An Assessment of the College Football Landscape at the end of the Regular Season
Thanksgiving and Rivalry Week have passed, and the regular season has come to a close. Our attention shifts to the Conference Championship games that will determine bowl positioning and the New Year’s Six participants. Notre Dame secured their playoff berth with a 24-17 win over USC Saturday night, leaving three spots available. Who will join them? This version of The Quarterly Report reflects on the season as a whole while also looking ahead to this weekend and beyond.
What We Know
- The CFP Committee dodged a chaotic situation
The committee avoided their nightmare scenario thanks to a few contenders faltering and one contender claiming a playoff spot.
Washington State fell apart in the snow Friday night, losing 28-15 to their arch rival Washington in the Apple Cup. Washington State’s playoff chances were slim due to their unimpressive non-conference wins and a down year in the Pac-12 overall. However, if they finished the season as a conference champion with one loss, they would have had a compelling argument that they deserved a playoff spot.
As the season unfolded, it became clear the Big Ten was not going to get more than one team in the CFP, and Saturday’s version of “The Game” was a playoff elimination game. Michigan winning out could have meant a spot in the playoff, but it also would’ve created a scenario in which the committee may have dropped them in favor of another one-loss team. Moving a one-loss Michigan out of the 4 spot after having them there for the majority of the regular season would have sparked debate and furthered the movement for a change to the playoff format. Instead, the Wolverines were dominated in every phase of “The Game”, falling 62-39 to Ohio State, effectively removing them from the playoff discussion.
UCF defeated South Florida handily on the road this past Saturday, but it was the most costly victory of their 24-game win streak. McKenzie Milton’s gruesome leg injury was devastating for the Knights in so many ways. He had a successful surgery this past weekend, but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for the start of next season. In the short term, the Knights will have to battle against Memphis to remain undefeated. A healthy Milton would have given them a shot at the 4th spot if Alabama, Texas and Northwestern all won this upcoming Saturday. Without Milton, it’s difficult to argue UCF is better than any of the top two-loss teams (Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan) in that scenario.
Notre Dame winning may have saved the committee from what would have been their toughest decision. If the Irish faltered, they would have joined the other one-loss teams after looking like a lock for the playoffs and one of the best four teams all season long. The schedule appeared daunting, but key injuries and opponents falling short of preseason expectations led to a much more manageable slate, with not as many marquee wins as anticipated. Unlike the other contenders, they also would not have had the important “13th data point” of a conference championship game. Their victory Saturday made the committee’s job a little easier.
- However, chaos could still ensue
Here’s the scenario that could cause the committee to do some extra thinking on Saturday night before arriving at their four playoff teams:
ACC Title: Pittsburgh defeats Clemson
Big 12 Title: Oklahoma defeats Texas
Big Ten Title: Ohio State defeats Northwestern
SEC Title: Georgia defeats Alabama
This scenario would leave five one-loss teams for three spots. Pitt beating Clemson is a definite long shot, as the Panthers looked lost offensively on their way to 200 total yards against Miami this past weekend. The rest of this scenario is not inconceivable. If Georgia were to beat Alabama, they would likely clinch a spot to the playoff, as they would be a conference champion and have the single best win compared to the other contenders (over Alabama). Clemson and Alabama would both have one loss in this scenario, but they have been the two best teams through 13 weeks of the season. Would not being a conference champion cause one or both to be left out? Alabama seemingly would still be in, but Clemson may have a less convincing argument. If both were to be selected in this scenario, that would leave two conference champions, Ohio State and Oklahoma, with one loss on the outside looking in. The committee says past seasons don’t impact their decision making for the current season, but that would be back-to-back years a conference champion OSU would be left at home, and the Big 12 also has a history of drawing the short straw.
Odds are that at least one, and possibly two, deserving teams will not have their name called on Sunday morning to head to the CFP semifinals. If the scenario above were to unfold, it could finally be the firm evidence needed to push the NCAA to rethink the playoff format and consider expansion.
