I am going to start by saying that I enjoy watching the Louisville Cardinals this year. I think Lamar Jackson is one of the most talented dual-threat QBs that college football has seen in quite a while. He is an electrifying player and, along with the rest of his team, is truly a pleasure to watch. My opinion on Louisville has nothing to do with my assessment of its Playoff chances.
Louisville is being mentioned as a top Playoff contender. Why wouldn’t it be? The Cardinals are a consensus Top 5 team in the polls, have the Heisman front-runner, and are still riding a wave of high praise for blowing the doors off Florida State. With the Big 12’s struggles and the Pac-12 being one Washington loss away from having no contenders left, why wouldn’t a one-loss Louisville get serious consideration? Sure, there were some recent struggles against Duke and Virginia? But do those really make Louisville not a contender? No. A few close games aren’t what disqualifies Louisville from being a CFP contender. It’s the rest of the schedule that does that.
The combined record of Louisville’s opponents is 31-33. That does not make for a good strength of schedule, but it’s not laughably bad, either. At least, not until you realize that Clemson is 8-0. Louisville has beaten seven teams this season; the combined records of those teams is 23-33 (.411). Louisville has exactly one win over a team with a winning record. That win over Florida State is also Louisville’s only ranked win. There is no other opportunity to Louisville to beat a team who is ranked at the end of the season (unless Louisville somehow makes the ACC Championship Game). While the year-ending trio of Wake Forest, Houston, and Kentucky will actually raise Louisville’s SOS, the fact that the Cardinals are banking on those three for an SOS boost is extraordinarily telling in its own right.
The long and short of it is that Louisville is just one more Florida State loss away from having zero ranked wins this season (well, maybe 8-4 FSU sneaks into the Top 25 at the very end of the year). There certainly won’t be any Top 10 or Top 15 wins. If the CFP selection committee is serious about showing that SOS and quality wins matter, there is no way that Louisville can be placed into the Playoff — unless it miraculously wins the ACC. A team that doesn’t win its conference should only be one of the Top 4 if it’s clearly one of the best. Without the quality wins and strong SOS that a resume needs, this just won’t hold up on December 4th.
The committee did show last year that it respected close losses to good teams, sometimes even more than actual quality wins. Of course, this year is a new committee, with significant membership turnover. Something tells me, though, that even if Louisville can debut right on Clemson’s hip in the rankings, that won’t last long. The quality wins just aren’t there for Louisville. To put it another way, the Troy Trojans also only have one loss, with that loss being a six-point road loss to Clemson (same as Louisville). Troy has beaten five FBS opponents with a combined record of 17-23 (.425). Sure, Troy also has a win over 0-8 FCS Austin Peay. But against FBS competition, I’m not sure what makes Louisville’s SOS significantly better than Troy’s (it is, obviously; but the committee has never cited advanced SOS metrics and just seems to eyeball it, so I’m not quite sure how they would realize that). Louisville is obviously a better team than Troy. Louisville obviously has a better resume and better wins than Troy does. But when the gap in resume isn’t that significant — and when Louisville’s main calling card is a six-point road loss to Clemson, something that Troy matched on the money — I don’t see how anyone can look at Louisville’s schedule and see a Playoff resume.
Week 9 CFP Implications: Teams Remaining in College Football Playoff Contention
Last week, there were 24 teams remaining in Playoff contention. With seven eliminations this week (Florida State, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Maryland, Boise State, Utah, and Tennessee), we are down to just 17 teams remaining with Playoff hopes. As I’ve mentioned the past two weeks, many the remaining contenders are significantly ahead of the rest of the country. As upsets occur and losses pile up, these contenders will lose their wiggle room (like Ohio State did last week), but will stay alive because of the large gap between the top ten or so contenders and everyone else.
ACC: Clemson, Louisville
Big 12: Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia
Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota
Conference USA: None
MAC: Western Michigan
Mountain West: None
SEC: Florida, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn
Sun Belt: None
With three eliminations in the ACC, Clemson, and Louisville are the conference’s only Playoff contenders left. And, as I mentioned to start, Louisville isn’t actually a contender; I just can’t eliminate them in case chaos happens or the committee decides to value one close loss more than a real lack of quality wins. Why aren’t two-loss Coastal teams like North Carolina and Virginia Tech still alive? After all, I had Pitt still in the running until this week. To put it simply, Pitt plays Clemson in the regular season and has a non-conference win over Penn State. Neither North Carolina nor Virginia Tech has two quality wins. Each would end up with, including a win over undefeated Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, a maximum two ranked wins. Even though this year looks to have real chaos potential, I can’t see a two-loss team with only two ranked wins getting in. For starters, I don’t think an 11-2 North Carolina or Virginia Tech (especially Virginia Tech with that awful Syracuse loss) would jump over a 12-1 Clemson, which would have wins over Auburn, Louisville, and Florida State (and a potentially-ranked Troy team; keep an eye out for the Trojans in the committee rankings this week). Clemson has the wins that can make up a Playoff resume. North Carolina and Virginia Tech just don’t.
I had a bit of a dilemma with what to do with the Big 12. Do I eliminate Baylor? Do I eliminate all three? West Virginia really only has two chances at ranked wins in the Big 12 this year; Baylor and Oklahoma can each get three. However, I left West Virginia alive because of that good non-conference schedule — don’t be surprised if an 8-4 BYU sneaks into the committee’s rankings at the end of the year. Oklahoma is still alive because of the great non-conference SOS. The committee will realize that Houston was a far better team at the beginning of the year than it is now. Houston may not be a quality win for Louisville in November; but it certainly wasn’t a bad loss for Oklahoma in September.
