What top non-CFP contenders can still accomplish
The first playoff rankings are out, and at Alabama and Clemson and even UCF, there will be ongoing debates asking who’s in. For the rest of the college football world, however, their place in the rankings is little consolation for crushed playoff dreams. The optimism of September has been replaced with the cold reality of November, and coaches and players are now working their way down their list of goals to find a few still within reach.
So, what’s left to play for when the War Eagle has flown the coop or the Longhorns have come up short? For some, it’s just pride. For others, there’s still a lot left on the table.
Where they started: The Tigers were the No. 9 team in the preseason AP poll and the defending SEC West champs. With Jarrett Stidham back at QB and a rock-solid defense, Auburn seemed the logical alternative to Alabama to take the SEC crown.
Where they stand: They’re 5-3 with losses to LSU, Mississippi State and — gasp — Tennessee. The loss to the Volunteers was both embarrassing and emphatic. All the enthusiasm about the season has gone, and the fire under Gus Malzahn’s seat has been reignited.
What’s left to play for: Start with the obvious — a Nov. 24 date with Alabama. If Auburn isn’t winning an SEC title, the next best thing would be to keep the Crimson Tide from doing it. But there’s certainly more at stake here. Stidham entered the year as a potential first-round draft pick, and while he has played fairly well, his stock has dropped. A strong finish could rekindle NFL interest. More importantly, a strong finish to the season — particularly against Georgia and Alabama — would ease tensions for Malzahn and potentially save Auburn a whole lot of money.
Where they started: Unranked with a first-year coach, but with ample enthusiasm about a new chapter after too many seasons of mediocrity.
Where they stand: After a loss in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the wind is out of Florida’s sails. Falling to Georgia effectively ended the Gators’ chances at the SEC East, but at 6-2, they’re still well ahead of schedule in the program’s rebuild.
What’s left to play for: There’s still ample optimism for Florida, which seems light years ahead of last year’s horrendous offensive team. Still, it’s worth remembering that former coach Jim McElwain was 7-1 at this point in his first season (en route to a 10-4 finish), so progress can be fleeting. A strong finish even without the carrot of a division title to chase would be a good sign for the Gators. Oh, and kicking rival Florida State while it’s down wouldn’t hurt either.
One-loss Group of 5 teams
Where they started: Houston, Cincinnati, UAB, Buffalo, Utah State, Fresno State, USF and Georgia Southern all opened the year with varying degrees of promise, but all were in the long shadow of UCF in any discussion of the best Group of 5 teams.
Where they stand: UCF still reigns supreme, undefeated entering Week 10 and ranked in the top 10. But the latest AP poll saw 11 different Group of 5 teams earn a vote. That has left a lot of debate about who comes next should UCF fall.
What’s left to play for: In the fifth year of the playoff system, this is easily the most intriguing race for the Group of 5’s spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Of course, they’ll need UCF to lose somewhere along the way — and UCF, on the other hand, is still aiming to get a look from the playoff committee if it wins out — but if the debate turns from the Knights, there’s a deep cache of potential teams ready to rise up into the mainstream.
Where they started: Off the radar and underappreciated, Iowa was in the mix of teams well behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten West pecking order.
Where they stand: One errant throw on a broken play against Penn State likely cost Iowa any shot at the playoff, but the Hawkeyes have built a solid resume with wins over NIU, Iowa State and Maryland.
What’s left to play for: Despite close losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, Iowa still has about a 1-in-3 shot at winning a division that appears wide open. With showdowns against Purdue and Northwestern in the next two weeks, the Hawkeyes could all but assure themselves a chance to play for a conference championship with a couple of more wins. And if there’s complete chaos elsewhere, hey, who knows?
Where they started: No. 8 in the preseason AP poll, Miami was coming off its first division title, an Orange Bowl appearance and a 10-win season. Hope was high that 2018 was the year the Canes were officially back.
Where they stand: Losers of two straight to Boston College and Virginia, teams that have combined to sign seven blue-chip recruits over the past four years. Miami signed 16 in 2018 alone. Worse, there seems to be no clear plan for the future, as Mark Richt has bounced between quarterbacks trying to fix an offense that has been utterly out of sync.
