College football’s season of chaos is here, and the scramble for the four playoff spots is on.
Since the first AP Top 25 Poll was released in late August, we’ve seen seen six teams go down that were ranked anywhere from 2nd to 7th in the AP over the first five weeks of the season.
Ohio State went as high as No. 2 but got hit with a 15-point loss to Oklahoma, in Columbus, in the second week.
Florida State began the season at No. 3 and pretty much had its season blown up in a first-week loss to Alabama, with starting quarterback Deondre Francois suffering a season-ending knee injury, and FSU was never the same.
USC, No. 3 in the first poll, was ranked 5th before losing on the road at Washington State.
Oklahoma State had moved up to No. 6, only to get whacked by TCU at home.
On Saturday, two more contenders got knocked down. In a shocking 38-31 upset, No. 3 Oklahoma couldn’t secure a victory over 31-point underdog Iowa State despite (1) playing at home, (2) owning a 24-10 lead, and (C) facing a former walk-on quarterback, Kyle Kempt, who was Iowa State’s third-stringer at one point. When Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield scored on a 13-yard run late in the second quarter, OU had a win probability of 98.1 percent … and … lost? Yes. This dizzying defeat shoved the third-ranked Sooners nine places down in updated AP Poll, to 12th.
Saturday night, No. 7 Michigan turned the ball over five times during a rain-slicked evening, slipping in a 14-10 defeat to hostile in-state rival Michigan State. The loss left Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh with a 1-4 record against his team’s two biggest rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State.
The more immediate concern: by losing, Michigan dropped 10 spots in the new AP poll, down to 17th.
With so many of the early-season big boys of CFB unable to hold their ground, other teams have climbed through the openings to show up as contenders for the four-team CFB playoffs: Penn State, Georgia, Washington, TCU, Washington State and Wisconsin. And we’d be stupid to count out several one-loss teams including Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, or USC.
But what we can count on are more upsets that will lead to more chaos. Among the true kingpins, only No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson have gone through the first six weeks without any doubts over their excellence.
Only 13 teams remain undefeated, and that list surely will be trimmed in the coming weeks.
Let’s drill a little deeper on one of Saturday’s surprising developments: What are the repercussions of Iowa State’s shocking ambush in Norman?
Oklahoma (4-1 overall, 1-1 in Big 12) lost its first conference game since Texas scored an upset win on Oct. 10, 2015. These Sooners can look back and feel a little better knowing that the 2015 OU team recovered from the Texas loss to make it to the CFB playoff that season.
But it will be harder to rebound this time. Sure, contenders can get a mulligan after loss to a quality opponent. But the Sooners were toppled by an Iowa State program that entered the season with an 11-37 record in its previous four seasons.
Second-year coach Matt Campbell is building up a fallen program in Ames, but the Cyclones haven’t had a winning season since 2009.
Oklahoma can brag on its huge non-conference conquest at Ohio State, but in a one-loss scenario is that enough to offset the indisputably bad loss to Iowa State?
Where would the Sooners settle in the mix of one-loss teams?
First of all, don’t assume this will be OU’s only setback. The remaining schedule is loaded with danger, with games against Texas (neutral field), at Kansas State, home vs. Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State (Nov. 4), TCU at home, at Kansas, and West Virginia at home. There’s only one soft-serve opponent on that list, KU.
With such an ugly loss soiling its resume, Oklahoma has to win out — period –and that includes capturing the Big 12 Championship game should the Sooners get there.
Related question: suppose the Big 12 conference title game pits two one-loss teams?
After getting an important win over West Virginia, a team ranked No. 23 at game time, TCU stands alone as the Big 12’s only unbeaten side. If we try to size up the Big 12’s competition for a spot in the CFB Playoff, the conference doesn’t match up to the Big Ten, which went into Week Six with four teams ranked in the top 10.
TCU is the Big 12’s best hope.
They’re spotless at 5-0.
TCU actually plays stout defense — unusual in the flag football league of Power 5 conferences.
Gary Patterson is an excellent coach.
The Horned Frogs can beat you in any number of ways. They’re adaptable in style of offense depending on the specific requirements in a game.
Winning out would be best for TCU but isn’t mandatory. Highly recommended, yes, but not mandatory. But should TCU lose a game, it’s difficult to envision a one-loss Big 12 team receiving favor over similar candidates from the Big Ten, SEC, ACC or Pac-12.
You may recall that Oklahoma went undefeated in the conference in 2016 and got excluded from the CFB Playoff.
There’s still a lot ball to play. But it’s a helter-skelter world in the crazy, high-scoring, defense-optional Big 12.
The unpredictable cyclone that went through Norman damaged OU and a conference that’s gotten a team into only one of the first three CFB Playoffs.
It’s too soon to erase Oklahoma, but the Sooners won’t be able to absorb another losing Saturday. And even then, collapsing against Iowa State could be enough to lock OU out of the Playoff.
Here are some other things that we learned in CFB Week Six:
— In the abstract, Michigan’s failure wasn’t healthy for Penn State or Ohio State. As Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports explained: Penn State and Ohio State need quality wins “after achieving nothing of note in non-conference play.” A victory over one-loss Michigan won’t be as valuable as a W over an unbeaten Wolverines team.
— With the win, Michigan State at least shows up in the big picture. Sparty’s loss to Notre Dame was hardly an embarrassment. And by the way: last season’s 3-9 record was outlier for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. He’s still a formidable coach with a strong program.
— No. 7 Wisconsin, on course to romp in the Big Ten West, won’t gain as much currency by beating Michigan in Madison on Nov. 18. The remaining docket has a bunch of two-loss teams, so the strength of schedule isn’t robust. (Right now: 59th among FBS teams according to the schedule-strength formula at the Sports Reference College Football site.) That won’t boost Wiscy’s CFB Playoff application, especially if the Badgers get to the Big Ten championship game and fall. Wisconsin
— We have to circle back and give a standing ovation to Kyle Kempt, the Iowa State quarterback, who threaded 18 of 24 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers. His third TD, covering 25 yards, was the winner. For a walk-on to outplay Baker Mayfield, a short-list Heisman contender … well, just wow. Mayfield had very good passing numbers in this loss, but this was the stat that mattered most: The OU offense had four second-half possessions and scored once. (A touchdown.)
— Thankfully, we learned about Iowa State linebacker Joel Lanning, formerly the No. 2 quarterback until changing positions after summer training camp. But when the Cyclones wanted to have a running threat at QB in a few situations Saturday, Lanning took on a two-way role. He played 78 snaps overall — 57 on defense, 13 on offense and eight on special teams. His personal box score: 60 yards of offense, eight tackles on defense, one sack, and a crucial fumble recovery. Lanning was the MVP of the biggest upset in Iowa State football history. Here’s a guy who, in his past, started 14 games at quarterback for the Cyclones — and he went into Saturday’s game as his team’s leading tackler. Given the magnitude of Iowa State’s win, Lanning turned in one of the great single-game performances of the season … or any season, for that matter.
— We learned, again, that Washington State is no fluke. After the emotional and intense home victory over USC, Wazzu had to stay sharp and alert and avoid a letdown for Saturday’s road game at Oregon. No problem. Final score: 33-10. Washington State QB Luke Falk went past former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and into second place all time in the Pac-12 with his 106th career touchdown pass. Washington State (6-0) rose to No. 8 in the rankings and appears headed to a showdown with state rival Washington (No. 5) for first place in the Pac-12 North.
— We learned that there’s a lot more to No. 3 Penn State than star running back Saquon Barkley. In Saturday’s road game at Northwestern, Barkley had minus 1 yard rushing at halftime. Big trouble, right? No. Penn State led 10-0 at the half and zoomed away for a 31-7 win. Behind a terrific defense, Penn State has outscored opponents 76-0 in the first quarter. And because of a defense that forced three turnovers to stake the visitors to a 10-0 halftime lead, the Nittany Lions didn’t need Barkley running wild to prevail. Quarterback Trace McSorley completed 14 consecutive passes during one stretch, and he has a touch for making the big throws at critical times. Even though Barkley eventually shook free for a 53-yard touchdown run, Penn State won by 24 points despite finishing with just 95 yards in 38 rushing attempts … The Penn State defense has allowed 9.0 points per game, the fewest by an FBS team. But after a bye week the Nittany Lions will have to get through a three-game gauntlet starting with a home game against Michigan, then road games at Ohio State and Michigan State.
— We learned that Michigan doesn’t have a real offensive identity under coach Harbaugh. Facing tough opponents the Wolverines struggle to run the ball effectively when they need a strong ground game. Michigan averaged 2.6 yards per carry vs. Michigan State.) And with starting QB Wilton Speight reportedly out for the rest of the season with three fractured vertebrae, backup John O’Korn created more anxiety by getting intercepted three times by the Spartans.
— We learned that No. 4 Georgia keeps getting better. Coach Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs didn’t lose focus after blowing out Tennessee 41-0 last week; they went into Nashville Saturday and piled up 423 yards rushing in a 45-14 bulldozing of Vanderbilt. Tuscaloosa East is rolling. Next up: Mizzou at Georgia on Saturday night.
— In a 17-16 loss to visiting LSU, we learned that Florida coach Jim McElwain still doesn’t show much confidence in young quarterback Feleipe Franks … yeah the Gators were running the ball effectively against the LSU defense, but Franks only attempted five second-half passes before Florida’s last possession when the Gators were in the high-wire, panic-time mode. How does the coach expect Franks to handle the heat of those moments when he such little faith in him? By the way, the Gators are 5-10 under McElwain when the their defense gives up more than 14 points in a game. Florida’s ineptitude on offense is a long-running mystery.
— In LSU’s victory, we learned that if head coach Ed Orgeron stays out of the offensive meetings and quits meddling, offensive coordinator Matt Canada will give the Tigers a more creative, less predictable attack. Before LSU’s home loss to Troy, Orgeron ordered Canada to simplify the offense. And that was a broken promise; in convincing Canada to leave his job at Pitt to come to LSU, Orgeron vowed to give Canada autonomy. The embarrassing failure against Troy prompted a meeting between LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, Orgeron, and the two coordinators. And by the time the Tigers began preparing for the Florida game, Canada was back in control of the offense. And his use of shifts, interesting personnel groupings and pre-snap motion absolutely caused confusion for the Florida defense. LSU still has a lot of work to do offensively, but this is a start … just make sure to lock Orgeron out of the offense-meeting room.
— With N.C. State’s consecutive wins over Florida State and Louisville, we learned that the No. 20 Wolfpack doesn’t plan on backing down when No. 2 Clemson visits Nov. 4 in a game that could determine the winner of the ACC Atlantic division. It’s a race. Clemson is 4-0 in ACC play; N.C. State is 3-0.
–We learned that coach Chris Petersen has No. 15 Washington rolling again this season, with no slowdown following last season’s thumping by Alabama in the CFB Playoff semifinals. The Huskies are 6-0 overall, 3-0 in the Pac-12. Washington hasn’t played much of a schedule so far, but through six weeks Petersen’s team ranks third in the nation defensively (allowing 10.2 points per game) and is tied for 10th offensively with an average of 43 points per contest.
Thanks for reading …