Revisiting the Playoff Picture Entering Conference Championship Week

There was surprisingly little drama in the final week of the regular season. The biggest “upset” was a thriller between  Notre Dame (6) and Stanford (9), which will go down as a signature moment in Stanford history but had very little impact on the playoff picture itself. The committee has been blessed with a playoff picture far more clear than the turbulence brought on as time whittled away last year. The committee got it right last year, to their credit, but left the Big XII rankled over their exclusion. Oklahoma made sure that didn’t happen this year, and due to the lack of a conference championship game in the Big XII (a problem created by ironically having just 10 teams in the Big XII), the Oklahoma (3)-Oklahoma State (11) rivalry game known as “Bedlam” served as the title game for the Big XII. An emphatic victory by the Sooners guarantees them a spot in the final four.

Locked in, with a playoff spot locked up.

Clemson Tigers (1)

Clemson held off rival South Carolina, 37-32, to finish the regular season 12-0. Clemson holds marquee victories over Notre Dame, Florida State, and a beat down of a talented Miami squad. Most would agree that Clemson has been the best team in the country this season, led by future first overall pick DeShaun Watson. That being said, the Tigers need to proceed with caution. Whoever makes the playoff and wins the title is not necessarily the team with the best body of work overall, but the team who is playing the best football at the moment. Alabama may have been the best team in the country overall last year, but Ohio State was the hottest and therefore best team in the nation when they squared off in the Sugar Bowl. Clemson must watch itself not only this week against a streaking North Carolina team, but whoever is coming in hot in the No. 4 slot should Clemson win out.

If not Clemson, then…North Carolina Tar Heels.

A remarkable turnaround for a Chapel Hill squad that has been mediocre at best in recent years has led them into the most important game in program history. Basketball can wait for once in North Carolina as the red hot Tar Heels hope to make history by knocking off Clemson and inserting themselves as playoff contenders. They easily have the worst loss out of any of the one loss teams in contention (Week 1 to 3-9 South Carolina), but a victory over Clemson would also give them the best win. A team with just one loss and a victory over the number 1 team in the nation can’t conceivably be left out of the playoff. That resume would be as good as any in the nation. Seeding would be another question, but they would definitely be Top 4. Clemson has played uncomfortably close games with Syracuse and South Carolina, but DeShaun Watson is just too good to let this upset happen.

Marquise Williams,

The electric Marquise Williams, a dual threat defensive nightmare.

If there is one guy who could lead a team to a National Championship, it’s DeShaun Watson.

Alabama Crimson Tide (2)

Business as usual in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide rolled over an inferior Auburn opponent on the back of another steady dose of Derrick Henry. Auburn put up a fight, especially defensively, but their offense just simply is not good and neither are they. Auburn is perhaps the biggest flop of the year, starting out ranked No. 6 and finishing 6-6. Jake Coker is uninspiring as the quarterback for this Crimson Tide team built on an overwhelming defense and raging bull of a running back in Derrick Henry. Henry fits the Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson power back mold of past Alabama backs, and he might be the best of all of them. But is he good enough to carry the Crimson tide limited by Coker’s mediocrity? Survey says no, as Blake Sims was a more polished passer and a terrific runner last year and couldn’t get the job done for Alabama. They’ll make the playoff, but won’t win the natty.

If not Alabama, then…Ohio State Buckeyes.

