Nearly two months into the season now there is plenty of football left, but time is starting to work against team’s working to overcome an early season slip-up. The mid-majors are also starting to have to battle against the fact that their strength of schedule is continuously losing steam in comparison with the “big boys”. Four of the five power conferences still have the possibility of having an undefeated champion, and for now they are the four conferences represented in the completely unofficial 4 Down playoff.
Orange Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Clemson vs. LSU
What Clemson did to the Al Golden era in Miami on Saturday could be described as a mercy killing, but if that is true then the act was carried out mercilessly. Clemson is a team that seemed like it was sleepwalking through the first month of the season, but have really picked things up since beating Notre Dame in the tsunami to open the month of October. Deshaun Watson broke a streak of five straight games throwing an interception over the weekend, which is obviously a good sign. The Tigers’ defense was supposed to be a question mark heading into the season with tons of talent either graduated or drafted, but they have yet to allow more than 24 points in a game this season. Florida State is the biggest game left on the schedule, and it is in Death Valley. Win that game and there’s a high probability that Clemson goes into the ACC Championship game undefeated.
LSU just continues to run over its competition and it feels like they have still yet to play their best football, which is scary for any team that still has to play them. Brandon Harris gets better and better every single week, and Leonard Fournette is the best player in college football. A bye week preceding the showdown in Tuscaloosa in two weeks has to be a welcome sight for the Bayou Bengals too. Granted, Alabama also has a bye this week, but that game will still determine the SEC West, unless Ole Miss wins out.
Cotton Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Ohio State vs. Baylor
J.T. Barrett looks like the spark the Buckeyes needed to finally reach the expectations this season. Ohio State pummeled Rutgers over the weekend, and while Rutgers isn’t great, it’s still a six-touchdown win over a conference foe. This year’s Ohio State bunch has drawn comparisons to last year’s Florida State team as a preseason favorite who managed to keep winning unimpressively. Expecting the 2015 Buckeyes to go the way of that FSU team is probably folly though. This team seems to have identified and gotten rid of its off-field distractions, or at least minimized them. Plus, while Jimbo Fisher is a pretty good coach, Urban Meyer is a great coach and more likely to not let his team flop on a big stage with everything on the line.
First off, best wishes go to Seth Russell and his recovery. Unfortunately, he will miss the remainder of the season. With that being said, the next month will test the popular theory that Baylor can thrive offensively with just about any reasonable college quarterback. If they can, then they are still a playoff contender, but if not November will be rough with both Oklahoma teams and TCU coming up.
Rose Bowl- Iowa vs. Stanford
Who loves bland uniforms and power football? Iowa and Stanford have both been moderate surprises this season, Iowa more so than Stanford. Kirk Ferentz has warded off the hot seat better than anyone over the last decade (or nine). Al Golden and others should take notes. The Hawkeyes have spent the majority of the season skating past pretty good opponents like Pitt, Wisconsin and Illinois, but last weekend they obliterated another feel-good story in Northwestern. Don’t look now, but Iowa has a really good chance to win out and enter the Big Ten championship game undefeated. Nebraska is easily the toughest test remaining, but the Huskers haven’t looked like world beaters at any point this season either.
Stanford, whose only loss is to the same Northwestern, has been on fire since looking awful on opening weekend. This Rose Bowl matchup would really put the transitive property of college football on test, because the transitive property says that the Hawkeyes should win by forty. Kevin Hogan has looked significantly better since that game. Since being held to six points in the opener, Stanford has scored more than 30 points in every single game, and won every game by double digits. The Cardinal close the season with home games against Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame, a tough closing stretch for a team who still has playoff aspirations.
Sugar Bowl- Oklahoma State vs. Alabama
Alabama found a way to win on Saturday even if it wasn’t especially pretty. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart made several outstanding plays on the offensive side of the ball, and Derrick Henry continues to put up big numbers. The defense looked a little gassed for most of the afternoon and should benefit greatly from a week of rest before LSU comes calling. This Crimson Tide defense is the best unit they’ve had since the historically great 2011 defense, but if they want to get mentioned in that same category then keeping Leonard Fournette in check will be a must.
Things that greatly supersede football took place in Stillwater on Saturday, and first and foremost it should be noted that many thoughts and condolences go out to the friends and family of those affected by the parade incident. As much as I would like to have a poignant and thoughtful paragraph to insert here, there are plenty of people who can and will do a better job of that than I would, so I will leave that to them. As for football, the Cowboys blew out a hapless Kansas team on Saturday, marking the first conference game OSU has won by more than a touchdown this season. Oklahoma State is good, but tougher roads lay ahead and OSU will need to find another level of play to stay undefeated.
Fiesta Bowl- Houston vs. Toledo
This is Tostitos dream matchup for the Fiesta Bowl right? Ok no maybe it isn’t, but this would be a game between two quality teams. It feels like I’ve talked about these two teams ad nauseam for the last few weeks, but not about a potential future matchup so let’s briefly look at that and move on. Houston has more talent than the Rockets, and they would likely be my pick to win this hypothetical game. The Cougars offensive firepower would probably give Toledo some problems. Sure Toledo held Arkansas to twelve points, but also gave up 35 points to a UMass team that is much more similar to Houston in terms of offensive philosophy. Toledo would take their typical underdog strategy here and seek to maximize their time with the ball and essentially play keep away from Greg Ward and company.
Peach Bowl- Appalachian State vs. Temple
Appalachian State probably locked up the Sun Belt crown last Thursday night with the win over Georgia Southern, and the Mountaineers only loss is still an early season road loss to Clemson. Even if it was a blowout loss, there are still plenty worse losses to be found out there. Temple is still yet to lose, and this weekend’s showdown in South Bend has to be the Waterloo for the Owls. If Temple expects to find itself in one of these New Year’s Six games then this is probably a must-win. Assuming for a second that this matchup did happen though, I can already tell you that your gambling play for this game would be to take the under on whatever the total points line is, because both of these teams like to slow the game down and run very few plays per game comparatively.
1. Clemson Tigers (7-0)
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (8-0)
3. Baylor Bears (7-0)
4. LSU Tigers (7-0)
5. Houston Cougars (7-0)
6. Iowa Hawkeyes (7-0)
7. Temple Owls (7-0)
8. Toledo Rockets (7-0)
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys (7-0)
10. Appalachian State Mountaineers (6-1)
11. Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1)
12. TCU Horned Frogs (7-0)
13. Oklahoma Sooners (6-1)
14. Michigan State Spartans (8-0)
15. Michigan Wolverines (5-2)
16. Memphis Tigers (7-0)
17. Stanford Cardinal (6-1)
18. North Carolina Tar Heels (6-1)
19. Duke Blue Devils (6-1)
20. Florida Gators (6-1)
21. Florida State Seminoles (6-1)
22. Marshall Thundering Herd (7-1)
23. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-1)
24. Utah Utes (6-1)
25. Wisconsin Badgers (6-2)
First Five Out: Ole Miss Rebels, Navy Midshipmen, Mississippi State Bulldogs, N.C. State Wolfpack, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers