Toss in Georgia, the lone undefeated power conference team prior to Saturday, and the four-team semifinal field might as well be set prior to Sunday’s afternoon’s announcement.
Alabama (12-1) might be the No. 1 seed after its 41-24 thrashing of Georgia (12-1). Cincinnati (13-0) is the only undefeated team left; it handled Houston, 35-20, in the American Athletic title game and it owns one of the best victories on the board (at Notre Dame). Michigan (12-1) smothered Iowa, 42-3, to claim the Big Ten just a week after flattening Ohio State.
A two-loss team hasn’t reached the playoff in its first seven seasons, and with respect to Big 12 champion Baylor (11-2) and Ohio State (10-2), that isn’t going to change this year.
About the only team that might — might — have a gripe is 11-1 Notre Dame. The Irish have undoubtedly played well of late, but they also haven’t faced the strongest of schedules. Only three of the teams it defeated finished with winning records: Purdue (8-4), Wisconsin (8-4) and Toledo (7-5).
Alabama (over Georgia) and Michigan (over Ohio State) have the Irish beat on that front, and Notre Dame isn’t getting in over an undefeated Cincinnati. That leaves Georgia, which upended Clemson (9-3), Kentucky (9-3) and Arkansas (8-4) and easily swatted away nearly every challenge prior to Saturday.
The most interesting part of Sunday will be seeding and not selection. Presumably, Alabama will leapfrog a Georgia team it just beat. Does the committee do what it can to avoid an immediate rematch? Does Michigan settle in at No. 1? Is Cincinnati locked in at No. 4?
Those questions will be settled soon enough. But there’s little question which four teams will actually be involved, as has usually been the case during the playoff era.
Cincinnati. If Cincinnati was going to make college football’s playoff, it was going to have to leave no doubt.
It did it by winning at Notre Dame.
It did it with an undefeated regular season.
And staring at a one-point lead entering the second half of Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship game, it did it with a brilliant eight-minute stretch to finish off Houston.
The Bearcats (13-0) will be the first Group of Five program to reach the four-team playoff since its inception in 2014. And while that breakthrough is impressive on its own, what might stand out more than anything is how well Cincinnati has provided answers in the regular season in back-to-back years.
Luke Fickell’s team has won 23 of its last 24 games, the exception a Peach Bowl loss to Georgia last season. And the closing punch it delivered early in the third quarter Saturday was fitting.
First, Cincinnati put together a crisp six-play, 75-yard march to open the half, a drive capped by Leonard Taylor’s eight-yard touchdown catch from Desmond Ridder. After the Bearcats’ Joel Dublanko picked off Houston’s Clayton Tune on the next play from scrimmage, Ridder needed only two snaps before he found Alec Pierce for a 21-yard scoring strike.
And after the Cincinnati defense forced a three-and-out, Jerome Ford rumbled 42 yards on the third play of the ensuing drive to cap a scoring blitz that expanded the lead to 35-13.
Then there was the other kind of blitz; the Bearcats took down Tune eight times for loss and held Houston to just 120 yards in the second half.
With Oklahoma State’s loss earlier in the day in the Big 12 title game, there are no questions left involving the Bearcats’ playoff worthiness. Maybe the No. 5 team is Big 12 champ Baylor, which has two losses. And maybe it is Notre Dame, which went 11-1 but lost a head-to-head meeting with Cincinnati in South Bend.
But the Bearcats aren’t going to be No. 5, and after playing with so much scrutiny in nine consecutive games against conference competition, they should be looser than any previous playoff semifinalist come New Year’s Eve.
Michigan. After last week’s cathartic defeat of Ohio State, the Big Ten title game was thoroughly anticlimactic. In a span of 71 seconds in the first quarter, the Wolverines made it clear they were operating on a different level than Iowa.
First, Blake Corum rushed 67 yards for a touchdown to open the scoring. Then, after an Iowa three-and-out, running back Donovan Edwards threw a 75-yard scoring strike to Roman Wilson.
And that was basically the ballgame, even with 50 minutes left to play. Michigan didn’t have to be fancy again, just sound. It kept penalties to a relative minimum, and it didn’t allow Iowa (10-3) much traction on offense.
Put it all together, and the Wolverines treated the Hawkeyes about the same way they did the likes of Washington, Northwestern and Indiana. Only this time, they walked away with their first Big Ten title since 2004.
Pittsburgh. It took the Panthers a little while to figure things out in the ACC title game against Wake Forest. But when they did, they breezed to a 45-21 victory in Charlotte.
