think are the top contenders to grab the final playoff spot.
Clemson (7-1) or Notre Dame (7-0): We’re fully anticipating a rematch in the ACC championship after Notre Dame’s thrilling 47-40 win Saturday night. And the winner of that game would go to the playoff. That part would be straightforward.
What wouldn’t be is how the committee would view a loss by either team. Notre Dame would appear to have a significant edge for the No. 4 spot if it entered the ACC title game undefeated and didn’t get blown out by a Clemson team that had Trevor Lawrence.
If Clemson lost, how would the committee view a team that lost twice to the same really good team? It’s possible to see how a two-loss Clemson with two close losses to Notre Dame could find its way into the playoff over other two-loss teams in college football.
Florida (4-1): The Gators are the clear favorites for the SEC East after an easy 44-28 win over Georgia. QB Kyle Trask threw for a career-high 474 yards and four touchdowns as Georgia’s defense couldn’t stop the Gators’ passing game. With an easy second-half schedule upcoming, Florida should end the regular season 9-1.
If Florida enters the SEC title game with just one loss and loses a close game to Alabama, how much love do the Gators get from the committee? Or what if Florida pulls the upset? If UF beats an undefeated Alabama, there will be a good chance that the SEC would have have the playoff field.
BYU (8-0): The Cougars destroyed Boise State on Friday night and have a legitimate claim to being playoff-worthy. But is BYU going to be a victim of its own pandemic-induced schedule? BYU had six games against Power Five opponents on its original schedule. All of those games disappeared when conferences went to conference-only schedules because of COVID-19.
As BYU scrambled to fill out a schedule it couldn’t find very good opponents. Boise was supposed to be its BYU’s biggest test. But the Broncos ended up playing most of the game with its No. 3 and No. 4 QBs.
If BYU finishes the season at 10-0, it should be in line for a New Year’s Six bowl at worst. But the committee has been a stickler for schedule strength in its relatively brief existence. And it’s hard not to see it dinging BYU’s schedule unless it makes a COVID-19 exception.
Cincinnati (6-0): The Bearcats are destroying other teams in the AAC. Houston was Cincy’s latest victim on Saturday as the Bearcats won 38-10. No team has come closer to Cincy than Army did in Week 2 when the Black Knights lost 24-10. QB Desmond Ridder has been one of the most improved players in the country and Cincinnati’s defense is holding teams to an average of less than 12 points per game.
The best opponent remaining on Cincinnati’s schedule is UCF. The two teams play on Nov. 21. If Cincinnati’s defense can significantly slow down UCF’s ridiculous offense and the Bearcats run the table, then Cincinnati could be in a better position for the playoff than BYU.
Wisconsin (1-0): We still don’t know much about the Badgers. If Wisconsin has another game canceled this year because of COVID-19 then it’s ineligible for the Big Ten title game. If Wisconsin does play six Big Ten regular season games and goes 6-0, it’ll likely meet Ohio State for the conference title. What if Wisconsin pulls the upset? An undefeated Big Ten champion — even at 7-0 — has to be in the playoff, right?
Oklahoma State (5-1): The Cowboys entered Saturday’s game against Kansas State without wide receiver Tylan Wallace and RB LD Brown and escaped with a 20-18 win over the Wildcats. OSU was down 12-0 at the break and got the winning score after a fumble by KSU QB Will Howard flew right into the arms of safety Jason Taylor and Taylor returned it for a touchdown.
OSU is still the favorite to be one of the teams in the Big 12 title game but it’s hard to trust the Cowboys. The OSU offense hasn’t been nearly as good as we’re used to even when it’s at full strength. And while the defense has been phenomenal, is it good enough to slow down Oklahoma when the offense may not be able to keep up? We’ll find out in two weeks when the Cowboys play the Sooners in the first of three road games remaining on the schedule.
An undefeated Pac-12 champ: The Pac-12 joined the college football party over the weekend though two games got canceled because of COVID-19 cases at Cal (vs. Washington) and Utah (vs. Arizona). The conference entered the 2020 season at a playoff disadvantage with a six-game regular season schedule. And now four of its teams are already down a game.
If a Pac-12 team goes undefeated, it will likely be Oregon or USC. The Ducks took care of Stanford at home on Saturday while USC needed a frantic comeback at home to beat Arizona State. A 7-0 Pac-12 champion could be on the periphery of the playoff conversation. But we’re also skeptical that the conference will end the season with an undefeated team.
Texas A&M (5-1): The Aggies are hoping to take the 2017 Alabama route to the playoff. The Crimson Tide got into that playoff with one loss and without a conference title game appearance. A&M is effectively two games back of Alabama for the West division title and needs some help to make the playoff. But if A&M wins out — and the Aggies should be favored in every game remaining on the schedule then a 9-1 Aggie team could sneak into the playoff if things really get crazy at the top of the playoff rankings.
Saturday night, A&M easily dispatched South Carolina 48-3.
Here are this week’s winners and losers.
— Nick Bromberg
Miami QB D’Eriq King: King was phenomenal in Miami’s crazy win over NC State. King was 31-of-41 passing for 430 yards and five touchdowns and also rushed for 105 yards in the No. 11 Hurricanes’ 44-41 win over the Wolfpack. Miami trailed 41-31 at the start of the fourth quarter but King found Mike Harley for a 54-yard TD pass with 2:43 left for the go-ahead TD. King’s performance made him the first QB to throw for over 400 yards and rush for over 100 yards since 2018. The man who did it that season? Houston QB D’Eriq King.
Liberty: Last week, Liberty entered the Top 25 for the first time. This week, Liberty followed that up by upsetting Virginia Tech in Blacksburg to improve to 7-0. It wasn’t any sort of fluke, either. The Flames ran up and down the field on the Hokies, finishing the afternoon with 466 yards of offense. Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer, led the way by throwing for 217 yards, rushing for 108 yards and combining for four touchdowns. Willis’ efforts in the final minute set up Alex Barbir for the game-winning 51-yard field goal as time expired — only after Virginia Tech’s attempt at icing Barbir went awry. Hugh Freeze is now 15-5 in two years at Liberty and is setting himself up nicely for a return to a Power Five job.
Marshall: Marshall is likely going to finish the 2020 season undefeated. Whether it has a realistic chance to play in a real bowl game remains to be seen, but Thundering Herd fans are going to enjoy the ride. Doc Holliday’s team improved to 6-0 by trouncing UMass, 51-10. It was a game added to the schedule only a few weeks ago as Marshall has had three games postponed due to COVID-19 issues. The FIU game was rescheduled, so three games remain on Marshall’s schedule with a spot in the Conference USA title game pretty likely. If one of the other undefeated Group of Five teams — especially Cincinnati — drop a game, Marshall will enter the equation to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Iowa: Iowa lost its first two games to Purdue and Northwestern by a combined margin of five points. On Saturday against Michigan State, the Hawkeyes made sure things wouldn’t even be close. The Hawkeyes destroyed the Spartans 49-7 in Iowa City and jumped out to a 35-0 halftime lead in the process. The final two scores of the first half came in a 27-second span via a punt return and an interception. The Hawkeyes rushed for 226 yards and four touchdowns in the win.
Colorado: The Buffaloes replaced Mel Tucker with Karl Dorrell in a hire that seemed a little underwhelming. Well, there was nothing underwhelming about the Buffs’ 48-42 win over UCLA on Saturday. Sam Noyer, who arrived on campus as a QB, moved to safety and then back to QB, threw for 257 yards and had two total TDs while RB Jerek Broussard rushed for 187 yards and three scores. Colorado jumped out to a 35-14 halftime lead and held on in an action-packed second half for the six-point win.
San Jose State: For the first time since 1982, San Jose State has a 3-0 record thanks to a 28-17 road win over San Diego State on Friday night. The Spartans, who snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Aztecs, won the game while playing the majority of it without starting quarterback Nick Starkel, who was injured in the first quarter. In Starkel’s place, Nick Nash threw for 169 yards, rushed for 53 yards and combined for three touchdowns in the win. SJSU won three games over Brant Brennan’s first two seasons running the program, but now his rebuilding efforts are paying off.
Nevada: The other Mountain West program off to a 3-0 start is Nevada. The Wolf Pack have been impressive in the early going. They eked past Wyoming in overtime in the opener before a 37-19 road win over rival UNLV and a blowout victory over Utah State on Thursday night. Carson Strong, Nevada’s sophomore quarterback, has been especially impressive. In the win over Utah State, Strong threw for 420 yards and four touchdowns. In three games, Strong has 1,181 yards and nine touchdowns through the air.
