Rob Oller: Big Three of Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama lead College Football Playoff chase

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Unbeaten teams that can avoid the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup in the College Football Playoff semifinals have a better chance of avoiding an unwanted confetti shower.

As the Big Three of Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama jockey for position in the still-embryonic College Football Playoff rankings, a dangerous No. 4 could upset everything.

We see you, COVID-19. And you ain’t no underdog. The virus is moving among potential playoff teams with sneaky false positives and 21-day quarantines. It showed up early for trick-or-treat at Wisconsin, costumed as Chase Young and sacking starting quarterback Graham Mertz and backup Chase Wolf, both of whom reportedly twice tested positive this week and must sit out at least three games. 

Another virus bomb dropped on the Badgers on Wednesday when their game at Nebraska on Saturday was canceled because of a high COVID test rate. The Badgers are (now were?) a threat to win the Big Ten West, which would put them in the Big Ten championship game, where anything can happen over one week with the virus prowling.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day knows it. Safeguarding quarterbacks is critical, which is why Day sometimes removes Justin Fields from QB meetings.

“I’ll grab Justin and take him on my own sometimes, for a lot of reasons but that is one of them, to keep him away from the other guys,” Day said on Tuesday, adding that all quarterbacks are masked and socially distanced in the meeting room.

“What a tricky situation,” Day continued. “This is a very contagious virus. I feel for all these teams. You cannot take a deep breath once. All it takes is one guy to put a lot of people at risk.”

Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson have avoided contagion catastrophe, the main scare coming when Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban tested positive before follow-up tests came up negative and he was allowed to coach from the sideline against Georgia.

A lot can happen with eight weeks remaining; still, the Buckeyes, Tide and Tigers will make the playoff unless Fields, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence or Alabama quarterback Mac Jones catch the virus. Then all bets are off.

This season, like last year when Oklahoma clearly was the weakest of the four playoff teams, seeding seriously matters when the final rankings are released on Dec. 20. Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State all want to finish No. 1 for more than just bragging rights, because after No. 3 comes a substantial falloff. A quick look at those contenders:

Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the polls, have a tough assignment at home against No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. If ND could manage a split with the Tigers in what could be two matchups (the second in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game) the Irish could impress the playoff selection committee into jumping them over other one-loss teams.

Oregon. I checked in with Bill Bender of the Sporting News for a national perspective on the rankings, and he likes the Ducks’ chances.

“The combination of not playing Ohio State (because of the refigured schedules due to the virus) and the Big 12 implosion opened the door for them,” Bender said. “The Ducks have a good defense coming back … but they have to go undefeated.” 

So far, so good. No. 14 Oregon is 0-0. The Pac-12 does not begin play until Nov. 7.

Oklahoma State. The No. 6 Cowboys (4-0), are pretenders more than contenders. Moving right along … 

Cincinnati. The No. 7 Bearcats (2-0) would make for a pleasant playoff change of pace, and a UC vs. Ohio State matchup would be incredible, but the committee only takes Luke Fickell's bunch as a last, last, resort.

Georgia. The No. 5 Bulldogs (3-1) got smoked by No. 2 Alabama two weeks ago, 41-24, and there is little reason to think the outcome would be any different if they both reach the Southeastern Conference championship game. As Bender put it, “I still think Georgia is the fourth-best team, with the understanding they could play Alabama 10 times and lose all 10.”

That’s less a reflection on the Dawgs than on how good 5-0 Alabama is looking, especially with Jones completing 78.8% of his passes. For comparison, Fields completed 67.2% of his throws last season and Dwayne Haskins completed 70% in 2018; both were Heisman Trophy finalists.

Alabama likely will not face another ranked team over its final six regular-season games, but from this perch Ohio State still looks to have the easiest road to the playoff. Entering the spring I would have said Saturday’s game at Penn State would be a legitimate slugfest, but that was before COVID canceled the whiteout and the Nittany Lions lost running backs Journey Brown (undisclosed medical condition) and Noah Cain (left leg).

Expect the Buckeyes to win by at least three touchdowns on Saturday. After that, the only remaining threats are Michigan and COVID-19. Prediction: the virus puts up a better fight than the Wolverines.