Checking In On The College Football Championship Race Through Week 5

The four-team College Football Playoff has had multiple teams from the same conference only once in its seven-year existence, dating back to 2014. 

That year was 2017. Alabama and Georgia both made the playoff and indeed met in the national championship game. Through five weeks of the 2021 season, most prognosticators and pundits would likely tell you that we’re on an Alabama-Georgia collision course for the national title game this coming January in Indianapolis. 

This is not a controversial line of analysis, given everything else which is happening in college football lately. 

Alabama and Georgia faced SEC challengers this past weekend. The Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs wondered, as did their fans, if Ole Miss and Arkansas really were top-tier adversaries in the SEC, or if their high (top-15) national rankings were inflated. 

We gained a very clear answer on both fronts. 

Alabama rolled to a 28-0 halftime lead and jogged past Ole Miss, 42-21. Georgia scored 21 very quick points and put Arkansas to bed very early, 37-0. Ole Miss and Arkansas (two teams which will meet this weekend in a fascinating game) might still have great seasons, but they were nowhere near Bama or Georgia. It was men against boys in both SEC featured attractions in Week 5. With Florida getting knocked off by Kentucky and Texas A&M losing at home to Mississippi State, it does seem that Alabama and Georgia are miles ahead of the rest of the SEC, so much so that they will both be favoured to go 12-0 before meeting in the SEC Championship Game in December. 

If we do get that scenario – Alabama and Georgia not only meeting for the SEC title, but doing so with unbeaten records on both sides – the loser of that SEC title game will almost surely make the playoff. 

Why? Look at what everyone else is doing (or failing to do, as it were). 

Oregon lost this past weekend to Stanford. The Ducks have a great win at Ohio State on their resume, but if they lose a second game, they certainly wouldn’t be ahead of a 12-1 SEC runner-up. Oregon cannot afford a second loss this season, and given the reality that the Ducks face a quarterback controversy between incumbent Anthony Brown and backup Ty Thompson, it’s hard to see the Ducks running the table. 

Clemson already has two losses. One of the dynastic powers in college football already has a resume unworthy of playoff inclusion. The Tigers would need 2007-style chaos (that season is long viewed as the example of a college football year in which no results make sense and everything is possible) to have even a slight chance at the playoff. The ACC is almost certainly going to be shut out of the playoff mix. 

Ohio State might be rounding into form, but a blowout win over Rutgers isn’t complete and certain proof of a revival. The Buckeyes already have that home-field loss to Oregon on their resume. One more loss would ruin Ohio State’s playoff chances. Penn State and other Big Ten contenders will get a crack at the Buckeyes. 

Penn State and Iowa play this weekend. The winner remains unbeaten and would be in prime position to make the playoff, but running the table in the Big Ten is never easy. All the contenders in that conference have their toughest games ahead of them. 

Oklahoma is unbeaten, but the Sooners have struggled in their first month of play. If Oklahoma plays in October the way it played in September, the Sooners will certainly lose once. Quarterback Spencer Rattler has not evolved into a superstar quarterback. OU lacks the brilliance it has become accustomed to under center with Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts. 

All in all, college football is currently looking at a landscape in which Alabama and Georgia can both make the playoff from the SEC, with the Penn State-Iowa winner (Big Ten) and Oklahoma (Big 12) filling out the other two spots. Yet, those other two spots from the Big Ten and Big 12 feel anything but safe. Volatility hasn’t affected Bama or Georgia, but it has hit several high-profile programs: Clemson most of all, Ohio State as well, plus Oregon, Notre Dame, Florida, Miami, North Carolina, LSU, USC, Washington, Wisconsin, and Texas A&M. All of those 12 programs have already underachieved relative to 2021 expectations… and it’s only the first week of October.

This season, after the pandemic craziness of 2020, feels markedly unstable in every locale in the United States except for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Athens, Georgia. 

The volatility in college football this season is so pronounced that we could have an unprecedented development in the sport if teams outside the SEC keep getting picked off. We could have a Group of Five team in the playoff for the first time ever. 

Cincinnati just won at Notre Dame. The Bearcats have a legitimate shot at going 13-0 in the regular season. If the Penn State-Iowa winner loses twice later on in the season; if Oregon and Ohio State lose a second game; and Oklahoma loses twice, the champions of the various non-SEC power conferences will likely have two losses (including Clemson in the ACC). In this scenario, a 13-0 Cincinnati team from the American Athletic Conference (AAC) would not only get into the playoff; there wouldn’t even be a debate about it. That would change college football dramatically, offering hope to all the Group of Five programs which haven’t been able to crash the castle door and bash it in. 

SEC! SEC! SEC! Group of Five drama! It’s a wild college football season everywhere but Alabama and Georgia. 

Get ready for a bumpy and thrilling ride as October continues. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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