Amid upsets, cancellations and chaos, the show will go on. The College Football Playoff will indeed deliver its four teams Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after all major conference championships will be complete.
This part of the routine will feel familiar, even if the path to arrive here has been anything but. And so we’re left with that question again.
Who’s in, who’s out?
In an effort to educate about where we stand with playoff scenarios, let’s dive in. Using national championship odds from Circa as our backdrop, here is the status of the teams hovering around the mini-bracket.
Alabama (YES -180, NO + 155): Alabama is in. A loss to Florida in the SEC championship game won’t change that. With a win, even a less-than-convincing win, the Tide will likely secure the No. 1 seed. This is the best team in college football, and it doesn’t appear to be all that close. The odds speak volumes, especially when compared with others.
Clemson (YES + 410, NO -600): It gets interesting quickly. If Clemson beats Notre Dame in the ACC championship game, the Tigers are obviously in. If they lose, there still is a remote chance they’ll sneak in, though they’ll need some help. The bigger intrigue? The potential seeding. That could be important, and I’ll explain why shortly.
Ohio State (YES + 510, NO -800): If the Buckeyes win the Big Ten championship, no matter how many games other teams have played, they’re almost certainly in. Simple as that. Other coaches will be angry. The internet will be angry. But despite the venom that will follow, Ohio State will secure its position with a victory. Could a close, ugly game as a big favorite swing that? Perhaps. But not likely. A loss, on the other hand, would spice things up plenty. If you seek chaos, start here.
Notre Dame (YES + 1,350, NO -2,500): With a win over Clemson in their back pocket, the Irish are likely in the playoff regardless of the outcome. A win and Notre Dame is likely the No. 2 seed, assuming Alabama wins. A loss and the Irish will likely find a home as the No. 3 or No. 4 seed. The playoff certainly would love to avoid seeing Clemson-Notre Dame Part III in the semifinals. That’s yet another element the committee has to consider for the first time.
Texas A&M (YES + 6,500, NO -10,000): The Aggies’ best chance to crack the playoff? An Ohio State loss or a Clemson loss. At that point, assuming Texas A&M beats Tennessee, the Aggies are likely in with a quality win over Florida and a quality loss — albeit a blowout loss — against Alabama on their resume. They need help, but they are on deck if someone stumbles.
And what about that chaos? I’m glad you asked.
For Oklahoma, Iowa State, USC or Cincinnati to have a shot, we need madness. And even that might not cut it. These teams need to win plus likely need an Ohio State loss, a Clemson loss and a Texas A&M loss. And even then, things become muddy.
Since the playoff began, I have hoped for that kind of Saturday. So far, things have been relatively chalky. Could it happen? Of course. But it’ll take quite a bit.
Here’s to madness.
The Appetizer: Football Tidbits and Observations
1. I have seen many football things. Good. Bad. Weird. But I have never seen a football team lose a game because a player threw another player’s shoe. That’s precisely what happened near the end of Florida-LSU. Gators DB Marco Wilson grabbed the shoe of Tigers tight end Kole Taylor and threw it 20 yards downfield. A flag was thrown — well, a lot of flags were thrown — the drive was extended and LSU kicker Cade York ultimately booted a spectacular 57-yard field goal in the fog that turned out to be the game-winner. LSU won outright as a 23.5-point underdog. With Florida hovering around the College Football Playoff, the ramifications of this moment are seismic. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s instead celebrate the fact that college football still found a way to be weird in 2020 despite a lack of fans and a surplus of disruptions. This was a very college football moment, and I am here for it.
2. That UCLA loss Saturday? That one hurt. I felt good about betting the Bruins the entire night — until those last 16 seconds, when USC threw the football, scored a touchdown and decided against kicking a field goal that would’ve won the game. I was getting 3.5 points, trailed for only a few minutes the entire game and then lost 43-38. For those who can relate, I feel your pain.
3. We’ve talked about players opting out, but in 2020 we’re now also seeing full teams say no to the bowl season. Boston College, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Stanford have already said they’re passing on the opportunity to play in a bowl. While these games are normally hugely important for programs, largely because they provide extra practices, that is not the case this year. I get it. It has been extremely tough on players, coaches and other program personnel with outbreaks and testing. The logistics have been a nightmare. Unless you’re in the playoff or a major bowl, it makes sense to probably just call it a year.
4. Let’s talk about Auburn. The Tigers, after regularly flirting with the idea of firing Gus Malzahn over the years, pulled the trigger and will now pay him more than $20 million — including more than $10 million in the first 30 days — not to coach. A few things come to mind. First, I would love to be living that buyout life. Pay me $20 million not to coach and you won’t hear from me for a while (maybe ever again). Second, I am curious to see where they go from here. Is this the spot where Hugh Freeze jumps back into the SEC? Can Auburn lure Oregon coach Mario Cristobal back east? Will they just promote defensive coordinator Kevin Steele? This could get wild with a lot of booster influence. But the job is intriguing, albeit with a tough schedule and a brutal rival.
5. DeVonta Smith. I told you this would be a topic every week, and that is the case heading into the SEC championship game. It appears that Alabama’s top wide receiver, the best football player in America, now has an outside crack at the Heisman. After Florida’s loss and Mac Jones’ so-so numbers against Arkansas, MGM has Smith the second choice to win the Heisman at + 250 behind only Jones at -200. For a wide receiver, this is actually pretty unbelievable. For Smith to win and overtake Jones, he’ll need a huge game — perhaps a punt return for a TD — and a big statistical evening. Against a Florida defense that has been largely mediocre, that feels doable.
The Buffet: The Five Best Games of the Weekend
1. Clemson (-10.5, 60.5) vs. Notre Dame:
Yes, the ACC championship game is a rematch. But with the consensus No. 1 draft pick back on the field for Clemson, it hits a bit differently. After missing Clemson’s first game against Notre Dame, a thrilling 47-40 loss in double OT, Trevor Lawrence will suit up for the Tigers as double-digit favorites. In the previous matchup, with freshman QB D.J. Uiagalelei under center, Clemson closed as a 5.5-point favorite. Since that game the Tigers were sharp against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, covering in both games. Notre Dame handled trips to Boston College and North Carolina. The Irish also won at home against Syracuse, covering in two of those three games. While points were plentiful in the first matchup, this total doesn’t necessarily reflect that. Notre Dame has shown it can win this game and matches up well at the line of scrimmage. Lawrence, of course, changes this game regardless of how well Uiagalelei played in his absence. Notre Dame saw this firsthand in the playoff just a few years ago. In six career ACC championship/CFP games, Lawrence has accounted for 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. Just saying.
2. Alabama (-17.5, 74.5) vs. Florida:
The shoe. Yes, the shoe. It has to start there. Florida lost to LSU as more than a three-touchdown favorite in a game that had the perfect ingredients for a letdown, and the result could cost Florida a shot in the playoff. For at least a short while Saturday, it looked like Alabama might endure a similar letdown against Arkansas. Ultimately Nick Saban’s team overpowered the Hogs and covered the 29-point spread with ease. Alabama’s defense has not allowed more than 17 points in any of the last six games. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this changes in the SEC championship game. The absence of Kyle Pitts, Florida’s all-world tight end, certainly hurt against LSU. He should be back against Alabama, which would be an enormous boost. But even if the Gators can score, can they stop or slow the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense? If not, this could get ugly. Alabama tends to do that.
3. Ohio State (-20, 57.5) vs. Northwestern:
The point spread in the Big Ten championship game speaks volumes about both programs, the gap in recruiting and the possibility of a blowout in one of the weekend’s most significant games. That is not meant to be a knock at Northwestern, which has had an exceptional, abbreviated year. The Wildcats are 6-1 and 5-1-1 ATS. It’s just the reality they face. It’s also the reality most teams face when they play Ohio State. Still, Pat Fitzgerald’s team, with the exception of the surprising loss to Michigan State, has been solid. The problem is that Ohio State is not only more talented at just about every position but also motivated to make an impression on the playoff committee. We’ve been here before. The Big Ten championship is a place where those goals and gifts have come together for the Buckeyes in the past. With the game against Michigan canceled due to COVID-19, Ohio State will play its first game since Dec. 5. Even with a small layoff, an upset here would be somewhat shocking.
4. Oklahoma (-5.5, 58) vs. Iowa State:
While it doesn’t feel like it has playoff stakes attached — and it likely doesn’t — this is still a delightful game between teams that have closed their seasons incredibly well. Oklahoma has covered the spread in five of the last six games. Iowa State has covered in four of the last six. The Sooners have somewhat quietly rebounded after starting the season 1-2, winning six in a row. The Cyclones, after losing the opener, lost only once in the last nine weeks. Both teams are hot, and both have weapons on offense that will likely make this game tough on the defenses. While Oklahoma is a natural favorite in the Big 12 championship game, Iowa State is plenty lively. And though both defenses have flashed this year in spurts, it wouldn’t be shocking to see both offenses get going.
5. Cincinnati (-13.5, 45.5) vs. Tulsa:
The total, more than anything, says plenty about the potential game we might be served. Tulsa has the nation’s No. 19 scoring defense. Cincinnati is No. 5 in this category, giving up only 15 points per game. The difference between these teams is on the other side of the ball. The Bearcats average 13 more points per game on offense than the Golden Hurricane. Until this point, however, that difference hasn’t impacted their results against the spread. Tulsa is 6-1 straight up and 6-1 ATS. Cincinnati is unbeaten and a respectable 5-3 against the number. Central Florida had the Bearcats on the ropes in late November and delivered a blueprint of sorts, even if it came up short. Another factor? Cincinnati hasn’t played since. That could certainly help keep the total down if the Bearcats show rust of any kind.
Last Call: Parting Shots on Other Games of Note
Coastal Carolina (-3.5, 55) vs. Louisiana:
It would not be at all shocking if the Sun Belt championship game was the most compelling result of the weekend. After nearly being upset last weekend, Coastal Carolina goes for 12-0. The Chanticleers are also 8-2-1 ATS. That said, Louisiana should be up for it. Electric football potential.
USC (-3.5, 62) vs. Oregon:
Yes, Oregon. Not Washington. Oregon. What a weird year it has been, as the Pac-12 just subbed a two-loss team into its conference championship on short notice. Still, the game should be compelling. The Trojans have been playing with fire, though they’re still unbeaten and finding new and exciting ways to win.