Surprise! Committee Pulls a Fast One

The biggest surprise from the College Football Playoff committee this year is that there were no surprises.

While there were rampant speculations on who might be the fourth team in the four-team playoff, at the end the committee stuck to the script, picking the four Power 5 teams with one or fewer losses for the field. And the rest of the New Year’s Six bowl games also fell in line exactly as how we projected Saturday night …

No one should have any beef with these decisions, really. Penn State, at No. 5, has two losses, including a 39-point beatdown by No. 6 Michigan, which actually has a stronger case than the Nittany Lions. The Big 12 is left out of the playoff for the second time in three years, leading its commissioner Bob Bowlsby to howl. But it has no real argument, either (more on that later).

Now that we’ve had three years of the playoff, just exactly what have we learned from the committee in its decision making?

The truth? Nothing. The members make their calls not any different from how voters in the polls or knowledgeable pundits make theirs. Conference championships are important – until they’re not. Head to head matters, until it’s not. The “13th data point” is relevant, until it’s irrelevant.

For the first time, a non-conference champion is picked for the playoff, and Ohio State’s inclusion was a slam-dunk. The Buckeyes are ranked third by the committee only for cosmetic reasons – so they’ll wear white uniforms against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, but they’re favored by Vegas.

Washington’s inclusion was the least certain, but after its 41-10 demolition of Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Huskies secured the final spot. Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt admitted that UW’s weak nonconference schedule (ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams) was a concern, but at the end its work in conference play was enough to hold off the Big Ten champion Penn State.

Let’s face it, despite all the statistical information and all the game footage at their disposal, the committee members are no more than knowledgeable fans. It’s a waste of time trying to make much more out of that.

USC is back: For the first time since the Pete Carroll era, USC is in a BCS/NY6 bowl game. The Trojans will be making their record 34th appearance in the Rose Bowl, the first time they’re in the Granddaddy of Them All since after the 2008 season. USC also keeps alive another amazing streak, as it’s played in a Rose Bowl during every presidential administration since Herbert Hoover in 1929. The Trojans just made it before Barack Obama leaves office.

SEC is hollowed out: While Alabama continues to be the undisputed most dominant program in college football under Nick Saban, the rest of the SEC has fallen off a cliff. The SEC only got a second NY6 bowl because contractually the Sugar Bowl had to pick a team from that conference. Auburn, at No. 14 and with four losses, is ranked lower than any other Power 5 participants in NY6 bowls, and actually ranked lower than even the Group 5 rep Western Michigan in both the AP and Coaches polls.

Row the Boat: Western Michigan became the third different G5 conference champion to appear in an NY6 bowl, joining Boise State (Mountain West) in 2014 and Houston (American) in 2015. The MAC champions are the only other undefeated FBS team besides No. 1 Alabama. Win or lose in the Cotton Bowl, it’ll probably lead to a big job for coach P.J. Fleck, who’s in his fourth season at the helm of the Broncos and just turned 36 last week.

Game of the Week

Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31: The Big Ten Championship Game was “only” for a Rose Bowl berth, but turned out highly entertaining nonetheless. The Nittany Lions overcame turnovers and questionable decisions by coach James Franklin that dug them in a 28-7 hole before storming back to win their first conference title since 2008, before the Jerry Sandusky scandals came to light and the ensuing NCAA sanctions. It’ll be Penn State’s first BCS/NY6 bowl appearance since losing the 2009 Rose Bowl to USC, 38-24.

Player of the Week

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: The Sooners didn’t make the playoff, but Oklahoma did win their second consecutive Big 12 title and clinch a trip to the Sugar Bowl, beating Oklahoma State in Bedlam, 38-20. Perine was the workhorse, carrying the ball a career-high 37 times for 239 yards as Oklahoma rolled up 629 total yards to pull away late.

The Weak

We seem to have all figured out how the committee works, except the Big 12. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is demanding to know why his conference is left out of the playoff for the second time in  three seasons.

That’s easy, Bob. Oklahoma was beaten badly by Ohio State, at home, and also lost to Houston. The Sooners had no case, nor did any other Big 12 teams.

The Big 12 rushed to add a championship game starting in the 2017 season despite not expanding and not putting its 10 teams in two divisions. In this year’s case, Bedlam would’ve been a totally meaningless affair as both teams would’ve been assured of a berth in the Big 12 title game a week later.

