Breaking down the highlights and lowlights from Saturday’s college football action …
The path for a two-loss playoff participant looks quite a bit clearer after Saturday afternoon.
There’s the long-shot scenario in the Big Ten, which suddenly seems a bit more plausible after Ohio State smacked Michigan State, 48-3. Suppose the Buckeyes (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten) win out and demolish Michigan and Wisconsin (the latter in the Big Ten title game) along the way. If there’s enough tumult elsewhere — in addition to a Notre Dame loss last night, Ohio State could capitalize on an Oklahoma loss and Alabama reducing its remaining opposition to rubble — why couldn’t it happen?
The rebuttal: Is anyone really going to forget the Buckeyes allowing 55 points to Iowa? The rebuttal to the rebuttal: If there’s enough carnage in the next couple weeks, yes.
But there’s an even easier possibility to conceive of in the wake of Auburn’s 40-17 drubbing of Georgia. Should the Tigers (8-2, 6-1 SEC) handle Alabama in the Iron Bowl and then win a rematch with Georgia in the SEC title game, that would constitute a considerable closing stretch for the Tigers. Even with road losses to Clemson and Louisiana State, they could be semifinal material.
Ohio State needs plenty of help, though Auburn can handle business on its own. Either way, the Buckeyes and the Tigers were the playoff contenders who helped themselves the most in Saturday’s early games.
* Miami. The last two weeks couldn’t have gone any better for the Hurricanes (9-0), who dominated both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame in highly anticipated home games. Miami forced another four turnovers in a 41-8 rout of the Fighting Irish on Saturday night in a contest that was effectively over by the end of the first quarter.
Like Clemson in the other half of the ACC, Miami has a three-step process to make the playoff. If quarterback Malik Rosier and the Hurricanes can handle Virginia and Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance their ACC title game encounter with Clemson will function as a de facto national quarterfinal.
* Baker Mayfield. It’s looking more and more like the Heisman Trophy is Mayfield’s to lose. The Oklahoma quarterback was 18 of 27 for 333 yards and three touchdowns against Texas Christian’s capable defense as the Sooners pulled away early for a 38-20 victory over the Horned Frogs.
Oklahoma (9-1, 6-1 Big 12) closes the regular season with Kansas and West Virginia before a likely date in the conference title game. Three more strong outings from Mayfield will likely lock up the individual honors — and go a long way toward getting the Sooners into the playoff.
* Army. It’s still anyone’s guess how good the Black Knights really are. Of the eight teams they’ve defeated, only 5-5 Temple is at .500 or better. But that misses the point.
Army has eight victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1984-85 after its 21-16 defeat of Duke. A week after blanking Air Force without throwing a pass, quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw hoisted one attempt — a 42-yard completion.
Army has won six in a row. It could claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996 next month. This is big stuff for the Black Knights, who will go for their ninth triumph in a sneaky-good game next week at North Texas.
* Southern California. The Trojans are into the Pac-12 title game, and will have a shot at their first conference title since 2008 thanks to a 38-24 victory over Colorado. Southern Cal (9-2, 7-1) has plowed through the Pac-12 South heading into next week’s date with UCLA, and will get two weeks to rest up for whichever team takes the league’s North Division. The Trojans find themselves in a good position.
* Will Muschamp. Everything’s coming up Muschamp, the South Carolina coach whose team clinched a winning season with a 28-20 victory over Florida — the same Florida that fired him three years ago, has already discarded his successor and is buried in a 3-6 dumpster fire of a season. Meanwhile, Muschamp has coaxed about as much as possible from the Gamecocks (7-3, 5-3) in back-to-back seasons. After facing Wofford next week, they’ll get Clemson to close out the regular season and stand a better chance than in either of the last two years to give their in-state rivals some trouble. A 9-4 finish certainly isn’t a stretch for a program that has largely handled its business while benefiting from a deteriorating SEC East.
* Wisconsin. As everybody else crumbles in some form or fashion, Wisconsin (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) just keeps on rolling. The Badgers’ trip to the league title game was a fait accompli a month ago; it just took until Saturday’s 38-14 trouncing of Iowa to finish the job. Wisconsin is this year’s best example of why it doesn’t make sense to pay attention to the weekly rankings. Let’s use some common sense: If the Badgers win the next three weeks, taking out Michigan and the Big Ten East champion (likely Ohio State) along the way, are they getting left out of the playoff at 13-0? Don’t count on it.
* Clemson. The Tigers (9-1, 7-1 ACC) secured a workmanlike 31-14 victory over Florida State to clinch their third consecutive ACC title game appearance. Clemson is basically locked in on a five-game tournament at this point. Beat The Citadel, South Carolina and Coastal Division champ Miami (which clinched its own trip to Charlotte when Virginia lost to Louisville), and a semifinal berth basically belongs to Dabo Swinney’s team.
* Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are, effectively, two and through in the loss column. An emphatic loss to Miami effectively scuttles the Irish’s playoff hopes, though it can still find a nice landing spot in the New Year’s Six structure with victories over Navy and Stanford the next two weeks.
* Georgia. It isn’t so much that the Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1 SEC) fell for the first time this season. It’s how they fell, trailing by 30 before scoring a garbage-time touchdown at Auburn. The fair question for any team is “What have you done?” For Georgia, the answer is win by a point at Notre Dame, hammer Mississippi State and beat the snot out of the largely overmatched SEC East. Assuming the Bulldogs handle Kentucky and Georgia Tech (hardly a guarantee, especially with the latter game in Atlanta), they’re now probably going to have to beat Alabama to slip into the playoff. Georgia could have survived an SEC title game loss, even in blowout fashion, at 12-1. That’s probably not the case at 11-2.
* Nebraska. There will be time to completely bury the 2017 Cornhuskers (and, in all likelihood, the Mike Riley era) at some point later this month. A run-of-the-mill loss to Minnesota really wouldn’t have registered today. However, when Nebraska (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten) — big, physical Nebraska and the Blackshirts defense — allows 409 rushing yards in a 54-21 loss to an average Minnesota team, it warrants a mention. Expecting Nebraska to fully recapture its Bob Devaney-Tom Osborne glory days is unrealistic. Expecting the Cornhuskers to not get steamrolled by unremarkable opponents is not.
* Pac-12. Somebody’s going to win the Conference of Champions, but whoever it is won’t actually have a chance at a national title. Washington’s late-night loss at Stanford on Friday was the final blow on this front. Everyone in the Pac-12 now has at least two losses, and even a generous amount of chaos over the next three weeks isn’t going to bring the eventual league champ back into contention for a semifinal slot. For playoff purposes, feel free to ignore the Pac-12 the rest of the way — including Stanford’s date with Notre Dame, which was rendered irrelevant when the Irish lost to Miami.
* Saquon Barkley. He’s one of the best players to come through Penn State, he’s had a fabulous career and he’s a good bet to make a ton of money sometime next year. But between the Nittany Lions’ two close losses after a 7-0 start (a.k.a. poison to Heisman Trophy voting) and a pedestrian day in a rout of Rutgers on Saturday (14 carries, 35 yards, two TDs), that’s probably it for Barkley’s Heisman hopes.