That brings me to Baylor. Baylor is in a special category right now of teams I can’t eliminate but who really won’t make the Playoff, even if they win out. Western Michigan is in the same category. I can’t eliminate the Broncos because they haven’t lost, and therefore if all hell breaks loose on this season, the committee might have no choice but to let them in. Baylor is in the same boat (that WMU is happily rowing). The committee will do everything possible to avoid putting Baylor in the Playoff because of that non-conference SOS. A two-loss Big Ten or SEC champion would jump Baylor. A one-loss conference non-champion named Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas A&M, or Alabama would get into the Playoff before Baylor. But if all other options are exhausted, and we see true chaos, an 11-1 Baylor will not be an entirely unpalatable Playoff selection, which is why I cannot yet eliminate the Bears.
Western Michigan stands alone in NY6 race
Boise State’s comeback loss to Wyoming was Western Michigan’s gain, as the WMU Broncos are now just five wins away from securing a Cotton Bowl bid. Who stands in position to earn the big if Western Michigan can’t close it out? Toledo took itself out of the running with a loss to Ohio this week, so it’s WMU or bust for the MAC. The Mountain West will be in solid position if Boise State and San Diego State can each win out until the conference championship game. And keep an eye on Troy in the Sun Belt. The Trojans are 6-1 with that one loss a close one to Clemson, but they do have their toughest Sun Belt games (Appalachian State and Arkansas State) still to come.
The AAC has been cannibalizing itself pretty well, but it is still the best Group of 5 conference top-to-bottom. A two-loss champion will be in good position if both Western Michigan falters and we see another upset or two in the Mountain West. It will be interesting to see how the committee pits a two-loss Tulsa or South Florida’s resume against Troy’s. Of course, if Houston can turn things around and win out –including beating Louisville — the Cougars will get the bid over any one-loss Group of 5 team, and may even present a resume that makes the committee consider them over an undefeated Western Michigan. But that scenario is a long way off, and Houston doesn’t look in any position to win the rest of its AAC games right now, let alone beat Louisville.
Will any conference get two teams in?
Honestly, this is just a teaser. This topic deserves a full article, and I will give it the treatment it deserves as potential scenarios get whittled down. Let’s start with this, though. The Big 12 is all but dead. If Oklahoma loses to either West Virginia or Baylor, and the one who beats Oklahoma in turn loses to the other, the Big 12 will not get any team in the Playoff. No one would have a resume anywhere near good enough. With Boise State’s loss, which removed any pipe dream of a Group of 5 team getting in, we are essentially close to eliminating the Big 12 and just one Washington loss away from eliminating the Pac-12 as well. Washington may get enough “eye test” love to make the Playoff as a 12-1 Pac-12 champion — even with a lack of quality wins and a Baylor-level nonconference SOS — but if Washington doesn’t win the Pac-12 then that conference won’t be putting a team in the Playoff.
If those two scenarios — just some Big 12 parity and Washington either losing the Pac-12 North to Washington State or losing in the Pac-12 Championship Game — that will leave us four Playoff spots for only three conferences. Western Michigan may even get discussed, but any one-loss team with a half-decent resume will be ahead of Western Michigan. (If the fourth spot came down to Western Michigan and Louisville that debate, and resume comparison, would be absolutely fascinating). Leaving the Broncos aside (because that’s what the committee will do), it will be four Playoff spots for three conferences. Texas A&M would be in excellent position if it finishes with just one loss. So would Michigan. After that, though, things will get interesting and dicey. What would the committee do if it’s stuck comparing a two-loss Ohio State, Wisconsin, or Texas A&M to a two-loss Big 12 champion West Virginia? Or to a Washington team that didn’t win its conference? I would guess that it would go the SEC or Big Ten in that case, because the Big 12 and Pac-12 have such poor resumes, but it’s really impossible to discuss those scenarios fairly at this point in the season.
What to look for in Week 10
The Week 10 slate is pretty week, honestly. There are a few high-profile games at night, including potential Playoff-altering ones in Alabama/LSU and Ohio State/Nebraska, but after that the pickings are slim. UCLA/Colorado is important on Thursday night. The Pac 12 — and Washington — needs Colorado to keep winning so it can provide a potential ranked opponent for Washington in the championship game. Or, at least, to provide a higher-ranked opponent for Utah or Washington State so that there will be a bigger rankings boost for either of those teams if they can beat Colorado.
Wisconsin/Northwestern could affect the Big Ten East race. A Northwestern win would be disastrous for the Big Ten as a 10-2 Wisconsin in the championship game would all but guarantee a Playoff berth for the winner. Meanwhile, a Northwestern win would seriously help Western Michigan’s credibility if it drops a game. Oklahoma State’s trip to Kansas State is big for the Big 12. If the Cowboys lose, there is no way they will be a ranked team at the end of the year, knocking a potential quality win off the resumes of Baylor and Oklahoma.
In the SEC, Florida takes a trip to Fayetteville to face Arkansas. A Florida loss would hurt the SEC, as that would mean that the SEC East champion would be unlikely to make the Playoff if there is an upset in the championship game. Also, keep an eye on USC/Oregon. The Trojans started out 1-3 but have won four straight. They will probably not be ranked if they finish the season at 8-4, but it will at least look like a semi-quality win for Washington if the Huskies beat them. Lastly, Iowa/Penn State has serious Big Ten implications. Penn State still has a not-implausible path to the Big Ten Championship Game. A loss to Iowa would end that potential. Of course, Ohio State would like Penn State to keep winning so that loss looks better, but the Buckeyes probably wouldn’t mind Penn State losing just one more game — it would keep them from having to worry about Michigan dropping a game and bringing up scenarios in which Penn State wins the Big Ten East.