That didn’t seem probable after Wake Forest (10-3) built a 21-14 lead by the end of the first quarter. But the Demon Deacons’ offense fell apart. The meltdown began with a Sam Hartman interception, followed by six punts and then three more Hartman picks.
Erick Hallett II brought the last of those back for 19 yards and a touchdown to make it 45-21 with 11:42 left — just 15 seconds after the Panthers (11-2) cashed in another Hartman miscue with a three-yard scoring drive.
With the defense taking the lead in the second half, quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t need to post pinball-like numbers. He was still good — 20 of 32, 253 yards, two touchdowns — but his greatest contribution was a 58-yard touchdown run that featured a knee-buckling fake slide.
It probably won’t get Pickett a Heisman Trophy, but it might be enough to earn him a nod as a finalist. The senior added to his feats Saturday by throwing his 42nd touchdown pass of the season, breaking the ACC single-season record previously held by Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who had 41 in 2016.
Alabama. The Crimson Tide didn’t leave much doubt whether it would take advantage of its win-and-get-in scenario, ripping Georgia, 41-24, in the Southeastern Conference title game in Atlanta.
About the only questions left for Alabama are whether it will be the No. 1 seed when the playoff pairings are announced Sunday, and whether quarterback Bryce Young did enough against the previously stingy Georgia defense to stake a strong enough claim to a Heisman Trophy.
At the very least, Alabama earned a spot ahead of Georgia in the seeding thanks to a brilliant offensive day — one that didn’t seem especially probable to anyone who saw the Crimson Tide (12-1) squeak out a quadruple-overtime victory over Auburn in last week’s Iron Bowl.
As for Young, he threw for 248 yards in the second quarter alone as Alabama seized control of the game and finished with 421 yards and three touchdown passes. His final numbers for the regular season: 4,322 yards, 43 touchdowns and four interceptions. Even with an inefficient day a week earlier against Auburn, the overall totals are strong and Saturday’s showing will no doubt sway some late-deciding voters.
Regardless, that’s eight SEC title game victories for Nick Saban during his tenure at Alabama, including six in the last eight years. Now, the Crimson Tide is off to its seventh playoff appearance in the event’s eight-year history, a reminder of the remarkable juggernaut in Tuscaloosa that keeps coming back for more.
Northern Illinois. A little less than a year ago, the Huskies wrapped up a forgettable 0-6 season in the midst of a pandemic. Saturday, they claimed their fifth Mid-American Conference title since 2011 with a 41-23 rout of Kent State.
The Huskies (9-4) got 146 yards rushing from freshman Jay Ducker, and freshman safety C.J. Brown returned an interception for a touchdown in the third quarter to make it 24-3 and essentially finish things off.
Northern Illinois has its first nine-win season since 2014.
Utah State. In a comparable turnaround to Northern Illinois, the Aggies have gone from 1-5 to 10-3 after an emphatic 46-13 pounding of San Diego State in the Mountain West title game.
Logan Bonner threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns, and Brandon Bowling accounted for 154 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions for Utah State. The Aggies needed some time to solve San Diego State’s normally stingy defense, but didn’t allow the Aztecs (11-2) into the end zone until there was just 6:22 to go.
Louisiana-Lafayette. The third time was the charm for the Ragin’ Cajuns against Appalachian State in the Sun Belt title game. Levi Lewis threw for 210 yards and a touchdown as Louisiana-Lafayette earned a 24-16 victory over the program that it fell to with a league title at stake in 2018 and 2019.
In addition to improving 12-1, the Ragin’ Cajuns also bagged a title before coach Billy Napier’s pending move to Florida. There was little acrimony in Lafayette when Napier was announced as the Gators’ coach this week; after all, he led the Cajuns to a 40-12 record over the last four seasons.
Toss in a conference title to cap a 12-game winning streak — and the program’s first 12-win season — and there are few programs that should feel as if they accomplished more this fall than Louisiana-Lafayette.
Texas-San Antonio. As building projects go, the Roadrunners are on a pretty good schedule. In just their 11th season of football, they picked up a conference title.
Bolstered by Sincere McCormick’s 204 yards and three touchdowns rushing, UTSA held off Western Kentucky, 49-41, to claim the Conference USA title Friday. Frank Harris threw for 218 yards and two touchdowns for the Roadrunners (12-1), who sealed the victory with Jahmal Sam’s interception as time expired.
UTSA already has an invitation to the American Athletic Conference in hand, and it recently signed Coach Jeff Traylor to a 10-year contract extension. About the only problem for the Roadrunners this season was a loss to North Texas to close out the regular season. The response, though, was impressive; they led 42-13 early in the third quarter before the Hilltoppers (8-5) made things interesting in the closing minutes.
