Earlier in the season, I wrote a “Who’s Even Good?” edition of the Playoff Picture. After Georgia and Notre Dame both got pounded and a few other dominoes fell too, I think it’s time to revisit the question. As always remember that these are not predictions, but rather how I would set the bowls if the season ended today.
Sugar Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Alabama vs. UCF
Alabama is almost guaranteed to be the #1 team in the country in the CFB Committee Rankings when they come out on Tuesday night, but they aren’t playing like the best team in the country right now. They are still undefeated, but the injuries at linebacker have hurt the run defense and they aren’t as physically dominant on the line of scrimmage as we have come to expect from Alabama. Jalen Hurts is still a dynamic threat at quarterback and the talent is still second to none, so yes Alabama is still good but they certainly aren’t “unbeatable”.
I feel very confident in calling UCF the most underrated team in the country. The fact that they have been stuck at #18 for the last two weeks is an absolute travesty. Their strength of schedule may not be the best (it isn’t) but they have unleashed an unholy fury on everyone they’ve played this season with the exception of SMU, whom they still beat. UCF isn’t going to make the playoff, but if they can manage to finish undefeated then the committee is wrong to leave them out.
Rose Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Miami vs. Wisconsin
As if Miami’s win over Virginia Tech wasn’t convincing enough, this week the Hurricanes dealt the final blow to the “Miami is this year’s 2014 Florida State” argument. The Canes and their turnover chain beat the brakes off of #3 Notre Dame on Saturday. It’s still hard to ignore the fact that Miami needed some late game heroics to beat some average opponents, and you shouldn’t, but this has all of the makings of a team that did what they had to do to win earlier and is now peaking at the right time. If anybody out there is still selling any Miami playoff stock let me know so I can call my guy.
Wisconsin is another good example of a Power 5 team who has earned the perception of a team who is only undefeated because of a cushy schedule. There is some truth to that narrative, but it undermines the fact that the Badgers are still undefeated. Wisconsin beat Iowa convincingly on Saturday, and depending on which camp you fall into that can be interpreted in two different ways. The first camp, the one that believes Wisconsin is only as good as its record, will say that Iowa was over-inflated in the rankings because of a fluke win over Ohio State and the Badgers “still haven’t beat nobody”. The second camp feels like even if Wisconsin hasn’t played the most difficult schedule (they haven’t) that getting through the Big Ten undefeated still has merit and the Iowa win is another “W” in the column and the most impressive one to date. You can place me in the second camp. I believe that trying to find the “four best teams” is an admirable ambition, but at some point in time a team earns their way into the playoff. An undefeated Big Ten champions would do just that.
Orange Bowl- Clemson vs. Auburn
Clemson has pretty well laid low since the Syracuse upset on that wild Friday the 13th in October. The Tigers best wins right now are Auburn (who wasn’t nearly as good then as they are now), Louisville (who turned out to be vastly overrated at the time of that meeting), Virginia Tech (who was actually good when they played but because they’ve faded no one will remember that), and N.C. State (who everyone is desperately trying to forget is in the top 25). The downside to that list is that it took me less time than a Google search to find a reason to pick apart each of those wins. The upside? There are actually four wins to put on their “best wins” list. Clemson’s a strong team that controls their own destiny, but their best football might be behind them. We should find out come ACC Championship time, which will be a de facto play-in game.
One of the hardest things about trying to ascertain the quality of a college football team is the week-to-week variability in performance. I watched Auburn beat the hell out of Georgia in living color this weekend (unfortunately) and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s no chance that team would have lost to LSU. Auburn already has two losses, but they are peaking at the right time and the dominoes are falling into place for the Tigers to become the first two-loss playoff team if they can win out. Auburn is definitely a top ten team, but on Saturday they showed that their ceiling is a top 3 team. Now the question becomes, can they hit that ceiling again? They’ll need to if they are going to beat Alabama and then beat Georgia again.
Fiesta Bowl- Washington State vs. TCU
Welcome back to the “Playoff Picture” Washington State! It had been awhile and we needed a Mike Leach return. The Coogs benefitted from their in-state rival falling on Friday night and then managed to take care of business on Saturday. Washington State would also clinch a Pac-12 North division title with an Apple Cup win two weeks from now. The Cougars are one of those teams with a massive degree of variability, which is largely due to their playing style. On a hot night, Washington State can blow out almost anybody, but if they catch one of those famous “no effing way” games where they rack up 5 or 6 turnovers then just about anybody (looking at you Cal) can blow them out.
TCU’s playoff hopes were probably shattered on Saturday night, but if they win out then they will get another crack at Oklahoma in the newly re-instated Big XII title game. The Horned Frogs are a good team whose two losses are largely due to catching the wrong teams at the wrong time. TCU lost to Iowa State at their peak and then caught Oklahoma this weekend right as the Sooner seem to be putting together not only a playoff run, but maybe a championship run. “Schedule losses” aren’t really something we discuss in college football because of the “every week is a must win” mentality, but I think TCU is a prime example of a really good team who caught two teams on the wrong weekend.
Cotton Bowl- USC vs. Oklahoma
USC is another one of those teams that just keeps lurking around even though they have yet to do anything particularly impressive. The fact that Sam Darnold will be leading the “gritty upstart” 49ers next year and that the Trojans were awesome at the end of 2016 has kept their ranking high, but this USC team has been ravaged by injuries all over the field and it shows. Fortunately for the Trojans, the Pac-12 is down this year and somebody has to win the conference.
I’ll go ahead and put it on record that if I absolutely had to pick a team to win the national championship right now I’d pick the Sooners. They are playing the best football in the country. That could change on any given week, but seeing what Oklahoma has done offensively the last few weeks I’d take them against anybody. Baker Mayfield is the best quarterback in the country and will probably win the Heisman trophy. Booger McFarland may not believe they have a championship defense, but if they keep scoring more than the other guys then they really don’t need one.
Peach Bowl- Georgia vs. Oklahoma State
Georgia took one on the chin on Saturday, but fortunately they’ve already clinched the SEC East and if they can re-group and win in Atlanta then there’s a playoff spot with their name on it. The question for the Dawgs is: was this an aberration or a sign of things to come? I tend to think the former. The ground game never got going (credit to Auburn’s defense because that was like 90% them), they committed dumb penalties at inopportune times, fumbled away a punt at the worst possible time and forced no turnovers. That doesn’t take anything away from Auburn because they played great, but anyone who says Georgia was “exposed” on Saturday and that they were never that good is only actually exposing their own idiocy.
Oklahoma State managed to get “last team in” status mostly because I still can’t decide which two-loss Big Ten team to include. The Cowboys peaked in September and have managed to maintain a decent record because they are still good and have explosive playmakers on offense. But, I think they are merely a good team and not a really good team at this point in the season. They do still have a shot at a Bedlam revenge game for the Big XII title if TCU stumbles, but I think they are a tier below Oklahoma and TCU in the conference hierarchy.