After a wild week of college football, we are basically halfway through the regular season. If your team is still undefeated, congrats but don’t get comfortable. Several teams were reminded this weekend that you are never safe, not even with a 20-0 lead. Auburn blew one. Oklahoma blew one, but managed to come back and win anyway. For what it’s worth, Idaho also blew a 20-0 lead in their failed upset bid over Appalachian State. The good thing about so many undefeated teams going down this weekend (5 total) is that the door is now wide open for all of the teams that dropped a game earlier in the year to get back into the playoff picture. This week we will be looking at what the remaining undefeated teams need to do to stay undefeated, and what needs to happen for one-loss teams to rise to the playoffs.
Sugar Bowl (#1 vs.#4)- Alabama vs. Penn State
Alabama got back to looking dominant against Arkansas, but it was against Arkansas so that may not necessarily say much. Tennessee most likely won’t present a threat this weekend either, but Butch is coaching for the chance to stay on the sidelines for the remainder of the season and it is a rivalry game. I’ve never been a subscriber to the “throw out the records” theory, but the rivalry factor does add an edge to both teams and a heightened level of pressure to the game. Like Nick Saban eloquently put it last week, Alabama just needs to avoid the “rat poison” coming from the media and work on trying to play their best ball every week. If they do that, then they should go into the SEC Championship game still undefeated.
Penn State managed to avoid the upset this weekend by not playing a game, which is a great strategy considering they will move up in the rankings for doing nothing. The Nittany Lions have their first big test of the season this weekend with Michigan coming to town. The Wolverines are looking to get back on track after losing to Michigan State and then being taken into overtime by Indiana, but they still have an elite defense and if they bottle up Saquon Barkley then Penn State could be in trouble. For Penn State to avoid dropping a game, they need to find some ancillary weapons to turn to when a team finds a way to bottle Barkley up. He currently leads the team in both rushing and receiving, but if Michigan’s defense is as good as we think and Harbaugh is the defensive scheme artist that we know he is then they will have a plan to make someone other than Saquon Barkley beat them. That’s where receivers DeaSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson need to step up and make big plays in the passing game along with quarterback Trace McSorley.
Rose Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Georgia vs. TCU
Honestly, these two teams are pretty much interchangeable at two and three in my eyes right now. TCU probably has the single most impressive win of the two so far with the win over Oklahoma State earlier in the season, but Georgia’s dominance over Tennessee, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt is impressive too and the Notre Dame win looks better every week. Georgia gets a breather this week, but going forward the Dawgs need to keep Jake Fromm comfortable and avoid shooting themselves in the foot. Georgia, much like pre-back-to-back title appearances Clemson, is notorious for losing to teams that they shouldn’t. Obviously, that can’t happen if they want to stay undefeated and there isn’t a game that they should lose left on the schedule until a potential SEC Championship game berth, but there is still one really tough trip to Auburn coming up before then. As for Fromm, the true freshman has done everything that’s been asked of him so far, but he’s still a freshman and the less that is required of him the better.
I mentioned earlier in the year either on a podcast or in a column that one of the keys for TCU is getting a full season of quality production out of Kenny Hill. We have seen him play like a Heisman candidate before, only to have him fall apart later in the season. That can’t happen if TCU is going to win the Big XII. This team is the only undefeated team left in the Big XII and control their own destiny for both the conference and the playoff. The defense has looked strong and they have plenty of weapons on offense, but none of it matters if Hill turns into a pumpkin again somewhere along the way.
Orange Bowl- Miami vs. Wisconsin
Miami and Wisconsin are the only other undefeated power five teams left, and both have been playing with fire to some degree over the last few weeks. Miami needed two late drives to win each of their last two games over Florida State and Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, Wisconsin sandwiched a convincing win over Nebraska between single-digit wins over Northwestern and Purdue. The key for both of these teams remaining undefeated is the same: Don’t make things harder on yourself than you have to. We have seen plenty of times before where a team that is supposed to be good continues to win close games and let teams they are better than hang around until eventually they can’t pull off the big play when they need it anymore and they lose. Unless Miami and Wisconsin can start winning some of the lesser games on their schedule more convincingly, they are inviting an upset bid. If you don’t believe me just ask USC and Michigan.
Cotton Bowl- Oklahoma vs. USF
Welcome back to the New Year’s Six picture Oklahoma! It took all of one week to get back into the fold, but don’t get too comfy just yet because you just about screwed it up against Texas. As I mentioned in the intro, the Sooners managed to blow a 20-0 lead and then had to have a late drive to finish off the Longhorns 29-24. Oklahoma travels to the “Little Apple” this weekend to take on a reeling Kansas State team, but they need to be careful because they have already burnt themselves once and one more ends the playoff dream. For Oklahoma, the path to the playoff is pretty simple. They have to beat TCU (maybe twice) and not slip up anywhere else. A 12-1 Oklahoma is most likely in the playoff, but it would help them immensely if the one-loss Pac-12 teams slip up.
