SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ college football reporter Paul Myerberg breaks down the hottest headlines from Week 9.
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Oklahoma State Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph.(Photo: Ben Queen, USA TODAY Sports)
The early College Football Playoff results are in: Georgia first, Alabama second, Notre Dame third and Clemson fourth, followed by a grab bag of unbeaten and one-loss teams elbowing for postseason position as the regular season hits its home stretch.
It’s time for college football to get serious. It’s time for brbad tacks. No more fooling around. Every game counts, even when a loss no longer eliminates a contender from the championship picture — but these games in November really count, beginning with a Saturday defined by key matchups across each of the Power Five conferences.
For two leagues in particular, the ACC and Big 12, it’s a weekend fraught with postseason implications. Each league has at least three and potentially four Playoff contenders. By Sunday, that number will be trimmed by at least one and perhaps two, with a profound impact on the remaining major conferences.
Start in Stillwater, Okla., where Oklahoma State hosts Oklahoma in an elimination game. The Sooners are No. 5 in the first Playoff rankings, six spots ahead of the Cowboys. Oklahoma has built its résumé in no small part on a win at Ohio State in September; fittingly, the selection committee seeded the Sooners one slot ahead of the Buckeyes.
“Obviously a big one this week, going to Stillwater to play one of the best teams in the country right now,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “And honestly, to me, having seen them the last few years, they’re probably as well-rounded as they’ve been since I’ve been here.”
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MORE: The top 10 college football games in November
A win at Oklahoma State would keep the Sooners in position to be the next team in line behind Notre Dame and Clemson, should either lose in November. Any fears over the Big 12 being left out of the field were unwarranted: Oklahoma gets the Cowboys and TCU in successive weeks and potentially another marquee win in the conference title game, so the path to a national semifinal is clear.
Oklahoma State’s own road is less clear. To date, the Cowboys have just one victory against a team with a winning record — last weekend’s 50-39 win at West Virginia. Perhaps a questionable résumé can be offset by notching three wins in a row against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas State. But those unbeaten and one-loss teams ahead of the Cowboys have similar November schedules, increasing the difficulty of a seven-spot climb during the final month.
Those conferences currently outside the top four — the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten — will keep close tabs on the ACC, since the winner of the SEC, whether Georgia or Alabama, seems destined for one of the top two seeds heading into a national semifinal. As title contenders head into November, the ACC is the swing state in the Playoff chase.
Take Notre Dame, for example, a peripheral ACC member with its own unshakeable path into the field: Wins against Wake Forest, Miami (Fla.), Navy and Stanford would make the Irish a near-lock for the semifinals. On the other hand, one loss eliminates the Irish, who don’t have the benefit of adding a conference championship to their end-of-season résumé.
“Winning is not even something that we think about,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “We just want to dominate this weekend. If we do that, we’d like three more chances. And then at the end of the year, if they say that that’s one of the four best teams, that will be fine.”
Notre Dame’s matchup with Wake Forest is the first of this weekend’s three key ACC games. The other sends Clemson to North Carolina State, matching the Tigers up with a team that might no longer factor into the title chase but can still win the Atlantic Division. In a pairing of two of college football’s elite defensive lines, the winner will be the team most able to control the line of scrimmage — and good luck with that. Though Clemson faded into the background following its loss to Syracuse, the Tigers’ current place in the top four can be cemented with a road win against a ranked opponent.
“You’ve got two teams that are well-positioned to try to win the division, so it’s exciting to be a part of this type of games,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “This is playoff football … that’s what it really comes down to. It’ll be a big challenge heading up there.”
And there’s a third elimination game: Miami (Fla.) hosts Virginia Tech with the Coastal Division on the line, amid questions over the Hurricanes’ legitimacy following several close calls against seemingly inferior competition. Miami’s last four wins have come by a single possession, the latest against an awful North Carolina team, and just two of the Hurricanes’ seven wins have come against opponents currently holding a winning record.
But Miami’s stock could soar in November. It would start with a win against the Hokies. Add a victory against the Fighting Irish. Those alone would vault the Hurricanes into the top six, if not higher. Add in another two wins against potential bowl teams, Virginia and Pittsburgh, along with a hypothetical victory against Clemson or N.C. State to win the ACC, and Miami would have the résumé to justify a top-four seed.
It’s enough to make the ACC the crossroads of the Playoff hunt. The Pac-12, with its lack of true contenders, needs more than just losses from Clemson and Miami, though it would be a start. This is more about the Big 12 and the Big Ten, two conferences loaded with star power — and Oklahoma and Ohio State in particular — in need of one slight boost to secure a shot at the national title. Those teams will keep one eye on their opponents and another on the scoreboard, and not just this Saturday but through every weekend in November.
Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana, AP)
The first Playoff rankings gave some shape to the access-bowl bid to the New Year’s Six given to the best team from the Group of Five. For now, the chase begins with UCF, which clocked in at No. 18 in the debut poll. One other team joined the Knights in the top 25, also from the American Athletic Conference: Memphis sits at No. 23.
The first takeaway? That UCF controls its road to a January bowl. The Knights may have earned that right by its unbeaten record, even if this perfect start is built in part on a flimsy schedule. That will change by December, should UCF add wins against SMU, USF and potentially Memphis (again; the Knights won 40-13 in September), should the Tigers hang on atop the West Division of the American.
This isn’t to say that UCF is a Playoff factor, since the odds of a Group of Five team cracking the top four are laughably small. At best, even an unbeaten team with those three wins during the home stretch would max out in the high single-digits, far off the pace needed to secure a seat in one of the two national semifinals.
A second takeaway: Memphis heads into Friday’s matchup with Tulsa just off UCF’s pace, and the Tigers can see their own clear road to a major bowl. Should the status quo hold, a potential pairing of Memphis and UCF would be a winner-take-all conference title game. The same might be said of a hypothetical matchup of Memphis and USF, should the Bulls defeat UCF in the finale to win the East Division.
But in terms of the access-bowl bid, the biggest takeaway from the Playoff rankings is the American’s clear lead — as an entire conference — against its Group of Five peers. No team from the Mountain West made the cut, due to San Diego State’s recent swoon after a torrid start and Boise State’s non-conference losses to Washington State and Virginia; the latter looks worse following the Cavaliers’ back-to-back defeats in ACC play.
There’s still time for that pair to cut the gap, but not without help. While aided by a potential meeting to decide the Mountain West title — though both would need to be 10-2 at the time — the Broncos and Aztecs will be rooting for at least one loss from Memphis, UCF and USF down the stretch. Even then, the perception of the American might be a deciding factor: The selection committee clearly ranks that league ahead of the Mountain West, so even a two-loss American champion could maintain an edge over two-loss Boise State or SDSU.
Don’t forget that a loss to Fresno State was a huge blow to the Aztecs, who are now one game behind in the West Division standings and lack the head-to-head tiebreaker — meaning it needs to win out, finishing at 6-2 in league play, and needs Fresno to drop two league games in November.
The debut rankings tell us that UCF sits atop the field, followed at a close distance by Memphis. It’s a guessing game from there: Toledo’s probably next, based on the Rockets’ 7-1 record with a loss to Miami (Fla.), and then — in some order — USF, Boise State, SDSU, SMU, Navy and others.
Each week, I’ll take one look back at the weekend that was to present a Paulitzer Prize nomination to the nation’s most impressive player. The selection committee consists of one person — me — and will eventually convene in December to award the ultimate Prize.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. Barrett’s performance against Penn State will stand the test of time. It wasn’t just that he threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns with only six incomplete pbades, three of them drops. It was his play in the fourth quarter that’ll be remembered: Barrett hit on all 13 of his attempts for 170 yards and three scores to lead the Buckeyes to a thrilling 39-38 win. Now, please tell me again about how the Buckeyes’ senior is overrated.
GAMES YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
It’s impossible to watch every game. (I know. I’ve tried.) Until the invention of picture-in-picture-in-picture television technology, I’m here to help. In each time window, here are this Saturday’s games you can’t afford to miss (times Eastern):
Noon: No. 7 Penn State at Michigan State (Fox). Penn State looks to rebound after Saturday’s heartbreaking loss, while the Spartans can leap back into the postseason picture with back-to-back wins against the Nittany Lions and Ohio State.
3:30 p.m.: No. 9 Oklahoma at No. 10 Oklahoma State (4 p.m., Fox Sports 1). I fudged the start time a bit to include Bedlam, which will send its winner up in the polls while knocking the loser out of the Playoff race.
Prime time: No. 13 Virginia Tech at No. 6 Miami (8 p.m., ABC). There’s a game between Alabama and LSU at the same time, but this seems like the better matchup and the more impactful game in terms of the polls.
After dark: No. 25 Arizona at No. 17 Southern California (10:45 p.m., ESPN). No one could have guessed in August that this conference game would determine the Pac-12 South Division, just as no one could’ve guessed that Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate would put together one of the best months of October by a quarterback in FBS history.
THE UNELIMINATED LIST
Most of the FBS already has been eliminated from the chase for the College Football Playoff. Fortunately, a few teams remain. After weeks of looking at the eliminated, let’s flip the script: By conference, here’s who remains in the CFP picture.
American: Central Florida.
ACC: Clemson, Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech.
Big 12: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU.
Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin.
Conference USA: None.
Independents: Notre Dame.
Mountain West: None.
Pac-12: Stanford, Washington.
SEC: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia.
Sun Belt: None.