It’s crunch time in college football. Conference championships, playoff seeds, and bowl bids are all on the line this week, and the Heisman Trophy race is in the home stretch. We’ll try to sort out what’s at stake and what’s likely to happen, but first a quick look back to last weekend.
Ohio State-Michigan: One of the best games in recent college football history. High stakes—No. 2 vs. No. 3. Huge crowd. Big time players. Iconic coaches. Great play after great play. Goal line stands. Long kick returns. Controversial calls. Amazing finish in double OT. Unbearable tension from the first play ‘til the last. It doesn’t get any better.
Nonpareil defense: How good is No. 1 Alabama? The ‘Bama defense has not allowed a touchdown since Oct. 22. The latest victim was No. 16 Auburn, held to four field goals in a 30-12 loss on Saturday.
No defense: On the other extreme, Pitt beat Syracuse 76-61. The 137 points marked the highest scoring major college football game of all time. Somewhere, Nick Saban was laughing.
New defense: Was that really Cal’s defense on the field Saturday afternoon against UCLA? In 11 previous games this season, the Bears allowed an average of 45 points and 542 yards. This Cal team held the Bruins to 260 total yards and controlled the ball for 42 minutes. Hopefully, coach Sonny Dykes can recycle this blueprint next season and become a legitimate Pac-12 contender.
Stanford 41, Rice 17: Christian McCaffrey rushed for 204 yards and scored two touchdowns in what might have been his final game at Stanford Stadium. He’s a rare, special talent, and college football fans everywhere—not just those who root for Stanford—hope that he returns for another year rather than turns pro.
Here’s what’s on tap this weekend, and what’s at stake:
Friday, Dec. 2
Pac-12 Conference Championship game—Washington vs. Colorado, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara. Last weekend, Washington thumped WSU in the Apple Cup, 45-17, to win the North Division and Colorado held off Utah, 27-22, to claim the South. The Huskies hope a win will propel them into the College Football Playoff. Colorado is a long shot to get in if they win, however, Mike MacIntyre should win National Coach of the Year honors for orchestrating the Buff’s amazing turnaround.
Saturday, Dec. 3
Big Ten Championship game—Penn State vs. Wisconsin, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis; ACC Conference Championship game—Clemson vs. Virginia Tech, Camping World Stadium, Orlando; SEC Championship Game—Alabama vs. Florida, Georgia Dome, Atlanta. Alabama and Clemson will be heavily favored over Florida and unranked Virginia Tech. The game of the day will be in the Big Ten. Both No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 8 Penn State are hoping a conference championship will translate into a playoff bid.
Sunday, Dec. 4 (Selection Sunday)
Announcement of the final College Football Playoff Selection Committee rankings, which determine the four teams in the semi-final playoff games (Fiesta and Peach Bowls) and the eight teams in the other “New Year’s Six” bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton). After those bowls are filled, the remaining post-season games make their selections.
Playoff rankings: Alabama is a lock to stay at No. 1 with what should be a cakewalk over Florida. Ohio State is ranked No. 2 because of a sterling resume that includes wins over three top 10 teams—Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Although the Buckeyes will be staying home this weekend by virtue of a head-to-head loss to East Division champion Penn State, most pundits believe they will retain a spot in the playoff. And No. 3 Clemson should have no trouble with Va. Tech.
So if No. 4 Washington wins the Pac-12 on Friday and things play out as expected on Saturday, the selection committee will have to decide between a one-loss Pac-12 Champion (Washington), a two-loss Big Ten Champion (Penn State or Wisconsin), and a two-loss Michigan team that lost to Ohio State but has victories over both Penn State and Wisconsin. If Colorado upsets Washington, or if Clemson loses to Va. Tech, everything will be up in the air. Interesting, to say the least.
Bowl invitations: This is a time of high anxiety in the bowl business, as bowl directors consider team selection scenarios and discuss options with their conference partners, athletic directors and television networks. Everything hinges on the outcome of this weekend’s games and the playoff/New Year’s Six team selections. It’s an exciting and exhilarating time.
But for the second year in a row, there aren’t enough eligible teams. Eighty teams are needed to fill the available slots, and only 74 have qualified with the requisite six wins. Army (5-6) can get there with a win against Navy on Dec. 10. According to NCAA protocol, Hawaii will qualify at 6-7, and then the 5-7 teams with the best academic progress rates (APR) will fill out the field. Ironically, Army has the best APR of the 5-7 teams, so the Cadets are in whether they win or lose against Navy. The others: North Texas, Texas, Mississippi State, and Northern Illinois.
Foster Farms Bowl: The Bay Area’s bowl, now in its 15th year, will be played at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 28 and feature teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten. The Foster Farms selection will be impacted by whether or not a Pac-12 team makes the playoff, and whether three or perhaps four Big Ten teams are invited to the New Year’s Six games. So my old colleague Ryan Oppelt and the folks down in Santa Clara won’t know for sure who’s available until Sunday morning’s Selection Committee announcements. Best guess at this point is that the bowl will end up with either Indiana or Northwestern from the Big Ten, and either Utah, Washington State or Stanford from the Pac-12. So might Bay Area fans get a chance to see Christian McCaffrey one more time this year?
Rose Bowl: Washington, Colorado, and USC are all possibilities to represent the Pac-12 in the Granddaddy of them all. If the Huskies beat Colorado in the conference championship game but are not selected for the playoff, they will play in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. If Colorado wins, the Buffs are unlikely to make the playoff and will play in the Rose Bowl.
But what happens if Washington wins the conference title and is picked for the playoff? In that event, the Rose Bowl will pick either South Division champ Colorado, which would be 10-3 after losing to Washington, or South Division runner-up USC, which finished at 9-3 and beat both Colorado and Washington. Tough choice. USC has appeared in the Rose Bowl 32 times, winning 24, and always draws well. Colorado has never played in Pasadena and would bring the entire state.
The Big Ten will be represented by either Penn State, Wisconsin or Michigan, depending on the outcome of the conference championship game and playoff rankings.
Heisman Update: Heisman ballots are due in Monday, Dec. 5, and the award will be presented Saturday, Dec. 10. That means this weekend’s games offer the final opportunity for players to make their case. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson has been the odds-on favorite for most of the season, but he played poorly in a 36-10 loss to Houston, then had four turnovers in an upset loss to Kentucky on Saturday.
However, I think Jackson will still take home the trophy for two reasons. First, no one can match his phenomenal numbers. Jackson was responsible for 51 touchdowns and 4928 yards passing and running this year. Some of those stats were compiled against inferior competition (which is true for any ACC or SEC player), but his performances against Clemson and Florida State were outstanding.
Second, there is no clear-cut No. 2 candidate at this point. Depending on whom you believe, Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Alabama QB Jalen Hurts, Washington QB Jake Browning, USC DB/KR Adoree Jackson, Michigan DB/RB/KR Jabrill Peppers, Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett, McCaffrey, and Florida State RB Dalvin Cook are all in the hunt.
Our feeling is that Browning poses the only real threat. He is the only player whose stats are even in the same area code as Jackson’s. The Washington QB has 40 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. If he has a big day against Colorado, he might have a shot.