“Separation Saturday”, as some called it, is over. The dust has settled and we are officially half-way through the College Football regular season. Everyone has played 6 or 7 games and the College Football Playoff picture is getting clearer. It is time to determine who is a contender and who had us fooled all off-season.
Anyone who has paid any attention to college football this year knows it is very different. It is already getting comparisons to the ’07 season when there was a 2-loss national champion. No team has stood out as elite all year and many of the teams that started the year with high expectations already have head-scratching losses.
Seven weeks of college football has already eliminated approximately 2/3 of the field, barring some inexplicably poor play from every ranked team the rest of the way. At this point in the season you need to be ranked to be considered a contender. That gives us a pool of 25 teams, including 4 Group of 5 schools, that still have a decent chance to earn a playoff bid. Realistically though, only one Group of 5 school can qualify for the playoff and that team would need to be undefeated with an impressive resume. Toledo fits the bill there, with out-of-conference wins against 2 Power 5 opponents and more than 17% chance to win the remainder of their games(as determined by ESPN’s Football Power Index). Toledo is this year’s Cinderella story. They just need to keep on winning.
Now let us go by conference. First in the ACC, there are only 2 real contenders and a couple long shots in CFB’s weakest Power 5 Conference. Start with Clemson, a program notorious for not showing up for the big game and letting easy ones slip away. Well not anymore. Clemson is undefeated, beat Notre Dame in a marquee match-up and then dominated Georgia Tech to avoid a let down. The remainder of Clemson’s schedule contains only 1 other ranked team, FSU, and that game is at home so they should be favored in every contest. Ideally Clemson wins out and is a virtual lock for a playoff bid, but FSU has beaten them 3 years in a row so that game looks to be the unofficial ACC Atlantic championship game. Florida State has played poorly up to this point in the season, but they are still really talented and have a chance to raise their stock against Clemson and Florida late in the season. They are not the favorite, but are improving every week and cannot be counted out. The 2 surprise teams in the ACC are Duke and Pitt. Both sit at 5-1 and are in the Coastal division so they avoid Clemson or FSU until the ACC Championship game. Either team could make some serious noise or play spoiler. The jury is still out on this conference. There’s no proof that anyone outside of Clemson is a legit contender. The picture probably will not get any clearer until FSU goes to Death Valley on November 7th. My pick to win that game and the ACC is Clemson. I also believe every Coastal division team stumbles a long the way.
In the Big 12, Baylor and TCU are again the front-runners. They sit at 6-0 and 7-0 respectively. TCU has needed magic to win some of its games this year as the defense has been decimated by injury. Baylor has not had to play much defense this year, but has flat out run-away with every game so far. They both still have games against each other, Oklahoma State, and OU on the schedule so it is not a cake walk. I still believe defense wins championships, but it may not be necessary to win this conference. While both teams are prolific on offense, Baylor is a little more balanced, while TCU is a two-man show. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State can still realistically win the conference, but OU lost to a 1-win Texas team and Oklahoma State has needed late game heroics to beat a few average teams. I see this conference playing out a lot like last year. No team plays great defense, so no team is safe week to week. The conference will probably be decided November 27th in Fort Worth when Baylor plays TCU. Ill take the Bears’ potent offense in that one and every other Big 12 game.
Now to the Big Ten. At the beginning of the year this conference looked to be locked up. Or at the worst, would be decided when Michigan State visited Columbus on November 21st. Boy were we wrong, this conference has the most parity in football. This weekend cleared up a lot as Michigan State and Ohio State both won big rivalry games. OSU is the most talented roster, but has not looked dominant. Michigan State was another preseason favorite, but they also have not played up to par. Michigan has played the best football up north this season, but its practically the same roster that went 5-7 last year and they have already suffered 2 losses this year. It’s safe to say the Big Ten East is back to being good again and while the western division may have no great teams, Iowa is undefeated, plays very disciplined football, and can upset anybody. I do not see them as a contender, but they could easily beat whoever wins the Big Ten East. In reality I see Ohio State’s slow starts, Michigan State’s injury woes, and Iowa’s lack of explosive plays coming back to bite them. The Big Ten will get shut out of the College Football playoff because of late losses and no great out-of-conference wins.
As we look out West, we find the biggest surprise in college football. Utah, yes the Utes might be the hottest team in college football. Utah’s biggest obstacle is their schedule. They still have 3 remaining games against teams that were ranked this year and they would likely face Cal or Stanford in the PAC-12 Championship game. I see the PAC-12 South truly cannibalizing itself and Utah may be the winner, but that could easily be leave them at 10-2. The North is not near as deep, but Stanford and Cal are real teams with tough schedules. 5 of Stanford’s 6 remaining games are against teams .500 or better and Cal plays UCLA, USC, Stanford and ASU. Ultimately, I think Stanford’s ground and pound style will allow them to win their remaining games and defeat a battle-tested Pac-12 South champion.
The SEC is looking more one-sided than ever now that Florida’s Will Grier and UGA’s Nick Chubb are done for the season(for 2 very different reasons). That does not make it less entertaining though. The SEC West has 2 legit contenders headed for a showdown in Tuscaloosa. Those teams are Alabama and LSU. Both took big steps towards playing for a championship this weekend with their victories over Top-10 teams. The key factor in deciding who will win the SEC West is that Nick Saban’s ball club has regularly struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks. LSU’s QB Brandon Harris really stepped up this week against Florida and should continue to improve. Their match-up November 7th will likely decide which SEC team will be in the playoffs. I am rolling with the Tigers in that game and to win the SEC at 12-0.
This a blurry playoff picture and there is still one team to talk about, so forgive me if it is not clear yet. That team is Notre Dame. They are 6-1 and still have several quality opponents left on the schedule. If it could find a way to win every game on its schedule a 1-loss Notre Dame would have just as much leverage as any 1 loss Power 5 conference champion. Unfortunately, Notre Dame has lost a lot to injury and their game against Stanford to end the season will likely be too much to overcome. This leaves us with a small pool of contenders for the 4 playoffs spots. Seeding according to my projections should place Clemson 1st, 2nd LSU, 3rd Stanford and 4th Baylor rounding out the group. Ohio State, Michigan State, Toledo, and Notre Dame will all have strong claims, but should be left on the outside looking in and give us enough controversy for a long off-season.