This conference cannot disband soon enough.

— Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of College Football Exchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

Advertisements

What Is Committee Trying to Say?

Yes, we’ve learned from the last two years not to take too much stock in the playoff committee’s weekly rankings. We should really only care about what it puts up on the final Sunday.

But this year might be different. There seems to be enough from Tuesday night’s reveal of its penultimate rankings to parse what’s in store for college football’s final regular-season weekend. This much we know:

1. Ohio State is a lock: Despite not playing in the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeye have clinched a playoff spot and can rest up and enjoy a bye week. Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said there’s a wide gulf between Ohio State and Penn State, in spite of the Nittany Lions’ having won head-to-head and claiming a spot in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan is much closer than you think: Hocutt must have repeated it a thousand times after Tuesday’s reveal on a conference call that No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Michigan are running neck and neck. In fact, he used “razor thin” to describe the gap between the two teams. The Wolverines throttled Colorado earlier in the season, and if Washington can’t beat the Buffs in similar fashion, it may be in danger of being left out of the playoff.

3. Big Ten title game might be for naught: With Ohio State already a lock and Michigan just outside, are Wisconsin and Penn State really playing for a shot at a playoff spot? Both teams lost to Michigan during the regular season, so would a conference championship trump that? To hear Hocutt talk, it seems that the committee is willing to include multiple at-large teams this year after taking only conference champions in the previous two seasons.

4. Big 12 is toast: By ranking Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at Nos. 9 and 10, respectively, the committee made it clear that neither is getting into the playoff no matter who wins Bedlam and the Big 12 championship. Even with mass chaos ahead of them, these two teams are playing for no more than a Sugar Bowl berth.

5. So just who are still alive?: The committee members will pick four teams out of the pool of the top five plus the Big Ten champion. If both Clemson and Washington win, most likely they’ll stick with the top four. If both Clemson and Washington lose, they’ll take Michigan and the Big Ten champ to join Ohio State and Alabama. They will face a thorny decision if Clemson or Washington loses, but not both. The question comes down to: which Big Ten team takes the last playoff spot?

Game of the Week

Washington (-7) vs. Colorado, Pac-12 Championship, 9 p.m. ET Friday, FOX

It’s the most consequential of the Power 5 championship games this weekend. Washington needs to win, and perhaps impressively, to lock up a playoff spot. Huskies QB Jake Browning will also get one last chance to maybe sway a few Heisman voters, as all the other contenders have the weekend off. For the Buffs, it’s probably Pasadena or bust, as a blowout loss will cause them to cede a Rose Bowl berth to USC.

Also keep an eye on

Wisconsin (-2.5) vs. Penn State, Big Ten Championship, 8 p.m. ET, FOX

Both teams still harbor playoff hopes as the winner may sneak in if things break their way elsewhere. Wisconsin, with losses to both Ohio State and Michigan, and playing in the weaker Big Ten West, may have more to prove. Penn State has made a dramatic turnaround after early season losses to Pitt and Michigan and probably will have a better argument for a playoff spot if it wins.

Upset special

Clemson (-10) vs. Virginia Tech, ACC Championship, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

Despite its No. 3 ranking, Clemson has been the shakiest team among the playoff contenders. The Tigers needed overtime to beat NC State, barely survived both Florida State and Louisville, and lost to Pitt at home. The Hokies are ahead of schedule under first-year coach Justin Fuente and just might have what it takes to pull off a stunner.

Player to watch

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (-12), 12:30 p.m. ET, FOX

Bedlam will serve as the de facto Big 12 championship game this year, but if the scenario repeats itself in 2007, this would be a totally meaningless game as both teams are guaranteed a rematch in the actual Big 12 Championship Game the following week. Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook should receive more recognition as the odds-on favorite to claim the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver after amassing 1,354 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns this season.

Big Ten Ready to Unleash Big Chaos

“The Game” lived up to its considerable hype, and then some. Not only was Saturday’s epic Michigan-Ohio State showdown turned out to be a double-overtime thriller, it was also by far the most-watched college football this season – garnering a gaudy 10.4 TV rating – and the second most-watched since 2001, topped only by the 2006 edition of the Michigan-Ohio State game.

