Quick Reactions: Alabama enjoying plum spot in latest College Football Playoff rankings
Here are five quick reactions off Tuesday’s second release of the College Football Playoff committee’s top 25 rankings:
1. Alabama should kick in money for Arkansas’ on-campus statue devoted to Hunter Henry’s fourth-and-25 miracle play
It’s funny how the narrative of Alabama’s season can undergo monumental change in a seven-day span.
Last Tuesday, there were viable concerns among fans that No. 2 Alabama (8-1, 5-1 SEC) could crush the remaining opponents on its schedule — LSU (win), at Mississippi State, versus Charleston Southern, at Auburn — and still miss out on the College Football Playoff semifinals, given the absence of a so-called “championship bump” in conference play, assuming Ole Miss claimed the SEC West title.
Well, Arkansas indirectly removed that hurdle, at least for the time being, by pulling off a road stunner against Ole Miss. And the lion’s share of credit goes to Razorbacks tight end Hunter Henry, who risked life, limb and a mini-eternity of humiliation as ESPN’s “Worst Of The Worst” highlight for the next 30 weeks — not unlike the Mark Sanchez ‘Butt Fumble’ from 2012 — by deftly throwing back an 18-yard reception that landed woefully short of the Hogs’ 25-yard requirement on fourth down.
And tailback Alex Collins completed the all-time catch/wayward backwards toss across the field/fumble recovery for a first down, which would have been an easy lock for “2014 College Play Of The Year.” But in 2015, the Henry/Collins tandem will likely have to fight for that honor — competing against Michigan State’s own Miracle In The Big House and Georgia Tech’s gift from the football gods against Florida State.
Back to Alabama: The No. 2 ranking certainly has merit, factoring in the Tide’s shakedown of then-No. 2 LSU last week, which included holding Heisman Trophy front-runner Leonard Fournette to a mere 31 rushing yards. On the flip side, coach Nick Saban’s club has only two victories against teams currently ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25 — No. 9 LSU and No. 25 Wisconsin.
On the “defeat” ledger, Alabama (lone loss to Ole Miss, currently not ranked) also falls short of lofty programs like No. 4 Notre Dame (only setback to top-ranked Clemson), LSU (only loss to Alabama) and No. 11 Florida (only loss: LSU) — the same enigmatic Gators who shellacked Ole Miss by 28 last month — but none of that seems to matter. At least for now.
National reputation and perhaps the presumption that ‘Bama would handle all comers in a Playoff contribute to a ranking above numerous undefeated squads.
As such, the Crimson Tide are seemingly housed in the same boat as Clemson and Ohio State: Take care of business in the final four outings — including Championship Saturday — and the SEC, ACC and Big Ten should all have representation in the Playoff semifinals.
2. Florida’s odds of reaching the College Football Playoff semis likely ended around 7:10 p.m. Saturday
In one regard, the East-champion Gators should be commended for owning higher spots than Oklahoma (12th), Michigan State (13th) and TCU (15th) — three programs with big-time hopes for a Playoff bounce-back.
However, Florida (8-1, 6-1 SEC) has no tangible shot of rocketing up at least seven spots in the coming weeks, with blah matchups against South Carolina and Florida Atlantic predating the showdown with Florida State (in Gainesville, Fla.).
The rationale for such pessimism is two-fold: On Saturday, Florida needed a late rally to escape an eminently beatable Vanderbilt squad at home; and nearly four hours later, Florida State squandered a golden chance to dethrone top-ranked Clemson and subsequently claim the biggest piece of the ACC Atlantic title.
Therein lies the fine line between success and Playoff adulation: For their two defeats to Georgia Tech and Clemson, the Seminoles trailed for a grand total of 11 minutes, 2 seconds.
3. In the land of current two-loss teams, Mississippi State might have the best path to a surprising semifinals invite
On paper, this seems like a long-shot proposition. The No. 17 Bulldogs’ most signature victory to date involves a road triumph over Auburn, which currently sits last in the SEC West. Plus, they avoided East powers Florida, UGA and Tennessee during the conference crossovers.
