What Saturdays results mean for the College Football Playoff chaseOctober 14, 2019
This week, the SEC managed to provide both the highlight (LSU) and the lowlight (Georgia) in the College Football Playoff race.
With Saturday’s win against Florida and its Sept. 7 road win against Texas, LSU has made a case for being the No. 1 team in the country, accomplishing more to this point than either Alabama or Clemson — or any of the 11 other remaining undefeated teams. On a night when the SEC East took a big hit with both Georgia and Florida losing, the SEC West reasserted its dominance with Alabama and LSU earning important wins.
That keeps a scenario alive in which the CFP selection committee could consider the loser of the LSU-Alabama game on Nov. 9 — if that’s its only loss — in addition to the SEC champ. It’s not going to be easy for the SEC to put two teams in the top four, though — not when Oklahoma and Clemson appear poised for undefeated seasons, and the Big Ten has at least two contenders in Ohio State and Wisconsin.
If the SEC does make a case for two teams, they would likely come from the West after Georgia and Florida both lost. One loss doesn’t eliminate either team at this point, but both are now facing uphill battles for different reasons.
Georgia simply didn’t look like a playoff team in its 20-17 double-overtime loss to South Carolina. Quarterback Jake Fromm had three interceptions and a fumble. The Bulldogs were held to 143 rushing yards, well below their average of 250.
It was an embarrassing performance at home against an unranked, three-loss team playing with its backup quarterback.
Still, we’ve seen this before. In the history of the CFP, four Associated Press top-three teams have lost to unranked teams at home — and three of them still went to the playoff. (Oklahoma lost to Iowa State in 2017; Clemson lost to Pitt in 2016; Oregon lost to Arizona in 2014.)
Despite the Bulldogs’ loss, ESPN’s Football Power Index still gives Georgia the best chance to win the SEC East at 42%, followed by Missouri (32%) and Florida (23%). Georgia’s Nov. 2 game against Florida will be critical, but so will the Nov. 16 road trip to Auburn. There are plenty of chances for Georgia to redeem itself — or come unraveled.
“This is when you find out about yourself,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You look in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better?’ As coaches and leaders of the team, we’ve got to do what helps our guys. … We’ll learn from it. If you let it linger, South Carolina beats you twice. Everything we want to achieve is still in front of us.”
For Florida, it’s what’s behind the Gators that’s the problem. The nonconference schedule includes two wins over FCS opponents UT Martin and Towson, along with a win over Miami, and the Gators end the season against Florida State. None of those opponents is likely to impress the selection committee. What will a win over Georgia be worth in the end, and would a win against Alabama in the SEC title game be enough to put the Gators in? What if LSU doesn’t win the division and is sitting there with one loss and a head-to-head win over Florida?
This much is certain: With Saturday’s loss, Florida opened the door for debate.
“We have to get better,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Big thing for us is that next week [at South Carolina] is an even bigger game. One fun thing about being at Florida is that the games just keep getting bigger and bigger. Our next four games are against SEC East teams, we completely control our destiny, so we have to get ready.”
The SEC stole the show in Week 7, but it was hardly the only playoff plotline. Here’s a look at the key takeaways involving other contenders:
Oklahoma earned its first statement win of the season against rival Texas. With an otherwise average Big 12 and a weak nonconference schedule that included Houston, South Dakota and UCLA, all sub-.500 teams, Oklahoma needed to make a playoff statement against a ranked opponent on the national stage. It could wind up as the only regular-season top-25 win for Oklahoma. OU just passed arguably its most difficult test of the season, and ESPN’s FPI gives it at least a 79% chance to win each remaining game.
Oklahoma’s defense, which was dreadful last season in spite of the Sooners’ top-four finish, showed signs that OU is a more complete contender this fall. Oklahoma finished with nine sacks and outgained Texas 511-310 in total yards.
“We’re going to continue to get better,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “This won’t be our best game. It was a really good performance defensively against obviously a very talented offense.”
If the rivals should meet again in the Big 12 title game, just as they did a year ago, Texas could be a spoiler and knock the Sooners out of the playoff race, but the Longhorns are officially playing in the shadows again.
The Big Ten runs deeper than the Buckeyes. With Ohio State off Saturday, the spotlight shifted to undefeated Wisconsin and Penn State (which overshadowed the fact that Minnesota also remained undefeated after crushing Nebraska). Wisconsin did something this weekend that not even Ohio State was able to do this season: shut out Michigan State. After yet another dominant performance, the Badgers should be moving up in the AP Top 25, but how high they can climb this season will depend on what they do in two weeks at Ohio State. Wisconsin first travels to Illinois on Saturday.
Penn State finally earned a win against a ranked opponent but hardly looked as dominant at Iowa as Wisconsin and Ohio State have this season. It was an important first step and a respectable win, but the Nittany Lions are going to have to cut down on penalties and generate more offense to contend for the Big Ten title.
Notre Dame won the game but lost some strength-of-schedule credit. The Irish beat USC but lost some of the shine from their Sept. 28 win against Virginia after the Cavaliers lost on Friday night to Miami. It also didn’t help that Georgia, which beat Notre Dame 23-17 on Sept. 21, lost to South Carolina. It’s one thing to say your only loss came to a top-four team, but Georgia didn’t look the part Saturday.
Notre Dame obviously has no control over how its opponents fare in the second half of the season, but it’s going to need some help to finish in the selection committee’s top four. The ideal situation would be for the Power 5 conferences to produce champions with at least one loss. The Irish aren’t going to unseat any undefeated champs. Not only does Notre Dame need to run the table, it also needs to look good in the process, leaving no doubt it’s the better team. The Irish have a bye week to prepare for their road trip to Michigan, which will probably be the last ranked opponent they face.
Oregon is keeping the Pac-12’s hopes alive. Unless the Pac-12 is guaranteed to have a two-loss conference champion, the league is still in the mix, and Oregon sent a message with Friday night’s resounding win over Colorado that the Ducks aren’t done yet. The question is whether they can win at Washington on Saturday in what should be their most difficult remaining regular-season game. The winner will emerge as the front-runner in the Pac-12 North, and ESPN’s FPI gives the Ducks a 63.5% chance to win.