The college football regular season is essentially halfway over now and the race to the playoff is “on”. Last week saw a few more teams fall from the ranks of the unbeaten and now there are only a handful of teams that control their own destiny. With today’s “Playoff Picture”, we will take a look at teams that still, mostly, control their own fate.
Peach Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Tennessee vs. Clemson
The fact that this wouldn’t be the Orange Bowl is a shame, but things are what they are. The top of the college football world is decidedly *ahem* “rocky” after Tennessee’s thrilling upset of Alabama in Knoxville on Saturday. What’s more notable is how they beat Alabama. Bryce Young looked to be in full health and had an outstanding game. Alabama’s defense had absolutely no answers for Hendon Hooker though. Outside of two turnovers, one of which led to a scoop and score, Hooker and the Vols receivers (notably Jalin Hyatt) had their way with the Alabama defense. On the one hand, these are the types of offenses that Nick Saban’s defenses have always struggled with, but what was unique was how much of the damage Hooker did from inside the pocket. He made some plays with his legs when necessary, but for the most part he didn’t need to and that’s what was scary.
Is it just me or has Clemson quietly slid to 7-0 with only one major test left on the schedule? Clemson takes on undefeated Syracuse, who has given Clemson issues in the past with a worse roster, on Saturday but if they can survive that one who else is in their way? Notre Dame? Miami? Had you asked me in the preseason I likely would have pegged these as two of their three toughest games, but now that doesn’t look true. If Clemson wins this weekend, the path to heading to the ACC title game undefeated looks pretty clear. DJ U has taken a huge step forward and, outside of giving up a ton of points to Wake Forest, the defense is as formidable as always.
Fiesta Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Ohio State vs. Georgia
Ohio State got to take a breather this weekend and size up their biggest division challengers (Penn State and Michigan). Michigan looks like the only other legitimate threat to the Buckeyes for the conference. C.J. Stroud is a heavy Heisman favorite for good reason and Ohio State’s defense is better than it was a year ago. As long as they can avoid a “hangover” game, they should head into “The Game” with an undefeated record.
Georgia has taken some steps back toward Earth after a flawless opening month of the season, but appeared to get back on track against Vanderbilt last week. The Bulldogs have some real tests looming though and that November 5th game against Tennessee will decide the SEC East. The question for Georgia at this point is: Do they have the clout to make a playoff appearance as an 11-1 non-conference, non-division champion? Probably not unless they get some major help elsewhere. Georgia’s defense is still stingy as hell and the running game is improving week-to-week. It seems weird to ask a quarterback who has already won a national championship to “prove it”, but if the Bulldogs are going to repeat as champions Stetson Bennett is going to have to win a few of these games with his arm.
Cotton Bowl- Cincinnati vs. Wake Forest
The Bearcats have rebounded from an opening weekend loss to Arkansas nicely. It also doesn’t hurt that Arkansas rehabilitated its image some with a big road win over BYU. The more noteworthy thing about this pick though is that we are only in mid-October and we already have no undefeated Group of Five team left. One year removed from Cincinnati breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling and now the Group of Five has eliminated itself from playoff contention before the first committee rankings.
Wake Forest is one of two one-loss teams to make this week’s column and they had some hot competition with USC and Oklahoma State. Ultimately, I deemed that the double overtime loss to Clemson, especially in light of what they were able to do to Clemson’s defense, was a worthy loss. Plus, the Demon Deacons have won every game but one (an inexplicable nail biter against Liberty) by double digits including a 10-point win over a greatly improved Florida State team.
Orange Bowl- Syracuse vs. Alabama
Syracuse making the Orange Bowl would be the most “on-brand” bowl assignment we could have and something that the college football world absolutely needs to make happen. Syracuse managed to take down a Devin Leary-less N.C. State team at home to stay undefeated, and while many of their wins have come down to the wire they led this one the whole way. The Orange have two major road tests left on their scheduled, including a trip to Clemson this weekend. This Syracuse team has some legitimate weapons on offense (namely Sean Tucker and Oronde Gadsden II) and that makes them dangerous for both Clemson and Wake Forest, even if they would have to win those games away from the “Loud House”.
Alabama suffered its first loss of the season (and first loss to Tennessee of the Saban era) on Saturday evening, but the Tide still very much controls its own destiny. Alabama will still win the SEC West if they can avoid another misstep and then will almost assuredly get a crack at one of the last two teams to beat them in the SEC title game. There are plenty of adjustments that Alabama’s defense can take away from the loss to Tennessee and will need them against the Mississippi schools. LSU and Auburn don’t have the offense to challenge this Alabama defense, but Ole Miss and Mississippi State have the offense to potentially make life difficult. However, with all due respect to Will Rogers and Jaxson Dart, they aren’t the same player that Hendon Hooker is. Everything Alabama wants to accomplish is still within grasp, and they might even get a revenge opportunity in the process.
Sugar Bowl- Ole Miss vs. TCU
Given the hype around Georgia, Alabama and (now) Tennessee, it might be easy to forget that Ole Miss is the third remaining undefeated SEC team. It’s also easy to forget because, outside of Kentucky, the Rebels strongest opponent has been…Tulsa? Troy? Ole Miss has a backloaded schedule and they need to make some improvements both defensively and in the passing game if they are going to stay in the SEC race down the stretch. It’s not inconceivable, even if it’s not likely, that they could lose the rest of their games. Trips to LSU and Texas A&M precede their bye week, and then they close the season with Alabama, at Arkansas, and the Egg Bowl. That’s a tough stretch run.
Here’s my confession for the week. I have been expecting TCU to lose since week 3, when they “traveled” to SMU. I changed my tune last week and picked them to beat Oklahoma State on the “Spread Offense” podcast, but they certainly wouldn’t have been a team I pegged at 6-0 in the preseason. Sonny Dykes has elevated programs, especially in the state of Texas, before and this one might just be the one that lands him a “Coach of the Year” award.
Rose Bowl- UCLA vs. Michigan
What a classic matchup! This would be a *chef’s kiss* Rose Bowl for aesthetics and program history. UCLA is another one that most wouldn’t have expected to still be undefeated at this point in the season. I was more bullish on the Bruins than most coming into the season, but even I’ve been surprised by how good UCLA has been. We knew that the DTR and Zach Charbonnet backfield would be potent, but DTR’s evolution as a passer has taken the Bruins offense to another level. Oregon and USC still loom, but UCLA is still very much in both the Pac-12 and the playoff hunt.
Michigan put together their first statement win of the season on Saturday by pulling away from Penn State in the second half. Blake Corum’s Heisman odds are still currently sitting at 12/1 and if you have some disposable income in a state where you can legally gamble then throw some money on that. The Wolverines will go as far as Corum’s legs can take them, and now the Buckeyes are the only thing between them and the conference title, yet again.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Jamar Coach/News Sentinel