By Patrick Wareham
The usuals: (1) Alabama, (2) Clemson
Five weeks of the college football season are in the books, and wouldn’t you know, Clemson and Alabama once again sit atop the polls. After splitting the last two NCAA Football National Championships, the rivals appear to be on a collision course once again, hurtling towards Atlanta in January. The Crimson Tide have been business as usual, dismantling their first two SEC foes by a combined score of 125-3. Nothing to see here; This is simply Alabama playing Alabama football. Clemson has also played impressive football to date, most recently downing #12 Virginia Tech on the road, adding to its collection of top-15 wins to go along with victories over Auburn and Louisville. Alabama’s success has been no surprise, as Nick Saban has turned his program into a consistent juggernaut year-in and year-out. However, many experts and fans alike were skeptical of Clemson’s capabilities this season without the heroics of quarterback Deshaun Watson, but Kelly Bryant has placed those worries aside and is winning football games for coach Dabo Swinney. With exception to the teams’ respective conference championship games, both Alabama and Clemson face just one ranked opponent the remainder of the year, exhibiting the real possibility of the two facing off for the third straight year in a rubber match.
But who else is in the running?
First tier contenders: (3) Oklahoma, (4) Penn State, (5) Georgia, (8) Wisconsin
Third-ranked Oklahoma arguably has the biggest win this season: a dominating effort over then-#2 Ohio State in Columbus. Led by fiery quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Sooner offense has what it takes to compete with Alabama and Clemson, but its porous defense, which gave up 41 points to lowly Baylor signals there could be troubles looming when facing high octane offenses.
Penn State looks to build off last year’s breakout season after just missing out on the College Football Playoff. Following a scare at Iowa, the Nittany Lions easily beat Indiana in Week 5. A lot will be learned about the Lions down the stretch, as they play Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State in successive weeks.
Georgia appears to be top dog in the SEC East after wins over ranked opponents Notre Dame and Mississippi State. Assuming it wins out in the conference’s weaker division, it will most likely face Alabama in the SEC Championship, which will be indicative of Georgia’s shot at a title.
In terms of Big Ten play, Wisconsin has it the easiest of all contenders. They miss both Penn State and Ohio State, and their only ranked opponent is Michigan, whom they play in November at home. Don’t be surprised to watch the Badgers quietly creep up the rankings as the other Big Ten powerhouses knock each other off.
Second Tier Contenders: (6) Washington, (7) Michigan, (10) Ohio State
Washington plays a light schedule in the Pac-12, avoiding a regular season matchup with USC. Mark your calendars for November 25, when the Huskies take on #11 Washington State, a game that should have serious Playoff implications.
#7 Michigan has looked strong this season, highlighted by a commanding win over ranked Florida in the opening weekend. Conference play will be tough on the Wolverines, who have at times displayed trouble moving the ball on offense. They also play Penn State on the road, and Wisconsin and Ohio State back-to-back weeks.
Ohio State showed two years ago that an early loss to a nonconference opponent doesn’t mean elimination from Playoff contention. The Buckeyes would most likely have to win out to have a shot at making the Playoff for the fourth straight year, but they will have to get through Penn State and Michigan.
Work to be done: (8) TCU, (11) Washington State, (12) Auburn, (14) USC
TCU impressed in its win over Oklahoma State, but no Big 12 Championship games means the Horned Frogs will need to go 12-0, including a win at Oklahoma, to ensure a spot in the top 4. Washington State handed USC its first loss in over a year last week. It will be interesting going forward to see if the Cougars are for real. Auburn controls its destiny, but it faces an uphill battle with one loss to its name and games against Georgia and Alabama. USC took a big hit in Saturday’s loss to Washington State, but the Pac-12 South is open for grabs, and the Trojans have what it takes to get hot fast.
CFP picks: (1) Alabama, (2) Clemson, (3) Penn State, (4) Washington
Alabama and Clemson will go unchallenged the remainder of the season, easily cruising into the top spots of the Playoff. Penn State will have to earn it, dropping an away game to Ohio State, but will recover, benefitting from the Buckeyes’ early loss. Washington will roll in the Pac-12, with its only real test coming from USC who it will match up against in the conference championship.
Bottom Line: Saban and Alabama have been gunning for Clemson all year long, just as Clemson was for Alabama a year ago. The fuel to the fire will be enough to put the Crimson Tide back on top in 2018. Surprised? Probably not.