According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, there are currently 11 teams with at least a 4% chance of reaching the College Football Playoffs: Alabama (88%), Ohio State (85%), Clemson (72%), Wisconsin (40%) %)), Georgia (27%), Notre Dame (25%), Oregon (18%), USC (15%), BYU (14%), Cincinnati (5%) and Florida (4%).
While we’re really talking about three big, familiar favorites and everyone else, this is still a pretty incredible list when you think about it – you have an AAC team, a non-big indie, and two teams that have it. ‘I haven’t even started their damn season yet, and the 12th team is on the list Indiana! But hey, 2020 is an incredible year.
(Mind you, “Incredible” doesn’t have to mean “good”.)
There are all sorts of foreseen and unforeseen roadblocks to a title run, and the biggest questions any team faces right now are a mix of the two. Let’s take a look at each of the main competitors and which of the Biggest Obstacles they each fit best into.
A quick note: we’ll be skipping Wisconsin in this discussion for now. The Badgers are loved by both the SP + and ESPN Football Power Index, but given the scale of their coronavirus problems and the fact that we don’t know if or when they can realistically play again, it feels awfully strange when to talk about normal problems in the field. As soon as they’re back on the field, we’ll resume our Badgers talks.
Contender against complacency
Rank: First in SP + and FPI
It was possible to end Ohio State’s inaugural season win over Nebraska with a few disagreements. Granted, the Buckeyes looked great overall and won manageably, but the setbacks weren’t particularly effective and Nebraska’s offensive provided a high level of efficiency, especially in the first half. Would a rebuilt Buckeyes defensive line play at the level we expected? Were the new running backs at OSU too many notches under the J.K. Dobbins set in recent years?
For all we know, these could still be issues as the season progresses. Against the statistically best opponent of the season, the state of Ohio not only kept Penn State at bay throughout the game, but did so while it raced the ball well and prevented the power supply from doing the same. The state of Ohio had a solid success rate of 46% and kept the state of Penn at a terrible 23%. PSU quickly gave up the running game altogether, and a converted Buckeyes Pass rush was sparked by a one-dimensional crime that saw Sean Clifford get sacked five times (Tommy Togiai had three).
The stats evened out a bit after a dominant first half, but the result never really made it. The Buckeyes crossed and are now facing a regular season in which their lowest remaining projected probability of win per SP is + 85%. They are favored by an average of 28.1 points over the next six weeks. Upset and injury ensues, and it’s never safe to say that a team is guaranteed to win a series of games, but aside from one conspiracy – a 2020 specialty – Ohio State’s biggest opponent until the Big Ten title game is complacency. If the horse chestnuts bring their A game, they will not be touched.
Contender against Injury
Rank: Second in SP + and FPI
Because of his sheer transcendent potential, I have named Alabama recipient Jaylen Waddle one of my key players in the CFP pursuit.
At the start of the season he has, well, transcendsWith just 25 catches, 557 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately for all of us, he was likely lost to the season with an ankle injury in the first game of the game in Tennessee on October 24th.
Alabama hasn’t missed him yet – the tide has beaten Tennessee and Mississippi State in his absence with 89-17 points, with Mac Jones making 49 of 62 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns. DeVonta Smith caught 18 balls for 276 yards and four points in the two games, John Metchie III 10 for 169 and Slade Bolden, now broken in the rotation, nine for 114.
Like the state of Ohio, Alabama is heavily favored in every remaining game of the regular season. However, between the SEC title game and a CFP game or two, it is believed that either Metchie, Bolden, or a younger player who has not yet entered the rotation will have to play some big games. It’ll be nice to get younger reps by then, but it may be a while before we learn how much the tide misses Waddle.
Rank: Third in FPI, fourth in SP +
Yes we count Trevor Lawrence Coronavirus Diagnosis as “injury”. It’s awkward, but it’s 2020 again.
Lawrence’s absence from Boston College led us to Baby Cam. Freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, all 6-foot-4, 250 pounds from him, completed 30 of 41 passes for 342 yards and two points, took just one sack against a solid BC pass rush, and rushed five more times for 38 yards and a TD. These onslaught involved a pair of 4: 1 conversions, including a perfect zone reader it took him 30 yards to get a score.
Clemson spotted BC 28-10 in the second quarter and then scored the last 24 points of the game to win. The deficit had little to do with Uiagalelei – it was fueled far more by three BC touchdowns in four drives and a 97-yard return of a Travis Etienne fumble. In total, Etienne (seven catches for 140 yards) and Cornell Powell (11 for 105) gave Uiagalelei a pair of premium safety blankets, and when all else failed, he was able to toss his large frame forward a few yards. A Cam Newton comparison isn’t unfair to anyone, but it’s hard not to see at least the cam potential in this Blue chipper.
