An Assessment of the College Football Landscape Nine Weeks into the Season
November is the best time of the year for college football. It is filled with snow games, rivalry games and teams fighting to keep their postseason hopes alive. The past nine weeks have narrowed down the scope of potential playoff teams as we enter the final stretch of the regular season. This version of The Quarterly Report will take a closer look to how the playoffs could shape up as the regular season winds down.
What We Know
- The playoff picture is down to 12
Since the playoff’s inception, no team has been selected with two losses. Following that logic, I’m removing these teams from the playoff discussion for now, as all would need chaos to ensue over the next few weeks to have a chance. These teams also likely would not have enough quality wins to be placed ahead of a one-loss team if it came down to two teams for a final spot.
ACC: Boston College, North Carolina State, Syracuse, Virginia
Big 12: Texas
Big Ten: Iowa, Penn State
Aside from Penn State, all of these teams have improved from the previous year and a few (Texas, Florida, Iowa) have shown enough improvement with young pieces to put themselves in the conversation for a potential playoff push entering next season.
There also has not been a team outside of the Power Five to make the playoff yet, but no team has come close without being undefeated. That would eliminate Cincinnati, Houston, and South Florida, although those three teams could play spoiler over the coming weeks to UCF’s chance at both a playoff spot and back-to-back perfect seasons. That leaves the following 12 in contention teams for the final four spots:
Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State
Big 12: Oklahoma, West Virginia
Pac-12: Washington State
SEC: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU
Group of Five/Independent: Notre Dame, UCF
Every week from this point forward will narrow the list further, but this weekend will be especially telling. Oklahoma, West Virginia and Notre Dame all face capable opponents on the road. Georgia travels to Lexington to face Kentucky in a de-facto SEC East title and playoff elimination game. Alabama would still be alive for a spot if they drop this weekend’s contest in Baton Rouge, but a loss for LSU would almost certainly eliminate their playoff hopes. The list of 12 could be cut to 8 or 9 after Saturday.
- Washington State didn’t blow it
The last few weeks were set up perfectly for Wazzou to do what they have traditionally done. The Cougars usually enter the year without much preseason publicity and go on a winning streak against vastly inferior competition. They then play a home game in a big spot and win, only to lose a few games over the following weeks and finish the season in disappointing fashion. Last season, Washington State hosted Sam Darnold and USC at home on a Friday night in Pullman and won 30-27. Two weeks later, they were blown out in Berkeley, losing to Cal 37-3. The Cougars were throttled in all four of their losses last year, with a combined -107 scoring margin.
So far, it has been a different story. Wazzou started the season strong per usual, with convincing victories in the non-conference. They then lost a back-and-forth affair at USC before beating Utah and Oregon State, setting up a home date against Oregon. This was a huge game in the Pac-12 North race, marked by College Gameday’s first trip to Pullman. The Cougars rose to the occasion, defeating the Ducks 34-20. What transpired this past weekend in Palo Alto was arguably more impressive than the victory the previous weekend over Oregon. Stanford has underperformed given their preseason expectations, but played well and led 28-17 at half over the Cougars. In the second half, Gardner Minshew took over. Minshew threw for 237 yards on 24/27 passing, all coming after the halftime break. Minshew orchestrated the final drive that set up the 42 yard game-winning field goal by Blake Mazza with 19 seconds left. The Cougars showed resilience that they had not demonstrated in previous years in their 41-38 victory.
The next few weeks include games against teams that soundly defeated them last season, so the Cougars should have revenge on their minds as they host Cal, Arizona and Washington down the stretch. They control their own destiny in the Pac-12 North and are the conference’s last hope for a playoff team.
- The offseason “Coaching Carousel” will revolve around 3 names
Two of the hottest names on the college coaching market right now are Jeff Brohm of Purdue and Matt Campbell of Iowa State. The two have gone about it in different ways, but both have had excellent results over the past two seasons at programs that struggled mightily before their arrivals.
