After Alabama, the playoff picture in college football isn’t so clear
Shaking his head the slightest bit, then raising a big hand in the air, Ed Orgeron waved off the notion that anyone can truly make sense of college football this fall.
The coach had just watched his Louisiana State team knock off second-ranked Georgia on a weekend when four teams in the top 10 and four more in the top 25 stumbled.
“That’s why we don’t make projections,” Orgeron said in his trademark grumble. “That’s why we don’t read the newspaper.”
Sure, defending national champion Alabama has looked dominant at No. 1, a cut above everyone else in the polls, with or without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his sprained right knee.
But there is ample room for chaos in the rest of the field, a cluster of teams scrambling for what figure to be the remaining three spots in the College Football Playoff.
Just listen to coach Dana Holgorsen trying to explain how his previously undefeated West Virginia team fell at Iowa State.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t understand.”
Holgorsen has plenty of company. The midseason scenario is nothing if not hectic.
No. 2 Ohio State: The Buckeyes survived a rocky start with coach Urban Meyer suspended three games in the Zach Smith domestic abuse scandal. Dwayne Haskins has been key, leading all quarterbacks with 28 touchdowns while guiding the nation’s second-best offense.
A tendency to give up big plays might be the greatest concern with Michigan and Michigan State looming on the schedule. The running game also needs work after a sluggish performance against Minnesota on Saturday.
“We just had to fight through adversity, made the plays when they mattered,” Haskins said. “And that’s a good learning tool for next week.”
No. 3 Clemson: The good news? Early returns suggest that freshman Trevor Lawrence can live up to the hype; through six weeks he ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency.
The bad news? Lawrence is still young and relatively inexperienced, prone to glitches, and his ascendancy prompted former starter Kelly Bryant to bolt. That leaves the Tigers one injury away from relying on former third-stringer Chase Brice.
They might be able to take a loss along the way, as long as they get past North Carolina State and Boston College to secure a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
No. 4 Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish figured to have a solid veteran defense. The pleasant surprise has been Ian Book taking over at quarterback and senior Dexter Williams running the ball well of late.
Last week’s close call against Pittsburgh might have been the sort of hiccup that good teams sometimes encounter or, perhaps, a sign of deeper problems. As coach Brian Kelly said: “We obviously can’t play like this week-in and week-out and feel like we’re going to win every game we play.”
One thing about the Irish — if they keep winning, the Pac-12 and Big 12 conferences will probably be the biggest losers, unable to squeeze past Notre Dame for a spot in the Final Four.
No. 5 Louisiana State: The defense looked especially physical in last weekend’s victory, an impressive bounce-back after losing to Florida. And selection committee voters should be impressed by the resume, which now includes three victories over top-10 opponents.
That could again give the Southeastern Conference two teams in the playoffs. But some people still wonder whether the Tigers and transfer quarterback Joe Burrow are for real. The next three weeks, with home games against No. 22 Mississippi State and Alabama, will provide an answer.
“If we play well and do the things we can,” Orgeron said, “we can be in there with most teams in the country.”
No. 6 Michigan: That season-opening loss to Notre Dame looks better now, but the Wolverines still face an uphill battle. There are lingering questions about the offensive line and, just as important, coach Jim Harbaugh’s less-than-stellar record in big games.
His team has looked stronger each week with the second-ranked defense in the nation. On offense, where things have improved, transfer Shea Patterson looks more comfortable under center.
But Michigan faces a gantlet of Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State in the weeks ahead.
No. 7 Texas: The Longhorns proved they are back, finally, by outlasting Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown and surviving last week’s scare against Baylor when quarterback Sam Ehlinger left the game early because of a sprained throwing shoulder.
“There could have been some panic,” coach Tom Herman said.
Texas has the luxury of an experienced backup in Shane Buechele but will probably need Ehlinger to recover quickly with Oklahoma State and West Virginia next on the schedule.
No. 8 Georgia: After watching his team get pushed around in Baton Rouge, La., coach Kirby Smart did his best to remain hopeful, reminding everyone that Georgia suffered a loss near the end of last season, yet ultimately reached the national championship game.
“Everything’s still in front of us,” he said. “What are we going to do from here?”
That answer to that question begins with veteran quarterback Jake Fromm, who looked shaky enough Saturday to revive whispers about freshman Justin Fields taking over. Said Smart: “We’ve got to play the guy who gives us the best chance to win.”
One state over, in Alabama, that would be Tagovailoa, who returned to practice Monday and, according to coach Nick Saban, is “probably better this week than he was last week.”
Even if the sophomore cannot return immediately, the Crimson Tide can go with junior Jalen Hurts, who had a 26-2 record as the previous starter.
With a clear view of the rankings clutter below, it seems that Saban would like to remain above the fray. And he knows better than to take anything for granted as his team prepares for unranked Tennessee on Saturday.
“It’s the most important game of the season,” he said, “because it’s the one we’re playing now.”
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