However, everything can dramatically change for the better starting this weekend, with Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2 SEC) welcoming No. 2 Alabama, before finishing up with Arkansas and Ole Miss. All three wins, in presumed totality, would represent a huge boost for the Bulldogs’ seasonal resume. It might also be enough to clinch a spot in the SEC championship (with a little help from LSU’s remaining conference opponents), where they would finally play an East opponent with substance (Florida).
An Alabama upset would also raise the Heisman profile of quarterback Dak Prescott (2,769 total yards, 25 total TDs), who has quietly deferred to front-runners Fournette, Trevone Boykin, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliot, Corey Coleman, Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson — despite just one interception for the season.
So, why do the Bulldogs possess the best chance among the two-loss cluster? No. 14 Michigan, No. 18 Northwestern and No. 19 UCLA are still alive for division/conference titles; but even if the Wolverines oust Ohio State on Nov. 28 … it wouldn’t matter if Michigan State trumped the Buckeyes the previous week.
In that scenario, the Spartans — should they go 3 for 3 from this point forward — would capture the East division title and then face Iowa for the Big Ten championship.
As such, within the two-loss grouping, Mississippi State would likely get the biggest bounce off the dual notions of slaying a top-5 power … and collecting the so-called championship bump. At this stage, though, it’s still commensurate to a pipe dream.
4. It’s hard to poke holes in Oklahoma State’s candidacy for a Big 12 title and perfect regular season
Of the four major powers in this conference — Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma and No. 6 Baylor (highest ranking of the quartet) — only the Cowboys (9-0, 6-0 in Big 12) get to play all three round-robin games at home, a huge advantage over the group.
Just ask TCU, which never threatened to beat Oklahoma State last week (losing by 20).
Oklahoma State also has precedent on its side: From Week 11 to Week 12 last year, eventual national champion Ohio State jumped from 14th to eighth in the Playoff rankings — the same monumental leap proffered by Oklahoma State from Week 11 to Week 12 this year.
5. College fans are virtually guaranteed two ‘play-in games’ leading up to the final Playoff rankings on Dec. 6
Obviously, Michigan State and Michigan have the chops to knock off No. 3 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) in the coming weeks, just like Nebraska could conceivably shuck Iowa (9-0, 5-0) in the regular-season finale (Nov. 28) — especially if the referees aren’t sticklers for receivers executing out-of-bounds routes.
But the smart money lies with the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes finishing strong for November and landing unblemished berths in the Big Ten title game (Dec. 5). And should that happen … an undefeated conference champion would be an easy lock for a slot in the College Football Playoff. Not unlike Florida State last season, which endured a number of close calls — including the ACC championship against Georgia Tech — to finish the regular season at 13-0 and earn a spot in Playoff semis (as the No. 3 seed).
The second play-in lock has a little more juice, pitting No. 4 Notre Dame against red-hot Stanford (currently No. 7) on Thanksgiving weekend. As a prelude to that clash in Palo Alto, Calif., the Fighting Irish must only contend with also-rans Wake Forest (Saturday) and Boston College (Nov. 21) — presumed victories that would neither help nor hinder Notre Dame’s case for the Playoff semis.
Luckily, a victory over Stanford would essentially clinch that spot in the so-called Final Four.
Speaking of the Cardinal (8-1, 7-0), they have a chance to secure the Pac-12 North title this weekend against Oregon, a high-profile showdown that bore the look of a must-see showcase back in August. Three months later, though, only Stanford has everything to lose … by, uh, losing to an Oregon team that has already fallen to Michigan State, Utah and Washington State.
But there’s also a security blanket here: Even if Stanford gets upended by Oregon, the Cardinal could still clinch the North title with a Nov. 21 victory over Cal (or an Oregon defeat to Southern California or Oregon State). But if that happens … only No. 10 Utah (which got throttled by Southern California a few weeks ago) would have a viable chance at the Playoff semis — coming out of the conference.
And even then, it would be a long shot. For the Pac-12, it’s basically Stanford Or Bust.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.