Just a year ago, one team managed to defeat the eventual national champion on the road (Clemson) and the school that would go on to win the Big Ten (Penn State) at home. It also managed to lose five games, so 2016 Pittsburgh will not go down in history as one of college football’s all-time greats. But it was the great spoiler, ultimately helping to keep the Nittany Lions out of the playoff.
So who will be this year’s spoiler? There are a surprising number of candidates to emerge over the next six weekends. Some still harbor playoff hopes of their own. All have lost at least one game. And each has the potential to take multiple shots at credible playoff contenders.
>> Georgia Tech (4-2, 3-1 ACC): Let’s start with the team that might most resemble 2016 Pittsburgh, which lost four one-possession games. The Yellow Jackets wasted a fourth-quarter lead against Tennessee before losing in double overtime, then fell to undefeated Miami by a point on a field goal in the final five seconds.
There are plenty of chances for quarterback TaQuon Marshall and his teammates to foil playoff hopes. They visit Clemson on Saturday, and both Virginia Tech (6-1) and Georgia (7-0) come to Atlanta next month. With an offense capable of ripping off long possessions and a defense that is substantially improved (and far better than Pitt’s last year), Georgia Tech probably has at least one upset in it.
>> Iowa State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12): The Cyclones’ bona fides as a spoiler are well-established: Iowa State dealt Oklahoma its only loss of the season Oct. 7, and its offensive transformation since Kyle Kempt took over at quarterback is remarkable.
But it is coordinator Jon Heacock’s defense — which has surrendered 20 points in its past 10 quarters — that makes Iowa State a fascinating prospect to sow chaos in the playoff race. Also a factor: Both Texas Christian (7-0) and Oklahoma State (6-1) must make their way to Ames over the next three weeks. Matt Campbell’s team isn’t a playoff contender, but it could make life miserable for the rest of the Big 12.
>> Michigan State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten): The first half of the season has illustrated that the Spartans are much better than last year’s 3-9 debacle. But their penchant for making life far more difficult for themselves than necessary in late-game situations suggests this isn’t a playoff-bound team like Michigan State’s 2015 iteration.
Still, the Spartans can truthfully say they will be a playoff team if they win out. They’ll face Penn State (7-0) and Ohio State (6-1) in the first two weekends of November, and Wisconsin (7-0) is nearly certain to await in the Big Ten title game. That’s a lot of fan bases that Mark Dantonio’s bunch can disappoint.
>> N.C. State (6-1, 4-0 ACC): Another team still harboring playoff hopes, the Wolfpack already has Florida State and Louisville in the bag. Granted, neither of them turned out to be as good as expected, but what title contender would rather have a meeting with Lamar Jackson in its future rather than its past?
Star defensive end Bradley Chubb and the Wolfpack visit Notre Dame (6-1) on Saturday and play host to Clemson next week. Toss in a potential meeting with undefeated Miami in the ACC title game if both teams win out, and N.C. State could bring plenty of misery … so long as it can keep avoiding the consequences of the Law of the Wolfpack.
>> Stanford (6-2, 5-1 Pac-12): The nation’s toughest November probably belongs to the Cardinal, which will face Washington State (7-1), Washington (6-1) and Notre Dame in 22 days. Oh, and a date with plucky Bay Area rival California is dropped in there, too. Good thing Stanford has Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love at tailback — though its dependence on him was obvious when an ankle injury sidelined Love for Thursday night’s 15-14 escape at one-win Oregon State — and a strong, well-instilled identity of both sides of the ball.
An 11-2 Cardinal — with victories over all of those November foes, plus the Pac-12 South winner — would match up well with 2016 Penn State as the best two-loss team of the playoff era. It would also eliminate the only other two Pac-12 teams with the slightest bit of hope for a semifinal berth, as well as a Notre Dame bunch that faces a tough road just to get to 10-1 before its season-ending trip to the West Coast.
Just don’t look (again)
Anyone watching a game on any of the Four Letter Network’s various outlets this weekend is bound to be bombarded with a heavy dose of promos for the season’s first set of playoff committee rankings next Tuesday.
