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Chaos Steps Into the College Football Playoff Picture

With three big losses among the top four teams, unlikely teams could sneak into the playoff

AP Images
AP Images

Week 11 was supposed to be a regular college football weekend, one of those schedules where none of the matchups seemed worth an uninvested viewer’s time. With a slew of undefeated teams set to face off with highly ranked rivals in a few weeks, this Saturday was supposed to be low-key.

It was not.

Top teams lost to huge underdogs, and the national title picture got the type of shake-up we rarely see this late in the season. Now that the wild weekend is in the books, here’s who we think the College Football Playoff selection committee will place in the top four.

4. Chaos

Judging by the eye test, Chaos hasn’t had the most impressive season, but this is college football. Chaos remains undefeated, and that’s why we have Chaos in our playoff rankings.

No. 4 Washington lost 26–13 at home to no. 20 USC. Historically, this wouldn’t turn many heads, as the Trojans are typically a powerhouse and Washington has gone 0–12 more recently than it has won a conference championship. But this year, Washington was undefeated, and the Trojans started out 1–3. That said, this didn’t look like an upset. Washington only scored one touchdown, and it came on a play when USC superstar cornerback Adoree’ Jackson fell. His two interceptions were representative of who’s dominant in this matchup, and USC seems a lot more like a Pac-12 title contender than Washington.

No. 3 Michigan lost 14–13 when Iowa drilled a field goal with the clock expiring. While the Wolverines coasted through the first nine games of the season — beating opponents by 39 and 56 and 60 and 78 — the Hawkeyes had home losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern, and least excusable of all, allowed 35 points to Purdue. Iowa completely stifled Michigan, holding the Wolverines to 4.0 yards per pass and 2.8 yards per rush. In a true Kirk Ferentz masterpiece, the Hawkeyes’ greatest offensive successes were generally based around earning penalties on punt plays. They managed to win on a touchdown, a safety, and two field goals.

No. 2 Clemson lost 43–42 on another last-second field goal, this one by Pitt’s Chris Blewitt. The Tigers entered the day undefeated, but only due to a series of close games that all happened to end in Clemson wins. The fun trend of misfortune only befalling Clemson’s opponents ended Saturday, as Pitt stood up to a 580-yard performance by Deshaun Watson with their own remarkably good offense. QB Nathan Peterman set personal bests in throwing yards and touchdowns — and notably, opportunistic defense — three picks by Watson, and a fourth-down stop to set up Blewitt’s game-winner. (His name is Blewitt, he didn’t blow it, let’s get over it.)

This doesn’t happen often. It’s the first time nos. 2, 3, and 4 have all lost on the same day since 1985. Incidentally, that was also a day Iowa beat Michigan (with quarterback Jim Harbaugh — what happened to that guy?), although that Iowa team was ranked no. 1. Three of the top four teams losing — two of them against unranked teams — is almost unbelievable. (During Week 6 of the 2014 season, three of the top four teams lost as well, but those losses weren’t on the same day.)

Plus, no. 8 Texas A&M and no. 9 Auburn lost to unranked Ole Miss and Georgia, respectively. Both were top-10 teams coming in, and now the SEC West is left without a viable playoff contender besides Alabama.

With Saturday’s performance, I don’t see any way the selection committee can keep Chaos out of the playoff.

3. Some Random School, We’re Not Sure

A chaotic Saturday led to oodles more teams with potential paths to the playoff, or at least to conference championships. I can’t pick any one, because there’s too much football that happened, but Some Random School is in great shape.

We entered the week with an extremely straightforward playoff picture. The top four teams all had no losses. Every other team in a major conference had a loss. There was no room for the committee to screw around, just four very simple choices.

Now the doors are wide open.

Louisville is by far the greatest benefactor of the top-ranked teams’ Saturday struggles. Their playoff hopes seemed bleak. Clemson holds the tiebreaker to get into the ACC championship game as a result of winning their head-to-head matchup earlier in the season.

But these losses put the Cardinals on even footing with the established playoff contenders. Louisville could be 11–1 with about 10 thunderous, destructive blowout wins, and just one measly tight loss on the road to a very good Clemson team. With a shrinking number of undefeated teams, Louisville’s résumé makes it one of the front-runners.

West Virginia is the last Big 12 team with one loss. If the Mountaineers can finish their schedule without another, and if Oklahoma State loses the Bedlam game to Oklahoma, they’ll be undisputed champions of a major conference without the danger of losing in a conference championship game. That sounds like a playoff résumé!

With Washington’s loss, Washington State is the only undefeated team in Pac-12 play. Is their season-opening loss to an FCS team disqualifying? Not to me. Mike Leach stores his power in a variety of strange horcruxes — weird swords, rollerblades, and losses to FCS teams — and to exclude Wazzu from playoff consideration for that would be shortsighted.

Western Michigan is undefeated! It’s in the MAC, I know, but if it’s undefeated and if everybody else piles up losses, why not?

On Friday, I wrote that Penn State probably wouldn’t go to the Big Ten title game in a league with Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. But Michigan’s loss opens up a very clear road for that to happen. If Michigan loses to Ohio State in two weeks, the Wolverines will have two losses and the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions will be tied with one, and Penn State’s October win over Ohio State will send the Nittany Lions to Indianapolis. (In an odd twist of fate, the Big Ten’s complicated list of tiebreakers mean that Ohio State’s championship hopes were actually gravely hurt by Michigan’s loss. Don’t always root against your rivals!)

No two-loss team has ever made the playoff, but there’s a chance that there might not be four one-loss teams this time around. Teams like Penn State — who would hypothetically be 11–2 and riding a nine-game win streak — might be in the mix.

Besides Louisville, most of these weren’t options we considered before Saturday. But now they’re real.

2. Status Quo

The Status Quo had, by far, its worst Saturday of the year — actually, one of its worst in several years. But you don’t have to win every week to make the College Football Playoff, and that’s why we have the Status Quo ranked no. 2.

Think about those playoff options we mentioned up above. Do any of them sound likely?

The truth is, even after a thrilling Saturday filled with beautiful confusion, the three teams who lost are still in very good shape. In its two-year history, we’ve never had more than one undefeated team in the playoff. A loss is not a death knell.

A few years ago, this would not have been the case. The BCS Championship Game would be much tougher to predict, with a plethora of teams competing for one spot opposite Alabama. With three potential entries, I’d be surprised if the playoff doesn’t include one of the teams that lost Saturday. In fact, if all three win out, all of them will probably make it.

Chaos is strong, and that’s why we have it in the final four here. We love this sport for its wildness, because this sport is based on 18- to 22-year-olds — the world’s least consistent people. Any number of ridiculous things can happen.

But it’s also based on centuries-old institutions that thrive on repetition. In many ways, inertia drives this sport: Teams win because they recruit well, and recruit well because they win. Seemingly seismic shifts happen, but when we look up after decades, the same small crop of elite schools is generally still successful.

We now have a postseason system that fits this sport. We get the impression of constant overthrow and a fight for the finish, but generally, the playoff allows the best teams to have the best opportunity to stay in the title hunt, even if they do commit silly slipups.

Chaos had a strong showing this weekend, but the playoff favors the Status Quo, and that’s why it’s no. 2.

1. Alabama

There’s always Alabama. The Crimson Tide are always no. 1.