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College Football Playoff focus gets a little sharper

Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson looks for a receiver during the first half of the Wildcats’ game against Oklahoma on Oct. 26, 2019, in Manhattan, Kan.
Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson looks for a receiver during the first half of the Wildcats’ game against Oklahoma on Saturday.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

As Kansas State’s upset of then-No. 5 Oklahoma was hanging in the balance Saturday with a replay review of the Sooners’ remarkable onside kick recovery, a fellow college football junkie tweeted an incredibly poignant thought about our current state of fandom.

“It’s a super bummer,” he said, “when a cool upset is happening and all anyone wants to talk about is, ‘Oh my God, how does this affect the playoff?!’”

Guilty as charged. At that moment, I was actually jumping through the mental hoops required to send my own tweet about what the Wildcats’ 48-41 victory would mean for the College Football Playoff, which seemed a likely destination for Oklahoma until the Wildcats poured on 24 unanswered points to start the third quarter in the “Little Apple” of Manhattan, Kan.

Now, I’m not going to feel that ashamed. I got thorough enjoyment out of Kansas State pulling off the third early-slate shocker in as many Saturdays, following South Carolina over Georgia and Illinois over Wisconsin. During the Bowl Championship Series era when only two teams got a title shot at season’s end, it was natural to jump right into theories of how a surprising result affects the national picture. Adding two more teams to the playoff has probably doubled the number of teams that can still reasonably feel they have a chance to play for a national championship as November hits, which has been a great thing for the sport.

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That said, we should try to live in the moment a little more as college football fans and critical observers. Here was first-year Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman, who helped to build the North Dakota State dynasty in the Football Championship Subdivision, following in the footsteps of the legendary Bill Snyder by notching his own signature win in a stadium that carries Snyder’s name. Here were the Wildcats, picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Big 12 Conference, flattening Oklahoma’s blue-chippers into prairie dust.

On the other end of the spectrum, how could you not feel for Jalen Hurts, who finally got to see why star Oklahoma quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray could not get the Sooners over the hump despite putting up back-to-back Heisman Trophy seasons? The reformed Oklahoma defense reverted to old habits, and so here we are, trying to decipher what it means in regard to what a room full of humans will decide on the second Sunday in December.

All we really know is that we don’t know anything. Oklahoma lost by a touchdown to a capable team on the road. It will lose some respect, but if it goes 12-1, which would include wins at undefeated Baylor and Oklahoma State, plus another quality win in the Big 12 championship game, the Sooners would have a legitimate claim to a playoff spot.

Their loss blows open the door for the Alabama-Louisiana State loser to back into the playoff without a conference championship on the resume. It also cracks open a window for a one-loss Pac-12 champion, either Oregon or Utah, to have a serious argument, too.

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The No. 1 vs. No. 2 game between Alabama and LSU in two weeks looks set, though the order of the Crimson Tide and Tigers changed in the AP top 25 in one of the closet votes ever.

No. 16 Notre Dame is out after a 45-14 humiliation to Jim Harbaugh’s resurgent No. 14 Michigan team.

No. 11 Auburn is out after losing its second game to No. 1 LSU, 23-20. After beating Pac-12 North powers Washington and Oregon in back-to-back season openers, Auburn now can be the league’s best friend with a chance to cannibalize No. 8 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama down the stretch.

With five weeks and one championship week to go, so much more is going to happen. The last three weeks have proved that. As natural as it is to sit around and wonder what the CFP committee will do with the SEC’s second-best team, a one-loss Oklahoma and a one-loss Pac-12 champion, the smarter thing is to just watch it unfold.

Here is a look ahead toward the games that should decide the bracket for us (with full acknowledgment that the biggest outcomes will probably come from the places we least expect it):

Week 10

No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 6 Florida

No. 9 Utah at Washington

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No. 7 Oregon at USC

We’ll know a lot more about how viable one-loss teams Georgia, Florida, Utah and Oregon are for the CFP after Nov. 2.

Nov. 9

No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama

No. 5 Penn State at No. 13 Minnesota

Minnesota coach PJ Fleck, whose Golden Gophers have ridden a soft schedule to an undefeated record, will host unbeaten Penn State. He’s demanding that ESPN College Gameday make the trip to Minneapolis, but it just so happens that LSU and Alabama’s latest “Game of the Century” is the same day in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Nov. 16

No. 23 Wake Forest at No. 4 Clemson

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No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 12 Baylor

No. 8 Georgia at No. 11 Auburn

Clemson’s schedule provides such little excitement that any game against a ranked opponent feels weighty, even a Wake Forest team that gave up 62 points to Louisville a few weeks ago. If Baylor beats Oklahoma, Matt Rhule’s Bears suddenly will be on the CFP radar, setting up a potential rematch in the Big 12 championship game. If Florida beats Georgia on Nov. 2, the Bulldogs-Tigers game becomes only a result to help other teams — like Oregon, which lost to Auburn — protect their “good loss” qualifier.

Nov. 23

No. 5 Penn State at No. 3 Ohio State

Even if Penn State loses at Minnesota on Nov. 9, this game will serve as the Big Ten East Division’s championship game.

Nov. 30

No. 3 Ohio State at No. 14 Michigan

No. 2 Alabama at No. 11 Auburn

No. 10 Oklahoma at Oklahoma State

No. 4 Clemson at South Carolina

The Game and the Iron Bowl will hold the significance that they should beyond annual bragging rights. The Wolverines and Tigers will be hosting the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide with a chance to spoil it all. Oklahoma State, if Oklahoma makes it past Baylor, and South Carolina will have the same task in front of them. It would be a mild surprise if at least one of these games doesn’t go the way of the underdog playing at home.


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