By Ray Hamill
The great thing about college football is that it’s the only sport where the playoffs essentially begin midway through the regular season.
That’s what happens when you only invite four teams out of 125 or so to the postseason party. When that’s the case, there is little room for error for any team that wants to be considered a contender, and any of them that lose early know they cannot afford to lose again.
With the first official playoff rankings due out this week, it will be interesting to see how the committee reacts to a Saturday that saw two of the top four teams falling.
Presumably Alabama will be No. 1.
The Crimson Tide were not just top of both the Associated Press and Coaches polls last week, but garnered all 125 first-place votes in both.
At this stage, they appear to be on a collision course for a showdown with No. 3 Georgia in the SEC Championship, and right now I’d be surprised if both are not included in the final four.
These two teams are not just winning, they’re winning impressively, and they are quite probably the best two teams in the country right now.
But if the SEC lands a pair of spots in the final four, that would leave at least two of the big five conferences on the outside looking in, and potentially three of them if independent Notre Dame wins out and secures one of the coveted four spots.
Right now, the Big Ten champion would appear the most likely to be included along with Alabama and Georgia, although who the hell that might be is anybody’s guess.
No. 5 Wisconsin is the only remaining undefeated team in the Big Ten, which is surely the most loaded of the five major conferences, although Ohio State and Penn State might be the best two teams in the conference.
For now, Ohio State – after Saturday’s crucial win over the Nittany Lions – will likely join Wisconsin in moving up into the top four, but who knows how long that will last.
In the ACC, meanwhile, Miami is winning ugly but remains undefeated and the Canes will be difficult to overlook if they win out.
But that schedule includes a dangerous Notre Dame side in two weeks, and a potential conference championship showdown against either North Carolina State or Clemson in early December.
With a second loss on Saturday, NC State is now likely out of the playoff picture, but the other two ACC frontrunners remain firmly in the running and each holds its destiny in its own hands.
TCU’s loss to Iowa State, meanwhile, leaves the Big 12 without an undefeated team.
The Horned Frogs, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State now have one loss apiece and each must win out to have any shot at inclusion.
The Pac-12 likewise has no remaining undefeated contenders. No. 12 Washington and No. 15 Washington State each has one loss to their name, and even winning out won’t be enough without a lot of help elsewhere.
So as we head into November, we have just four remaining undefeated contenders (Alabama, Georgia, Wisconsin and Miami), and eight one-loss teams with no more room for error.
For Ohio State, Penn State, Clemson, Notre Dame, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Washington, the playoffs have already begun.