Jeff Brohm has brought passion and energy back to West Lafayette. Even with this past weekend’s loss to Michigan State, Brohm has led Purdue back from a 0-3 start to 4-4, highlighted by a dominant home win over Ohio State. Brohm thoroughly outcoached Urban Meyer in that game, leading Meyer to say in the postgame press conference that “the glaring shortcomings we have were exposed”. Brohm, the former Louisville quarterback, has done it with an explosive and opportunistic offense. Purdue is second in the Big Ten in Total Offense and fourth in scoring. He has manufactured this turnaround with mostly existing players from the roster he inherited, with the notable exception being freshman sensation Rondale Moore. The Boilermakers could be in line for a second-straight bowl game, which was far from a guarantee after a disappointing start.
Similarly, Matt Campbell has turned the Cyclones around from a 0-2 start to having won three straight and sitting at 4-3 overall. Campbell has done it in Ames with defense. The Cyclones lead the conference in Total Defense and are second in scoring defense. Campbell has led Iowa State to three victories over top ten teams since taking over in 2016, having beaten Oklahoma and TCU last year before a convincing victory over West Virginia earlier this season. Like Purdue, Iowa State also looks to be headed for another bowl appearance.
Outside of a (likely) USC job opening, it is tough to determine where Brohm or Campbell could be headed next fall if they choose to leave their current positions. That doesn’t mean they will not be mentioned in rumors, it just makes it difficult to identify the next stop for these two. Almost every big name school has made a recent hire, or currently has someone with a track-record of success at that university. This brings me to the third name that could cause a domino effect in the coaching landscape: Lincoln Riley. Riley probably would not take another college job, as he has had tremendous success at a traditional power. However, it seems that Riley’s name is already receiving traction as a candidate to interview with a few NFL teams about their potential head coaching vacancies after the season. Thanks to the instant success of Sean McVay and other young offensive head coaching minds in the NFL, teams will continue to look for who’s ‘next’. Riley, who is 35, fits the mold of what NFL owners and general managers are looking for. Would he be willing to leave Norman for say, the Cowboys, Broncos, or to reunite with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland? Riley downplayed his interest in NFL jobs ‘right now’ on Monday afternoon (http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/25118970/oklahoma-sooners-coach-lincoln-riley-not-interested-nfl-right-now), but if he were to change his mind and leave, Oklahoma likely would become the most attractive open position on the market.
- Vegas knows
The weather this weekend in Happy Valley was not ideal for a lot of points to be scored between Penn State and Iowa. Rain, cold, and windy conditions made the under play on the 51.5 point total seem like the way to go. For most of the first quarter, Beaver Stadium was noticeably not full, as some fans clearly chose not avoid sitting in the gloomy weather for three hours. On top of that, Trace McSorley was banged up early in this game, forcing Tommy Stevens to be thrown into the action. McSorley came back to run for a 51 yard touchdown and lead Penn State back from a 12-0 deficit. This game included two safeties, four field goals over 44 yards, a pick six and a punter with a 10 yard touchdown pass. All of which occurred, again, in the rain, wind and cold. The over comfortably hit with more than eight minutes to play and Penn State won 30-24.
What We Think We Know
These appear to be true for now, but things could change:
- Georgia and Oklahoma are the biggest one-loss threats to Alabama
Of the eleven teams not named Alabama mentioned above, eight have one loss. Of the one-loss teams, I believe the Bulldogs and Sooners present the toughest matchups for Alabama if they were to face off in the playoffs. Michigan, Kentucky and LSU have the defenses to compete with Alabama, but I don’t think they have enough offense to keep pace. Ohio State, Washington State and West Virginia are too pass-dependent offensively and have holes defensively. Georgia and Oklahoma are flawed as well, but have the talent and explosiveness necessary to challenge the Tide down the stretch.
