Buying or Selling Top Teams as College Football Playoff Contenders
Now in its fourth year, the College Football Playoff has transformed the sport. The results of each week during the regular season add strokes to the overall playoff picture—unlike in past years, where most teams were eliminated from championship contention after a single loss.
Almost every top team is still in the running for a semifinal bid, and with more than half of the season still to go, a lot can happen.
But which teams really have what it takes to end up in the top four when the playoff selection committee's final rankings come out in early December?
The committee won't be convening for a few more weeks, so for the time being, we're considering any team ranked in the Top 10 of the latest Associated Press poll to be the top contenders. They're listed in alphabetical order rather than their current ranking, however, because where they're ranked in early October doesn't have any bearing on whether they'll be in the top four in December.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The No. 1 team in the country since the preseason, Alabama is playing as well as any team in the country. And most importantly, the Crimson Tide haven't made any of their opponents feel like they've had a chance to win.
The season-opening 24-7 win over Florida State might not be that impressive considering the Seminoles are now unranked, but for the majority of that game, the 'Noles were at full strength and not playing a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Deondre Francois didn't get hurt until the fourth quarter, and before that happened, the Tide had completely shut down FSU's offense.
Alabama has really kicked things into gear since SEC play began, crushing Vanderbilt 59-0 on the road and Ole Miss 66-3 at home. It will face tougher league foes in the coming weeks, starting with Saturday at Texas A&M, but quite often 'Bama sleepwalks against lesser opponents, and that hasn't been the case this year.
Nearly all of 'Bama's statistics are incredible, like the 8.6 points and 249 yards allowed per game. But the most impressive is the zero turnovers the Tide have committed, compared to the five they had at this point last season en route to 19 giveaways overall.
On paper, this is nothing like the Clemson team that beat Alabama for the national title nine months ago. The Tigers lost 10 starters from that squad, including quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive lineman Carlos Watkins. In June, Phil Steele ranked them as the 108th-most experienced team (out of 130) in FBS.
So much for paper.
Many of the players are new, particularly on offense, but that hasn't kept Clemson from being quite impressive during a 5-0 start that featured wins over three ranked teams (Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech). Those last two were on the road, with the Tigers making Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson look human until garbage time and then neutralizing Virginia Tech's potent offense.
The defense is loaded with future NFL players, even after several pros departed in the offseason, and that unit has been so dominant it has enabled an inexperienced offense to develop slowly. Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant isn't being asked to do as much as Watson in terms of taking over a game, but he's shown the ability to do so if needed, while young rushers Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster have been fun to watch with the ball.
"Clemson's m.o. looks very much like what we've seen in recent years from Alabama," USA Today's George Schroeder wrote. "The defense asphyxiates opponents, which provides a comfortable margin for an offense that grinds and then pulls away."
Clemson looks like a shoo-in to make a third straight playoff appearance, barring a major regression.
Is this the year Georgia finally meets (or even exceeds) expectations? It looks that way so far, but a lot can still go sideways for the Bulldogs.
An injury to quarterback Jacob Eason in the first half of the season opener was the kind that could have derailed all those plans, but true freshman Jacob Fromm has shown tremendous poise. Georgia hasn't had to gear the offense around him thanks to a loaded backfield led by seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who are healthy at the same time and have combined for 736 yards and nine touchdowns.
Georgia's defense is showing the effects of having Kirby Smart in charge. The former Alabama defensive coordinator has that squad playing better than ever, allowing 9.2 points per game including only three in the first two SEC games.
There have been similarly talented Georgia teams in recent years that have found ways to screw things up, but early on there haven't been any warning signs that this could happen again. Check back after the Florida game in a few weeks, though.
Is there an unbeaten team that's looked less impressive than Michigan?
It's not that the Wolverines have looked bad in starting 4-0, with wins over Florida and a scrappy Purdue squad, but in those games there weren't many times when it felt like they were among the best teams in the country. Their stagnancy in the polls, vacillating between seventh and eighth the last four weeks, is indicative of a team that hasn't done anything to fall in the rankings but also not enough to prevent other schools from leap-frogging.
Much of this is due to how Michigan's offense has looked for most of the season. Though averaging 31.5 points per game, with no fewer than 28 in any game, that's second-least of any of FBS' 17 perfect teams.
Michigan averages 4.28 yards per carry on the ground, scoring just five times, and the quarterback play has been middling at best with only four TD passes. John O'Korn showed flashes in the last game against Purdue, and with Wilton Speight out multiple weeks with with an undisclosed injury (per Nick Baumgardner of the Detroit Free Press), he'll be the one going forward for the time being.
Having the defense and special teams contribute nearly one-third of the TDs isn't a sustainable resource.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State is the lone team on this "contender" list that has already suffered a loss, falling 31-16 at home to Oklahoma in Week 2. The last time the Buckeyes were in this situation, humbled early by Virginia Tech in 2014, they went on to run the table and take down the first College Football Playoff.