This is the annual reminder to pay them no mind.
First of all, the first two seasons of the playoff illustrated that it was possible to make a late-season run from deep in the initial rankings at making the four-team field. (It didn’t work out last year, as high-end teams kept winning.) Here’s where the final fields ranked at the start:
2. Florida State
16. Ohio State
7. Michigan State
6. Ohio State
Second, the math of a four-team field isn’t hard to decipher. An undefeated power conference team is going to make the field. (And if it doesn’t, it will immediately precipitate a large push to expand the event to eight programs.) A 12-1 power conference champion is going to be in solid shape. A two-loss team is probably going to require an impressive set of victories to have any chance of leapfrogging into the conversation.
The best advice when it comes to the ever-shifting committee rankings remains to not even look at them until the week before the conference title games. There’s just too many variables to fret about them before then.
‘Wakey Leaks’ remembered
Louisville (5-3, 2-3 ACC) will meet Wake Forest (4-3, 1-3) on Saturday for what on the surface is an unremarkable late October contest, except for the history the schools memorably stumbled into last year.
It was at Louisville that Wake Forest began unraveling a saga soon dubbed “Wakey Leaks.” One of the Demon Deacons’ radio analysts — Tom Elrod, a former Wake player and coach — had provided game plan information to multiple opponents last season. It was only at Louisville that his duplicity was discovered, and the story line was the one sore spot of Wake’s first winning season since 2008.
Nearly a year later, neither team is in quite so strong a spot. Louisville still has Lamar Jackson, but it no longer possesses any conference or national title hopes, and Wake Forest has dropped three in a row and will need a split of its four games in November to secure a bowl bid if it falls to the Cardinals.
But at least the Demon Deacons don’t have a double agent on their payroll — or a place in the most bizarre story of this college football season, whatever it turns out to be.
Stat of the week
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier — who started for half of the 2015 season at Florida before earning a one-year suspension for using a banned substance — has thrown for 10 touchdowns over the past two weeks as the Mountaineers (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) defeated Texas Tech and Baylor. In six games this season, Grier’s former team has thrown five touchdown passes.
The mystery of Florida’s offensive ineptitude — a saga running on seven seasons now — isn’t really a mystery. The Gators’ quarterback play in that span is largely spotty, with Grier’s half-season providing arguably the biggest hint of hope. Even that didn’t prevent Florida from finishing 111th in total offense in 2015 and 116th last year.
The Gators check in at No. 102 entering this week, while Grier will pilot the nation’s No. 5 offense when West Virginia entertains Oklahoma State on Saturday. It’s tough not to wonder whether the Gators would have a little more offensive punch if Grier were still in Gainesville.
Five games to watch
No. 2 Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Fox): The winner retains the inside track to the Big Ten East (assuming it can dispose of Michigan State next month). The loser? If it’s the host Buckeyes (6-1, 3-1), they’ll basically be out of the playoff hunt.
No. 3 Georgia vs. Florida in Jacksonville (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): The Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) are in firm control of the East Division, and their chances of falling short of the league title game would decrease immensely if they can handle the Gators (3-3, 3-2).
No. 4 Texas Christian at No. 25 Iowa State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2): The Horned Frogs (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) must deal with Oklahoma next month (and Texas next week), but they could potentially get derailed by the Cyclones, who will play as a ranked team for the first time since 2005. Iowa State (5-2, 3-1) has won three in a row, including at Oklahoma.
No. 14 N.C. State at No. 9 Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., NBC): N.C. State just had a bye week. Notre Dame effectively played its Super Bowl against Southern California. Even with the game in South Bend, there’s a great chance the Wolfpack comes away with its seventh win in a row in a matchup of 6-1 teams.
No. 15 Washington State at Arizona (Saturday, 9:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network): The visiting Cougars (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) will try to keep their playoff hopes alive as they visit the suddenly hot Wildcats (5-2, 3-1), led by QB Khalil Tate.
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