Georgia rebounded from a loss to LSU before their bye to beat Florida soundly 36-17 this past Saturday. The dynamic duo of D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield combined for 175 yards rushing, and the Bulldog defense held Florida under 300 yards of Total Offense. It appears Kirby Smart and his staff re-evaluated their team effectively during the bye and adjusted accordingly. Most importantly, Jake Fromm looked much more comfortable, throwing for 240 yards and 3 TDs. I was surprised to see that super-frosh Justin Fields did not take any snaps during Saturday’s game, but getting Fromm in a rhythm is key for Georgia’s chances moving forward.
Since losing to Texas, Oklahoma has rebounded with wins over TCU and Kansas State. The defense has looked improved since Ruffin McNeil took over for Mike Stoops as the Sooner’s defensive coordinator. They’ll be tested this weekend in Lubbock against Texas Tech, but Oklahoma is more than capable of winning a shootout as well. The combination of Kyler Murray, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb are as explosive as any QB and WR combo in the country, including Alabama (Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III). Trey Sermon has also filled in nicely for the injured Rodney Anderson, bringing balance to the Sooner’s offense. As Oklahoma showed last year in the Rose Bowl, they can put up points on stingy SEC defenses. Nick Saban’s teams also have a history of struggling against dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, and Murray certainly fits that mold.
- If Tua stays healthy, the Heisman race is over
Will Grier, Travis Etienne and Gardner Minshew have an outside chance, but the Heisman looks to be a three man race right now. The other two top contenders to Tua Tagovailoa have had outstanding seasons. Dwayne Haskins Jr. is on pace to shatter every single-season Ohio State passing record thanks to his ability to get the ball out quickly and precisely to his playmakers. He’s completing 71% of his passes and has a 30/5 TD-to-INT ratio, with an additional rushing touchdown on the year. Kyler Murray has also been dominant, with a 28/3 TD-to-INT ratio thanks to numerous big plays in the passing game to compliment the Sooner’s rushing attack. Murray is also responsible for 474 yards on the ground with 6 rushing touchdowns. In a normal year, these two would be neck-and-neck fighting for the Heisman trophy.
Instead, it looks like they’re fighting for second place, because Tua has been that good. Tagovailoa’s numbers are staggering and well documented, but a few of them really stand out to me. He hasn’t had to play in most of the Tide’s fourth quarters this year because of his team’s dominant performances early on in games. He still has put up gaudy numbers, with 27 total touchdowns and no interceptions to date. Even the best quarterbacks will occasionally make the wrong read or make a bad throw, but Tua has avoided both so far. He also has less than half the pass attempts that Dwayne Haskins Jr. has (152 to 315) through the first eight games, staggering considering the numbers he’s been able to put up on limited snaps. No game highlighted that better than his 334 yard, 4 touchdown performance against Arkansas on 10 completions and 13 pass attempts. He’s hit home runs to a number of receivers, as he has been able to distribute the ball masterfully. His top five receivers all have over 20 receptions (31, 24, 22, 21, 21) which has prevented defenses from focusing their attention on one of his many weapons. He’s had the time and ability to extend plays with his legs to hit the open man and keep the chains moving. As long as he can stay healthy and gets enough playing time, Tua will win the Heisman.
- How I think the Playoff Committee will rank the top 6
For what it’s worth, these rankings don’t really matter until the second-to-last reveal leading up to conference championship weekend before football’s version of “Selection Sunday”. The weekly reveal every Tuesday night is primarily used to drive discussion and rile up fan bases across the country. I think the initial top six will look like this Tuesday night:
- Notre Dame
There are a few reasons why I think LSU will be ranked second, ahead of two undefeated teams. First, the committee will argue LSU has the best collection of wins so far this year. The Tigers dominated Georgia and Mississippi State at home, beat Miami on a neutral field and defeated Auburn on the road. Notre Dame may have the single most impressive victory to date (over Michigan opening weekend), but their wins over Stanford and Virginia Tech don’t appear as strong after those two teams struggles in recent weeks. Second, they will want to further highlight the importance of this weekend’s game against #1 Alabama. Third, the committee always does something early on in these rankings to grab our attention. In 2014, they put three SEC West teams in the initial playoff rankings (Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss). None of them made the playoff. Last year, two undefeated teams (Miami and Wisconsin) were ranked 7th and 8th behind four one-loss teams. The committee knows there are still plenty of games to be played and their rankings early on won’t impact their decision making late.
