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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Winners and Losers Week 7: Ranking the College Football Playoff contenders

Now that we’re seven weeks into the season it’s time to start thinking about the College Football Playoff. The first set of official playoff rankings don’t come out until Oct. 30 but that’s not stopping us from trying to envision what the playoff field would currently look like.
Below is our best guess of the four teams that would be in the playoff if it started today — we’re happy it doesn’t — and then a breakdown of the teams outside the field who have the opportunity to move into the real top four by the end of the season. 

In the playoff right now

Alabama (7-0): The Crimson Tide would be nothing but the top seed if the playoff started today. Yes, you can quibble with Alabama’s schedule to date but Texas A&M has emerged as a top 25 team and Louisville was expected to be a lot better than it is. If there’s a minor concern it’s the knee of QB Tua Tagovailoa. He’s been dealing with a sprain and tweaked it in Alabama’s 39-10 win over Missouri Saturday night. All indications are that he’ll be good to go, but if Tagovailoa misses some time, Alabama’s offense becomes less dynamic.
Ohio State (7-0): The Buckeyes’ offense is legit. It’s second in the country to Alabama’s at this point. Dwayne Haskins has been a revelation in his first year as a starter and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are a potent combination. The defense keeps Ohio State from challenging for the top spot, especially without star defensive end Nick Bosa. But with or without Bosa the Buckeyes have to figure out how to stop giving up big plays.
Clemson (6-0): The Tigers were off on Saturday and will move up a spot in Sunday’s AP Top 25 as a result. Clemson’s set at quarterback with Trevor Lawrence now the undisputed starter and running back Travis Etienne has emerged as one of the best backs in the country. The defensive line is still perhaps the most talented in the country and the Tigers have a key road win over Texas A&M in Week 2.
LSU (6-1): Let’s get a little controversial for the fourth team. The Tigers now have wins over Georgia, Miami and Auburn — back when Auburn was able to run the ball and playing good football. The Tigers’ only loss is on the road to a Florida team that could be in the top 10 on Sunday.
Is that enough to put LSU in the playoff if it started right now? It very well could be. The Tigers’ offense still has question marks — Joe Burrow hasn’t been spectacular in any of the big victories — but the defense has been exceptional. If you’re looking for a chaos playoff scenario, look no further than an LSU win over Alabama on Nov. 3 that sends the Tigers to the SEC championship game and leaves Alabama out of the league title game for a second-straight year with an 11-1 record.
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) scores a touchdown as Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton (32) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

On the outside, but with a key to get in

Notre Dame (7-0): The Irish are in this group only because we’re picking the playoff at this current moment. There’s plenty of time for Notre Dame to play its way into the top four. As long as Notre Dame keeps winning the Irish are in a great position for the playoff. The committee won’t pass over a 12-0 Notre Dame team.
Georgia (6-1): The Bulldogs still control their destiny in the playoff race. Wins over Kentucky and Florida are resume boosters and a win over Alabama or LSU in the SEC championship game is good enough for a 12-1 Georgia team to make the playoff. But after losing handily to LSU on Saturday, it’s easy to wonder if Georgia can accomplish that.
Michigan (6-1): The Wolverines still have a tough schedule ahead with games against Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State. in over But a convincing does a lot to boost Michigan’s ranking in the near term. UM has bounced back nicely from a loss to Notre Dame in Week 1 and looks like the formidable team we thought it would be.
Oklahoma (5-1), Texas (6-1), and West Virginia (6-1): The three Big 12 teams are all grouped together because they’re inseparable at this point. The Big 12 needs one of them to run the table the rest of the way and beat another team from this group of three in the Big 12 championship game. Otherwise the conference probably isn’t going to get a team in the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma was off Saturday, Texas beat Baylor 23-17 to move to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the conference and West Virginia fell to 5-1 with a loss to Iowa State.
Oregon (5-1): You could be the Pac-12’s only hope, Ducks. After beating Washington in overtime on Saturday the Ducks have the signature win they should have gotten against Stanford. Oregon doesn’t entirely control its own Pac-12 North destiny; it needs help from Stanford. But with a win over Washington and a potential Pac-12 title, Oregon may be the conference’s only conceivable playoff hope.