It also set the selection committee up for a huge headache. How many Big Ten teams can it take for the four-team playoff? One, two, or even maybe three?

Had Michigan won in spite of officiating malfeasance (every close call or non-call went Ohio State’s way, and the Buckeyes were flagged just twice for 6 yards the entire game), most likely the Big Ten would’ve ended up with just one team in the playoff. But now …

Ohio State is a lock for a playoff spot, though it won’t even play in the Big Ten championship game. The Wisconsin-Penn State winner in the B1G title game most likely will get a spot, too. And don’t completely write off Michigan, either, as it still has a chance to back into the playoff if both Clemson and Washington lose their respective conference title games.

If both Clemson and Washington go on to win the ACC and Pac-12, respectively, the committee then must wrestle with whether to exclude either one-loss team in favor of a two-loss Big Ten champion. And then there’s the Big 12 champion – the winner of Bedlam – but its hopes are faint at best.

Regardless what happens in the five Power 5 title games next week, the committee will not have very clear-cut choices. It’ll be its most difficult decision in the three years of the playoff era.

Bowl Update: As of now, 76 teams clinched bowl bids, including 6-7 Hawaii and 6-5 Army, which defeated two FCS teams. South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette may still earn bowl bids by winning their respective regular-season finales next Saturday.

But that means at least two and as many as four teams will qualify for bowl games with 5-7 records by virtue of their score on the Academic Progress Report. The next teams on the APR list, with North Texas and Mississippi State already guaranteed bowl bids:

  • North Texas (APR 984)
  • Mississippi State (971)*
  • Texas (971)*
  • Northern Illinois (970)
  • Louisiana-Monroe (967)
  • Cal (960)*
  • Arizona State (960)*

*MSU has tiebreaker edge over Texas on one-year APR (970-968), Cal has edge over ASU (997-990)

<u”>Game of the Week

Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 (2OT): The 113rd edition of college football’s best rivalry was as gripping as it was controversial, with Ohio State pulling out the victory in double overtime after two sensational plays by wide receiver Curtis Samuel. Michigan was victimized by quarterback Wilton Speight’s three turnovers as well as a number of questionable calls. It was the Buckeyes’ 12th win in the last 13 meetings as Urban Meyer improved to 5-0 against his team’s arch rival.

Player of the Week

Adoree Jackson, USC: In perhaps his final collegiate home game, the Trojans’ do-everything defensive back showed why he should be the most serious threat to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson as a Heisman candidate. USC’s Jackson returned a punt 55 yards, a kickoff 97 yards and caught a pass 52 yards, all for touchdowns – in addition to playing his usual shutdown corner. The Trojans routed Notre Dame, 45-27, for their eighth straight victory.

The Weak

In that same game, Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery pulled off two despicable acts and somehow was not ejected. First, he used his foot to nudge USC running back Aca’Cedric Ware, who was down on the ground with an apparent head injury – but that went unnoticed by the officials. Later in the game, Tillery stomped on the ankle of USC offensive lineman Zach Banner, and was caught in the act and flagged for a penalty.

The Irish were blown out by the Trojans to cap off a disastrous 4-8 season after being ranked in the preseason top 10. And now there’s a possibility that Brian Kelly won’t return to coach in 2017. Notre Dame’s nightmare of a year can’t end soon enough.

The Weak II

Pitt put up 76 points and Navy 75 and neither was the highest scoring team this week. Middle Tennessee hung 77 on Florida Atlantic while amassing 757 yards of offense. The Syracuse football team scored more points (61) in losing to Pitt than its basketball team did (50) in a loss to South Carolina.

Does anyone play defense anymore?

Projected committee rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Washington, 5. Michigan, 6. Wisconsin, 7. Penn State, 8. Oklahoma, 9. Colorado, 10. Oklahoma State, 11. USC, 12. Louisville, 13. Florida State, 14. West Virginia, 15. Florida.

Top Group of 5 teams: Western Michigan, Navy, Temple.