- Biggest Disappointment
There are plenty of contenders for this “honor”. Arizona was supposed to have a dynamic offense with Khalil Tate running Kevin Sumlin’s system. Louisville and USC were expected to take a step back after losing top quarterbacks, but not struggle to the extent both did this season. TCU was predicted to compete for a Big 12 title and finished .500. Miami was a preseason top ten team and finished 7-5. Colorado started the year off 5-0 before losing their last seven games and firing their head coach. Michigan State was a trendy preseason pick to win the Big Ten East and finished with one of the worst offenses in the Power 5 (https://www.ncaa.com/stats/football/fbs/current/team/21/p3). Florida State had their bowl streak snapped and looked out of sorts as soon as the season began.
The most disappointing team to me is Wisconsin. The Badgers were not only a preseason top ten team, but were considered to be a dark-horse national title contender. The Badgers went 5-4 in one of the easiest divisions in the Power 5, and frankly, it could have very easily been 3-6, as wins over Iowa and Purdue were decided in the closing minutes and in triple-overtime. The season was off to a rocky start after losing to BYU at home in week 3. They had plenty of opportunities to regain momentum but could never turn it around. The Badgers bring a lot of talent back again next season, and could be the preseason favorite to bounce back and win the division.
- Biggest Surprise
There are plenty of contenders for this much more positive distinction as well. Syracuse was the second best team in the ACC all year long and nearly beat Clemson on the road in September. Dino Babers not only saved his job, but could be in line for a better gig after a 9 win season. Texas improved dramatically in year two under Tom Herman and reached the conference title game. The Longhorns will have huge expectations entering next season in Herman’s third season with Sam Ehlinger returning. Likewise, Oregon’s 8 wins this year exceeded expectations and, if Justin Herbert returns, the Ducks could generate plenty of buzz as a preseason playoff contender. Notre Dame always had the talent, but did not falter on their way to an undefeated season and playoff berth. Kentucky’s season came out of nowhere, as the Wildcats snapped their losing streak against Florida en route to 9 wins. However, I think the most surprising team is another Big Ten West program: Northwestern.
The Wildcats started the season off very slowly. They were 1-3 after losses to Duke, Akron and Michigan at home. A bowl game was hardly a guarantee, but road wins over Michigan State and Iowa, along with a dominant home win against Wisconsin, got the Cats back on track and led to a memorable season in Evanston. The turnaround Pat Fitzgerald (named unanimous Big Ten Coach of the Year Tuesday evening) has done with the program this season was remarkable. Fitzgerald has led Northwestern to a 15-1 mark in the Big Ten over his last 16 games, an unthinkable stat after such a poor start to the season.
What We Think We Know
A quick look ahead to this weekend’s conference title games:
- Pac 12
This will be a very physical, low-scoring affair, similar to the one played in Salt Lake City earlier this year. Washington struggles against superior line play, which Utah possesses, but I think the Huskies squeak one out against the Utes.
Prediction: Washington 20, Utah 14
- Big 12
A rematch of one of the best games of the year in Jerry World is exactly what Conference Championship weekend is all about. This game should be an awesome and high-scoring yet again. In the end, I think Kyler Murray can’t be stopped enough and Oklahoma gets their revenge on the Longhorns.
Prediction: Oklahoma 45, Texas 38
It’ll be interesting to see how the Knights react after having a week to recover emotionally from Milton’s leg injury. This game is a rematch of a contest earlier in the year that Memphis was in control of but gave away late. If this game was in Memphis, I would like the Tigers, but I expect home field to play a big factor in this one.
Prediction: UCF 28, Memphis 24
- Mountain West
Another rematch of a close contest played earlier in the year. These two teams that could be fighting for a spot in the New Year’s Six if UCF were to falter in their conference title game. I like the Broncos to hold serve again and beat Fresno State on the Smurf Turf.
Prediction: Boise State 27, Fresno State 20
The game everyone was hoping for at the beginning of the season is finally here: a title game rematch with a playoff berth on the line. Georgia has been preparing an entire offseason for this moment, and I expect them to give Alabama everything they can handle. They have the offense to control the time of possession, and Jake Fromm has really hit his stride in the passing game over the last few weeks. The Tide have struggled a bit down the stretch with their offensive line play, as Tua Tagovailoa has been beat up in a few games from taking some huge shots against LSU and Mississippi State. Georgia should be able to generate pressure up front and has the talent in their secondary to hang with some of the dynamic, explosive Alabama wide receivers. The kicking game could play a big factor, as Rodrigo Blakenship has hit a number of huge kicks in his career. Ultimately, I think Tua makes enough plays to lead the Tide over the Dawgs again and clinch the top spot in the playoff seeding.
