Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses how tough the Hoosiers can be during Monday's media availability. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
It’s quiet. Almost too quiet. And for those clamoring for change in college football’s postseason format, maybe that’s the silent hope now. That this is the calm before the storm that’ll bring changes, expanding the playoffs and the possibilities.
For now, though, get ready to hit the snooze button. Because Saturday’s slate of games – mostly scrimmages down in the Southeastern Conference this weekend -- may not offer any more drama than last week, which saw the top 10 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings all win their games by an average margin of 21 points.
As a result, Tuesday night marked the first time in the five-year history of CFP that the top 10 in the rankings remained unchanged following a clean sweep. There's a good chance it'll stay that way, too, if No. 3 Notre Dame can handle No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night. (The rest of the top 10 features mostly mismatches, including the SEC's cleverly-scheduled bye week: Alabama hosts the Citadel, Georgia welcomes UMass, and so on.)
No news is good news for Michigan fans, of course, as the Wolverines – holding steady at No. 4 – figure to be fine if the favorites hold serve from here on out.
If you’re Michigan, you’re rooting for No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson to keep rolling, and if Notre Dame loses, that’s great. But probably not necessary, so long as you run the table with victories over Indiana, Ohio State and then Northwestern again in the Big Ten championship game.
A one-loss Big Ten champion that has won 12 in a row in that scenario -- against a schedule that currently ranks as the strongest of any of the top six teams in the CFP rankings -- isn’t going to get bumped from the top four. Not unless something truly dramatic happens, like Georgia knocking off Alabama in the SEC title game.
But more on that in a minute. First, here’s Rob Mullens, chairman of the CFP selection committee, when asked to explain the status quo, and specifically, Michigan’s place in it.
“Well, I mean, Michigan has a very strong resume,” he said Tuesday night after the latest rankings were released. “They've won nine games in a row. Only loss is to the No. 3-ranked team on the board in the first game of the year. And again, they've got wins at Northwestern, at Michigan State, and a dominant win over Penn State. The No. 1 defense in the country. Strong resume.”
And one that should hold up if Jim Harbaugh’s team holds up its end of the bargain the next few weeks.
But what happens if the chaos everyone keeps promising finally materializes? What happens if Alabama loses to Georgia in a close game Dec. 1 in Atlanta and everyone else at the top wins out?
“That’s the scenario where we get into the ‘Does Alabama still deserve to be up in the top four because we’ve looked at them as the best team all year?’” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “Who would be left out? Because you could make a case for all five of those teams. I think that would be Armageddon this year for the committee.”
And that’s exactly what some folks are waiting for, quite frankly.
Look, ESPN is taking its College Gameday show to Orlando this weekend, so we’ll hear plenty of hand-wringing about the have-nots prior to kickoff of the Central Florida-Cincinnati game. The Knights are undefeated and on the outside looking in again at the playoff chase, a year after going 13-0 -- and finishing 12th in the rankings -- without getting a chance to prove they belong in the postseason.
But that alone won’t bring change to a system that’s still jury-rigged to the bowl games and all that entrenched money, power and tradition. The only thing that will, I suspect, is the sort of end-of-days calamity that Herbstreit’s talking about and Michigan fans are fretting about.
The Big Ten champion getting left out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year? The Pac-12 for the third time in four years? A playoff field that includes only two of the Power Five conferences? Another all-SEC national title game? (This one a rematch of a game played barely a month earlier, no less?)
That’s what it’ll take, on top of what we’re experiencing right now. There’s yearning, and then there’s yawning.
And I can’t help but wonder how much more intriguing the final month of this season – or any season, really -- would be if teams were jockeying for position in an eight-team playoff field. One that includes the five major conference champs and leaves room for a few wild cards, whether that’s the next-best team in the SEC or a would-be giant-killer from the Group of Five. (One that might even get rid of some of these cash-grab conference championship games featuring three- and four-loss teams. But that's another rant for another day.)
For starters, the Pac-12 wouldn’t be a bystander again – for the third time in four years -- done in by its own dumb conference scheduling, among other issues. (Washington State’s lone blemish came in a Friday night road game at USC, continuing a string of critical short-week stumbles for the league’s best teams.)
The Big 12 wouldn’t be, either. Currently, four teams have a shot at the conference title, but only Oklahoma appears to have an outside shot at the playoffs. In an eight-team alternate universe, the entire month of November would’ve featured games with playoff implications, from last week’s “Bedlam” to this week’s Iowa State-Texas clash to the Oklahoma-West Virginia clash the day after Thanksgiving.
As Harbaugh said back in July, when asked about expanding the playoffs, “More would be better.” And he's right about that. It's just that in the current format, less probably means more for Michigan. It doesn't have to be that way, but it is.
The road ahead
Remaining regular-season games for the top six teams in the College Football Playoff rankings:
1. Alabama (10-0): The Citadel, Auburn
2. Clemson (10-0): Duke, South Carolina
3. Notre Dame (10-0): Syracuse (at Yankee Stadium), at USC
4. Michigan (9-1): Indiana, at Ohio State
5. Georgia (9-1): UMass, Georgia Tech
6. Oklahoma (9-1): Kansas, at West Virginia