- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Six years of the College Football Playoff have produced 24 playoff bids. Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State have combined for 17 of them. This season, then, it was fair to assume once the Big Ten rejoined the fray and announced it would play later in the fall (Oct. 24) that these four teams would be your playoff front-runners.
With Oklahoma now standing at 1-2 and having lost back-to-back conference games for the first time since 2011-12, it’s also fair to say this list is down to three.
Between the Sooners’ implosion, a few other upsets and the announced return of the Pac-12 on Nov. 7, the CFP race has shifted quite a bit in just the past two weeks. Let’s look at which groups of teams are best poised to play for the title, even if our base assumption — Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State being untouchable — ends up proven true.
Potential Pac-12 champions
For obvious reasons, no conference’s CFP odds have improved more over the past couple of weeks than the Pac-12’s. Upsets have helped, but the biggest boost came from the conference simply announcing it would play in the fall. Funny how that improves one’s situation.
Wherever you stand on the “how many games should teams have to play to be considered for the CFP” debate, the mere existence of the debate suggests the Pac-12 could be dinged a bit by the fact that, barring cancellations, its champion will have played only seven games (six regular-season games, plus the conference title game). But it’s also fair to think an unbeaten conference champion will almost certainly get in. Which Pac-12 contenders have the best odds of getting to the finish line unscathed?
Pac-12 teams with best chance of going 6-0 in the regular season, per SP+:
USC (21% chance)
Assuming a near-toss-up in the conference title game, you’re looking at USC with about a 10% chance of getting to 7-0, and Oregon and Washington slightly below that. (It’s worth noting ESPN’s FPI likes Oregon quite a bit more than SP+ does and gives the Ducks a 30% chance of winning out. USC is at 15%.)
This would be a great year for the Pac-12 to have a few high-continuity contenders capable of running the table. But remember, Oregon is breaking in a new quarterback (Tyler Shough) and offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead); Washington has a new head coach (Jimmy Lake), offensive coordinator (John Donovan) and starting quarterback (to be determined); and Utah has a new quarterback (Jake Bentley) and a lot of pieces to replace at the front and back of the defense.
USC has the most high-continuity of the bunch. The Trojans have a new defensive coordinator (Todd Orlando) but still boast quarterback Kedon Slovis and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and Orlando inherits an experienced two-deep on defense. Maybe this makes USC the favorite, but Oregon and Washington have recently recruited at pretty high levels and have, at worst, top-15 upside.
Potential SEC No. 2s
SEC teams with the best chance of going at least 9-1 in the regular season, per SP+:
While Alabama’s odds of reaching the CFP have barely changed of late, another SEC team’s odds have shifted significantly.
Per FPI, Georgia’s chance of likely reaching the CFP has increased from 25% to 45% over the past two weeks, benefiting from the Big 12’s semi-implosion and its own prowess. Despite a slow start against Arkansas in Week 4, the Dawgs have dominated over their past six quarters, first pulling away from the Hogs and then demolishing Auburn this past Saturday. They have gained ground on college football’s top three teams in both FPI and SP+. Although making the CFP would likely require them to split two games against Alabama (Oct. 17’s battle in Tuscaloosa, then a theoretical SEC championship game tussle in December), their odds of doing so are decent.
They’ll also have to beat Florida, though. Neither FPI nor SP+ are quite as sold on the Gators despite Florida’s season-opening wins against Ole Miss (51-35) and South Carolina (38-24). The primary reason is the second number in each of those two scores. SP+ projected Florida second in defensive SP+ in the preseason, but it has quickly slipped to 20th.
The Gators’ defense was mostly fine against South Carolina (the Gamecocks scored two of their touchdowns on drives that started in Gator territory after turnovers), but the Ole Miss game lingers. The Rebels averaged 7.9 yards per play, the second-highest average of Florida’s past 26 games (LSU posted an incredible 10.7 last year). This could turn out to be an outlier performance, and Ole Miss’ offense could end up grading out well, too. But through a limited sample, there are a few reasons to remain unsure of the Gators.
Potential Big 12 champions
It’s been pretty easy to say the Big 12 has eliminated itself from CFP contention after Oklahoma and Texas dropped a combined three conference games before the Red River Rivalry even popped up on the schedule. But while the conference’s CFP odds have been significantly hurt, it’s not completely out yet.
Big 12 teams with the best chance of going at least 9-1 in the regular season, per SP+:
Oklahoma State (17%)
Iowa State (3%)
Yes, the odds aren’t great. FPI gives OSU a 5% chance of reaching the CFP, while Texas is at 4%; this tracks pretty well with the SP+ projections.
Mike Gundy’s Cowboys have two things going for them at the moment. First, they are still unbeaten, which no one else in the conference can say. Second, they’re improving.
