One college football adage almost always works out. The weekends that appear dull and perfunctory tend to be when things get weird. Week 7 looked like a swell time for a wedding or to catch up on some errands. It turned out to be anything but.
Four top 10 teams – Clemson, Washington, Washington State, and Auburn – lost to unranked opponents. Clemson dropping a weird weeknight game on the road? Reasonable. LSU coming from behind at Tiger Stadium? Reasonable. How do we explain the two Washington programs combining for 10 points against Cal and ASU?
Top 25 San Diego State, Texas Tech, and Navy teams also lost to unranked teams. Six more Top 25 teams – Wisconsin, Miami, Oklahoma, USC, Michigan, and Michigan State – came close to doing so with one-score or overtime wins.
This may be an overreaction. There’s another half-season of football to play. But right now, there are startlingly few “contenders.” Even teams in the top five and top 10 look quite vulnerable. 2017 could turn into one of the more exciting college football playoff discussion seasons. Though, it’s not clear any of it will matter.
This season’s Alabama team is among the (if not the) best Nick Saban has had. A shocking result for them was Texas A&M staying within 10 points. The Aggies may be the only team that does so during the regular season. Alabama is a 5-4 favorite to win the national title. That’s the value you get for betting on them to win the SEC West and win what should be three Top 10 games in the SEC title game, the Playoff Bowl, and the Playoff Final.
Georgia has looked awesome. But the Bulldogs have looked awesome against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Missouri. We won’t find out whether they belong in Bama’s tier until they play Bama in the title game. Georgia still needs to beat Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech away from home to get there with a chance for a second playoff bid.
Clemson at 3/1 is the only other team with single-digit national title odds. The Tigers get a bye week to regroup after the ‘Cuse lose. If Clemson can beat N.C. State at Carter-Finley, they should sail into a title game against Miami as heavy favorites. It’s also conceivable that they drop another game, still beat Miami in the title game, and end up a two-loss champion.
The Big Ten should be more interesting. But it’s not yet clear how interesting. Penn State and Wisconsin are both 6-0 and ranked in the top five. Those teams have played one Top 40 S&P+ team combined thus far. That was Penn State’s 21-19 win on a last-second touchdown against No. 38 Iowa. The Nittany Lions will prove themselves against Michigan, MSU, and Ohio State. Wisconsin’s only ranked opponent may be Michigan at home, and it’s not certain Michigan will finish in the Top 25.
Ohio State should be the best team. The Buckeyes have dominated all comers since the Oklahoma loss. The closest game has been 31 points. The trouble is that they’ve played Army, UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland, and a woeful Nebraska. Winning the conference may be tough for Michigan or Michigan State. But both have the defenses to pull off an upset and prevent another team from winning the conference (or winning it cleanly).
TCU seems legit in the Big 12 so far. But they still have to beat Oklahoma in Norman, fend off live underdog Texas and, since the Big 12 added a needless title game, beat either those two teams or Oklahoma State again to win the conference.
The Pac-12 is a giant shrug emoji at this stage. USC should win the South. The Arizona schools are the hardest in-conference tests that remain. But the Trojans look capable of playing down to anyone. A North winner will emerge from the mini-league between Stanford, Washington, and Washington State. That winner being a two-loss champion seems probable, especially if the Trojans lose at Notre Dame.
Speaking of the Irish, they are still in the mix. They will have the résumé if they win out. But the Irish need to win out against a back-loaded schedule. That will mean beating USC and N.C. State at home, winning at Miami and Stanford, and not letting down against good Wake Forest and Navy teams.
This season could end up being one of the more exciting since the College Football Playoff began. A few results could see the committee having to discern between multiple two-loss conference champions. But if Alabama is this much better than everyone else, none of it may matter.