Now the level of difficulty increases. Notre Dame is the best team with the best defense left on Clemson’s schedule. The Irish will likely do better if Etienne doesn’t step out of the field entirely. They are likely to cover Clemson’s under-proven receiving corps pretty well. Uiagalelei will have to make harder throws into tighter windows and possibly rely more on his legs. Chances are he could do that brilliantly, but it’s still a test to pass.
Competitors play against Elite QB
Rank: Fifth in FPI, sixth in SP +
It’s nice to have the best defense in the country to lean on. Georgia scored touchdowns in both the first and second halves in Kentucky on Saturday, and that was more than enough production for the Dawgs to go on to a 14-3 win. They kept Kentucky at 229 yards (3.6 per game), Stetson Bennett only attempted 13 passes, and Georgia stayed as vanilla as possible ahead of the big rivalry game against Florida on Saturday.
Technically, Bennett’s statistics were okay. He went 9-for-13 for 131 yards and scored a 2-yard rush in the first quarter. But he also threw two picks and now, let’s go back to what I said after Georgia’s loss to Alabama:
Against teams worse than Alabama, Bennett could play a fairly straightforward ball and with the help of a great unit of specialty teams, ensure that a great defense provides a good field position. He could do that for the rest of the season too – Florida is the only remaining opponent in the SP + Top 20, and he could easily lead Georgia to a 9-1 record. But Bama would likely wait in the SEC championship game, and there’s no real reason to think Bennett will do better the second time around. … [Kirby] Smart may have to take a risk on a higher ceiling, lower floor player, be it [J.T.] Daniels or [D’wan] Mathis (probably Daniels) if he wants to go from 9-1 to 10-1 and make the college football playoffs.
I didn’t see anything against Kentucky that made me think differently. And if Saturday’s win over Missouri is a sign of that, then Florida’s defense could be on the upswing too.
Rank: Sixth in FPI, seventh in SP +
Ian Book has mastered the art of fine quarterback play. Well actually. He finished 12th in the overall QBR while leading Notre Dame to the GFP in 2018 and finished 19th last year. This year he’s 17.
But is that good enough for a competitor? With each passing year, college football is becoming more of a quarterback sport. The other three playoff QBs in 2018 ranked first (Kyler Murray), second (Tua Tagovailoa), and eighth (a newcomer Trevor Lawrence) in Total QBR. Last year’s CFP QBs were all in the top five, and this year’s top three teams pilots are currently first (Justin Fields), second (Jones) and seventh (Lawrence).
Interestingly, Book’s biggest regular season game of last year is timed. Notre Dame will host Uiagaleleis Clemson rather than Lawrence, which means that Book is the proven and most experienced QB in the game. To reach the CFP, the Irish will likely have to share two matchups with the Tigers, but this is the moment for Notre Dame.
The Irish were extremely Hard so far this year (22nd in run rate on standard downs, 9th on pass downs), but you don’t beat Clemson with one-dimensional play. Can Book make big passes if necessary – to Javon McKinley or Ben Skowronek for a suspicious win, to Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble, or to recipient Avery Davis on big third downs? Notre Dame defends dynamite, ranks eighth in the defensive SP + and holds five out of six opponents with 13 points or less. But you have to Result Beating Clemson, and Book’s recent track record against top defenses – a passer rating of 69.7 against Michigan in 2019, 83.7 against Clemson in 2018, 116.4 against Georgia in 2019 – isn’t great. Now is the time to change that.
Competitors against the actual start of the season
Oregon and USC
Rank: Oregon is 10th in FPI and 14th in SP +; USC is 11th in FPI and 15th in SP +
Among the teams we saw as potential competitors last season, most were quickly planted in the face. Oklahoma and Texas did well in their first few games against bad teams and were bombed soon after. Auburn was good in its first game and terrible in its second. Texas A&M was shaky in Game 1 and then got Bama’d. The LSU immediately fell flat on the face. Penn State got Indiana’d.
The only teams that have seen the part from the start continuation Basically to see the part is Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and maybe Georgia. Everyone else got burned pretty quickly by their own mistakes.
Are either Oregon or USC from the OSU Bama Clemson grade? You will likely have to be pretty close to run the table in the Pac-12 and seriously fight for a CFP berth. A defeated Pac-12 champion could certainly qualify with some breaks, but chances are it will take a 7-0 run to make it.
