It’s time for a breather. At least in a healthy chunk of the SEC, anyway.
As is recent custom, the penultimate weekend of the regular season means a step outside of conference play for more than half of the conference. The league’s spotlight game on CBS this week is Missouri-Tennessee.
It’s logistically easier to pull off than in other conferences because the SEC plays an eight-game league schedule, unlike the nine-game conference slates in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. It’s pragmatically brilliant, because it is designed to spread out the demands of conference play and (theoretically) provides a chance for teams to get breathers the week before rivalry showdowns.
Hence, Alabama is playing host to The Citadel, Florida meets Idaho and South Carolina encounters Chattanooga in late-season games against FCS schools.
In fairness, three other FBS schools scheduled an FCS opponent this week:
- Army (8-2), which is logistically challenged by life as an independent not named Notre Dame, plays 9-0 Colgate as the second of back-to-back Patriot League foes.
- North Carolina (1-8) faces Western Carolina, but someone in the ACC gets forced either into an open date or a nonconference game whenever a league member faces Notre Dame (as Syracuse does Saturday).
- And, as a trickle down from other Conference USA schools traveling to SEC venues, 3-7 Old Dominion welcomes VMI to Norfolk.
Even some of the FBS teams visiting SEC campuses on Saturday aren’t especially formidable. LSU faces 1-10 Rice. Auburn will play first-year FBS member Liberty. Georgia is a 41-point favorite against Massachusetts (4-6).
(It is possible a couple teams get more than they bargained for. Kentucky has to deal with Middle Tennessee, a team with a history of aggravating SEC programs. And Texas A&M will face 9-1 UAB, which has clinched a berth in the Conference USA title game).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this scheduling maneuver. It’s worked especially well for Alabama, which has faced Mercer, Chattanooga (twice), Charleston Southern and Western Carolina (twice) in this spot over the last six years without any impact on its national title dreams.
It does leave the weekend slate a little more barren at just the time when excitement should be building. It also doesn’t seem particularly likely to change anytime soon. After all, Western Carolina is due to pay another visit to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 23, 2019.
Status Quo Saturday (well, the first of them, anyway) meant very little changed in the playoff picture. Three power conference teams — Boston College, Kentucky and N.C. State — picked up their third loss and fell off the far fringes of the discussion, leaving exactly 12 teams with even the slightest opportunity of landing a semifinal berth.
Undefeated teams that won’t be left out if they run the table (3): Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame
One-loss teams that won’t be left out if they run the table (2): Georgia and Michigan
One-loss teams with varying chances of earning a playoff berth if they win out (4): Ohio State, Oklahoma, Washington State and West Virginia
Will need plenty of help even if they win out (3): Central Florida, LSU and Syracuse
Considering this Saturday’s relatively weak slate, there’s a good chance this list doesn’t change much heading into the final week before the conference championship games.
Streaks at risk
Two of the country’s impressive streaks of consistency could come to an end as early as this weekend.
Florida State (4-6, 2-5 ACC) needs to win its final two games to extend its record bowl streak to 37 years. The problem? The Seminoles finish with 7-3 Boston College and 7-3 Florida. Willie Taggart, no stranger to rough debuts, will be hard-pressed to coax two more victories out of the Seminoles.
Justin Fuente faces the same demand as Virginia Tech (4-5, 3-3) plays 5-5 Miami and 7-3 Virginia to wind up its season. The Hokies have earned bowl bids in 25 consecutive seasons, a streak at risk thanks in large part to a defense that has completely collapsed in the second half of the season.
Also at stake for Virginia Tech in the next two weeks is its 14-game winning streak against Virginia. Perhaps the only thing that would be worse for the Hokies than losing this week would be getting denied bowl eligibility in the Commonwealth Cup — much like Virginia was denied three times (2006, 2008 and 2014) during Virginia Tech’s dominance in the series.
Five games to watch
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse in New York (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., NBC): What were the odds before the season that the most meaningful game of any week in November would involve Syracuse? Yet the Orange (8-2) looks far more capable of derailing the Fighting Irish (10-0) than Southern Cal will next week. Quarterback Ian Book is expected back for Notre Dame after sitting out last week’s rout of Florida State.
Duke at No. 2 Clemson (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN): The Tigers (10-0, 7-0 ACC) can wrap up a perfect season in conference play when the Blue Devils (7-3, 3-3) make the trip to Death Valley. While Clemson wasn’t quite as dominant last week at Boston College as it had been in its previous four games, Coach Dabo Swinney’s team is still as imposing as anyone in the sport outside of Tuscaloosa. Duke gave up 536 yards to North Carolina last week, a hint that quarterback Trevor Lawrence, tailback Travis Etienne and the Tigers could have a big day.
No. 24 Cincinnati at No. 11 Central Florida (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC): The host Knights (9-0, 6-0 American) can clinch an East Division title with a defeat of the resurgent Bearcats (9-1, 5-1). They can also extend their winning streak to 23 as they seek a second perfect season in a row.
No. 16 Iowa State at No. 15 Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network): Neither the Cyclones (6-3, 5-2 Big 12) nor the Longhorns (7-3, 5-2) are playoff contenders, but both have some hope of still reaching the Big 12 title game. Iowa State brings a five-game winning streak to Austin, a stretch that includes a victory over West Virginia.
Arizona at No. 8 Washington State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., ESPN): The host Cougars (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) probably won’t clinch a division title this week (that would require both a win and a Washington loss to Oregon State), but quarterback Gardner Minshew II can keep Washington State in the playoff conversation with a victory over Coach Kevin Sumlin’s Wildcats (5-5, 4-3).
More from The Post: