Alabama and Stanford in the Playoff? Here's How it Could Happen
By Ty Duffy
Week 7 is in the digital record books. The 2015 regular season has reached its halfway point. Last weekend’s five inter-Top 20 games clarified the picture, somewhat. While still early, it’s time to start projecting forward to the playoff.
Here’s a breakdown by Power 5 conference, with the caveat that this will all look silly in a month.
Sure, the Coastal Division has three 5-1 teams: Pitt, Duke, UNC. But, none appears imperious, none of three have played yet, and Pitt still has Notre Dame on the docket. Maybe one of those three runs the table. For now, we’ll focus on far more probable Clemson and Florida State. The Tigers host the Seminoles for a possible playoff semifinal on Nov. 7. Will both be undefeated?
Clemson plays four of its last six on the road, including the next two games against Miami and N.C. State. Their one road trip so far, 20-17 over Louisville, did not impress. Fortunately, Dabo Swinney declared “Clemsoning” dead. So that’s that, then. Florida State has it simple. They have road trips to Clemson and Florida. Winning those games is their résumé.
The Clemson vs. FSU game may not decide a playoff place, but it will be very hard for the loser to get in.
THE BIG 12
The Big 12 keeps things straight-forward with its round robin schedule. Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State are undefeated. Should one win out, that team is in the playoff. Like last year, things get hairier with a one-loss conference champion. None of those three has a reputable non-conference schedule.
Oklahoma may be an exception. The Sooners are 5-1. Winning out would give them two strong wins over Baylor and TCU in November. We’re not sold on the Cowboys (three conference wins by 12 points) still being relevant. But, they play them too in the final game. Tennessee on the road is enough of a non-conference win to earn credit. We’ve seen a name-brand program get hot late and render a bad early loss irrelevant.
We’ll discover more when these teams play each other.
Iowa is still undefeated. Things are getting real. Five mediocre regular season games – Maryland, (at) Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, (at Nebraska) – remain. If the Hawkeyes win out and win the title game they are in. One loss with that weak schedule and they are out of the playoff.
The B1G East should be down to Ohio State or Michigan State, who play at the Horseshoe on Nov. 21. The winner should take the division and the conference. Michigan could still squeak in there. The polls were charitable. The committee may be more so. The Wolverines could enter the final game 9-2 and upset Ohio State. An 11-2 Michigan would have a strong résumé.
The trouble with that scenario is finding another loss for Michigan State that would hand Michigan the division. Besides OSU, the Spartans have a road trip to Nebraska and Indiana, Maryland and Penn State at home.
Cal sits at 5-1. Since they have one FBS win by more than six points (SDSU), we’re pumping the brakes on a playoff campaign. At this stage, it appears a Pac 12 playoff bid will come down to Stanford or Utah, who wouldn’t face each other until a potential title game.
Stanford has dominated since the Northwestern loss. The crushed No. 18 UCLA by three touchdowns last Thursday. Toughest opponents left: Cal, Notre Dame. Two remaining road games: Washington State, Colorado. The Cardinal look like a lock for the Pac 12 title game, but need the Notre Dame win to stay in the playoff discussion.
Utah is 6-0. Talking season’s “best division in the country” candidate has crumbled around them. The Utes don’t face a (currently) ranked team the rest of the regular season. With the Michigan win, Utah could weather a loss, beat Stanford in the title game and still have formidable justification.
Florida is not out in the East, despite the weekend’s close road loss to LSU. The Gators have to win out – Georgia, Vanderbilt, at South Carolina, FAU, FSU – and win the SEC title game. That prospect seems…plausible at least.
The West appears it will come down to a mini-series between LSU, Alabama, and Texas A&M. Bama beat the Aggies on three pick-sixes last weekend. The Tide host LSU on Nov. 7. LSU and Texas A&M meet the final week. Of course one, two, or all of the three could get caught up by another SEC West opponent.
An interesting scenario would be if Alabama wins out and LSU finishes 11-1 with a loss at Bama. How many teams have a more impressive CV than the Tigers? We could see the SEC West get two teams in, or none.
The Irish would be in the mix at 11-1, with a huge win at Stanford and a narrow loss at Clemson, on a two-point conversion, in a monsoon. Getting there may be tricky. Those two innocuous road games after the bye? Temple (6-0) and the aforementioned Pitt are both ranked. They have to play BC’s defense in a late November night game at Fenway.
Ohio State gets in. They beat Michigan State at home. The defending champions are automatic undefeated and could still present a strong argument with a close loss in Ann Arbor. Alabama holds off Leonard Fournette, finishes 11-1, beats Florida in the SEC title game.
A 12-1 Stanford gets in out of the Pac 12. Their offense is rolling. Their defense should improve. There’s not much in their way. We’ll go with Baylor in the other place for now. They look awesome, even though it’s hard to project them through November. Clemson and Florida State fail to run the table. LSU could mount a case for that fourth spot at 11-1, but they are 10-2.
The Worst Loss of All Time, Or At Least The Past Week
Michigan led Michigan State 23-21 with 10 seconds left, in a punt and win situation. The punt never got off. Michigan State ran the fumble back for a touchdown. 27-23. Fin.
The loss stunned. Considering the stakes, the rivalry, and the flukiness, it was college football’s most stunning since the 2013 Iron Bowl. Tide fans may be the one fan base that thought twice before doing a cannon ball into the Michigan schadenfreude pool.
We can’t speak to how such a loss feels as a player or coach. Not sure there’s an enduring lesson there beyond “shit happens.” (Please stop sending Blake O’Neill death threats.)
As a fan on the wrong end, it wasn’t fun. It shocked in the moment. It left you cycling through the college football version of the Kübler-Ross stages. It left you questioning why exactly you care about watching unpaid 20-year-olds compete in sporting events. It left you struggling with your pranayama as someone behind you before yoga began blabbing about the George Blaha call.
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That said, Michigan has had its share “soul-crushing” losses. App State felt worse. The trifecta that ended the Rich Rod era felt worse. Losing 31-0 to Notre Dame last season. Toledo. The list goes on.
Michigan has had frustrating and stunning losses. There was the Kordell Stewart Hail Mary in 1994. Charles White’s “phantom touchdown” in the 1979 Rose Bowl. Just against Michigan State: “Clockgate” in 2001 and the pass interference on Desmond Howard not called in 1990.
You care about college football. There will be many days, even if your team is coached by Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, or Urban Meyer, where college football does not give a damn about you.
Michigan is 5-2, with two narrow Top 10 losses. They are a solid bet to be 9-2 heading into the Ohio State game. That’s not a terrible place to be without a plus quarterback and with Jim Harbaugh on campus for less than 12 months. No one in our media survey saw that coming.
Michigan fans would offer some cliched nonsense about “pride before the fall,” but obsessing over perceived slights is for little brothers.