Projected New Year’s Six bowl matchups

Peach Bowl (CFP semifinal) : Alabama vs. Washington
Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal): Clemson vs. Ohio State
Rose Bowl – Wisconsin vs. USC
Orange Bowl – Michigan vs. Louisville
Sugar Bowl – Florida vs. Oklahoma
Cotton Bowl – Penn State vs. Western Michigan

What Exactly Changed Saturday Night?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

If your high school French is a bit rusty, let me help you out here. It means that despite all the upsets on Saturday, Alabama is still No. 1, by a country mile (or kilometre).

Teams ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 4 by the playoff committee all lost on Saturday, yet the standings probably won’t change that much, with two of those three teams still staying in the top four, in control of their playoff destinies. It’s not that the losses didn’t hurt, but unlike in the BCS or bowl eras, these November defeats won’t prove fatal.

The big winner of the weekend was Alabama, which clinched the SEC West title, rendering the Iron Bowl largely meaningless. The Crimson Tide are also the only undefeated Power 5 conference team and there appears little doubt that they’ll sail into a third straight playoff, poised to defend their national championship.

There are other winners and losers Saturday night, though maybe not in the way you think:

Winners

Big Ten

Michigan’s loss was the gain of all the top teams in the Big Ten. No fewer than four Big Ten teams will be ranked in the top 10, maybe even the top seven, with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State also in the mix. Since the Big Ten champion will come from these four teams, it’s guaranteed to be in the playoff.

Ohio State

On the face of it, the Buckeyes might’ve been a big loser because of Michigan’s loss. Ohio State now cannot win the Big Ten East and therefore go to the conference title game unless Penn State also loses a game (unlikely since the Nittany Lions play Rutgers and Michigan State to close out the season). But Ohio State is now in position to become the first at-large team to make the playoff if it can beat Michigan and finish 11-1 – no matter who wins the Big Ten title.

Selection committee

The results Saturday dramatically reduced the pool of teams that could be considered for a playoff berth. Basically, Alabama (win or lose the SEC championship), the Big Ten champion, Clemson (if it wins the ACC championship) and either Ohio State or the Pac-12 champion will be in the playoff. Which brings us to the …

Losers

Louisville

The Cardinals are probably the biggest losers on Saturday, despite their come-from-behind win over Wake Forest. Now unless those Demon Deacons upset Clemson next week, there is virtually no shot for Louisville to make the playoff. There is no chance that the committee would take two at-large teams for the playoff field and the Cardinals aren’t jumping Ohio State.

Oklahoma

The Sooners are probably the Big 12’s best – and maybe only – hope to make the playoff field, and their slim hopes just took another hit. Because it already has two losses, including one at home to Ohio State, there’s zero chance for Oklahoma to win a playoff bid over an at-large Buckeyes, even if it takes the Big 12 championship.

Pac-12

Washington’s loss to USC has significantly damaged the Pac-12’s only chance to make the playoff. Because of their lackluster nonconference schedule, the Huskies were already a borderline choice for the playoff even if they had gone undefeated. As things stand now, Washington will need help even if it wins the conference – otherwise the Pac-12 will miss the playoff for a second straight year.

Game of the Week

Iowa 14, Michigan 13: There’s something about Kinnick Stadium at night that haunts Michigan. In 1985, when Jim Harbaugh was the Wolverines’ junior quarterback, his second-ranked team was beaten on a last-second field goal in a 12-10 loss. History repeated itself Saturday when the now-Michigan coach’s third-ranked team was beaten on a last-second field goal.

Player of the Week

Sam Darnold, USC: Maybe it’s a little too late for the Trojans to win the Pac-12 title or contend for a playoff spot now, but there is no doubt that they have once again become a juggernaut with this redshirt freshman quarterback at the controls. Darnold led USC to a 26-13 upset of Washington in a game that really wasn’t that close as he completed 23 of 33 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. USC has won six straight, something it hasn’t done since the Pete Carroll-era.

The Weak

This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, so don’t take it so literally. Mount Union’s NCAA record 112-game winning streak was snapped in a 31-28 loss to John Carroll. The loss also snapped a 98-game home winning streak of the Purple Raiders, who have appeared in the Division III title game in each of the last 11 seasons, winning five. Keep in mind the streak was for the regular season only, but the only team that’s beaten Mount Union during the time of the streak was Wisconsin-Whitewater, doing so six times in the D-III title game.