Utah. In another project a little more than a decade in the making, the Utes (10-3) claimed their first Pac-12 title Friday with a 38-10 clubbing of Oregon.
Combined with a 38-7 rout of the Ducks two weeks earlier, there’s little doubt Utah is the top team in the conference this season.
Coach Kyle Whittingham shepherded the Utes from the Mountain West, where they had three consecutive 10-win seasons and won a Sugar Bowl in 2008, to a power conference. After 5-7 seasons in 2012 and 2013, Utah has been the Pac-12′s most consistent program.
The Utes had six consecutive bowl appearances before last season, and also had four top-25 finishes between 2014 and 2019. They were 11-1 in 2019, and harbored playoff hopes entering the Pac-12 title game before losing to Oregon.
Utah returned the favor this year. Oregon was already out of the playoff hunt entering Friday, but the Utes never let the Ducks get into the game. Utah led, 23-0, at the half, giving up only 65 total yards before the break. From there, all it took was sound management to ensure the program would make its first Rose Bowl trip.
Baylor. The Bears (11-2) probably won’t end up in the playoff, but they still capped their improvement from last year’s 2-7 slog by besting Oklahoma State, 21-16, in the Big 12 title game.
As a consolation prize, a likely trip to the Sugar Bowl isn’t bad.
Dave Aranda’s team was opportunistic in simply getting to the conference championship. After all, if Oklahoma had defeated Oklahoma State in last Saturday’s Bedlam game, the Bears would have been at home this week.
Particular credit should go to Baylor’s defense. Oklahoma State ran six plays from the Bears 1 (and another from the 2) in the fourth quarter and didn’t allow a touchdown. Baylor picked off four passes and held the Cowboys to 70 yards on 40 rushing attempts, a formula that sealed the Bears’ third Big 12 title and first via the conference championship game.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were so close — inches, in fact — away from locking themselves in as the first team in line in case Cincinnati, Alabama or Michigan sputtered later Saturday. But Baylor’s Jairon McVea chased down Oklahoma State’s Dezmon Jackson just shy of the goal line with 24 seconds left, clinching Baylor’s 21-16 victory in the Big 12 title game.
But that wasn’t the play that cost the Cowboys (11-2) a place in the top five nationally before bowl season.
Spencer Sanders threw four interceptions, and the first two led to short Baylor touchdown drives in the first half. In fact, none of the Bears’ scoring pushes required more than 47 yards. Baylor managed just 242 yards against coordinator Jim Knowles’ stout defense, but the Cowboys put their defense in a few too many vulnerable spots.
Notre Dame. The Irish didn’t play Saturday, but still began the day with some hope it could slip into the playoff field.
Oklahoma State’s loss in the Big 12 title game opened the door, giving Notre Dame one of the two results it needed to have a decent claim. But as Cincinnati, Alabama and Michigan wrapped up victories, the window for the Irish closed.
To be clear, Notre Dame’s problem has nothing to do with former coach Brian Kelly’s departure to Louisiana State earlier in the week. It is all about a résumé that just isn’t as strong as four others this season.
Georgia’s defense. So much for the big, bag Bulldogs defense. At least when Alabama is involved.
The Bulldogs (12-1) lost as a team in the SEC title game, but they’ll still end up in the playoff. But when they get there, their defense’s perception of invulnerability won’t come with them.
The problems go beyond the 41 points Alabama scored, though those sure don’t help. The Crimson Tide didn’t just score on five consecutive possessions in the middle of the game to take control, but they went at least 75 yards on each of those drives.
Georgia entered the day giving up just 6.9 points per game, the best in the country. It was allowing 230.8 yards a contest, and Alabama more than doubled the average (536). The Bulldogs led the country in pass efficiency defense, and were torched for 421 yards and three touchdowns by Alabama’s Bryce Young.
Kirby Smart’s team doesn’t have to worry about missing the playoff; there aren’t four teams in the country that were better than the Bulldogs over the last three months. But anyone who felt Georgia’s national title was preordained coming into the day has probably changed their minds.
Oregon. Well, that went off the rails in a hurry. In mid-November the Ducks were 9-1 and very much in the national championship discussion thanks to an early victory at Ohio State.
Three weeks later, they have two ugly losses to Utah and could be on the verge of losing Coach Mario Cristobal to Miami.
The coaching situation is a possible problem for another day, but it had to be sobering for the Ducks to be humbled by Utah’s defense a second time. Oregon managed just three first downs in the first half, an underwhelming performance that ensured it would not wind up in the Rose Bowl (or elsewhere in the New Year’s Six structure) this season.