History sure can repeat itself, and not just because OSU has the same quarterback (fifth-year senior J.T. Barrett) running the offense. It also has the luxury of future games against top-10 teams Penn State and Michigan that make it more than possible to rise back up the rankings despite the premature blemish.
That may be wishful thinking, though. This Buckeyes squad doesn't have the same makeup as the one from three years ago, winning 148-28 over Army, UNLV and Rutgers the last three games notwithstanding.
Barrett is starting to show flashes of his old self, while freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has been stellar, but winning shootouts isn't a recipe for success at the top tier of college football. The pass defense that was so leaky against Indiana and Oklahoma hasn't faced good enough competition since then to be considered fixed.
If this assessment were being done a week earlier, the 41 points allowed to winless Baylor would be more concerning. But unless that keeps happening after Oklahoma returns from a bye over the weekend, it's safe to say that was an outlier and the Sooners' other defensive performances are more the norm.
Namely, that dominance of Ohio State on the road in Week 2, a win that was arguably the most impressive of any playoff contender this season.
While being able to make stops will be key to whatever Oklahoma accomplishes this year, it won't be under pressure to post shutouts. Not when senior quarterback Baker Mayfield is looking as good as ever, with his 75.2 percent completion rate and 13-to-0 touchdown-to-interception rate the stuff Heisman Trophy contenders are made of.
Oklahoma's supporting cast on offense lacks the star power of a year ago, but it's still been effective, and with Mayfield orchestrating things, he's able to get the most out of them.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Had Trace McSorley not found Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone as time expired to beat Iowa, it wouldn't have had much of a negative effect on Penn State's playoff chances. Being in the Big Ten's East Division keeps the top teams in the mix until they get a second loss.
Winning that game in dramatic fashion didn't boost the Nittany Lions' resume considerably, either, at least on paper. It did show their lack of quit even when not having their best overall game, and that can go a long way if and when further adversity pops up.
PSU coach James Franklin knows this and knows how important it is to show that effort each game, which explains why he told LandOf10's Tyler Donohue "for where we want to go, and what we want to do, we've got to get better."
One place the Lions don't need to show any improvement is their way of getting junior running back Saquon Barkley involved. The FBS all-purpose yardage leader is their leading rusher and receiver, and against Indiana, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and threw a TD pass.
Do-everything players like that are hard to hold down, and teams that have those guys tend to be tough to beat.
TCU Horned Frogs
TCU wasn't ranked to begin the season, which isn't promising, based on the brief history of the College Football Playoff. No playoff qualifier has ever started out lower than Oklahoma's No. 19 ranking in 2015, and nine of the 12 teams were preseason top-10 selections.
It's not like TCU hasn't been a pioneer before, using its multiple times as a "BCS buster" to earn an invite to the Big 12. And the Horned Frogs' rapid rise in the polls indicates they've done enough to this point to warrant being included in the playoff discussion despite little preseason hype.
Wins at Arkansas and Oklahoma State, both of which were no-doubters, has TCU surging. Those wins were fueled by a mix of frustrating defense and a matured Kenny Hill at quarterback. Throw in longtime coach Gary Patterson's knack for winning big games and the Frogs are dangerous.
The OK State win essentially swapped in TCU for the Cowboys, who themselves were strong playoff contenders before that loss. And quite often in college football when a David slays a Goliath, they assume their position in the national spotlight.
With USC falling at Washington State on Friday, Washington is the lone Pac-12 team in the Top 10 and the league's best hope of being in the playoff for the third time in four years. But that result also narrows the Huskies' margin of error since a potential clash with USC in the conference final can no longer be a battle of unbeatens.
Which means if Washington falls at any point along the way, it won't have much hope of being able to bounce back from a loss. Its overall strength of schedule is already an issue, with USA Today's Jeff Sagarin ranking the Huskies' slate as 96th-toughest in the country to this point.
Translation: The Huskies are a contender at this point based more off being in the playoffs last year than because of what they've done so far this season. Which is unfortunate because they've looked quite good during a 5-0 start, scoring 44 points per game and allowing 10.8.
Washington's 2017 team is much like the 2016 one with a few exceptions, and that squad is looking for a chance to redeem its semifinal loss to Alabama. It's capable of doing so but probably faces an uphill battle to get the opportunity.
Prior to the season, SB Nation's Bill Connelly pegged Wisconsin as having the "clearest" path to the College Football Playoff based on how its schedule lined up. Namely, the Badgers wouldn't have to face a playoff contender until Michigan in their second-to-last game and then only one other in the Big Ten final.
But that thinking requires Wisconsin to win all of its games, or lose no more than one, and that the selection committee will discount that relatively weak schedule when putting together its pairings. The Badgers can't do anything about the latter so they can only focus on taking care of business on the field.
So far, so good. But also, so what? Going 4-0 against teams that are 8-7 against everyone else isn't that impressive, with Saturday's 33-24 win over Northwestern nearly seeing the Badgers blow a three-touchdown lead.
Assuming it keeps winning, Wisconsin is going to be that highly ranked team we don't really know much about until late in the season. The selection committee is likely to feel the same way when its first ranking comes out.