Things need to get crazy

Colorado (5-1): The Buffs really needed Washington to beat Oregon. The Huskies are the only team currently ranked that’s remaining on Colorado’s schedule. A win over a then-top-5 Washington next week would be a big boost for Colorado. Now Washington will be closer to No. 15 than 5. Colorado just needs to keep winning.
Florida (6-1) and Kentucky (5-1): The two SEC East rivals each have one loss and Kentucky has the head-to-head victory. Kentucky is in the SEC title game with a win over Georgia and no other SEC losses and Florida gets in with a win over Georgia, no losses and some help from Kentucky. Add in an SEC title and we’ve got ourselves a playoff contender. Yeah, it’s a long shot.NC State (5-0): The Wolfpack are 5-0 and have Clemson on Oct. 20. If NC State wins that game then they vault into the second tier. But they reside here for now, especially as we mourn the cancellation of a matchup with West Virginia because of Hurricane Florence. That would have been a fun game.
Central Florida (6-0): The Knights’ win streak survived by a point in a 31-30 win over Memphis on Saturday. UCF is in the driver’s seat for another New Year’s Six bowl game and we don’t envy the Power Five team that draws UCF in that game. South Florida and Cincinnati are also undefeated in the American Athletic Conference and both get to play UCF at the end of the season. If any of the three teams finish the season undefeated they’re going to a prime bowl game. But not the playoff. The committee showed last year that an undefeated season wasn’t enough for UCF to get a sniff. Why would it be any different in 2018?

Eliminated from contention Saturday

Miami, Penn State, Wisconsin: All three teams suffered a second loss. Sorry y’all. You’re out.

Winners

Kliff Kingsbury: Kingsbury, now in his sixth season as coach at Texas Tech, has been on the proverbial hot seat for some time now. Things looked dicey last year before the Red Raiders beat Texas in Austin to clinch a bowl berth. And after Friday night’s win over TCU, Kingsbury’s Red Raiders have now won three straight road conference games. TTU, now 4-2 (2-1 Big 12), upset Oklahoma State 41-17 earlier this season in Stillwater. The defense shut out the Cowboys in the second half that night. On Friday, the much-maligned unit forced three TCU turnovers in a 17-14 win.
KJ Hill: It took a while for Ohio State to pull away from Minnesota in an eventual 30-14 win, but wideout K.J. Hill did his part. The junior caught nine passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. His 36-yard catch-and-run late in the second quarter was one for the highlight reel. The celebration was, too. Hill caught a pass from Dwayne Haskins with one hand and went untouched for a touchdown. He celebrated like the ball was stuck to his hand. So good.
UCLA: Congratulations, Chip Kelly. You’ve got your first win as UCLA’s head coach. The Bruins started the season 0-5 before trouncing Cal 37-7 on the road on Saturday night. UCLA was led by Joshua Kelley, a redshirt junior transfer from UC Davis. Kelley rushed for 157 yards and three scores and now has 406 yards combined over the last three games. He had just 27 yards through UCLA’s first three contests.
Nate Stanley, QB, Iowa: This might be hard to believe, but Iowa has looked explosive on offense in recent weeks. In back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Indiana, the Hawkeyes have combined for 740 yards and 90 points. In Saturday’s win over IU, Nate Stanley completed 21-of-33 passes for 320 yards and six touchdowns, spreading the ball to nine different receivers in the process. For the year, Stanley, an NFL prospect, has thrown for 1,473 yards and 15 touchdowns while completing 62 percent of his passes.
Buffalo: With a 6-6 record, Buffalo was bowl eligible in 2017 but did not earn an invitation to a game. That shouldn’t be a problem this year. With its 24-6 win over Akron on Saturday, UB improved to 6-1 overall on the season to become eligible again. It’s the first 6-1 record since 1959 for the Bulls, who are also a perfect 3-0 in MAC play. Buffalo, with just one MAC title in school history, looks like the top team in the MAC’s East division.
Eastern Michigan: On Saturday, Eastern Michigan beat Toledo for the first time since 2006, snapping an 11-game losing streak in the series. EMU stormed out to a 28-3 halftime lead and was able to hold off a second-half charge from the Rockets to pull out a 28-26 victory. That had to feel good for a program that has lost so many close games. In the last two years, EMU has 11 losses by a combined 51 points, an average of 4.6 points. Among those losses were four overtime losses, including one in triple-overtime.
Clint Stephens, DB, Bowling Green: Bowling Green hasn’t had a lot to cheer about in recent years. The Falcons are now 7-24 under Mike Jinks after losing to Western Michigan on Saturday (dropping to 1-6 on the year). But Clint Stephens made a tremendous one-handed interception early in the second quarter that is worthy of praise. What a play.

Losers

Memphis: Memphis blew a chance to snap UCF’s 18-game winning streak. The Tigers led 30-14 late in the first half, but allowed UCF to come all the way back and win 31-30. The Tigers lost two second-half fumbles, one of which led to the go-ahead touchdown with 12:14 to play. From there, Memphis had three chances to take the lead. The first two drives ended in punts. The third ended the game.
The Tigers regained possession with 58 seconds left and moved into midfield. However, the game ended when Brady White scrambled and threw a pass to Tony Pollard inbounds and short of the first-down marker, allowing the remaining seconds to tick off. Brutal.
Rutgers: Rutgers appears in this space often. We don’t want to pile on, but the Scarlet Knights had almost impossibly bad quarterback play in Saturday’s 34-7 loss to Maryland. Artur Sitkowski and Giovanni Rescigno combined to go 2-of-27 for eight yards with five interceptions. Yes, you read that correctly. It was mostly Sitkowski. The freshman was 2-of-16 with four of the five interceptions. Rescigno threw just one pass. Fittingly, it was intercepted.
TCU: Though it was in a loss, TCU was really impressive against Ohio State a few weeks ago. Since then, the Horned Frogs have played very poorly, losing two of three to drop to 3-3 overall. The latest loss was a 17-14 home defeat at the hands of Texas Tech. The Horned Frogs mustered only 14 points, turning it over three times. We expected TCU to be a contender in the Big 12, but that won’t be the case in 2018.
Arkansas: Chad Morris’ first season as head coach is not going well. Since beating Eastern Illinois in the opener, the Razorbacks have dropped six games in a row. The latest was a rough one. Arkansas led Ole Miss 30-17 midway through the third and then 33-24 late in the fourth. However, the Rebels rallied with two touchdowns in the final 4:15 of play, including a go-ahead score with 42 seconds to play. That touchdown capped off a 97-yard drive that took Ole Miss all of 1:20 to complete. It’s going to be a long rebuild in Fayetteville.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores blew a 21-3 first-half lead in their 37-27 loss to Florida. Everything went Vandy’s way early in the first half but things started to spiral after a 12-play, 75-yard drive by Florida cut the lead to 21-10 in the second quarter.
The second half was brutal. Vanderbilt’s drive chart went missed field goal, punt, punt, field goal, field goal, interception as Florida scored 24 points in the second half. The Commodores are now 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the conference.
Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State rose all the way up to No. 15 in the rankings after beating Boise State on Sept. 15. Since then, OSU has fallen off a cliff. The Cowboys, now 4-3 on the year, have lost three of their last four games — all in Big 12 play. The latest loss was a miserable 31-12 defeat at the hands of Kansas State, a team that had previously lost three straight. OSU allowed the Wildcats to run for 291 yards and could muster only 311 yards of its own. Entering the game, OSU was averaging 523.3 yards per game.
Tulsa: Tulsa had a chance to knock USF from the ranks of the unbeaten on Friday night at home. The Golden Hurricane had a 24-10 lead midway through the fourth, but allowed the Bulls to storm back with two scores and a field goal in the final 7:10. The winning field goal came with just two seconds left, to give USF a 25-24 win. The Bulls improved to 6-0 while Tulsa dropped to 1-5. Tulsa’s only win this season came over Central Arkansas in Week 1.

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