What’s left to play for: The Canes still have an outside shot at the Coastal Division, but it’s a long shot. More than winning games, however, the goal needs to be finding an identity. That’s what’s so baffling about the decision to start Malik Rosier at QB. He’ll be gone at year’s end regardless, and Richt has to decide what the future at QB looks like and how to build his offense around it.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Where they started: The preseason No. 10 team returned one of the country’s top QBs and appeared poised to be a big part of a battle for the Big Ten East, which included four teams ranked in the preseason top 14.
Where they stand: It’d be easy to say Penn State has been unlucky, but more than anything, the Lions have simply struggled to close out games. They had Ohio State and Michigan State on the ropes in the fourth quarter but couldn’t get the job done, and they nearly fell apart in wins over App State, Indiana and Iowa, too.
What’s left to play for: There’s a good case to be made that Penn State is the best of the two-loss programs, so perhaps if enough chaos occurs elsewhere, the Lions have a glimmer of hope. Still, FPI gives Penn State less than a 1 percent chance to win its division, which all but ensures an offseason of talk about James Franklin’s late-game collapses. Some of that noise can be canceled out by a strong finish, beginning this week with a showdown against Michigan.
Where they started: Texas opened the season on the bottom rung of the top 25 and promptly lost to Maryland in the opener, effectively undermining any preseason hope before things really got started.
Where they stand: Turns out, the reports of Texas’ demise were overstated after Week 1. Of course, the “Texas is back!” crowd also got a little ahead of themselves after that. The good news is the Longhorns won their rivalry game against Oklahoma. The bad news is, a loss to Oklahoma State effectively ended any playoff hopes.
What’s left to play for: So Texas couldn’t get it done against the Cowboys. This still has a chance to be a turning-point season for the Horns, and the Big 12 championship is still within reach. Texas could get to 10 wins for the first time in a decade. A win over West Virginia would put the Horns in good shape for a rematch with Oklahoma in the conference championship game. A New Year’s Six bowl is a distinct possibility. All of this would be huge progress for a program that, while perhaps not officially back to its heights, is a whole lot closer than it has been in the past decade.
Where they started: No. 15 in the preseason AP poll, the Trojans had a lot of fresh faces but also a hefty roster of talent in a wide-open Pac-12 South division.
Where they stand: At 4-4, this certainly wasn’t the start USC had hoped for, and the growing pains — both figurative and literal — for the younger players, including QB JT Daniels have been significant.
What’s left to play for: Simply getting more reps for Daniels while keeping him healthy is critical, and given the utter chaos that has marked the Pac-12’s season, there’s an opportunity for USC to still make some noise. The division remains up for grabs, and if this becomes a year that is more about building for the future, a little late-season success could be a good motivator for 2019.
Where they started: The No. 6 team in the country preseason, Washington was the darling of the Pac-12 and, quite likely, its best hope for a playoff berth. Those hopes took a big hit after Week 1, however, when the Huskies fell in Atlanta to Auburn.
Where they stand: At 6-3, Washington’s playoff hopes are dead, but how it got here is what’s most frustrating. The three Huskies losses are by a combined 10 points, and Washington has no one to blame but itself. The Huskies had ample chances to win each but managed a woeful three touchdowns in 12 red zone drives in their three defeats.
What’s left to play for: Things look bleak at Washington, with QB Jake Browning getting benched temporarily in a loss to Cal and the offense sputtering far too often. But the truth is, the division is still quite winnable for the Huskies, with an Apple Cup showdown vs. Washington State offering a significant chance at salvaging the season, winning the Pac-12 and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Where they started: The No. 4-ranked team in the preseason, everything seemed to be setting up right for the Badgers, who played on the right side of the Big Ten, had a veteran QB and a Heisman candidate running back to go with one of the best O-lines in the country.
Where they stand: It’s hard to fathom how bad things have gone for the Badgers, who inexplicably lost to both BYU and Northwestern and were blown out by Michigan. At 5-3, those playoff hopes seem a distant memory, and Jonathan Taylor’s chances at the Heisman have been, quite literally, fumbled away.
What’s left to play for: Despite all the setbacks, the Badgers still have a shot at the West Division title. That would mean wins over Penn State and Purdue though, and if that’s going to happen, Wisconsin needs to find a lot more consistency on both sides of the ball. Taylor and Alex Hornibrook will be back again in 2019, too, so righting the ship now can have lasting implications.
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