"Don't count your chickens before they hatch," my mother told me when I was younger. Since we didn't live on a farm, I had to assume the phrase had some sort of hidden meaning. In the context of this past weekend's college football slate, it appears that several of the undefeated teams were looking ahead. While Alabama took care of business, Clemson, Michigan and Washington all faltered, leaving the College Football Playoff race in chaos.
In Clemson's case, it really felt like they seemed certain they would finish the regular season undefeated. With two barely bowl eligible teams remaining on the schedule in Wake Forest and South Carolina, a home game against Pittsburgh did not set off many alarm bells. Yet the Tigers allowed career highs of 308 passing yards and five touchdowns to Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman. The best (or worst) kicking name in the country, Chris Blewitt, did not blow it with the game on the line, sending the Tigers to a crushing 43-42 loss. All that being said, Clemson can still win the ACC and get to the playoff.
The Wolverines have a date with Ohio State on November 26th, with many pundits predicting the winner of that game would be a virtual lock for the College Football Playoff. Not so fast. Michigan overlooked a tough Iowa squad, ultimately succumbing to the Hawkeyes on a late field goal by a score of 14-13. Jim Harbaugh must have been having nightmare flashbacks. Perhaps even worse, quarterback Wilton Speight's status is up in the air for this weekend's tilt with an improved Indiana team. After it looked like the Wolverines would coast into that contest with the Buckeyes, now it looks as though Jim Harbaugh might need new khakis by the time the regular season is finished.
Washington had the Pacific Northwest in a tizzy looking forward to a battle with Wazzu in the Apple Cup that could have had national implications. Instead, the Huskies were battered by USC, and with the perceived weakness of the Pac-12, the Huskies will need even more chaos to return to the College Football Playoff conversation.
Louisville and Ohio State are sitting pretty, though Louisville's strength of schedule remains suspect, and Ohio State still has to play Michigan as referenced above. Also be on the lookout for some supreme surprises, including Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Penn State. Either of the latter two teams could steal the Big Ten title from the Buckeyes or Wolverines.
Just a week ago, it seemed as though everything was set up for an easy, clear-cut College Football Playoff. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," my mother used to say to me when I was younger. The college football world is now trying to make sense of the chaos.
Let's look at some burning questions as the race to the "Final Four" takes shape.
1. Can anybody beat Alabama?
We've tackled this question in past articles, but the later it gets into the season, the clearer Alabama's dominance becomes. The Tide have a cupcake matchup with Chattanooga this weekend. Call me crazy, but I don't foresee the Mocs put up much of a fight. That leaves the Iron Bowl with Auburn, and while anything can happen, the Tigers put on a woeful display in last Saturday's loss to Georgia. Auburn quarterback Sean White had 27 yards passing. Yes, you read that correctly. The Iron Bowl will be played in Tuscaloosa, too, meaning home field advantage for the Tide. As a result, after Auburn's latest slip-up, the Tide should roll into the SEC Championship Game, where they'll likely play Florida. The Gators might be the worst 7-2 team in the country, possessing very little offense. As a result, Alabama should cruise into the playoff with zero losses.
2. Who will win the Big Ten?
I touched on this topic above, but check this out. If Penn State wins out, and Ohio State beats Michigan, Penn State would win the tiebreaker and gain a berth in the Big Ten Championship. Talk about a scenario nobody saw coming after the first month of the season. On the other side of the Big Ten, Wisconsin appears to be in the driver's seat, meaning that a two-loss team winning the Big Ten title remains a distinct possibility. Would a two-loss Big Ten Champion get in the playoff? Would that keep Ohio State out despite multiple wins over top-10 squads? Oh, to be a fly on the wall with the College Football Playoff committee if that scenario unfolded.
3. Will the Pac-12 and Big 12 both get left out in the cold again?
With Washington's loss, it certainly seems as though the Huskies have an uphill climb back into the playoff race. Of course, as this past weekend has shown us, madness is never too far away. That being said, with the Pac-12's reputation on the decline, some really serious shuffling would have to take place for any team from the Pac-12 to get to the playoff. A bevy of two-loss teams make it virtually impossible to rank the conference, with Colorado, Utah and Washington State all in the mix. It seems like two-loss teams from conferences like the Big Ten, as referenced above, would have much better cases for inclusion in the CFP. Then there's the fact that the hottest team in the conference may be three-loss USC, as the Trojans have reeled off six wins in a row, including this past Saturday's dominating win over U-Dub.
As far as the Big 12 goes, the only hope appears to be Oklahoma. Should Ohio State make the playoff, that would certainly bode well for the two-loss Sooners, as one of their losses came at the hands of the Buckeyes. Oklahoma's matchup at West Virginia this weekend will likely cement whether a Big 12 team has a shot. If the Sooners lose, West Virginia will rise above them with just one loss, but a weak schedule and no conference championship game would likely doom their chances. The Mountaineers have not beaten a ranked team this season. Still, even if the Sooners win their final two games of the season and finish the year at 10-2, they would still need help from the Big Ten and ACC to warrant inclusion.
In this writer's humble opinion, both conferences will be on the outside looking in yet again.
4. Who wins the Heisman Trophy?
With Michigan's loss to Iowa, and Washington's loss to USC, the Heisman race is all but over. Sure, dynamic performances down the stretch could sway voter opinion. That being said, if we are looking at the total body of work, there's Lamar Jackson, and then there's everyone else. No player has been consistently as dominant and game-breaking as Jackson, who has the statistics, the highlight-reel plays and, perhaps most importantly, the wins, to boost his resume to the top of the list. While Jabrill Peppers, Jake Browning and even Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State have all had superior seasons, it's Lamar Jackson's world in 2016, and we're all just living in it.