College football has emerged from rivalry week to conference championship week. The landscape, as I predicted, looks a lot different than it did almost a month ago when the College Football Playoff committee disclosed its first offering.
After watching many games this weekend, and checking the scoreboards, I came away with a few thoughts from this past weekend.
Did anyone see Tennessee finishing 7-5 this year? I’m sure there are a few out there who said the Vols might figure out a way to do that, but given over 30 defections to the transfer portal, the firing of their head coach, an NCAA investigation then complete disinfecting of its football program, starting with the athletic director on down, such an event hardly seemed possible. But Josh Heupel, who wasn’t the dream hire many Big Orange fans hoped for, has changed the environment. Now, Tennessee is going bowling in December, will get 15 extra practices and could, with a bowl victory, finish 8-5. I said, way back in the spring that if the Vols went 5-7 this year, take it and run.
We may be witnessing, in Heupel, the way to rebuild in the transfer-portal era. The Vols coach has done a nice job mixing and matching his transfers with his signees, then coaching them up. Don’t be too concerned over Heupel’s recruiting finish this year. He’s going to do better than most people expect, I do believe, but he’s going after guys who can help right away while developing the young kids for the future.
Alabama pulled a victory out of the fire at Auburn Saturday, needing overtime to do it. Could it be that Nick Saban is losing a little bit on his fast ball? The Crimson Tide won the national title last year, of course, but it hasn’t looked real sharp this year. Could that be due to parity? Maybe, but it hasn’t affected Georgia too much, though it does play in a significantly weaker division. Alabama has its back against the wall with one loss. Georgia will likely make the playoff, even if it loses in Atlanta next Saturday. Bama? Not so much. Everything depends on what happens in other leagues.
Some were crying about Ohio State being in the playoff top four a few weeks ago, but Michigan took out six years of frustration on the Buckeyes Saturday, eliminating OSU from the playoffs. I don’t understand why people lose their minds with these early polls. I’ve said time and again that the first poll to the last will be vastly different. We’re seeing evidence of this already.
So what to do with Cincinnati. Most years, I don’t advocate a Group of Five team earning playoff status. I think this year is different. Cincinnati, realizing it needed meat on its weak schedule, so the Bearcats loaded up with Notre Dame and Indiana on back-to-back weeks. Keep in mind, we had a notion that Indiana was going to be pretty good this year. The Bearcats went on the road and beat both of them. For ND, Cincy issued the Irish their only loss. In my view, Cincinnati should be in. It did what it had to do and proved it could beat a Top 10 team. Full disclosure, I was once a student at Cincinnati, but I’d say this if we were talking about Central Michigan, Central Florida or Western Kentucky. Cincinnati’s 103 strength of schedule hurts. Playing Tulane, South Florida and Drake isn’t going to help the Group of Five’s cause.
In case you missed it, with Florida’s victory over Florida State and LSU’s come-from-behind win over A&M, 13 teams from the SEC are now bowl eligible. Six of those 13 are 6-6. Tennessee isn’t one of them. I don’t think there are enough bowl tie-ins with the SEC, so somebody is probably going to get a bounty it didn’t expect this December. Thirteen eligible teams set a record for a conference.
Look for Oklahoma State, Michigan and Notre Dame make a strong case for inclusion four-team playoff. For Cincinnati, the worst thing that could possibly happen is if Bama beats Georgia and the committee goes with two SEC teams. Notre Dame may be hurt by the fact that it doesn’t play in a conference. It seems Georgia is in the express lane for a national title, but never underestimate the Bulldogs’ ability to stumble. What we will likely see this year are new players in the four-team club, which I think will be good for college football.
Editor’s note: Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs from 4-6 p.m., Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden.