Monday, September 27, 2021

Subtle Shift to Major Shakeup?

By Jonathan Lowe

Going into this college football season, a few talking points seemed to be at the forefront of the national contention conversation:

* The SEC is an almighty force, destined to make the four-team playoff their league-wide playground.
* The Big Ten is second-in-command for the sport's supremacy, but only to the point of Ohio State making noise.
* The ACC is hanging on by a thread, thanks to the recent history of Clemson.
* The Pac-12 is usually irrelevant and probably won't be a factor in the playoff race (because they usually lose their big non-conference showdowns).
* The Big 12 has started its funeral procession, thanks to the two future ex-members that bring any significant eyeballs to the league.

After four (and in a few cases, five) weeks of play, some of those statements continue on with subtle changes. The SEC is still at the top of the food chain. The Big Ten had a decent month. With Clemson losing to N.C. State on Saturday, the Pac-12 is now the conference hanging on by the skin Oregon's duck bill. The ACC may be left out of the party this bowl season. And the Big 12's hope of a big payday rests on Oklahoma's shoulders (at this point).

As we head into the second full month of the campaign, we have to wonder if that omen of the squeeze on college football's title contenders is tightening faster than predicted. As of Monday, about half of the Associated Press' top 25 were schools from the SEC or Big Ten. Five were from the SEC West and four from the Big Ten East. The main contenders outside of this poll are the aforementioned Ducks and Sooners, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and (possibly) BYU. The Bearcats and Fighting Irish could end the other's hopes Saturday, when they meet in South Bend. The Cougars can win out and raise some eyebrows, but they'll need a lot of help to close in on the playoffs.

This leaves UO and OU as the best chances to keep the potential of an SEC/Big Ten showcase in the national semifinals. The Ducks have been in this position before. The win in Columbus let everyone know they can be a player in this whole thing. But Pac-12 football usually gets messy. Even without a depth of marquee schools sitting near the top of the national rankings, getting through a conference session unblemished is very difficult. While the path seems pretty clear now, you never know what you'll get on The Farm (at Stanford this Saturday) or at the Rose Bowl (UCLA on 10/23).

The Sooners are usually bound for one letdown per season, whether it's in the middle of October or the beginning of January. Does it give me joy to say that? More than somewhat, yes. But the fact remains this program has not won a national title in 20 years. November looks to be the tougher month out of the two, but October may be tricky. Kansas State was ranked last week before falling to Oklahoma State (OU comes to Manhattan Saturday). The Cotton Bowl will provide Steve Sarkisian with his first big chance to get the taste of Pig Sooey out of his mouth (OU/UT on 10/9). And TCU always seems to be a tough fight (10/16).

The ACC is in trouble. Clemson has multiple losses. North Carolina has come out flat. Can this league really pin its hopes for a semifinal berth on Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State? If Wake or BC were to go undefeated, how would the committee respond? Would they be placed high enough in the enough poll to make any kind of dent in their national perceptions?

One thing is for certain. The strongest divisions in the sport are set up for massive battles of attrition. If all goes well across the Midwest, the Big Ten East won't worry about that until October 30th (Penn State/Iowa on 10/9 is the only matchup of contenders until the day before Halloween). This month, it's the SEC West's turn.

The carnage has already started, with Arkansas' victory over Texas A&M. Over the next few weeks, Alabama, Mississippi, Auburn, and even LSU will throw their hats deeper into the division ring. The Crimson Tide will get their dose in two waves, with Ole Miss and A&M on deck (the Hogs and Auburn will close out the regular season). Arkansas is now in the middle of a brutal stretch, only getting tougher after Saturday's big win (at Georgia, at Ole Miss, home to Auburn the next three weeks). In the end, they'll all line up to likely face the winner of that World's Largest ... well, you know.

Some things have changed since the beginning of the college football season. A lot more will be thrown up in the air next month. When it settles, will the SEC and Big Ten still have designs on their own separate New Years' party? Or will a couple other entities be invited to join?

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