College football preview: The season reaches its climax with little suspense, unless …
Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame appear to have playoff berths wrapped up, but that fourth spot could be up for grabs especially if upsets happen Saturday.
After 13 weeks of countless injuries, epic coach rants, consistently bad weather, shocking results, and the anointing of Alabama as one of the greatest college football teams ever, we finally have reached the climax of the 2018 season with Championship Weekend and Sunday's final College Football Playoff rankings.
Frankly, the suspense is lacking. Three of the top four in the latest rankings — Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame — appear to be secure even if the Crimson Tide lose to Georgia in the SEC championship game. The Tigers are heavy favorites to beat Pittsburgh in the ACC title contest, while the Fighting Irish are smiling and watching all this on TV.
The fourth team, ah, that's the question. If Georgia wins, it's in. However, if the Bulldogs lose, it will be a royal rumble in the selection committee room between Oklahoma, currently No. 5, and sixth-ranked Ohio State, provided the two teams take care of business in the championship games of the Big 12 and the Big Ten.
The athletic directors of the Sooners (Joe Castiglione) and Buckeyes (Gene Smith) are members of the selection committee but are required to leave the room while the fate of their schools is being discussed. Our question: Is winking at a committee colleagues allowed?
If Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State all lose, then what happens? Is there a way to accurately gauge the best two-win team from that trio? Or does the committee get the award for bravery by elevating Central Florida, the outcast non-Power Five school, into the dance if it finishes undefeated?
A lot has to happen for that final scenario to take place. For now, though, sit back, relax, and watch it all unfold.
Tale of the tape
On more than one occasion, CFP selection committee chair Rob Mullens has talked about the weak defenses of both Oklahoma and Ohio State. Just looking at the numbers, however, the Sooners appear to be beyond comparison.
Oklahoma is in the bottom 10 in FBS in pass defense (286.6 yards per game), takeaways (10), red-zone defense (41 scores in 43 trips, 96.3 percent), and opponent first downs (291, 24.3 per game). The Sooners have allowed averages of 32.8 points (100th) and 449.0 total yards (111th) per game.
On the other hand, Ohio State has been mostly middle-of-the-pack or just below in defensive rankings. The Buckeyes' worst number is red-zone defense (32 of 36) but they have allowed opponents to convert just 31.2 percent of third downs as compared to 44.0 percent for Oklahoma.
The Sooners gave up 704 yards and 56 points to West Virginia last weekend and still won the game. Their only loss came to Texas, Saturday's opponent, when they allowed 501 yards in a 48-45 defeat.
"I think we're progressing in a lot of ways [on defense], but we've got to put it all together," Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley said.
For the defense
Ohio State has allowed more than 30 points in four of its last five games, averaging 36.2 points in that stretch. Michigan scored 39 against the Buckeyes and gained 401 total yards. But head coach Urban Meyer said the unit is coming along entering Saturday's Big Ten title game against Northwestern.
"We're making progress," he said at his weekly news conference. "The pass defense is bothering a lot of people. I think rush defense and our linebackers played very well Saturday. You felt like you kind of controlled the game with the defensive line. That's going to be a huge part of this game."
The Buckeyes have done a good job of outscoring people, and putting up 55 points (seven were scored on a blocked punt) against the nation's No. 1 defense tends to send a message.
"I don't think anybody outside of these doors would pick us to win the game," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "My mom and dad, I guess, would. I don't even know if my sisters will. I don't need them. I just need the 74 guys that are going to put on purple and white on Saturday."
The uncontested Heisman
There hasn't been much doubt since midseason that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is a lock to win the Heisman Trophy. The only mystery involves what players Heisman officials will invite to New York for the Dec. 8 award announcement.
Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray is certain to get an invitation along with quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr., of Ohio State. If officials want four or five finalists, the likely candidates would be quarterbacks Will Grier of West Virginia and Gardner Minshew II of Washington State, and Clemson running back Travis Etienne.
Remember, though, only three finalists were invited last year, leaving Penn State's Saquon Barkley watching on television. Barkley wound up fourth in the voting.
The next Carson?
Carson Wentz won two FCS national championships at North Dakota State, part of a run of six titles in the last seven years. However, the current quarterback for the Bison is making folks forget Wentz.
Meet senior Easton Slick, who holds program records for total offense, passing touchdowns, and total TDs. He will be looking for his 46th career victory Saturday in the Bison's home playoff game against Montana State.
Expatriate of the week
Former St. Joseph's Prep star Jon Runyan, a senior at Michigan, received all-Big Ten recognition this week. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound offensive tackle, the son of former Eagles All-Pro Jon Runyan, was named first-team all-conference in voting by the coaches, and earned second-team honors from the media. After starting just one game before the 2018 season, Runyan started every game this year at left tackle.
Games of the week
Oklahoma vs. Texas at Arlington, Texas, noon, 6ABC: The highest scoring of the 113 games played between these teams came on Oct. 6, when the Longhorns won, 48-45. With the Sooners' Kyler Murray and Texas' Sam Ehlinger at the controls, even more points could be scored here.
Memphis at Central Florida, 3:30 p.m., 6ABC: The host Knights, winners of 24 consecutive games, make their final case for inclusion in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings without their leader, injured quarterback McKenzie Milton. A win would clinch a New Year's Six bowl.
Alabama vs. Georgia at Atlanta, 4 p.m., CBS3: There doesn't seem to be any doubt that the Crimson Tide are in the CFP regardless of what they do Saturday. The Bulldogs need a win to punch their ticket to the national semifinals, and they have the type of balance that will cause problems.
Clemson vs. Pittsburgh at Charlotte, N.C., 8 p.m., 6ABC: This is the most one-sided game of Championship Weekend judging by the betting line. Pitt fans point out that their team handed the Tigers their only home loss in the last four years, in 2016, but that won't hold much weight here.
Ohio State vs. Northwestern at Indianapolis, 8 p.m., Fox29: The Buckeyes saved their best for last week in their annihilation of archrival Michigan, and can gain a CFP berth with a win and some help. Not many are giving the Wildcats a chance, but their defense and quarterback Clayton Thorsen will be threats.
Dwayne Haskins Jr., Ohio State, QB, 6-3, 220, So., Potomac, Md.
Haskins finished the regular season by setting Big Ten records for passing yards (4,081) and touchdown throws (42). Last week against Michigan, he completed 20 of 31 passes for 396 yards and six TDs. Named the conference's offensive player of the year, Haskins completed 69 percent of his passes and threw just seven interceptions. He led the conference in total offense, averaging 350.7 yards, fourth in FBS.