On SP +, both Oregon (versus Stanford) and USC (versus Arizona State) begin their seasons with the second best opponents on their respective schedules. They’re both healthy favorites, but neither can afford to relax. This could be tricky as both teams are balancing a proven unit (Oregon’s Defense, USC’s Offensive) with a unit facing a remodel. Can Joe Moorhead’s Offensive in Oregon and USC Defense’s Todd Orlando Reach the Ground Under Your Feet? The latter likely has the tougher test this Saturday, given dangerous quarterback Jayden Daniels and an Arizona State attack that has seen a change this off-season as well.
Competitors against a surprisingly flawed defense
Rank: Fifth in SP +, ninth in FPI
In three games before a two-week break, Florida put together a number of surprising strengths and weaknesses. The Gators were offensively better than anyone would have thought. They ranked second in points per trip and sixth in success rate while averaging over 42 points per game. The defense had bombed, however. Florida was projected third in the defensive SP + thanks to a combination of recent success and heavily returning production, but the Gators went into last week’s game, with Missouri ranked 94th in allowable success rate and 89th in occupied the permitted points per trip. That was already a mistake fatal enough to cause Texas A&M to lose 41:38. would it quickly exclude her from the title fight?
The road to the CFP is still pretty tough – it will almost certainly require wins against Georgia next week and against Alabama in a hypothetical SEC championship game – but Florida looked as good as anyone in the Saturday in a 41- Nation. 17 Missouri Routers. Kyle Trask completed passes for nine different players en route to 345 yards and four touchdowns, a previously dodgy pass rush crashed Mizzous Connor Bazelak three times, and Florida more than doubled the Tigers’ mileage to 514-248. Mizzou only stayed within 24 due to a pick-six in the second quarter and a touchdown late in garbage time.
Mizzou averaged 5.7 yards per game but only managed 3.9 at Gainesville, 3.1 to three quarters. Have the Gators’ defenses been fixed? Because if so, Florida is again among the competitors.
However, if the 2020 season taught us anything, a unit will have to prove itself more than once. Isn’t that right Michigan? And Texas? And Oklahoma? And LSU? And so on?
Competitors Against Institutional Bias
Cincinnati and BYU
Records: Cincinnati is 5-0; BYU is 7-0
Rank: Cincinnati is ninth in SP + and 19th in FPI; BYU is 12th in SP + and 17th in FPI
I’ve written this many times before, but it will stay true forever: the CFP committee more or less gave away the game in 2017. On November 18 of that season, the undefeated UCF, No. 15 in the CFP rankings, beat a Tempel team that would take 71st place in SP + with a score of 45-19. On the same day, Mississippi beat No. 16 Arkansas (final SP + ranking: 63rd) with two late touchdowns just 28-21. In next Tuesday’s CFP rankings, UCF stayed in 15th place – and the Mississippi -State with three losses jumped to 14th place.
Despite rampant form and an unbeaten record, UCF could not climb higher than 12th place in 2017. In the Peach Bowl, the Knights beat the Auburn team, which had defeated both Alabama and Georgia. In 2018, the Knights won another 12 games in a row – and finished eighth.
It’s hard to imagine that the committee would ever take a team outside of a power conference seriously enough to get it to the top seven or so, much less top 4. But it’s also hard to imagine a mid-major playing more perfectly than BYU and Cincinnati this year.
The Bearcats and Cougars both enter November in dilute air. They rank ninth and twelfth respectively on SP +, although they are still being held back by preseason projections that put them 33rd and 53rd. They will both make it to the end of the regular season without playing a single power conference team, but they both did everything that was asked of them and a few more.
A few years ago I created a measure that I refer to as the CV SP +. She derives your resume by looking at the teams you’ve played against and projecting what the average top 5 team per SP + (in terms of score) would have done against that schedule. It then compares that to what you actually produced.
Here is the current CV + SP + rankings among teams with at least two games (sorry, Wisconsin):
1. Ohio State (+10.6 PPG above what the average top five team would do against their schedule)
2. Alabama (+5.4)
3. Cincinnati (+2.4)
4. Clemson (+0.7)
5. BYU (-0.9)
Notre Dame (-2.3) is sixth, Georgia (-4.5) eighth. Cincinnati and BYU may rank 59th and 90th, respectively, in terms of schedule SP + strengths, but have played like a top 5 team against or have come very close to those schedules. You should be in this conversation.
Oklahoma’s loss to Texas on Saturday was statistically unlikely, but it was also a massive favor for Cincy and BYU. If the SEC and Big Ten only produce one team with one or fewer losses, and the Pac-12 doesn’t produce an undefeated champion, even with the committee’s obvious preferences, it wouldn’t be insane for either of those teams to crack the top 4 or come out big Near. And it would also be justified if they continued to play as they were.