As if the college football playoff selection committee hasn't had enough discussion this season.
Uneven schedules, delayed starts, interruptions and cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic. And then, on Saturday, the ACC and SEC further complicated the playoff picture when they both backed an early fall for two top 4 competitors.
Clemson # 1 and Notre Dame # 4, who had the chance to meet again in the ACC championship game, parted ways with a touchdown in the Irish 47:40 win in two hours of overtime, while Florida and Alabama were also on victory appear to be on a collision course for their conference championship game.
While it may seem a little early to present this potential debate, the toughest sections of their schedule are behind them, and they should all be given preference in any of their remaining games. With ESPN's Football Power Index, Clemson, Notre Dame, Alabama and Florida have a greater than 71% chance of winning any of their final regular season games.
With Alabama and Ohio State both in the fast lane for the top four finishes, the committee may choose them along with Clemson and Notre Dame (if Clemson beats the Irish to win the ACC title, and both in loss complete – against each other). The committee might also consider a top four that includes the state of Ohio, the ACC champion, Alabama, and Florida in case the Gators disrupt the tide in the SEC championship game.
Given how fiercely competitive the Notre Dame-Clemson game was, the ACC's playoff position seems like the more realistic scenario for a Power 5 conference with two teams finishing in the top four. The selection committee will take into account the fact that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence paused that game because of the coronavirus, but the Tigers quarterback situation will not be the defining piece of Clemson's playoff potential, nor will it affect Notre Dame's achievement.
Clemson's toughest remaining game is December 5th at Virginia Tech (78%) – and the Hokies have just lost to Liberty. They're also the only ACC team on Clemson's schedule, whose record is over .500. Notre Dame has arguably the toughest target with three of their last four games on the road, including a game on Friday night in North Carolina.
Irish coach Brian Kelly is suspicious of any disappointment and immediately stopped Saturday's playoff conversation.
"We still have so much work to do and BC (Boston College) will be a challenge for us," Kelly told reporters after the Irish beat Clemson. "I have to get this football team back on track, emotionally ready to play. We now have a goal on our backs. There are so many more things on my plate than I really have to do myself with playoffs and who's in and who's not. There are other people who will do that. "
And it could be her toughest decision ever.
Quarterback Kyle Trask has the Florida Gators at the helm of the SEC East after beating Georgia on Saturday. AP Photo / John Raoux
While Alabama was away for a bye week, the SEC East took center stage on Saturday, and Florida topped the game with a 44:28 win over Georgia No. 5. Florida now has an 89% chance of winning the East, according to ESPN's FPI. As of now, the Gators' last five opponents have a combined record of 9-18, and none of them are above .500. According to the FPI, the toughest remaining game of the Gators is the regular season finale against LSU on December 12th (75.9%). There's no need for a surprise, but if Florida stumbles on the way it is clearly not ready for a semifinal.
Florida coach Dan Mullen said he'd love to see how good his team can be when it's on the field in its entirety. The Gators were understaffed for almost every game for various reasons, and on Saturday Kyle Pitts left the game with an injury.
"We're at the point where we're first halfway east," said Mullen. "How far can we go? I don't know. Hopefully we can go back to work next week (Sunday) and find a way to beat Arkansas, and if we are concerned about anything else, we are not going to keep going about great things that we've enjoyed so far this year. "
Florida's 41:38 loss at Texas A&M doesn't look as bad as it did on October 10, either. The 7th aggies battered South Carolina 48-3. What if Texas wins A&M – and defeats the SEC East champions – but Alabama wins the West?
Now throw Clemson and Notre Dame into the debate and the committee has a real mess to sort out. Will the committee consider the second best teams in ACC and SEC better than the Pac-12 champion? An unbeaten BYU? Cincinnati?
Strong start for Pac-12
USC, one of the Pac-12's hopes for a place in the CFP, clinched a win against Arizona State in Saturday's season opener. Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports
The Pac-12's two best playoff competitors – No. 12 Oregon and No. 20 USC – won their respective openings and got the conference off to a start, albeit a significantly later one. The longer the league's ranked teams can stay in the rankings, the longer it stays part of the playoff conversation.
While it's far too early to say whether either team will be in the top 4 materials, the committee will consider it for a semifinal spot if you emerge as the elite conference champion – despite a shorter schedule for seven games.
The question is whether the ducks or Trojans can go from good to big quickly.
"How good can we be? We can be really good," said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. "We can be an excellent football team. I am confident that we will get there. I am confident that these guys will wake up and are very anxious to be back soon."
As expected, both teams made mistakes in their first games in nearly a year, but USC defied the laws of football by beating the State of Arizona 28-27 despite making four turnovers. It was also a 9am start for a team that hadn't played a game in almost a year.
USC coach Clay Helton said he told the team "we all made mistakes" but there were also "some really good things here".
"This team can be really good and yes there was a lot of rust and we shook it off," said Helton. "But what is special about this team, in my opinion, is their attitude and the way they deal with adversity and the playmakers.
"And then defensively, if we can eliminate the big games – and a lot of them came from the quarterback who came out of the pocket – if we can eliminate them then this has the chance to be a really good team. That was a big hurdle for us today. We knew how big it was, we knew what it meant for the conference, and getting this today is huge. "
With just seven games, it will be like that in Pac-12 every week.
Are the Big Ten deeper than the state of Ohio?
Maybe, but not because of Penn State or Michigan.
The Buckeyes' next two games are against Maryland and Indiana – two teams that have shaken the Big Ten's balance of power in recent weeks with wins against Penn State and Michigan. While the Terps and Hoosiers have taken important steps forward in the past few weeks, they are not yet at the elite level of Ohio State as programs evolve.
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However, do they have enough confidence and drive to cause a stir?
The Buckeyes are still preferred to win each of their remaining games, but who will win the Wild West? Assuming the state of Ohio continues to flow directly into the Big Ten championship game, there is no telling who it might be up against right now as Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin remain undefeated. Wisconsin has only played one game and the Badgers' situation is precarious after two games were canceled in the program due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Badgers must play each of their five remaining games in Michigan starting Saturday to hit the Big Ten six-game benchmark and qualify for the conference championship game. Purdue also missed a game because it was supposed to be playing Wisconsin.
The Big Ten's unprecedented season continues, with the state of Ohio appearing to be the only team to follow the script to date.
Who can crash the party?
If BYU ends up unbeaten, can the Cougars make the college football playoffs? Tim Warner / Getty Images
According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, it starts with Cincinnati, who won their 18th game in a row with a 38-10 win over Houston on Saturday. If Cincinnati wins (including the AAC championship game), the Bearcats would have a 38% chance of making the playoffs, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. At the start of the weekend, this was the fourth highest chance of hitting the CFP – behind Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson.
The selection committee compares common opponents, and both Cincinnati and the undefeated BYU have now defeated Houston. The Bearcats held Houston at 10 points and 282 yards; BYU was 26:14 behind Houston in the third quarter and was leading 29:26 with four minutes remaining before scoring two touchdowns. Houston was 438 yards in total.
The common opponent is only one factor. The strength of the schedule is different, and Cincinnati could be ahead there. The Bearcats have three wins against teams with record wins, while BYU has two in eight games.
BYU took a much-needed win against a senior opponent 51-17 on Friday against Boise State No. 21 on the blue turf. The question is whether the Broncos will be the top 25 opponents in the committee's eyes. Cincinnati also has a win against a senior opponent, October 24th at No. 16 SMU. BYU has just two games left – November 21st against North Alabama and December 12th against San Diego State – and should win both convincingly. Cincinnati has a tougher road with three of their last four games, and ESPN's FPI only gives the Bearcats a 33.3% chance of winning at UCF on November 21st.
If Cincinnati wins and ends up as the AAC champion, it will likely win a résumé debate against the independent BYU. While both have the chance to secure a spot in a New Year's Six Bowl, Cincinnati appears to be in a better position to achieve more.
However, the ACC and SEC may have made things more difficult on Saturday.