The early regional arguments are in, and the returns are favorable if you live below the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Texas border.
On Saturday night, Notre Dame marched into Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., golden domes gleaming under the lights, and stood its ground against Georgia. All that stood between the Fighting Irish and the biggest win of the Brian Kelly era were two minutes and 52 yards of grass between the hedges. With the nation watching, Notre Dame couldn’t get those yards. A fourth-down heave by Ian Book was knocked to the turf, swatted away as surely as the rest of the nation’s chances to crack a growing Southern bloc.
No. 3 Georgia beat No. 7 Notre Dame 23-17. The game didn’t say much new about the Bulldogs, who held serve by playing risk-free football. They deserve some credit for not paying for their conservatism, but that’s about it. Saturday might have erased some of the hesitation to believe in the Fighting Irish after they were roughed up by Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, but that means little to Notre Dame, which had one real shot to make a claim for a return trip to the CFP on Saturday and couldn’t write the statement in ink.
This was the last special nonconference showdown of 2019, until the CFP committee fills out its bracket, at least. It went the same way as Week 2 when Louisiana State won at Texas and Week 1 when Auburn edged Oregon on a neutral field at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Good luck to the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 Conference programs that will try to present a reason for the committee to not place at least two Southeastern Conference schools into the four-team field.
We love the first month of the season because the best matchups give us colors and uniforms we don’t normally see on the field together other than in bowl games. The beauty of September is these contests actually matter and help deliver on the idea that college football’s real playoff happens every week leading up to the CFP committee’s decisions.
With the Pac-12 suffering from perception issues, Oregon blowing a 15-point lead to Auburn robbed the rest of the league of a potential marquee game with the Ducks. Texas, with potentially two games left against Oklahoma, can still play its way back into the conversation. Notre Dame had another prove-it game at Michigan — until Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines looked lifeless in an embarrassing 35-14 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday.
More data will come in each week, but, starting next week with the universal start of conference play, the movements of the numbers from a national perspective will tighten.
When No. 8 Auburn went on the road to beat No. 17 Texas A&M on Saturday, 28-20, that might have been a key result in the SEC West standings, but it did not create any shock waves that teams outside of the SEC could ride in the coming weeks. It was just one good SEC team beating a lesser SEC team, and nothing changed about the perception of the conference.
Same for No. 13 Wisconsin’s dismantling of No. 11 Michigan in Madison. It showed that one Big Ten team is worth paying attention to in the coming weeks, while another has much bigger problems ahead of it.
These first four weeks set up the favorites for the CFP and revealed which teams have a legitimate shot to play their way in. Much of the upward mobility in college football is provided by the schedule. Which competitive teams will have a title bout or two to dislodge the established pecking order?
Here’s a tier system to sort out the next two months:
Tier 1: Clemson and Alabama
“You want it? Come and take it.”
The Tigers look like they’ve got a cakewalk ahead through the Atlantic Coast Conference, but their schedule is so soft that even one loss could knock them out of the playoff. Alabama, however, will have to earn a spot like every other SEC contender.
Tier 2: Georgia and LSU
“So, we still have to beat ’Bama, right?”
The Bulldogs and Tigers have the best resume-building wins of September, but each will still have to beat the Crimson Tide to guarantee a spot in the playoff.
Tier 3: Oklahoma and Ohio State
“We’re waiting ...”
The Sooners and Buckeyes look the part of a potential champion but have not had the chance to prove it. Odds are, one of them will.
Tier 4: Auburn and Wisconsin
“We’re trending right, but trends fade.”
No team has two wins as good as Auburn’s — versus Oregon and at Texas A&M — but somehow the Tigers still play at Florida and LSU and host Georgia and Alabama. A schedule that hard is criminal. Auburn has so many big games that it could sneak into the playoff with two losses depending on what happens around it.
In its first three games, Wisconsin won by a combined 145-0 before Michigan scored 14 meaningless points Saturday. The Badgers play at Ohio State and could see the Buckeyes again in the Big Ten championship game.
Tier 5: Florida and Penn State
“We’re undefeated! What else matters?”
The Gators and Nittany Lions haven’t played like title contenders, but their reputations have them in the top 10. Florida hosts Auburn, travels to LSU and will tussle with Georgia in Jacksonville. Penn State’s home game against Michigan lost some of its prove-it power, so it will all come down to a trip to Columbus against Ohio State.
Tier 6: Texas and Notre Dame
“But that loss sure was good, huh?”
The Longhorns and Fighting Irish are better than some of the teams mentioned above. Texas, with probably two games against Oklahoma left, has a much better chance to show it than Notre Dame will. The Fighting Irish will need to go 11-1 and root for everyone around them to crumble.
Tier 7: Pac-12 pretenders
The preseason Pac-12 favorites — Oregon, Utah and Washington — all have a loss. And none of them are going to be able to garner the respect it takes to be considered for a playoff spot based on the league schedule.
Oregon would be the most likely of the three to jump back into fringe contention because its loss was to a solid Auburn team.
No. 23 California, 4-0 with wins at Washington and Mississippi, has the best resume currently, but the Golden Bears are unlikely to garner much attention, short of going unbeaten.