Navy and San Diego State fell from the ranks of the unbeatens on Saturday, leaving only the two directional Florida teams left to represent the Group of Five in that category. USF was the hyped Group of Five team coming into the season, and while the first few weeks weren’t particularly impressive they did win all of their games. For any Group of Five team, the path to the playoff will require help from the Power Five teams, but the Bulls might have just the right amount of “star power” and preseason standing to crack the playoff with the right breaks. If the Bulls want to stay undefeated, they need to address this habit of starting slow, because if they go down two scores to a UCF or a Memphis in the AAC title game then I’m not sure there is any coming back.
Fiesta Bowl- USC vs. Ohio State
I think we can all agree this would be a fantastic matchup for pretty much everyone involved. The fanbases, the Fiesta Bowl organizers, the CFB Committee and most importantly ESPN would all benefit from having two marquee teams squaring off in a high-profile bowl. But, I know both teams would prefer if they were squaring off in a playoff game instead. Fortunately, the path to the playoffs for both teams shouldn’t require too much outside help. If Ohio State wins out, it would mean knocking off Penn State and Wisconsin (unless Wisconsin loses before and doesn’t win their division) which would almost assuredly put the Buckeyes in the playoffs.
For USC, they would need some help considering all four of the other Power 5 conferences still have undefeated teams. Then, the question might come down to how they stack up against some other one loss teams, but the fact that Stanford is looking better and has a shot at a road win over #13 Notre Dame this weekend which would be a huge boost. The Pac-12 championship game could also provide some resume help, particularly if it was an opportunity to avenge their lone loss to Washington State.
Peach Bowl- Clemson vs. UCF
Clemson is a prime example of the benefits of playing three Top 25 teams in the first half of the season. If you win those games, you buy yourself the real estate to drop a game you shouldn’t. For example, losing a game where your quarterback suffers a brutal concussion in the second quarter against a team with a weak defense but an offense that can score on anyone. It sets the Tigers up where if they win out, they are still assured a playoff spot despite what will most likely end up looking like a “bad loss”.
UCF is in the same boat as their in-state counterpart USF. The key difference is that the Golden Knights didn’t start the season in the Top 25, so they are starting their climb from further down than USF. Scott Frost’s team does have one big thing going for them though: they are beating the hell out of everyone they play. That’s pretty much what you have to do if you are trying to go from outside the Top 25 to the playoff in a Group of Five conference. The problem is that it still might not be enough, but if they want any chance they need to keep it up.
**Bonus Bowl** Holiday Bowl- Washington State vs. Michigan
The good news for Washington State is that they already have a Top 25 win over USC and should get two more cracks at it with Stanford and Washington still on the schedule. The bad news is that they just lost by five scores to a team that will almost assuredly not crack the Top 25. Unfortunately, that loss might prevent them from being a legitimate playoff contender without significant help, but I’ve been wrong before. I have a feeling, though, that even if they end up at 12-1 when stacked up against a 12-1 Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson or Oklahoma State that all people will see is “34-point loss to Cal” and it will be enough to “relegate” them to the Fiesta Bowl.
Michigan, on the other hand, has only suffered a loss to a now-ranked Michigan State team by four in awful weather conditions. That can be more than overcome by road wins at Penn State and Wisconsin and a win over Ohio State to close the regular season. All that, plus a Big Ten championship, and Michigan is a lock for the playoff. It starts this weekend with the trip to Happy Valley.
1. John O’Korn needs to have a strong game if the Wolverines are going to pull off the upset in Happy Valley on Saturday. The defense has been elite, but the offense has kept Michigan from flourishing so far.
2. Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Te’von Coney are one of the strongest linebacking corps in the country. They need to harass Sam Darnold on Saturday night if the Fighting Irish are going to take down the Trojans.
3. Jarrett Guarantano breathed a little bit of life into the Tennessee offense in his first start last Saturday, but the Vols still couldn’t manage to find the endzone. He will need to make a pretty significant leap if Tennessee has any hope of ending Alabama’s run of dominance over Rocky Top.
4. Shaquem Griffin is not only one of the top linebackers in the country, but also one of its best stories. Griffin had his left hand amputated when he was four years old, but is somehow one of the top tacklers in the country and a future NFL player. The Golden Knights square off against Navy’s triple option attack on Saturday and for UCF to stay undefeated they will need to contain Zach Abey and company.
5. DeShon Elliott is locked in a four-way tie for leading college football with five interceptions. His Longhorns take on a potent Oklahoma State offense on Saturday and if they are going to pull off the upset then turning over the Cowboys is a necessity.
6. Reggie Bonnafon is one of Louisville’s top all-purpose threats with 43 rushing attempts and 14 receptions, and somebody needs to step up to help out Lamar Jackson if the Cardinals are going to end this losing trend. The Cards take on Florida State this weekend and with everything going on with the basketball program and athletic department some football success would be very welcome right about now.
Cover Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Brynn Anderson