Playing college football in the midst of a pandemic has made this September even more unpredictable than the usual, sloppy starts we see to start a season. Combine an offseason unlike any other with typical roster and coaching turnovers, plus a lack of a true home-field advantage without packed stadiums, and you get … Week 4.
Oklahoma losing to a Kansas State team that lost to Arkansas State. Georgia struggling with an Arkansas team picked by the media to finish last in the SEC West. Texas needing 63 points and overtime to beat Texas Tech.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 haven’t even joined the party yet, but both conferences might be helped down the road by what happened in the Big 12 on Saturday. Here’s a look at how the playoff picture is starting to take shape, along with questions that still loom:
Is Oklahoma done?
Stop. We’re five minutes into what probably is going to be remembered as one of the strangest seasons in the sport’s history. It’s premature to write off any one-loss teams in September, especially during a year that is likely to continue to be wildly unpredictable.
The selection committee has repeatedly shown that teams can overcome a loss. Oklahoma did it last year after losing to K-State but needed some help down the stretch.
It is fair to say, though, that it will be more challenging for the Sooners to do it again, especially after that performance. K-State, which suffered an embarrassing loss against Arkansas State at home two weeks ago, was trailing by 21 in the third quarter, and Oklahoma’s defense collapsed. OU quarterback Spencer Rattler finished with three interceptions — the most by an Oklahoma quarterback under Lincoln Riley and most by a Sooner since 2014. Oklahoma has had its recent run in large part because of its Heisman-worthy crop of quarterbacks. Rattler is talented but probably not as elite as his predecessors, Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield.
For the committee to consider OU a legitimate contender and forgive the loss, Rattler has to be better. The defense, which surrendered 31 points in the second half, has to improve quickly. The running game, which averaged 3.7 yards per carry in the loss, has to develop. And Oklahoma has to convincingly beat everyone, including Texas.
And the Longhorns have issues of their own. Texas was fortunate to escape Lubbock with a 63-56 overtime win against Texas Tech, and the Longhorns and Oklahoma State are currently the only two ranked opponents on OU’s schedule. With each of the Power 5 conferences shrinking or eliminating their nonconference schedules, having ranked league opponents will be a critical factor in determining schedule strength.
OU doesn’t have any marquee nonconference opponents to help compensate for an ugly home loss. It also won’t be the Sooners’ only loss if they don’t find quick remedies for the mistakes that cost them Saturday’s game. If the Big 12 plays itself out of the conversation, it opens the door for two SEC teams (again), two Big Ten teams (maybe Ohio State and Penn State?) two ACC teams (Notre Dame and Clemson if they split?) or … a 7-0 Pac-12 champ.
Will the Pac-12 play enough games to be considered?
Will Ohio State? Will Alabama? Clemson?
No one knows how many games any team will wind up playing in the midst of a pandemic. Houston has tried four times to play a game, but all four opponents have had to cancel or postpone because of COVID-19 issues. Virginia and Virginia Tech played their season openers Saturday.
The Pac-12’s problem is not a seven-game schedule, it’s finding a team that elevates from good to great. If one of its teams finishes 7-0, it would certainly be considered for a semifinal spot.
“Our schools are going to have the opportunity to be in the conversation, have every opportunity,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “We regularly discussed this at the CFP management committee. There’s no minimum number of games, and we’re all very humbly going into the season realizing there could be disruptions along the way. Our fellow conferences have built that into their schedules with bye weeks, and we’ve seen it play out over the first few weeks. No one knows how many games they’re going to get in.”
The problem, of course, is, with fewer games and a condensed calendar, there’s not much, if any, flexibility to react to virus setbacks.
The Pac-12 knows this.
“If we exceed the level of which the state or county thinks is appropriate or our own judgment, we will have to pull the plug or pause for a while,” said Michael Schill, University of Oregon President and Chair of the Pac-12 CEO Group. “In the seven-game season, pausing for a long time means losing part of that season, but these are students and we have the obligation to protect them and we’re going to do that.”
The SEC’s second CFP candidate looks like Florida, not Georgia
With the exception of Alabama, the SEC looked different in its debut, but that was to be expected with four head coaching changes and several new starting quarterbacks. LSU, the defending national champion, returned only five starters and the Tigers looked the part in a home loss to Mississippi State. The question is whether Georgia and LSU are just working out some kinks or … it’s an Alabama-Florida SEC championship.
Expectations were certainly higher for Florida this year (the media picked the Gators to win the SEC East), but it was only by 10 more first-place votes than Georgia. The Gators looked more than capable of widening that gap Saturday.
Florida’s offense found its stride in a 51-35 win at Ole Miss, racking up 642 total yards, a school record against an SEC opponent. Quarterback Kyle Trask finished with 416 passing yards and six passing touchdowns, and the Rebels had no answer for the connection between Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts.
Meanwhile, Georgia needed a quarterback change to rally to beat Arkansas 37-10. The final score doesn’t tell the whole story, as Arkansas held a 7-5 halftime lead. Starting quarterback D’Wan Mathis was benched in the second quarter in favor of Stetson Bennett. The Bulldogs had 11 first-half penalties, and were just 1-for-12 on third down in the first half.
Before Georgia thinks about the CFP, it needs to look like a contender in the SEC East. So far, Florida looks like the team to beat.
Don’t forget about Notre Dame
You did, didn’t you? The SEC came rolling in, the Irish had to postpone their game against Wake Forest until Dec. 12 — and boom — you forgot the Irish are 2-0 with a talented quarterback in Ian Book, and a chance to win the ACC title.
They’re off again this Saturday because of a bye week, which means they’ll have ample time to prepare for their Oct. 10 home game against Florida State. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Notre Dame at least a 70% chance to win every remaining game except Nov. 7 against Clemson (30.5%). If the Irish lose but beat Clemson to win the ACC title, the ACC could have two contenders.
Is there any chance the playoff could expand this year?
Zero chance. Nada. No discussions.
Instead, as we continue to see games postponed and practices paused each week, CFP officials are hoping the playoff happens, period.
The CFP website has a countdown clock ticking to the Jan. 11 national championship game in Miami Gardens, Florida (106 days). It is currently selling “Playoff Premium VIP Suites.” Media and team hotel rooms have already been booked. The host city was ceremoniously passed from New Orleans to Miami the day after LSU won.
On Thursday, when the Pac-12 announced it would start a seven-game season on Nov. 6, Scott was asked why he wasn’t leading the charge for expansion to help his conference secure a semifinal spot. Scott explained that the CFP has an agreement among the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame.
“We are comfortable and thought it was appropriate sticking to the current format that we have for this year, especially who’s going to play when,” Scott said. “So that doesn’t mean there isn’t a robust conversation behind the scenes about what we’re going to do short term and long term, because I can assure you there is.”
Could a Group of 5 contender make a real run?
It got significantly more difficult with the addition of the Big Ten and Pac-12 — it’s now a long shot just like any other season.
All 10 FBS conferences are playing this fall, with the MAC starting its six-game season on Nov. 4 and the MWC beginning an eight-game season on Oct. 24. As of now, the American Athletic Conference has the best teams with UCF and Cincinnati, which both won Saturday. They play each other Nov. 21, which means only one can finish undefeated.
For this to be a realistic scenario, the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion is going to have to be undefeated, have beaten multiple ranked opponents, and will need multiple Power 5 conference champions to have more than one loss. Not having the statement nonconference opportunities against Power 5 opponents is a major setback this year for the AAC.