The assumption now is that Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat. That the Bearcats now control their own destiny. Win out, and they will become the first Group of Five program to reach the College Football Playoff.
The playoff picture became clearer on Saturday, with losses from Michigan State, Oregon and Wake Forest. Undefeated Georgia is a lock to reach the playoff. Ohio State appears likely, as long as it doesn’t trip up the next two weeks. Alabama still has to face Georgia in the SEC Championship game, but provided the Crimson Tide play the Bulldogs tough, it’s hard to see them getting left out. That leaves one team.
Luke Fickell’s undefeated crew is in good standing. Cincinnati produced its best performance in weeks, obliterating SMU, 48-14, one of the better teams in the AAC. It absolutely deserves to make the playoff if it knocks off East Carolina on Saturday and takes down 24th-ranked Houston in the AAC Championship game. But everyone is fooling themselves to think Cincinnati is in the clear.
The Big 12 — the Bearcats’ future conference — is standing in their way. The league’s champion, in particular if Oklahoma State or Oklahoma win its last two games, remains a stumbling block. Right now, Cincinnati has an 11-point road win over Notre Dame that saves its soft résumé. But Oklahoma State and Oklahoma meet Saturday in Stillwater. If the winner goes on to win the Big 12 title game the following week, that would beef up its résumé and potentially give the committee enough reason to have it leap Cincinnati.
Both programs do have one loss — Oklahoma fell at Baylor and Oklahoma State lost by three at Iowa State — but they would still own more significant victories than Cincinnati against a much tougher schedule if the above scenario plays out.
In the most recent rankings, Cincinnati was fifth, Oklahoma State was ninth and Oklahoma was 13th. The Bearcats are obviously ahead. That doesn’t mean that’s where they will finish. Don’t underestimate the possibility of the committee giving one of its power conference’s representatives the benefit of the doubt.
Wolverines at the door
All it will take is one game to change everything for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. One win at home. Sixty minutes of crisp, clean, dominant football.
Beat Ohio State on Saturday in Ann Arbor, take down the Buckeyes for the first time since Harbaugh came home, and the entire narrative will change for his Wolverines. It would clinch Michigan’s first ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship game. It would likely send Harbaugh’s team to the playoff, as long as it doesn’t stub its toe the following week.
Now, I don’t see it happening. I don’t think Michigan has the weapons or the depth or the talent to get by the suddenly red-hot Buckeyes. The early line is 7.5, in favor of Ohio State. But if you asked anyone in maize and blue back in August, this is all they could’ve wanted. A shot at home against Ohio State. A win-and-you’re-in scenario. One victory would change everything.
Bryce as nice
The Heisman is now a two-horse race, between two young quarterbacks that both made emphatic statements on Saturday. Alabama’s Bryce Young set a school record with 559 passing yards and threw five touchdown passes in a 42-35 victory over Arkansas. That performance came on the heels of C.J. Stroud leading Ohio State to a 56-7 demolition of Michigan State with six touchdown passes and 432 yards passing after hitting on 32 of 35 attempts.
Both have stellar numbers. Both players have their teams in position to reach the playoff. But Young is the clear front-runner. He’s been far more consistent and he’s done it in a better conference. Each player likely has two games remaining — Ohio State has to beat Michigan to reach the Big Ten Championship game — and Stroud can still catch Young. But there is nothing to suggest that Young, who has thrown 38 touchdown passes and just three interceptions while completing over 70 percent of his passes, is going to slip up.
1. Georgia (11-0) (Last week: 1)
The next game that really matters for the Bulldogs is the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve. Georgia is going to the playoff even if it loses to Alabama in the SEC Championship game.
2. Alabama (10-1) (2)
This isn’t a typical Nick Saban team. It doesn’t always dominate and its defense has let Alabama down on several occasions. But Bryce Young and Co. clinched their sixth SEC West crown in eight years on Saturday, and will get their shot at Georgia in two weeks.
3. Ohio State (10-1) (3)
That brief stretch of mediocrity, when Ohio State struggled to get by Penn State and Nebraska, feels like ancient history. The Buckeyes have exploded for 115 points in wins over Purdue and Michigan State, and look every bit like a team capable of winning it all.
4. Cincinnati (11-0) (4)
It will be hard for the committee to find fault with Cincinnati after its best performance in weeks, a 48-14 blitzing of SMU, that assured the Bearcats of an AAC title game matchup against Houston.
5. Notre Dame (10-1) (6)
The Irish crushed Wisconsin when the Badgers were at their lowest and lost by 11 at home to Cincinnati. Otherwise, they have a series of wins over mediocre-to-weak opponents. Notre Dame is a difficult team to judge.
6. Michigan (10-1) (8)
Everything is at stake for Michigan next Saturday in Ann Arbor: A Big Ten East crown. A shot at the playoff. A chance to snap Ohio State’s eight-year winning streak in The Game. Wolverines fans couldn’t have asked for anything more.
7. Oklahoma State (10-1) (9)
The Big 12 still has a shot at the playoff, especially if the Cowboys win out. Knock off Oklahoma on Saturday in Stillwater and beat whoever it plays in the conference title game, and one-loss OSU has an argument.
8. Ole Miss (9-2) (10)
The Rebels are one win away, against bitter rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, from their best SEC West finish in six years. Lane Kiffin deserves a lot of credit for the job he’s done — whether he remains in Oxford or not.
9. Oklahoma (10-1) (NR)
A seventh straight Big 12 title remains in play for the Sooners after their defense held off Iowa State in the final seconds. If that happens, maybe the playoff isn’t completely out of reach.
10. Oregon (9-2) (5)
For the Ducks to be virtually out of the playoff race after that Week 2 win at Ohio State is a flat-out failure. There is no reason they should’ve lost to three-win Stanford and gotten their doors blown off by three-loss Utah on Saturday.
Dropped out: Michigan State (9-2)
(in predicted order)
QB Bryce Young, Alabama
Now that was a Heisman statement: a school record 559-yard, five-touchdown masterpiece to keep the Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes alive in a thrilling win over Arkansas.
QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Stroud’s numbers weren’t quite as good as Young’s, because they didn’t have to be. His day was done early in the third quarter, after equaling a school record with six touchdown passes in Ohio State’s 56-7 destruction of outclassed Michigan State.
RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Walker’s Heisman hopes were dashed in a season-worst, 25-yard effort. His shot as a finalist, however, isn’t over if he can finish strong against Penn State.
QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
For the second time in four years, Pittsburgh is in the ACC Championship game, and this time the Panthers can win it. They will have the best player on the field in Pickett.
DT Jordan Davis, Georgia
The best defensive player on the best unit in years deserves some love. He won’t win the award, but the massive lineman deserves consideration.