Hello again, old friend. Alabama is toast if they lose to Florida, a team with a great defense and a putrid offense in a (gasp!) weak division of the SEC. So it won’t be the Gators in the final four, nor anyone else from the SEC, which would put everywhere from eastern Texas on out in a straitjacket. The big hypothetical here is IF Iowa loses to Michigan State. Should the Hawks win and Alabama loses, both Iowa and Ohio State should make it. If Iowa loses, Iowa and Ohio State would be the remaining one loss teams not in the playoff. As much as we might all want the Hawkeyes to make it in anyways, Ohio State’s signature victory over rival Michigan will likely sway the committee to the Buckeyes. Iowa’s best victory is a 40-10 road deconstruction of Northwestern, another great win, but the fact that the committee is still ranking Iowa in the No. 4 slot despite the fact that they are one of only two unbeatens shows that the committee doesn’t regard their strength of schedule as rigorous as Ohio State’s. Plus, the committee had Iowa out of the playoff picture when both Ohio State and Iowa were undefeated. Right or wrong (very wrong), the committee clearly had more faith in the defending champs.  Remember, this is only if Iowa loses to Michigan State. Should Iowa win, Ohio State is really the only choice to go. Michigan State and Stanford are really the only other two contenders, and they would both have two losses against Ohio State’s one.

The SEC’s hopes rest on the shoulders of one man…

Ohio State’s playoff hopes are hanging on by a thread, a blue and orange thread from central Florida.

Oklahoma Sooners (3)

The Sooners have three great signature wins over conference powers. They’re playing great football, they excel in prime time (see Baylor, Oklahoma State), and they have the most exciting quarterback in the country. Watching Baker Mayfield play is fun. The height and conference will inevitably draw comparisons to Johnny Manziel, but the smoothness of his game harks more to Marcus Mariota. Mayfield isn’t as fast or agile in the open field as either of those two, but he can chuck it just as well as Mariota and better than Manziel. Mayfield is a bona fide Heisman candidate and Oklahoma’s running back combo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon is as efficient as any in the nation. So why aren’t they number 1? It was so long ago it feels like we can hardly remember…who’d they lose to again? Big time rival, historically powerful Texas? Oh no big deal, rivalries can be crazy, Oklahoma is clearly a top 4 team….wait, 4-7 Texas who lost 24-0 to Iowa State?! About that…is it really fair to have them in the top 4 over Ohio State, who lost to then No. 9 Michigan State by three points as time expired? The logic here is that Oklahoma has shredded opponents like soft cheese ever since that embarrassing loss in Dallas. Like Ohio State losing a bad one early and then cruising in 2014, Oklahoma hopes to make it in to the dance based on the quality of their wins and prays the committee looks at the unsightly L as an aberration.

If not Oklahoma, then…Iowa Hawkeyes.

This is again a hypothetical situation in which Iowa loses to Michigan State. Oklahoma has no more games left to play. They took care of business and should have cemented their No. 3 spot. But as TCU learned last year, nothing is ever certain in College Football. It’s almost certain Oklahoma will be in the final field of four. An incredible B1G Championship game in which Iowa plays their best game of the season yet somehow loses would be the only way to bump off OU. If Michigan State wins, they’ll take Iowa’s spot. If Iowa wins, they will hold onto their spot and there is no way a two loss Michigan State team will be in over Oklahoma. Ditto for Stanford, Notre Dame, and other two loss hopefuls. Oklahoma owns the head to head over every two loss Big XII team, and they have no more games left to play to fumble their spot away. Oklahoma is the best lock for the playoff based on their position with no games left. The committee would have to weight a close Iowa loss to Michigan State as a better loss than Oklahoma’s grotesque outing against Texas back in September. Justly or unjustly (unjustly), the committee has placed a one loss Oklahoma team over a undefeated Iowa team. The committee isn’t going to rank a one loss Iowa team higher than an undefeated Iowa team. This scenario is highly unlikely, but it’s the only possible one where Oklahoma would get bumped out.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield celebrates a touchdown

Boomer Sooner. OU isn’t going anywhere.

