SportsPulse: Dan Wolken reacts to the second College Football Playoff rankings and believes Ohio State can get into the playoff without qualifying for the Big Ten championship game given the committee’s track record.
It would take some truly wild happenings to alter the playoff picture at this late stage, but truly crazy happenings have been part and parcel in college football for decades.
Even bearing that in mind, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Notre Dame aren’t likely to be knocked from their perches this weekend. The Crimson Tide’s once-anticipated date with LSU is now a mere footnote thanks to the Tigers’ 2020 tumble, and the Fighting Irish host 1-9 Syracuse in what amounts to a tune-up for the ACC title game in two weeks.
We’ll turn our attention to the quest for the remaining coveted spots among the top four around the power leagues.
Here are the five games with the most potential impact on the race:
No. 3 Clemson at Virginia Tech
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
A few weeks ago, this looked like the toughest remaining test on Clemson’s schedule before its expected rematch with Notre Dame for the ACC title. It still might be, but the Hokies were last seen getting rolled by the same Pittsburgh team the Tigers just demolished.
Clemson running back Kobe Pace umps into the end zone for a touchdown during the first half against Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Photo: Hyosub Shin, Pool Photo)
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence showed no signs of rust after over a month without throwing a live pass. That is not good news for the Hokies’ defense that is surrendering nearly 275 yards a game through the air, but periodic protection issues on the Tigers’ line could allow Hokies’ DE Justus Reed to generate some heat. Virginia Tech’s ground attack, led by RB Khalil Herbert and also featuring QB Hendon Hooker, must also help by keeping the Clemson offense off the field. LB Baylon Spector will lead the efforts of the Clemson defense to keep the Hokies bottled up.
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No. 6 Texas A&M at Auburn
Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN
The Aggies, barring an extremely unlikely Alabama collapse, aren’t going to win the SEC. They must get to the finish line with just the one loss to the Tide to present their best case to the playoff committee. The Tigers, also victimized by said Crimson Tide in their most recent outing, are now just trying to salvage a winning season.
Texas A&M was not sharp against LSU after some extended down time. QB Kellen Mond will look to rebound against the Tigers’ reeling defense, though he doesn’t have Alabama’s array of weapons. RB Isaiah Spiller can help if he can find his way around LBs Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe. The Tigers need some positive plays early from QB Bo Nix to regain confidence in the offense, but not much gets by LBs Buddy Johnson and Aaron Hansford.
No. 4 Ohio State at Michigan State
Saturday, Noon ET, ABC
Now that the Buckeyes have been able to resume football activities, they’ll be heavily favored as they return to action. The Spartans, who just knocked off one undefeated division leader in Northwestern, will look to produce another shocker.Buckeyes’ QB Justin Fields wasn’t exactly shaky in his most recent outing, against Indiana, but he wasn’t at his sharpest, either. Having RB Master Teague III helps, but LB Antjuan Simmons and the Spartans’ run stoppers limited Northwestern to just 63 ground yards last time out. Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi is scrappy but will need to be almost perfect to keep up if the Buckeyes start to pile up points. WR Jalen Nailor will be the likely matchup for Ohio State CB Shaun Wade.
No. 11 Indiana at No. 19 Wisconsin
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Hoosiers, still very much in the Big Ten East picture given Ohio State’s schedule uncertainties, bounced back nicely from their heartbreaker against the Buckeyes. Unfortunately, they lost their quarterback in the process and must deal with the Badgers, who can no longer play for the conference championship thanks to too many COVID-19 cancellations but might still position themselves for a desirable bowl destination.
The good news for Indiana is QB Jack Tuttle did a credible job in relief of Michael Penix Jr., who left the Maryland game with a season-ending knee injury. He has big-play weapons in WRs Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor, and he’ll need to use them to keep LBs Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal at bay. Wisconsin also struggled on offense in its most recent outing, against Northwestern. QB Graham Mertz might try a deep ball or two early to open things up for RB Jalen Berger, but CB Tiawan Mullen and the Hoosiers’ secondary will be ready.
West Virginia at No. 12 Iowa State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
It would take a whole lot of chaos, but scenarios do exist in which the Big 12 champion might work its way up to the top four of the final playoff standings. Any such path would require the Cyclones and Oklahoma to get to the conference title game with no setbacks of their own. The Mountaineers represent Iowa State’s final obstacle to upholding its end.
It doesn’t always look flashy, but the Iowa State offense is effective, averaging 6.5 yards per play. QB Brock Purdy does enough through the air to allow RB Breece Hall to close the deal late when the formula is working. The Mountaineers’ defense, featuring LB Tony Fields II and CB Alonzo Addae, must take advantage of its third-down opportunities to get off the field. There could be yards to be had for WVU QB Jarret Doege and RB Leddie Brown, but LB Mike Rose and the ISU defense can usually get stops when needed.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus