College football winners and losers for Week 12: Which teams can make the playoff?
Yet here the sport sits, four regular season weekends plus a fifth reserved for conference title games away from getting a four-team playoff field. And it’s worth doing a league-by-league reset to size up who really still has a chance to earn a semifinal nod.
The playoff committee has yet to select a team with more than one loss in the event’s first six seasons, and a year with shortened schedules is not going to be the one to end that trend. So from the jump, this rundown is already reduced to the remaining unbeatens and one-loss teams.
ACC: No, 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0) still has never lost a conference game in its history, and it would be the ultimate mic drop for the Irish to run the table and go back to independence next year. But if that doesn’t happen, winning the next three games (North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest) would put Brian Kelly’s bunch in good shape to finish in the final four even with a possible ACC title game loss to Clemson.
Speaking of the No. 4 Tigers (7-1, 6-1), they were scheduled to face Florida State on Saturday in their first game since falling at Notre Dame in double overtime. However, the ACC announced the game was postponed on Saturday morning.
If Clemson can win out (including a possible ACC title game rematch with the Irish), they’d probably be at the top of the list for ACC contenders.
Then there’s No. 12 Miami (7-1, 6-1), which is on pause at the moment. The Hurricanes still have Wake Forest, North Carolina and Georgia Tech to come, but their loss to Clemson is an obstacle to both reaching the ACC title game and getting serious playoff consideration. That said, an 11-1 Miami would be in the mix.
Big 12: The only program left in the 10-team conference with just one setback is No. 14 Oklahoma State (5-1, 4-1), and the Cowboys’ hopes could very well evaporate with a loss at No. 18 Oklahoma on Saturday. Winning out is Oklahoma State’s only serious playoff path.
SEC: There are two teams firmly in control of their playoff fates. No. 1 Alabama (6-0) is the league’s lone remaining unbeaten, and No. 6 Florida (5-1) would be tough to leave out if it runs the table (especially if it encounters a still-unbeaten Crimson Tide in the SEC title game).
Here’s a fascinating potential headache: Florida goes 10-1 and drops Alabama to 10-1 in the SEC title game. No. 5 Texas A&M, the only team to beat the Gators, gets into the barn at 9-1 and with a loss to the Crimson Tide. Alternatively, a scenario with an 11-0 Alabama, 9-1 Texas A&M and 9-2 Florida could also benefit the Aggies.
Big Ten: The abbreviated season means no margin for error. So No. 9 Indiana (4-0), No. 19 Northwestern (4-0), No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) and No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0) are the remaining contenders, and their group will be cut in half by the end of play Saturday.
Pac-12: It’s the same deal as the Big Ten, but probably even less wiggle room to have games cut. There are only three 2-0 teams in the Pac-12 — Colorado, No. 11 Oregon and No. 20 Southern California — while Washington won its belated opener last week and Utah is still waiting to play its first game. Conventional wisdom entering the fall was Oregon was the league’s best team, and nothing’s happened to seriously counter such thinking.
Undefeated Group of Five/independent teams: There were almost a dozen teams part of this group to start the week. But let’s be realistic: The deck is so heavily stacked against a normal Group of Five team that anyone not playing something close to a full schedule doesn’t have a chance at a playoff berth. Sorry, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences.
Yet that still leaves five other unbeatens. No. 7 Cincinnati (7-0) and No. 8 Brigham Young (8-0) have clobbered nearly everyone who has come their way, and both may very well be legitimate top-10 teams. If there’s enough chaos (and everyone in the Big Ten or Pac-12 taking a loss would be a good start), this would be the year to make the case for the Bearcats or Cougars.
Those two would probably be better bets to be playoff spoilers than No. 15 Coastal Carolina (7-0), No. 21 Liberty (8-0) and No. 15 Marshall (7-0), all of whom are having marvelous seasons but might have to settle for a bowl berth outside the New Year’s Six structure even if they win out.
No reason to be cocky
South Carolina became the first Power Five program to make a coaching change in the pandemic, jettisoning Will Muschamp on Sunday after a third consecutive rout. The Gamecocks are 2-5 a year after a disappointing 4-8 run, and Muschamp closed out his five seasons in Columbia with a 28-30 record.
No tears should be shed for Muschamp, who received an eight-figure buyout for his trouble. And while South Carolina wasn’t as good as it should have been (in 2019 and 2020, in particular), this wouldn’t have been a good time for anyone to be the Gamecocks’ coach.
Like it or not, the barometers for South Carolina are in-state rival Clemson and SEC East foes Florida and Georgia. When those programs optimize their advantages, they’re top-10 programs.
The good news for the Gamecocks? All three have finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll on only two occasions. The bad news, especially for Muschamp? Those two seasons were 2018 and 2019, and 2020 could join that group with Clemson (No. 4) and Florida (No. 6) inside the top 10 and Georgia (No. 13) not far outside it.
If all three of those programs are cooking, it’s going to be hard for South Carolina to get serious traction. Yes, the Gamecocks need to get the right coach, but having one of their well-resourced rivals take a slide is a stroke of luck South Carolina can’t make happen on its own.
Five with the most at stake
1a and 1b. Indiana and Ohio State. This may well be the Big Ten East title game. Indiana already owns victories over Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, and that may not mean as much when those teams are a combined 2-10. But the Hoosiers have been pushed around by those programs for so long they ought to savor the accomplishment. And if they beat the 3-0 Buckeyes? Well, Indiana making the Big Ten title game before Michigan would be a hoot.
2. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys can play their way out of playoff contention with a loss at Oklahoma, but they can’t play their way out of the Big 12 title picture just yet. But with a victory, Oklahoma State significantly improves its conference title hopes, substantially damages the Sooners’ hopes for the same and snaps a five-game skid in the Bedlam series. What’s not to like about that for the Cowboys?
3a and 3b. Northwestern and Wisconsin. The intriguing undercard in the Big Ten’s monster weekend features a pair of teams that have combined to allow 74 points in six games. Take the under as Wisconsin makes the trek to the shores of Lake Michigan to face the Wildcats in what could very well decide the Big Ten West.
4. Cincinnati. If the Bearcats are really fortunate, they’ll be able to run a fake punt in the fourth quarter of a rout. More likely, Central Florida (5-2, 4-2) will give quarterback Desmond Ridder and his teammates as tough an on-field test as they’ve faced in 2020. Every win puts the Bearcats closer to landing a New Year’s Six invitation.
5. Coastal Carolina. Know what would stink for the Chanticleers (7-0, 5-0 Sun Belt), who began the year with a pounding of Kansas, cracked the national rankings for the first time in program history and have won all but one of their games to date by at least 14 points? Not even winning their division. That fate is in play with a loss to Appalachian State (6-1, 4-0), which pays a visit to Conway, S.C., in what should be one of the weekend’s best contests.
1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson; 1,833 yards, 17 TDs, 2 INTs passing; 71 yards, 4 TDs rushing. Lawrence missed two games with a positive coronavirus test and then Clemson had an open date last weekend. With Saturday’s postponement against Florida State, Lawrence and the Tigers won’t play again until they host Pittsburgh next Saturday. (Last week: 1)
2. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State; 908 yards, 11 TDs, 0 INTs passing; 57 yards, 2 TDs rushing. Fields and the Buckeyes lost a game because of Maryland’s virus outbreak last week, but they’ll return to play for a top-10 matchup with Indiana. (LW: 2)
3. QB Kyle Trask, Florida; 2,171 yards, 28 TDs, 3 INTs passing. It was business as usual for the Gator quarterback, who threw for five touchdowns in the first half of a rout of Arkansas last week. He finished with 356 yards and six TD passes, and his 28 scoring tosses are the most ever for an SEC quarterback through six games. He should pad that total this week against Vanderbilt. (LW: 5)
4. RB Najee Harris, Alabama; 714 yards, 14 TDs rushing; 20 receptions for 183 yards. It could be a tougher night than usual for the Crimson Tide offense against Kentucky, which had allowed 43 points in a four-game span before slipping a bit in last week’s 38-35 defeat of Vanderbilt. (LW: 3)
5. QB Mac Jones, Alabama; 2,196 yards, 16 TDs, 2 INTs passing. After last week’s game against LSU was postponed, Jones will try to hit the 300-yard plateau for the fifth time in six contests as Alabama meets Kentucky. (LW: 4)
6. QB Zach Wilson, Brigham Young; 2,512 yards, 22 TDs, 2 INTs passing; 158 yards. 8 TDs rushing. As impressive as Wilson is, he isn’t going to help his hopes much against North Alabama even if he throws for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. (LW: 6)