Monday, October 17, 2016

The Playoff Race at the Midway Point

By Ross Lancaster

It may not seem like it, especially in a year that feels interminable in many ways, but after Saturday, the pre-bowl college football season is approximately halfway finished.

Seven Saturdays have passed since most teams started their seasons on Sept. 3, and seven more are to come before the playoff and all bowls are finalized on Dec. 4. All but a few teams now have played six or more of their 11 or 12 scheduled games.

And thus far, it appears on the surface to be a straightforward season in regards to the playoff.

After Houston succumbed to Navy's option attack in a shootout on Oct. 8, this year's national champion will come from one of the five biggest conferences in college football. Sure, Boise State or Western Michigan could finish undefeated, but they won't have the big wins or schedule strength that Houston could have boasted had it ran the table.

It also appears like, for the second time in three years, that the Big 12's champion will not be represented in the playoff. Baylor and West Virginia are each undefeated, but I don't think anyone is under any impressions that they will stay that way for much longer. The bulk of conference games in a round-robin format and several true road games are still to come for each school, neither of which has an extremely impressive win yet.

Oklahoma is the most talented team in the conference, and stands a chance to blitz through league play at 9-0, but its two September non-conference losses mean that the Sooners need to count on excessive chaos elsewhere to return to the playoff, representing a conference that finished non-conference play without a single win over a team currently ranked.

Since the first two years of the playoff featured exclusively conference champions, it would then follow that the winners of the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 would make up the playoff. In other words, it would play out in some order like that of the playoff's first iteration in 2014.

But I doubt that will be the case.

At the moment, Alabama is obviously the class of college football. Their demolition of Tennessee was like so many other big Saban-era wins for the Tide: methodical and absolutely dominant at the line of scrimmage. If 'Bama plays like that, and it essentially has for all but the first 25 minutes at Ole Miss on Sept. 17, the coming hand-wringing about playoff teams won't matter too much, because the Tide are taking home the trophy on the second Monday of January.

But below the Tide, there's an elite group of teams that includes Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Washington, Texas A&M, and Louisville.

I want to include Nebraska in this group since they're a Power 5 team ranked in the top 10 in the polls, and it's unlikely they can get by either Wisconsin or Ohio State in back-to-back road games on Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, respectively. But if they win one, they're back in the discussion, since one conference loss would win the Big Ten West and qualify them for the winner of the Ohio State/Michigan game for a Big Ten title shot.

All that being said, with a lot of good teams already possessing two losses, it seems more likely than not that four of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Washington, Texas A&M, Louisville, and Nebraska will make up the playoff.

Now, you'll notice that this group is pretty ACC/Big Ten/SEC heavy, with only Washington representing the Pac-12. With only two ranked teams at the moment, and several teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford) who are vastly underperforming expectations, there's an argument to be made that the league is in even a worse top-to-bottom state than the Big 12.

I'll go as far as to even say this: if Washington should lose a game, the Pac-12 probably won't have a playoff representative.

If that loss were to come at Utah on Oct. 29, what would Washington's best win be? At floundering Oregon? A home blowout against Stanford? The Huskies played a Baylor-esque non-conference schedule of all home games against Rutgers, Idaho, and FCS Portland State.

Conversely, 1-loss Utah would probably need to beat the Huskies not only in two weeks, but in the Pac-12 title game, too, in order to even have a prayer of jumping enough teams to get into the playoff. Then, there's the fact that Utah's one loss already is a game at Cal, it only beat awful Oregon State by 5 in Corvallis, and it has three more conference road games left.

This isn't to say that teams like Louisville, Clemson, and Ohio State don't have weaknesses or have looked invincible. If just a play or two had gone differently in each of those teams' games this weekend, all three might have lost. But there's not a doubt in my mind right now that all three will look better to the playoff selection committee at the moment due to their schedules and quality wins than any team from the Big 12 or Pac-12.

At this stage of the season, that's a perfect recipe if you're hoping to make the playoff with one loss from one of the top three conferences.

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