- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of Indiana University
The Pac-12 hasn’t even started playing yet, but it might have been one of the biggest winners of the weekend.
With Oklahoma State’s overtime loss to Texas, there are no undefeated teams left in the Big 12, which puts the league in the worst shape of the Power 5 conferences in the College Football Playoff race. With Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame (in whichever order you’d prefer to argue) all winning on Saturday, and one-loss Georgia still hanging around on the bubble, the Big 12 has officially taken a nosedive into CFP irrelevance.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is going to start its seven-game, conference-only schedule this week, and if it can produce an undefeated conference champion, it would almost certainly usurp the Big 12 winner for a semifinal spot. Considering the likelihood now that the Big 12 champion has multiple losses (ESPN’s Football Power Index had the chances hovering around 96% after the game), it also increases the potential for a one-loss Pac-12 champion to earn the edge in a close debate.
But that might be looking ahead a little too much.
It’s still too early to completely eliminate any one-loss Power 5 team with a chance to win its conference — including Oklahoma State. The Allstate Playoff Predictor has essentially done that already, giving the Cowboys just a 1.5% chance to reach the CFP after their loss — and it might be right — but the number cruncher can’t predict the effects of a pandemic.
The coronavirus already has sidelined potential No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence, derailed Big Ten West front-runner Wisconsin and forced scheduling reshuffling throughout even the mighty SEC — along with just about every other conference. This unprecedented season still has almost two entire months of games, and nobody knows how the virus will continue to impact an already wildly unpredictable sport, or how many games each team will wind up playing.
What we do know is that Oklahoma State is going to have an extremely difficult time winning out. Four of the next five games are on the road, including back-to-back games the next two weeks against ranked opponents No. 16 Kansas State and No. 24 Oklahoma. The Cowboys haven’t beaten the Sooners in the Bedlam series since 2014. ESPN’s FPI gives Oklahoma State a 38.1% chance to win that game (hence the assumption that the Big 12 champion is likely to have multiple losses, as every other team in the league already has at least two).
What if, though, the Cowboys do win out and win the Big 12? And Notre Dame loses to Clemson and North Carolina? And Georgia loses a second game?
Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders, who sat slumped and dejected with a bag of ice strapped to his shoulder after the loss to the Longhorns, took much of the blame but said the team can refocus its goals.
“We’ve just got to win out,” he said, “and go to practice the next day — it’s the next-day mentality. We just have to keep going and stay focused. We can still win this thing out, and we’re just going to give it the best we’ve got. It’s sad to lose this, but you can’t hang your heads. We’re men. We’re just going to keep pushing. What’s really going to define us is how we respond to this.”
If the Big 12 does play itself completely out of the playoff picture, it could also further legitimize a debate for undefeated No. 7 Cincinnati or undefeated No. 11 BYU. Any team outside of the Power 5 typically faces a greater burden of proof in the eyes of the committee because of perceived weaker schedule strength. Although that would remain a significant hurdle, if there was enough chaos in the Power 5 races, it’s not inconceivable. The Oklahoma State loss could certainly help down the stretch.
Or, it could open the door for both Clemson and Notre Dame.
ACC rising without its top player?
Following his team’s gritty 34-28 win over Boston College — the biggest comeback win at Death Valley in school history — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney heaped praise on his team because it didn’t flinch in spite of trailing by as many as 18 points without starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
And yes, he said, his team can still look like a playoff contender without Lawrence in the lineup on Saturday at Notre Dame.
“Sure, why not?” Swinney said. “We’re 7-0. We won today, that’s all you can do — try to win the day, one day at a time, and we’ll go from there.”
The 13-member selection committee will know and consider that Clemson was missing Lawrence for what should be the Tigers most difficult regular-season game of the year. But win or lose, that subplot might not change the playoff path for either team.
With Clemson and Notre Dame facing each other in South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday, one is obviously guaranteed a loss, but they could also meet again in the ACC championship game. If the teams split, and their only loss of the season is to each other, the selection committee would likely at least consider them both for semifinal spots.
“You judge on what you see, it’s the same for everybody,” Swinney said. “Everybody’s got the same challenges, but I’m not worried about that. That’s why they’ve got a committee. They can sit around and figure that out. I don’t have any control over that stuff, so I’m not wasting two seconds of my time on that.”
According to CFP protocols, which haven’t changed since the playoff began, the committee considers “key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season” to help distinguish between “otherwise comparable teams.” While the wording specifically relates to injuries, CFP executive director Bill Hancock said it’s more accurate to say player “availability” because committee members are also aware of suspensions or disqualifications, too.
“The selection committee will continue to consider players’ availability in its deliberations as it always has,” Hancock told ESPN on Thursday night. “There’s still a lot of football to be played this season, and it’s not ever appropriate for me to discuss hypothetical situations. We wish Trevor Lawrence all the best, as we do anyone who is dealing with a health situation.”
Alabama and Ohio State pulling away
While much of the attention this week was on Lawrence not playing, Alabama quietly dismantled Mississippi State 41-0 one week after losing its top playmaker, receiver Jaylen Waddle, to a season-ending injury. This is what makes Alabama so elite. The Crimson Tide didn’t just lose anyone, they lost the kind of player who can single-handedly change a game, and they didn’t miss a step on Saturday.
Instead, receiver DeVonta Smith hauled in four touchdowns. It was a dominating performance on both sides of the ball, and the Tide remain the only undefeated team left in the SEC, with one of the best wins in the country — Oct. 17 against Georgia. The question in the SEC is if Georgia can emerge as a second contender. It would have to win the East and then defeat Alabama in the SEC title game for that to become a realistic scenario.
After just two games, the Big Ten appears to be Ohio State and everyone else. The Nittany Lions are out of the picture with two losses, Michigan suffered an embarrassing loss to Michigan State, and Wisconsin is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak that has Saturday’s game against Purdue in jeopardy. The Big Ten’s probability of placing two teams in the top four changed drastically in only two weeks.
Another result that just might wind up helping the Pac-12.
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