Prediction: Alabama 28, Georgia 27
As mentioned above, Pitt had 200 yards of offense against Miami last weekend. I don’t think it’ll get much better for them Saturday night. Clemson rolls.
Prediction: Clemson 42, Pitt 10
- Big Ten
The Buckeyes finally put together a complete performance Saturday, and I expect it to continue in Indianapolis. Northwestern’s defense is solid, but their offense’s style of play does not tend to generate the explosive plays that have given the Buckeyes problems all year long. The Wildcats will fight but ultimately come up short, as Ohio State has a history of performing very well in this game when fighting for their playoff lives.
Prediction: Ohio State 37, Northwestern 21
- Prediction for Sunday’s Final Four
Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma
Both Joe Castiglione (Oklahoma AD) and Gene Smith (Ohio State AD) are part of the committee this year. The two cannot be present in the room when their schools are discussed, which will be an interesting wrinkle if the debate comes down to these two teams. Ultimately, I think the Buckeye’s loss to Purdue will be too damning to their chances. I believe Oklahoma will get revenge on the Longhorns Saturday and get the nod to play Alabama, leaving Clemson and Notre Dame to square off in the other semi-final.
What We Don’t Know
Questions we may not have answers to anytime soon:
- Where does Michigan go from here?
This was the year where everything was going to click for Michigan. Fourth year with Harbaugh, a talented and veteran defense, and a quarterback that was dynamic enough to put them over the top. To be fair, everything did click for about 11 weeks after their opening loss to Notre Dame. The Wolverines looked every bit the part of a top four team most of the season. Coming into Saturday, Ohio State was the most vulnerable it had been during Urban Meyer’s tenure. But all the momentum for Michigan came to a halt in Columbus, as they could not clear their biggest and final obstacle on their path back to national prominence. Coach Harbaugh and some of the players sounded defeated and lost in the postgame, praising the Buckeyes and searching for answers. Tyree Kinnel mentioned that going 0-4 against Ohio State during his career at Michigan was “something I have to sleep on for the rest of my life”. That is the kind of quote that resonates on both sides of this rivalry in a big way. How will Michigan respond during the bowl season and beyond after this crushing loss?
- Do we need to get rid of divisions?
I say yes. Does anybody really think Pitt is the second best team in the ACC? Or that Northwestern is the second best team in the Big Ten? Divisions were set up to make sure that teams would have common opponents year-in and year-out in an effort to create or maintain rivalries. Instead, we are now left with conference championship games that are more underwhelming (albeit, on paper) than what they otherwise could be. Due to the size of the Power 5 conferences, not everyone’s conference record is created equally even though two team’s conference records may be the same. This also means that the size of conferences does not allow a way to perfectly schedule evenly for every team, but it could still be improved from the current format. I’d rather do away with divisions and have the two best teams from each conference play at the end of the year to determine a champion. Schedule the common rivalry opponents every year anyways, divisions are silly and unnecessary.
- Where will transfer QBs go?
Transfer quarterbacks have been very impactful this season, and I expect the trend to continue next fall. Two Heisman contenders (Will Grier and Kyler Murray) emerged after switching schools, and Shea Patterson’s impact on the Michigan offense was evident. Next year, there could be more big names that change teams. Jalen Hurts may ready to depart from Alabama after seeing plenty of action behind Tua, but none of it has been very meaningful as the Heisman front-runner seized control of the position. Kelly Bryant has already taken a few visits and will continue to be highly sought after. A name to keep an eye on as a potential mover is Justin Fields. Jake Fromm appears to be the guy for Kirby Smart even with Fields getting playing time with packages implemented to get him on the field. Fields likely will want to “run the show” solo somewhere, and could relocate from Athens to do so. There will undoubtedly be other quarterbacks that look to move for a better opportunity as well.
I’ll be back with a New Year’s Six preview in a few weeks. As always, thank you for reading.