If only things had gone to the script, the noise promised to be deafening this coming week. A win in the Iron Bowl, and we’d have heard an awful lot, at very high volume, about how never mind anything happening elsewhere, an 11-1 Alabama fully deserved a berth in the Football Four. Basically, because ‘Bama.
But never mind — Auburn ended the Crimson Tide’s hopes, and now the chatter shifts to a debate between two conferences. Do you like one-loss Utah, which has been dominant against less-than-stellar Pac-12 competition (its last three opponents have losing records)? Or the Big 12’s Oklahoma-Baylor winner, both with one loss — and both with flaws, but with several wins lately against ranked opponents?
As Utah decimated a bad Colorado team and Baylor blew out a bad Kansas team, Oklahoma dominated its Bedlam rival Oklahoma State on the road. All three contenders passed the eye test, which means we can look forward to all sorts of angles on why this team should be in or that team should not, or whatever.
Elsewhere, Ohio State proved another point and LSU made an emphatic statement. Oh, and Clemson won big (what’s new) against South Carolina, after which Dabo Swinney ranted about all the people who supposedly don’t want the Tigers in the bracket. Weird. But hey, if manufacturing disrespect fires ’em up, go for it.
Back to the real debate: Obviously, much rides on the Pac-12 championship (Utah vs. Oregon) on Friday and a top-10 matchup between Oklahoma vs. Baylor on Saturday. There can be and almost certainly still will be change.
But the final Football Four — which is, gasp, only one week away! — will not include Alabama. As always, remember we pick the bracket as if the season was over today.*
1. Ohio State —The Buckeyes own their biggest rivalry. In Ann Arbor, they flat outclassed a good Michigan team. They’ve been the most impressive team all season, and now the resume has caught up with the eye test: offense, defense — what’s not to like? — and the Buckeyes’ biggest issue is whether it’s Justin Fields, J.K. Dobbins or Chase Young who should be in NYC as a Heisman finalist (maybe all of ‘em, but that seems unlikely), or whether they’ll cancel each other out.
2. LSU —The Tigers wanted to show us all something against Texas A&M, and they did. Not that A&M is all that — Jimbo Fisher’s bunch finished 7-5 — but it was very impressive, nonetheless. For a change, LSU’s defense showed up, too. Win the SEC championship against Georgia, and who knows? The Tigers might vault back to No. 1.
3. Clemson —Another Saturday, another easy win — this time against in-state rival South Carolina. After which, Dabo Swinney pulled the ‘no respect’ card. But the Football Four has immense respect for the Tigers. The ACC schedule, not so much. But the Tigers? Yep. Much respect. They’re terrific.
4. Utah — The Utes have been routinely dominant. They’re clearly very good. But their schedule is clearly sub-par: Their last three wins have come against teams with losing records. The only ranked opponent they’ve encountered was USC, a loss. So it’s eye test outweighing resume, yes. But the eye test is really impressive. Still, Utah might need to not only beat Oregon — which isn’t a sure thing, obviously – but do it convincingly. For now, though, they’re in the Football Four.
WEEK 14 OBSERVATIONS:Utah could be a win away from berth in College Football Playoff
WINNERS AND LOSERS:Week 14 college football recap led by Ohio State, Michigan, Auburn
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now to get sports news, analysis delivered to your inbox
5. Georgia —A beatdown of rival (and struggling) Georgia Tech was nice enough, but the Bulldogs don’t need style points. They need to beat LSU, any way they can. If they do, they’re in — and chaos ensues. If not, they’ll finish outside the bracket.
6. Oklahoma —The Sooners notched a convincing road victory against their Bedlam rivals. It was easily their most complete game in the season’s second half, but get this: In the last 10 quarters, Oklahoma’s defense has allowed three touchdowns. With the offense hanging onto the football for a change, the Sooners won comfortably. But now comes a rematch with …
7. Baylor —The Bears were very, very impressive in finishing off an 11-1 regular season. Yeah, sure, Kansas is the Big 12’s doormat, but the Jayhawks had showed fight this season. And Baylor had lived on the edge against several lesser opponents. Now comes a second chance against Oklahoma, with a possible Football Four berth on the line.
8. Alabama —Here’s a measure of how good ‘Bama has been: The loss to Auburn marked the first time since 2010 they’ve lost twice in the regular season. Yeah, losing Tua Tagovailoa was devastating (even though Mac Jones played pretty well). The Tide was sloppy — 13 penalties is the most in a game in Nick Saban’s 13 seasons — and the ending was apropos. Alabama got caught, confused, with 12 players on the field, giving Auburn the first down it needed in order to run out the clock on the Tide’s Football Four hopes.
A Few More After That***
Wisconsin — Order has been restored in the Big Ten West, with the Badgers’ dispatching of those pesky (and fun) Gophers. A 38-17 win against Minnesota propels Wisconsin into the Big Ten championship game, where a rematch with Ohio State awaits. Not sure that’s a good thing, but it’s worth a shot.
Oregon — The Ducks won’t be in the Football Four bracket, but the Rose Bowl is on the line in the Pac-12 championship. They weren’t especially impressive in beating Oregon State, but beating a rival is always sweet. How will they match up with Utah?
Auburn — Three losses against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Oh, but an Iron Bowl win salves a whole lot of feelings, yes? Gus Malzahn and his wife Kristi got to make that late-night Waffle House run.
Penn State — The Nittany Lions pulled away for a comfortable win against Rutgers, because Rutgers. They’re likely headed for a New Year’s Six bowl. But will James Franklin be with them? Hmmmm.
Notre Dame — The Fighting Irish haven’t been in the playoff picture since that loss in Athens, Ga., back in September — or at the latest, after that loss to Michigan. But they’re quietly 10-2. Really good. Again.
Florida — Ten wins. A New Year’s Six bowl. The Gators weren’t as good as LSU or Georgia, but there’s no shame in that. Dan Mullen has the program headed upward.
Mississippi — We’ll spare you the puns and cheap jokes about Elijah Moore’s penalty with four seconds left for pretending to urinate like a dog, costing the Rebels a chance to tie and potentially to win the Egg Bowl. It was the Egg Bowlest of Egg Bowl inanity, an act instantly etched in the lore of a bitter rivalry. Ugh.
Michigan — By most measures, Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor has been a success. By the most important measure, it has been a complete failure. Ohio State’s 56-27 victory, Harbaugh’s Wolverines are 0-5 against the Buckeyes. The problem began long before he arrived, but it’s now his problem. Even worse than losing is the width of the gap between the rivals.
Texas A&M — No one expected the Aggies to upset LSU in Baton Rouge. Most probably expected a blowout. But the context here is the hire two years ago of Jimbo Fisher, and the Aggies’ unmerited expectations heading into this, his second season. Simply put, they don’t seem much closer to contending in the SEC West — much less for a national championship — than before Fisher’s arrival. But maybe next year.
Nebraska — Yeah, these Huskers have been here before. But after a 27-24 loss to Iowa, they’re back in the Futile Four. It’s not just that the loss sealed a third consecutive losing season. It’s all that offseason hype about how Nebraska was on the fast track to the top of the Big Ten West. Well, nah. Now, a new offseason begins. And the tone seems likely to be a lot different.
* The season is not over until next week.
** Don’t be worried that your team sits just outside the cut. This is a weekly snapshot. And what do we know, anyway?
*** See the previous note, but it’s OK to be slightly concerned or very angry. But what do we know, anyway?
**** No note necessary.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder on Twitter @GeorgeSchroeder.