SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ college football reporter Paul Myerberg breaks down the hottest headlines from Week 9.
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Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) celebrates after Notre Dame defeated the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Notre Dame Stadium.(Photo: Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports)
College football’s championship season is officially underway.
Starting in late August and continuing through a riotous final Saturday of October, the list of title contenders in the Football Bowl Subdivision has been trimmed to a select few. Rosy expectations have given way to reality: As revealed Tuesday night by the debut College Football Playoff rankings, the list of true contenders for the two national semifinals numbers little more than a dozen.
If small in number, the list does encompbad each of the Power Five conferences. Led by the Southeastern Conference, which placed Georgia atop the first rankings and had Alabama close behind in second, each of the major FBS leagues has at least one team ranked in the top 12.
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“It was pbadionate debate when we were discussing Georgia and Alabama over the course of the past two days,” said College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, the athletics director at Texas Tech.
“What gave Georgia a very slight edge over Alabama this week in the eyes of the selection committee were really the two top-25 wins that Georgia has, over Mississippi State but specifically over Notre Dame.”
At other times in the brief history of the Playoff, which made its debut three seasons ago, the dialogue around the first standings would center on which conference faced the specter of being left out in the cold. It’s happened to the Big 12 Conference, which had two teams just outside the top four in 2014, and a year later with the Pac-12 Conference. The math leads to musical chairs: four spots, five conferences.
This season could be different. Instead, the question doesn’t ask which one conference will be left out but rather which conferences — meaning multiple — could find themselves without a team in the national semifinals, thanks to Notre Dame’s surge from last season’s losing finish to No. 3 in the debut rankings. The Fighting Irish, now 7-1 after Saturday’s 35-14 win against No. 20 North Carolina State, are the potential fly in the ointment for two Power Five leagues.
Consider the scenario where Notre Dame runs the table through November. All told, the team’s postseason résumé would include wins against five opponents in the current Playoff rankings: Michigan State, Southern California, N.C. State, Miami (Fla.) and Stanford. Given that Notre Dame’s lone loss came to Georgia, and even that by just a single point, the program would have an extremely valid case for a top-four seed.
“We have to be aware of our situation,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said on the rankings reveal show on ESPN. “We’ve been in a one-game playoff since that loss (to Georgia). We are two-thirds of the way through the season and have to play well the next four games.”
The four-team field will already sideline one major conference. Notre Dame’s inclusion would eliminate another. The idea that a member of the Group of Five could make an out-of-nowhere push for the semifinals isn’t realistic; even as No. 18 Central Florida adds wins upon wins, the Knights aren’t a legitimate option to move ahead of any unbeaten or one-loss conference champion. But Notre Dame is.
After all, the Irish are already ahead of the top-ranked teams from the Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten Conference. That gap may grow, given the Irish’s tough November schedule, or widen to an unmanageable distance, should those leagues put forth a two-loss champion. For both the Pac-12 and Big 12, the trump card may be a conference title game: Notre Dame’s season ends at Stanford on Nov. 25, while every other league plays an additional game the following Saturday.
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But this train of thought can go one step further. Notre Dame’s resurgence draws the potential for two major conferences to miss the Playoff. Over in the SEC, meanwhile, that Alabama and Georgia seem on course for an unbeaten-only title game in early December means that three leagues, not two, are left settling for a New Year’s Six bowl and nothing more.
“Alabama is an impressive team,” Hocutt said. “Just the convincing victories and the way they achieved those solidified them at the No. 2 spot.”
This scenario requires help, unlike the possibility of Notre Dame simply earning its way into a semifinal. In the Big Ten Conference, for example, No. 6 Ohio State might need to lose again in November, which would be the Buckeyes’ second loss, and then defeat Wisconsin to claim the conference title. In the Big 12, each of three one-loss teams — Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU — would need to lose. Stanford would need to top Washington on Nov. 10 to give every Pac-12 team at least two defeats.
Then Georgia needs to beat Alabama. In that case, Georgia is an easy decision for the top seed. Given how the selection committee views Alabama, and not just this week but throughout the seeding process, a narrow loss might knock the Crimson Tide down just two spots to third, which would avoid a rematch with Georgia while giving the second seed a semifinal site within some level of geographic proximity.
That’s if everything goes to script — or, for up to three Power Five conferences, against the script. To be fair, hypothetical scenarios tend to have a short shelf life in college football. Yet the first rankings showed something new: Even in a sport often defined by chaos, this season’s Playoff push has the possibility of becoming the wildest to date.
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