Iowa Hawkeyes (4)

The nice thing for the committee this year is that the ACC and B1G have win-and-you’re-in scenarios for their title games. There is no Big XII madness this year. The whole Michigan-Ohio State-Stanford-Notre Dame scenario sorted itself out nicely, as they were not forced to pick a two loss team from the field to play elimination games in January. Iowa is playing in one of those elimination games this Saturday. Iowa has yet to lose, winning in a variety of ways. Defense-Pitt, Northwestern, Maryland. Behind Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels, and Akrum Wadley-Pitt, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue. And behind CJ Beathard-Minnesota, Iowa State, Purdue. Iowa plays the best fundamental football in the country. Their games aren’t Big XII wild west shootouts where the first team to 70 points wins, and that’s a good thing. As Oklahoma State learned, that type of football won’t work in crunch time. Instead, Iowa pounds the rock, plays stingy defense, and avoids shooting themselves in the foot. Iowa beat Nebraska (the same Nebraska team who beat Michigan State) without converting a single third down. That’s terrible. And it’s awesome. What that means is Iowa is not the little kid tagging along for the ride in the top four. No, they’re hear to stay and the Nebraska game was a perfect explanation as to why. Iowa picked off Tommy Armstrong Jr. four times. Some of that is due to Armstrong gun slinging more than was advisable, but if that’s not opportunistic defense, what is? A physically dominant defensive line plugs running lanes due to their intentional immovability, and Desmond King anchors the secondary with eight picks. On offense, the word that comes to mind with CJ Beathard is crafty. Beathard was about as mobile as Peyton Manning following his groin injury, yet he pulled an option bootleg to stun Minnesota on the goal line. Beathard is remarkably consistent, and when he’s faltered, the running game is always there behind the historically dominant offensive line. The big boys plow wide open running lanes for the three headed monster of LeShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri, and Akrum Wadley. Iowa won that Nebraska game due to explosive plays, namely big runs from Canzeri, demonstrating that they can tap into that big play reserve when needed. Beathard won’t win you every game (see Wisconsin, Nebraska), but he will never lose it for you (just three picks). They face a dangerous Michigan State team this week fresh off a 55-14 annihilation of Penn State. Sparty had been inconsistent this year, contrasting big wins over Oregon and Ohio State with struggles against Purdue, Rutgers, and Nebraska. MSU had almost always played to the level of their competition, keeping games close against most opponents until the final quarter. The fact that they embarrassed a good Penn State team last week is a sign that the Spartans are starting to put it together. Iowa will need to win in the trenches to take home the hardware in this one. It will be interesting to see MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun go up against Iowa’s top notch O-Line. Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge versus Desmond King is another one to watch.

If not Iowa, then…Michigan State.

This one’s easy. The B1G Championship Game is a winner take all scenario. Even with Ohio State’s big win over Michigan, Michigan State owns the head to head match up and is much better positioned (No. 5) to break in than Ohio State (No. 8). Michigan State has had a great season and their win over Ohio State was huge, but Iowa is just far too consistent to throw this one away. Iowa wins games with time of possession, and they need to keep the ball away from Connor Cook. Plus, they’ve shown they can go the distance any time. It’s time for Iowa to show the committee why they should get the respect they deserve.

Best in the B1G West.

12-0? You’d better believe it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures: I do not own any of these pictures and all credit goes to the photographer and the website.

  1. http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-oklahoma-oklahoma-state-20151129-story.html, Tom Pennigton/Getty Images.
  2. http://collegefootball.ap.org/article/top-25-picks-breakout-opportunities-tar-heels-cougars, David Goldman/AP File.
  3. http://www.espn.go.com, Photographer not given.
  4. http://www.cbssports.com/collegefootball/eye-on-college-football/25292417/breaking-down-alabamas-35-17-win-over-wisconsin-derrick-henry-stars, Photographer not given.
  5. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/09/urban-meyer-explains-why-he-decided-to-start-cardale-jones-over-j-t-barrett, Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports.
  6. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/big12/2015/09/09/baker-mayfield-oklahoma-sooners-football-quarterback/71965950/, Brett Deering, Getty Images.
  7. http://www.hawkcentral.com/story/sports/college/iowa/football/2015/11/27/iowa-hawkeyes-nebraska-cornhuskers-football-big-ten-championship-kirk-ferentz/76348460/, Byron Houlgrave/The Register.
  8. http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/11/27/iowa-hawkeyes-nebraska-cornhuskers-watch-online-live-stream, Matthew Holst/Getty Images.

 

 

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