If you followed all that knowledgeably, you’re clearly one of us, the national fellowship of the ill.
As the committee sets to disentangle two months of final scores, the number of ironclad playoff contenders seems winnowed to nine. Five are unbeaten: LSU (8-0), Alabama (8-0), Ohio State (8-0), Clemson (9-0) and Penn State (8-0). Four are once-beaten: Oregon (8-1), Utah (8-1), Georgia (7-1) and Oklahoma (7-1). Two other unbeaten teams, Baylor (8-0) and Minnesota (8-0), do not yet seem playoff likely, a judgment owing to a time-honored component in the 150 years of college football history: snobbery.
They’re newfangled beasts in a sport long since tilted haughtily toward the establishment.
“I think we’re just kind of still learning how to do this at a high level, right?” one of the best coaches in this or any other land, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, told reporters Thursday in Waco, Tex., “And I mean, as I told them, the hunter becomes the hunted and, like, you’re not surprising anybody anymore.” Their next three bids at being unsurprising are at TCU and at home against Oklahoma and that struggling little upstart, Texas.
That makes 11 curious teams, with Auburn (7-2) perhaps a 12th given its dazzling schedule. The intra-12 games to come include the matchup of the year with LSU at Alabama (Saturday), Penn State at Minnesota (Saturday), Oklahoma at Baylor (Nov. 16), Georgia at Auburn (Nov. 16), Penn State at Ohio State (Nov. 23), Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 30), perhaps Oregon vs. Utah in the Pac-12 championship game (Dec. 6), perhaps Alabama or LSU vs. Georgia in the SEC championship game (Dec. 7).
Before all that, the early rankings questions include: Will the committee refrain from the lazy act of docking Clemson for its harrowing escape of Sept. 28 at North Carolina, given that Clemson did escape? (It probably will refrain.) Will the committee place any of those one-loss teams in its first top four? (Probably not, but Auburn and that schedule would have had a case had it one loss instead of two.) How did we get here as a culture? (Gradually.) After five years of playoff choices mostly obvious, with precious little of the angst, outrage and horror that help make college football debates singular, might we get some coveted angst, outrage and horror?
There’s hope, much of it embedded in Oregon and Utah.
Those two huddled masses from the long-lamented Pac-12 ratified themselves as something above legit on a Saturday they just spent hushing home crowds.
Oregon ran over Southern California in psychedelic wave after psychedelic wave until the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum scoreboard lights got turned out at 56-24. Mykael Wright’s 100-yard kickoff return seconds before halftime made the score 28-17 and portended onslaught. NFL-bound quarterback Justin Herbert’s stats went 21 for 26 even given his second interception all year to go with his 24 touchdowns. The string of Ducks wins reached eight, and it will be interesting to see what the committee makes of the fact that, to open the season, Oregon scheduled boldly and bowed to Auburn in Arlington, Tex., on Auburn’s touchdown with nine seconds left.
“Without question, I feel we need to be in that conversation,” second-year coach Mario Cristobal said of the gaudy-hotel conversation.
Utah trailed Washington 21-13 in the third quarter with the floating tailgaters of Lake Washington perhaps sensing postgame liquid merriment, until one play reminded us that, out there in America, young men are in dark rooms studying film, sometimes pivotally. “I just watched film all week, more than I have for any other game,” Utah all-Pac-12 cornerback Jaylon Johnson said of his 39-yard interception return for a touchdown. “And just coming into it, I knew the way they align and [quarterback Jacob] Eason’s tendencies throwing the out route, so I just took a chance on it and made the play. It was a huge momentum changer.”
It was, in a 33-28 win from which the Utes did not shy in treasuring. “I’m going to have to [rank it] number one,” fourth-year quarterback Tyler Huntley said of the win. Now we must pay attention to the Utes, a reminder that college football is often better and more varied when we have to pay attention to the Utes.
The Utes’ next assignment, after a bye week, tells the other broad reality of the grid-sick nation: There’s always ample life beneath playoff contention. People persist playing their seasons! Into Salt Lake City will come Chip Kelly’s UCLA, reborn with three straight wins and with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson saying of Kelly after a 31-14 win over Colorado, “Just him as a play caller and stuff like that, he puts me in the best position to win.”
UCLA makes for half of a percolating Los Angeles, with that 56-24 defeat up there ensuring doom for the tenure of Clay Helton, Southern California’s fifth-season coach both beloved (as a human) and bemoaned (with a fifth season and a turnover-margin national ranking of 121st). Let the names fly for one of the traditional kingdoms, and let Rhule rule them.
Look closely, and a fantastic job appears well underway at Oregon State, which has reached 4-4 in Coach Jonathan Smith’s second season, prompting the former Beavers quarterback from turn-of-century glory days to say, after the 56-38 conquest at Arizona, “I’d be lying if I said there’s not more confidence this season than last season.”
All the way east, Georgia and Florida resumed their annual gathering of mutual fondness, and while they combined for zero turnovers and while Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, the former eternal backup, continued to impress, Georgia won more decisively than the 24-17 that showed on the board, and Coach Kirby Smart said of his players, “So many people doubted, and they never did.”
Where would any of them be without doubters?
Look at poor Nick Saban, always struggling against the lack of Alabama doubters.
So while Nebraska’s second-year regeneration under Scott Frost can’t seem to budge (4-5 and 2-4 in the Big Ten after the 31-27 loss at Purdue) . . . and Northwestern’s offense can’t seem to budge (the 34-3 loss to Indiana a particular non-wow) . . . and Miami’s 27-10 win over Florida State couldn’t seem to budge the national consciousness (a reality once unimaginable) . . . and it took SMU nine games to budge from the unbeaten (a credit to SMU even after its 54-48 loss at Memphis) . . . it’s an era most notable for Clemson’s and Alabama’s lack of budging.
In the first year of this playoff concept, only one team from the committee’s initial top four (Florida State!) wound up making the playoff. That number grew to two in the second and third seasons and to three in the fourth year and three in the fifth, with Alabama and Clemson accounting for eight of those 10 teams the past four years and ready to start somewhere up there again. For now, we will have to get our chaos in the ACC Coastal Division, which was won by Duke in 2013, Georgia Tech in 2014, North Carolina in 2015, Virginia Tech in 2016, Miami in 2017 and Pittsburgh in 2018. In a division of seven, that leaves only Virginia, whose 38-31 win at North Carolina behind tireless quarterback Bryce Perkins just gave it the Coastal lead in the chase for the chance to play Clemson.
If that chase is skittish, do forgive it.