What We Still Don’t Know
Less than we did in Volume II, but we’re getting there:
- Will Bama be challenged before the playoff?
The articles pondering if this is the best Alabama team in the Saban-era have been going on since the preseason. With their performance thus far, the questions have changed to: “is this the best Alabama team ever, and is this the most dominant college football team ever?” Still a little early to tell on both of those, but it’s fair to ask if, and when, the Crimson Tide will be tested over the coming weeks.
Odds are they will be challenged at some point. We see it every year. Someone pushes Alabama to the brink. They’ve suffered a few regular season losses in recent years, but during the playoff era, they’ve been able to bounce back and claim one of the four playoff spots. Last season, Auburn soundly defeated Alabama and the Tide nearly lost in Starkville to Mississippi State before late game heroics from Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley and Devonta Smith. For three straight seasons, Ole Miss gave Alabama fits, defeating the Tide in 2014 and 2015 before Alabama narrowly escaped in 2016. LSU has historically played Alabama tough as well, and will be the toughest game to date this weekend. I expect Mississippi State to also be tricky for Alabama. The game falls just a week after what is sure to be a physical and emotional slugfest in Baton Rouge, and the Bulldogs may have found some consistency after defeating Texas A&M this past weekend.
- Can West Virginia survive their last 4 weeks?
A preseason conference favorite for some, West Virginia started the season strong with a 5-0 record. A canceled game early on against North Carolina State kept us from seeing if this West Virginia team was a legitimate contender nationally as well. West Virginia then failed their only true test to date, as they were handled by Iowa State 30-14 in Ames, a score that is not truly indicative as to how poorly they played that night. The Mountaineers were very unimpressive offensively, as they only put up 152 total yards. Will Grier was held to 100 yards passing and the Cyclones thoroughly dominated West Virginia in all aspects of the game.
The Mountaineers still have a chance to play for the Big 12 crown if they can navigate their next four weeks unscathed, but it won’t be easy. It starts with facing Texas in Austin on Saturday. The Longhorns will look to bounce back after losing to Oklahoma State this past weekend, and Tom Herman is guaranteed to have his team fired up (https://twitter.com/CFBONFOX/status/1056397613988110336). The Mountaineers then host TCU, travel to Stillwater to play the improving Cowboys and host the Sooners on the final Friday of the regular season. That final game in Morgantown could be both a playoff elimination game and preview of the conference championship game the following weekend. The Mountaineers will have to step up their performance in the weeks leading up to that contest to ensure they have that chance.
- Does BC have what it takes to give Clemson a game?
This may be the toughest game remaining on Clemson’s schedule until the playoff, which says a lot about the ACC overall. Boston College was talked up before the season as a team to watch out for because of their returning talent and favorable schedule. They’ve delivered thus far and AJ Dillon has been able to re-establish himself as one of the premier running backs in the country. They have a tough stretch to finish the year which starts this Saturday in Blacksburg before hosting Clemson.
The Tigers have their own top back, as Travis Etienne could make a Heisman push with a strong finish to the season. Chestnut Hill is a tough place to play this time of year, as Miami found out last Friday night, but Clemson seems to have hit their stride the last few weeks. Since Trevor Lawrence returned from his injury suffered against Syracuse, the Tigers have outscored their opponents 163-20. There looks to be no team in the conference formidable enough to beat them, even in the conference title game. The Eagles appear to have the best chance to push the Tigers, but it might not be enough.
Thank you for reading! Check back in a few weeks for the next Quarterly Report and to see what else we have learned and if these statements/predictions held true.