After narrowly surviving a visit from Tulsa and an injury to quarterback Spencer Sanders in their first game, the Pokes have asserted themselves in conference play. (And that win against Tulsa looks at least a little bit more impressive — or, at least, less unimpressive — with Tulsa’s upset of UCF this past weekend.) They stepped back and let West Virginia implode early in a 27-13 win, then closed the door down the stretch as the Mountaineers tried to rally. This past Saturday, they made sure an already-hopeless Kansas team would remain hopeless, scoring on five of their first seven possessions before setting it to cruise control en route to a 47-7 victory.
OSU’s offense has stabilized since handing the reins to freshman quarterback Shane Illingworth, and Sanders has returned to practice. But the Cowboys have also improved to 28th in defensive SP+ and have yet to allow more than 13 points or 4.6 yards per play. They have in no way faced a murderers’ row of offenses, but they’re treating bad offenses like bad offenses. That’s not something you could always say in recent years.
Potential Big Ten No. 2s
It’s been odd talking about only three Power 5 conferences in present tense and two others in future tense, but nothing is normal in 2020. The Big Ten’s announced return immediately made Ohio State a CFP favorite and teams such as Wisconsin and Penn State solid secondary picks as well. FPI gave Wisconsin a 38% chance of making the field two weeks ago, and Penn State 21%.
The Big 12’s woeful start has helped the Big Ten’s “get two teams in” cause, but the Pac-12’s inclusion negated those gains. Though Ohio State’s odds remain almost unchanged, Wisconsin’s (37%) and Penn State’s (18%) have shrunk slightly.
Still, look again at the odds above. Neither the Pac-12 nor Big 12 are dealing with wonderful CFP odds, and the Big Ten’s second-best team might be second in line for the No. 4 spot behind the Georgia-Florida winner.
Big Ten teams with the best chance of going at least 7-1 in the regular season, per SP+:
Ohio State (80%)
Penn State (35%)
Before the Big Ten’s season begins, I will update teams’ rosters one last time for injuries and opt-outs; depending on the severity of Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan’s foot injury, the Badgers’ odds could shift a decent amount. Either way, these teams will not lack motivation, even if Ohio State ends up as good as advertised.
Potential ACC No. 2s
The ACC’s top non-Clemson teams have done well for themselves so far. Notre Dame has jumped from ninth in SP+ in the preseason to fifth, while Miami has moved from 23rd to ninth, North Carolina from 17th to 11th and Virginia Tech from 34th to 23rd.
Clemson has to play three of these four teams in the regular season and will then likely play one of them in the ACC championship game. If any of this quartet has one loss after the title game, they could be an attractive CFP option.
ACC teams with the best chance of going at least 10-1 in the regular season, per SP+:
Notre Dame (38%)
North Carolina (18%)
Virginia Tech (3%)
Obviously, the odds here aren’t great, but they’re on the board. FPI gives Notre Dame a 15% chance of making the CFP, while Virginia Tech is up to 2% and Miami to 1%. They are trending in the right direction, albeit slowly.
The 1980 Holiday Bowl participants*
Back before the Big Ten and Pac-12 rejoined the party, we were looking at one of the most potentially strange (and unintentionally inclusive) races for the No. 4 spot.
With the Power Three now back to being the Power 5, the CFP committee can go back to doing what it prefers — mostly ignoring the Group of 5. But if these past couple of funky weeks in the Big 12 start to work some voodoo on other conferences … if Georgia and Florida each lose a couple of games … if Wisconsin and Penn State do the same … if no one from the Pac-12 can avoid landmines … if the battle for the ACC’s No. 2 team produces a glut of 8-3 teams … there could be two outsiders poised to take advantage.
With Memphis and UCF losing in conference play in Week 5, the AAC’s odds of finishing with an unbeaten champion have diminished. But there are still three blemish-free teams remaining in the hunt.
AAC teams with the best chance of finishing unbeaten in the regular season, per SP+:
SMU (9% chance of 11-0)
Cincinnati (6% chance of 10-0)
Houston (0.1% chance of 8-0)
Houston’s unbeaten start comes with a literal “ain’t played nobody” disclaimer. The Cougars are finally supposed to begin their season against Tulane on Thursday, but then again, they’ve already had a host of other season openers canceled. Coogs aside, SMU and Cincinnati have started strong. The Bearcats are 26th in SP+, while the Mustangs are 34th with a win against No. 37 Memphis already in their back pocket.
SMU avoids UCF in conference play and hosts Cincinnati on Oct. 24, so the Mustangs might be the conference’s best bet. They’re probably only second in line for a shot among outsiders, though, because BYU has so far been a wrecking ball and just beefed up its schedule strength a bit.
When teams overachieve against the spread and/or SP+ projections the way BYU has through its first three games, it usually means we’re witnessing a sustainable jump. BYU is now up to 16th in SP+ and is a projected favorite to score at least two touchdowns in every remaining game but one: a recently added Nov. 7 visit to Boise State. Even by adding BSU and San Diego State (Dec. 12) to the slate, the Cougars’ schedule strength is going to be pretty awful. Such is life when you’re an independent, your regularly scheduled games got canceled and you had to start drawing up a new schedule in August.
Those originally scheduled games against Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota and Missouri would have come in handy, but if BYU keeps playing like it has, a 10-0 Cougars team with an absurd scoring differential (average score so far is BYU 49, opponent 8) could have quite a bit of support if an obvious No. 4 contender doesn’t emerge. You can learn something about teams no matter whom they play, and we’ve thus far learned BYU is capable of utter dominance. All it has to do is keep it going, and hope for a few upsets.
* BYU beat SMU 46-45 in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, you see.
Some other random thoughts from Week 5
Run the dang ball, Coach!
In 2003, I watched Gary Pinkel-led Missouri beat Mike Leach-led Texas Tech 62-31. The main story of the day was Mizzou quarterback Brad Smith, who rushed 19 times for 291 yards and five touchdowns. But aside from Smith’s effortlessly juking edge defenders while making his way into acres of open space, I have another clear memory from that game: getting really frustrated with Leach.
As a then-recent Mizzou grad, my rooting interests in this game were obvious. But with the Tigers dropping as many defenders as possible into coverage and basically offering Tech a 7-yard run anytime the Red Raiders wanted to take it, it still was maddening to watch Tech refuse to take the offer. Taurean Henderson, a rock-solid running back, rushed just 11 times for 51 yards. Instead, B.J. Symons and Sonny Cumbie kept either firing balls into coverage or taking short dump-off passes. They combined to complete 45 of 73 passes, at just 9.7 yards per completion, with four interceptions.
After losing his first battle against Leach in 2002, Pinkel saw quite a bit of success, also beating the Red Raiders by 17 in Lubbock in 2006 and by 31 in Columbia in 2007, before Leach departed West Texas. The Red Raiders scored a combined 31 points in those two games, still struggling with what amounted to the same defensive strategy.
Barry Odom was a graduate assistant in 2003 and Pinkel’s director of football operations in 2006-07. He is now Arkansas’ defensive coordinator. There was no doubt what strategy he would deploy against Leach’s Mississippi State on Saturday, and with MSU quarterback K.J. Costello playing his first game against a “drop eight defenders into coverage as much as humanly possible” approach, he predictably struggled. It messes with your fight-or-flight clock in the pocket and can make you impatient.
Costello threw picks on three of MSU’s first nine drives; but, despite a strong MSU defense giving Costello & Co. great field position a few times in the fourth quarter, they turned the ball over on downs twice, then muffed a punt to all but ice the 21-14 upset loss. With Kylin Hill knocked out of the game early on, backup RB Dillon Johnson had just nine carries. He also caught eight short passes, which sort of counts as a run game — but Costello was flustered, and, once again, a team that employs Odom got the better of a team run by Leach.
Georgia’s defense is in rarefied air
Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris tried almost literally everything they could think of in hopes of moving the football against Georgia on Saturday. Even a 300-pound Wildcat quarterback.
But if the highlight of your performance was a player rushing twice for 4 yards, as J.J. Pegues did, that is probably saying something. Georgia snuffed out pretty much everything Auburn could come up with in the Dawgs’ suffocating 27-6 win. Bo Nix completed just 21 of 40 passes at 8.4 yards per completion, threw an interception and took three sacks. Only one Auburn pass gained 20 yards, and the longest rush of the day was a 10-yarder by Nix. It took drives of 11 and 15 plays for the Tigers to manage two field goals.
Georgia played exactly how it was projected to play. The Dawgs were first in defensive SP+ last year and were projected a distant first this year with a motherlode of returning production. Through two games, their defensive SP+ rating, presented as an adjusted points per game figure, is 6.2. Here is the entire list of teams that have finished with a better rating in the past 30 years:
–2006 Virginia Tech (4.6)
–1991 Miami (4.9)
–2017 Alabama (5.6)
That’s it. Smart was the defensive coordinator for a couple of otherworldly defenses at Alabama (6.4 in 2011, 6.5 in 2009), but if the projections and early performances hold up, this could be his masterpiece. We’ve talked a lot about Georgia’s early-season QB issues — but with this defense, the Dawgs’ offense has to be just merely good for the team to contend. Having said that, Georgia’s offense looked pretty fantastic on a few drives against what was, heading into the game, the No. 2 defense, per defensive SP+.
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