Penn State: Penn State is 0-3 to start a season for the first time since 2001. The season-opening loss to Indiana was fairly fluky. The loss to Ohio State was no surprise. But getting blown out at home by Maryland? That’s an eye-opener. The Nittany Lions were trounced 35-19 by the Terps, a team PSU beat 59-0 in 2019. Maryland jumped out to a 28-7 halftime lead behind three TD passes from Taulia Tagovailoa, all of which came on third-down plays. The other score was a 38-yard touchdown run on a second-and-20 play.
The second half wasn’t much better as a Maryland defense that allowed 88 points combined over its first two games controlled play before PSU found some success in garbage time. Sean Clifford finished the game just 27-of-57 with two interceptions. He was also sacked six times. James Franklin has a lot to figure out.
Nebraska: The Nebraska offense advanced into the red zone six times against Northwestern and managed to score only 13 points. The Huskers, in a 21-13 loss, settled for a field goal the first three times they reached the red zone, connecting on just two of them. The only time Nebraska reached the end zone was on the play after the defense returned an interception all the way down to the 3-yard line.
In the second half, Nebraska advanced deep into Northwestern territory three times. Two of those possessions ended with interceptions, one by Adrian Martinez and another by Luke McCaffrey. And in the final minute, McCaffrey’s fourth-down pass in the end zone fell incomplete to seal a win for the Wildcats. Nebraska is now off to an 0-2 start and is 9-17 under Scott Frost.
Texas Tech: Texas Tech’s 34-18 loss to TCU featured one of the strangest coaching decisions of the weekend. With his team trailing 27-18 with just under three minutes to play, Texas Tech’s Matt Wells perplexingly sent his field goal unit out onto the field on second-and-4 from the TCU 19-yard line. Trey Wolff promptly missed from 37 yards out, giving the ball back to TCU.
Again, this was second down and Texas Tech was down nine points. What? And to make matters worse, the Red Raiders defense allowed TCU QB Max Duggan to reel off an 81-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive to effectively end the game. Oh, that TD run came on third-and-11 when TTU had a chance to at least get the ball back. Yikes.
Illinois: Speaking of strange down-and-distance situations, Illinois faced a third-and-goal from the 48 at one point during its 41-14 loss to Minnesota. For real. The Illini had first-and-goal from the 10 and had a run for no gain. On second down, Illinois committed a 15-yard penalty. Now with it second-and-goal from the 25, the Illini lost 23 yards. That created this:
And then this, a punt on fourth-and-goal:
Tennessee: The downfall of Tennessee continues. UT lost 24-13 at Arkansas on Saturday as the Razorbacks scored 24 consecutive points in the third quarter. UT was up 13-0 at halftime but saw that lead disappear with three Arkansas touchdowns in a 5:30 span across the third. A field goal to end the quarter capped the game’s scoring as Tennessee didn’t come close to making it a contest in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee’s inability to get consistent QB play was once again its downfall. Jarrett Guarantano started but was pulled for Brian Maurer. He was pulled for Harrison Bailey. Together, the three combined to be 11-of-21 passing for 107 yards and two interceptions. The Vols have now lost four straight after a 2-0 start.
Vanderbilt: In a battle of SEC inferiority, Vanderbilt cemented itself as the conference’s worst team. Vandy outgained Mississippi State 478-204 in yards yet doomed itself with five turnovers in a 24-17 loss. The Bulldogs were inept as ever on offense, yet turnovers afforded them short fields for two of their touchdown drives. One went for 27 yards while the other was just 13 yards. With the loss, the Commodores dropped to 0-5 on the season while MSU snapped a four-game losing streak and is now 2-4.
South Florida: USF was in prime position to pull out a big road win over Memphis. Year 1 under Jeff Scott has been a struggle for the Bulls, but they led 33-20 with 4:36 to play. Scott’s group couldn’t hold the lead. Memphis scored on its next two possessions with a USF three-and-out sandwiched in between. The two Memphis scoring drives, which flipped the score from a 33-20 USF lead to a 34-33 Memphis lead, spanned 15 plays, 148 yards and required just 2:27 of game time. It was a brutal turn of events for USF, which dropped to 1-6 with the loss. The Bulls’ only win came back on Sept. 12 over The Citadel, an FCS team.
UL Monroe: There is only one team with an 0-8 record this season and it is UL Monroe. With Saturday’s 52-34 loss to Georgia State, only one of ULM’s eight losses has been decided by fewer than 18 points. Another loss would clinch the worst season of the Matt Viator era at ULM. Now in his fifth season, Viator has never coached ULM to a winning record. His first four years went 4-8, 4-8, 6-6 and 5-7.
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