“What a time to be alive!”
That was ESPN’s Mark Jones hyperventilating after Georgia Tech reprised Auburn’s 2013 “Kick Six” in Saturday’s game against Florida State. The Seminoles were one of two undefeated teams to go down on Saturday, reducing the ranks of unbeatens to 12, with just eight in the Power 5 conferences.
But the game that had a bigger impact on the playoff race was USC’s dismantling of Utah at the L.A. Coliseum, a game pegged by Vegas and the “sharps” – who actually bet up the favored Trojans throughout the week – but not the public at large. The final score of 42-24 actually flatters Utah as the game really wasn’t even that close. As a result, the Pac-12 is the only Power 5 conference left without an unbeaten team and now on the outside of the playoff picture.
The playoff committee will unveil its first rankings this season after next weekend’s games. The actual playoff games won’t be played until New Year’s Eve. But the entire season is really a series of playoff games and beginning next week we’ll be entering the de facto quarterfinal phase of it.
You’ve probably read a few pieces that claim this season’s playoff picture remains very much muddled. Don’t believe it. The races are becoming crystal clear and they boil down to these games:
* LSU at Alabama (Nov. 7): The winner of this game will win the SEC West, which isn’t as competitive as ESPN or SEC apologists would like you to believe. The SEC East winner will be determined at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville) on Saturday, but expect the SEC title game to be a mere coronation for LSU or ‘Bama.
* Michigan State at Ohio State (Nov. 21): Thanks to their miraculous escape against Michigan a week ago, the Spartans will keep their date with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten East title. While Iowa is unbeaten, too, and probably will roll through the rest of the West, it’s not in the same class as these two heavyweights.
* Baylor at TCU (Nov. 27): While Oklahoma State is also unbeaten and will host both of these teams, it does not have the cache of weapons to keep up. A bit worrisome for Baylor is that quarterback Seth Russell might be out awhile with a fracture in his neck, and without him the Bears will have trouble keeping up with Trevone Boykin and TCU, out to avenge last year’s 61-58 collapse that kept them out of the inaugural playoff.
* Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 28): This is a bit like a wild-card game, depending on what happens with unbeaten Clemson. The Tigers handed Notre Dame its only loss and the playoff spot is theirs to lose. But if they somehow stumble down the stretch and fail to win the ACC title, that last playoff spot will go to the winner of this game – and if it’s Stanford, it must also win the Pac-12 title game the following week.
Group of Five a Four-Way Race
It looks like the American Athletic champion will have a lock on the Group of Five New Year’s Six Bowl bid, with only MAC’s Toledo with a shot to play spoiler. Three AAC teams are still undefeated, though only one among Memphis, Houston and Temple will finish the year that way, of course.
Memphis has the best resume so far – and its coach Justin Fuente will be one of the hottest candidates on the job market, especially the one that just opened in Miami. But Temple has a chance to become the frontrunner this weekend with a huge showdown against visiting Notre Dame. A victory over the top 10-ranked Irish will propel the Owls, as well as their own coach Matt Rhule, another hot coaching candidate who might soon be headed to the Big Ten.
Saturday provided us not one, but two, four-OT extravaganzas that were short on aesthetics and long on the amount of time it took. Duke outlasted host Virginia Tech while Arkansas survived at home against Auburn. While neither game had any playoff or even conference-race implications, they made two otherwise pedestrian games infinitely more interesting.
But that’s the problem with college football’s overtime rules. It’s more of a skills competition than a serious tiebreaker. I happened to cover the original 4-OT thriller in 1996 when the OT rules was first installed, and even back then it was obvious they were too offensive in nature.
One quick fix can make college’s overtime a lot better and still superior to the NFL’s version: Make teams start on the 40-yard line instead of 25. This way, an offensive team is not automatically in field goal range and the defense can have a much better chance at ending the game on a turnover or on downs.
Game of the Week
Georgia Tech 22, Florida State 16: A week after Michigan State’s improbable victory over Michigan on a botched punt snap, the Yellow Jackets reprised their own “Kick Six” by returning a blocked field-goal attempt into a game-winning touchdown. The loss not only ended the Seminoles’ 28-game ACC winning streak, but in all likelihood eliminated them from playoff consideration.
Player of the Week
Connor Cook, Michigan State: The senior quarterback completed 30 of 52 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns to rescue the Spartans from Indiana’s upset bid. The Hoosiers trailed only 28-26 entering the fourth quarter before Cook engineered two long scoring drives as Michigan State scored the game’s final 24 points in a 52-26 victory.
Top 4: Clemson, LSU, TCU, Ohio State. Next 4: Michigan State, Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford. Other contenders: Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Utah.