Projected committee rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Michigan, 4. Clemson, 5. Louisville, 6. Wisconsin, 7. Penn State, 8. Washington, 9. Oklahoma, 10. Colorado, 11. Utah, 12. Oklahoma State, 13. West Virginia, 14. Florida State, 15. USC.

Top Group of 5 teams: Western Michigan, Boise State, San Diego State, Navy, Troy.

Projected New Year’s Six bowl matchups

Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal): Ohio State vs. Clemson

Peach Bowl (CFP semifinal): Alabama vs. Wisconsin

Rose Bowl: Washington vs. Michigan

Sugar Bowl: LSU vs. Oklahoma

Orange Bowl: Louisville vs. Penn State

Cotton Bowl: USC vs. Western Michigan

What Surprise Will Committee Spring?

Well, that was embarrassing.

Four days after the playoff selection committee inexplicably ranked Texas A&M fourth in its initial 2016 rankings, the Aggies were dumped by lowly Mississippi State, which is struggling to gain bowl eligibility. Washington, a team that should’ve been in the top four, routed California and by all reasonable measure ought to be in the committee’ top four this week.

But don’t bet on it.

It’s entirely plausible for the committee to anoint one-loss Ohio State as its new No. 4, ahead of unbeaten Washington this week. Chairman Kirby Hocutt will give his spin as to why this is so and a new round of talking points will spring to life for the rest of the week.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with this, right? The whole point of having the weekly rankings release is to gin up interest in college football, so a little controversy is good for business, no?

There is just one problem. The selection committee is fast losing credibility and worse yet, being seen by a significant group of fans as having a bias. That, in the long run, is bad for college football.

The bias accusation surfaced with the very first committee rankings in history, back in 2014, when three of the top four teams were from the SEC. In both 2015 and ’16, the initial rankings also contained two SEC teams each in the top four. No Pac-12 or Big 12 teams were ever ranked in the initial top four in the three-year existence of the CFP.

The Big 12 was excluded from the first year of the playoff. The Pac-12 in the second. And this year, it looks like the Big 12 is already done while the committee is looking for every excuse to snub the Pac-12 as well – at least that’s the perception.

Washington’s exclusion from the top four in the first rankings generated much howling, especially on the West Coast. While for the most part everybody understands that the weekly committee rankings – except for the final – mean very little, the appearance that there’s an agenda at work is already undermining the process.

As much as the BCS was flawed, there at least was a measure of transparency. The 12-member committee of the CFP, however, answers to no one and each individual never had to share his or her ballot with the public, unlike voters in the AP and coaches polls (or the Harris Poll under the BCS).

The committee is essentially acting the same way as the Politburo of the old Soviet Union, a supreme ruling body that’s unelected and unaccountable. It issues inexplicable edicts from afar (OK, Grapevine, Texas). It plays favorites.

That’s not a good look.

Game of the Week

Navy 28, Notre Dame 27: The Fighting Irish had six possessions in the game, scored on five of them, and lost. Navy showed in a textbook fashion how to overcome significant talent disadvantage by running its time-eating triple option to perfection. The Midshipmen never punted in the game and chewed up more than 20 minutes of possession time in the second half, including the final 7:28 to run out the clock. It was Navy’s fourth victory over Notre Dame in the last 10 years.

Player of the Week

D’Onta Foreman, Texas: Despite the difficult season the Longhorns are having, the junior running back has absolutely been a bright spot. Foreman has run for over 100 yards in each of his eight games this season, and on Saturday he carried 33 times for 341 rushing yards – just 9 shy of the school record set by Ricky Williams – in Texas’ 45-37 victory over Texas Tech that kept its postseason hopes alive.

The Weak

After Cincinnati’s desultory 20-3 home loss to BYU to drop to 4-5, coach Tommy Tuberville was heckled by a fan for “stealing from the university.” Unable to contain his frustration, Tuberville shouted back, telling the fan to “go to hell” and “get a job.” Chances are the fan has a job and he paid his hard-earned money to go to Bearcats games. Tuberville, who’s making well over $2 million per year, should’ve kept his mouth shut.

Projected committee rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Michigan, 4. Ohio State, 5. Washington, 6. Louisville, 7. Wisconsin, 8. Auburn, 9. Oklahoma, 10. Penn State, 11. Colorado, 12. Texas A&M, 13. Utah, 14. West Virginia, 15. Oklahoma State.

Top Group of 5 teams – Western Michigan, Boise State, San Diego State, Navy.

Projected New Year’s Six bowl matchups

Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal): Clemson vs. Michigan

Peach Bowl (CFP semifinal): Alabama vs. Washington

Rose Bowl: Colorado vs. Wisconsin

Sugar Bowl: Auburn vs. Oklahoma

Orange Bowl: Louisville vs. Ohio State

Cotton Bowl: Penn State vs. Western Michigan

Making Sense of 1st Committee Rankings

First, a quick message to Washington Huskies fans, from a fellow Pac-12 alum, no less.

R-E-L-A-X.

Just because Washington is ranked behind Texas A&M in the initial College Football Playoff committee rankings, it means nothing. As in, diddly squat.

In some ways it’s entirely predictable that the committee would do something like this, ranking an unbeaten Power 5 conference leader behind a one-loss team. If its rankings totally mimic the two polls, which logically have the four unbeaten Power 5 teams ranked 1 through 4, what will we be talking about this week?

The playoff selection committee is now in its third season. But in case you’re still new at this, we’ll demystify it for you:

1) All rankings before the final rankings are meaningless

Try not to read anything, at all, from the weekly release. It’s a made-for-TV show. It’s designed to drum up interest. And the committee has done more and more outlandish things to stay relevant.

2) Disregard the committee chairman’s convoluted lingos

Jeff Long, the first CFP chair, invented “game control” and used all sorts of fancy jargons to justify the rankings each week. His successor Kirby Hocutt is doing more of the same. But at the end, it’s all garbage. Like in non-criminal jury trials, a unanimous decision isn’t required, and the foreman cannot always explain how each juror reached his or her decision. It’s 12 people voting on paper ballots, plain and simple.

3) The end result will look very different from the first release

If history is our guide, don’t expect more than one or two of these initial top four to be in the playoff field. In 2014, the first top four were Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss. At the end only FSU made the playoff, and the only SEC team that made the field wasn’t any of those three, but Alabama. Ohio State, ranked No. 16 in the first rankings, ended up winning it all.

In 2015, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Alabama were in the top four. Clemson and Alabama did end up meeting for the championship, but they were joined in the playoff by No. 7 Michigan State and No. 15 Oklahoma.

4) The committee does not respect Group of 5 teams

In the two-plus seasons of the CFP standings, no G5 team has ever been ranked higher than No. 15 in the standings. The two G5 teams that claimed the automatic berths in the New Years’ Six bowls were No. 20 (Boise State 2014) and No. 18 (Houston, 2015), respectively.

5) Don’t read too much into the recusal policy

There are five sitting ADs on the committee. And just like any NCAA selection committee, their teams will get preferential treatment despite a recusal policy. Just because that AD isn’t in the room when his team is being discussed doesn’t mean that the other 11 members won’t take care of him. After all, they have to spend considerable amount of time locked up with him in a conference room all season.

If there’s a close vote on the Clemson Tigers, think they were going to tell Dan Radakovich the bad news?

Game of the Week

Alabama (-7.5) at LSU

A rejuvenated LSU team with a healthy Leonard Fournette might pose the biggest challenge for Alabama in its quest to return to the playoff and repeat as national champions. Under interim coach Ed Orgeron the Tigers have won three straight and like ‘Bama had a bye week before the showdown under the lights in Death Valley. If LSU can somehow get some production out of its passing attack this may turn out to be a game.

Also keep an eye on

Nebraska at Ohio State (-17.5)

The Cornhuskers are coming off their first defeat of the season, an overtime loss at Wisconsin, yet still few believe in them (witness the point spread). The Buckeyes are reeling, with a loss to Penn State followed by barely surviving Northwestern at home. Ohio State must right its ship if it wants to return to the playoff after being left out last year. Nebraska, on the other hand, needs this win to keep its hopes of winning the Big Ten West alive.

Upset special

Florida (-4.5) at Arkansas

After dispatching Georgia, the Gators appear to have smooth sailing into the SEC championship game for a second straight year, but they still have some work to do. Arkansas has been disappointing this season, but it still has enough talent to knock off the SEC East leader. A Hogs victory will throw the eastern race into chaos as, gulp, Kentucky may emerge as the unlikely winner of that division.

Player to watch

Utah State at Wyoming (-6)

In his third year at Wyoming, coach Craig Bohl has completely rebuilt the program after being the architect of the current five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. After upsetting Boise State last week, the Cowboys have the inside track to claim the Mountain West Mountain division, if they can win three of their final four regular-season games. A big reason for Wyoming’s renaissance this season is junior running back Brian Hill, who ran for 146 yards in the upset of the Broncos and is second in FBS in rushing yards, behind only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey.

Ohio State Loss Doesn’t Mean Much

Ohio State’s stunning loss to Penn State changed everything … er, actually, nothing.

Whereas in the BCS era the Buckeyes’ upset defeat in Happy Valley might’ve ended their national title quest, in the playoff era the loss constitutes more or less a free pass. In fact, Ohio State still controls its own fate – if it wins out, including the regular-season finale against Michigan, it’ll be in the four-team playoff.

Is this a good thing? Doesn’t it devalue the regular season that college football treasures so much? The answers are no, and no.

The requirement of a college football team needing to run the table to win the national championship has always been absurd. And that unreasonably high demand has over the years caused teams to water down their nonconference schedule in an attempt to maximize their chances of playing for the national title.

It’s a good thing that a single loss shouldn’t necessarily torpedo a team’s entire season, even though it still could (see Ohio State, 2015). In the first two College Football Playoff seasons, the respective champions each suffered a September loss but made the playoff anyway. More than half of the playoff entries (six of eight) in the first two CFP seasons made the field despite having a loss.

While Ohio State’s loss isn’t such bad news for the Buckeyes, it’s far from ideal for the Big Ten. The conference suddenly finds itself in the unthinkable position of missing the playoff after talking about having TWO teams in the playoff for the past several weeks.

Consider this: If Michigan loses a game before facing Ohio State, then an Ohio State victory over Michigan hands the Big Ten East title to Penn State, which should be favored to win its remaining games. That leaves the Big Ten with a potential championship game with a pair of two-loss teams – Penn State and Wisconsin.

In that scenario, would the selection committee pick a two-loss Big Ten champ over a one-loss Ohio State? Or would it just leave out the Big Ten entirely?

Here’s another thought: Just as the Ohio State loss isn’t hurting the Buckeyes, a Michigan loss before the Ohio State game isn’t going to hurt the Wolverines as long as they can beat Ohio State. In fact, a Michigan loss before the Ohio State game would serve to eliminate the Buckeyes from the Big Ten title, as long as Penn State runs the table.

Ah, all the possibilities. Isn’t this much more fun than the BCS?

Game of the Week

Penn State 24, Ohio State 21: The Nittany Lions completed just eight passes, were outgained by more than 100 yards and looked to get run out of the stadium after trailing 21-7 entering the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes also had the ball for 37 minutes of the game, 15 more than Penn State. Yet, Ohio State repeatedly stalled offensively in the fourth quarter and a rushed field-goal attempt led to a block and Penn State’s winning score. It’s just a reminder that the only important stat in a football game is the final score on the board.

Player of the Week

Pat Mahomes II: The Texas Tech quarterback tied an NCAA record with 734 passing yards in a 66-59 loss to Oklahoma, losing a duel against former Tech QB Baker Mayfield. Mahomes threw the ball 88 times, more than what his namesake father pitched in most of his MLB outings over a 12-year span. Mahomes passed for five TDs and ran for two more with 85 rushing yards. Texas Tech and Oklahoma each gained 854 yards – their combined 1,708 yards set an NCAA record.

The Weak

How embarrassing is it that when you invent a rivalry but your alleged “rival” fail to acknowledge it? That’s exactly what happened to UConn after it manufactured a trophy named “Civil ConFLiCT” for its American Athletic Conference series against Central Florida. The problem is, UCF either didn’t get the memo or shredded it. After beating the Huskies, 24-16, the visiting Knights simply left the trophy on the UConn bench unclaimed.

Our rankings

1 Alabama, 2. Michigan, 3. Washington, 4. Clemson, 5. Louisville, 6. Texas A&M, 7. Ohio State, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Nebraska, 10. Boise State, 11. West Virginia, 12. Baylor, 13. Western Michigan, 14. Utah, 15. Auburn.