The College Football Playoff puzzle is more difficult than ever to piece together in a season impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, the season enters November with the Pac-12 and Mid-American Conference returning to action and several teams finding separation. Everyone is playing, and while the race might be in different stages across the FBS, the chase is on.
The first set of CFP rankings won’t be revealed until Nov. 24, so there are three more weeks of game action.
|First||Tuesday, Nov. 24|
|Second||Tuesday, Dec. 1|
|Third||Tuesday, Dec. 8|
|Fourth||Tuesday, Dec. 15|
|Final||Sunday, Dec. 20|
With that in mind, Sporting News breaks down the College Football Playoff picture with four teams in, four teams out and four teams to watch heading into the first week of November:
1. Clemson (7-0)
Backup quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and star rusher Travis Etienne led Clemson to a 15-point halftime comeback in a 34-28 victory against Boston College. Trevor Lawrence won’t play next week against Notre Dame while recovering from COVID-19. If the Tigers win anyway, they can take complete control of the ACC race. It’s on the defense to put four quality quarters together this time.
MORE: Big questions for Clemson-Notre Dame
2. Ohio State (2-0)
The Buckeyes jumped out to a big halftime lead and cruised to a 38-25 victory at Penn State. Justin Fields, who hit 28 of 34 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns, has emerged as a Heisman Trophy favorite. There is no end in sight to Ohio State’s Big Ten dominance under second-year coach Ryan Day. Ohio State resumes action against Rutgers in prime time next week. Former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano will be on the other side.
3. Alabama (6-0)
Is Mac Jones or Najee Harris the better Heisman Trophy contender? That’s an open-ended question that can be discussed over the bye week. The Crimson Tide remain the team to beat in the SEC after a 41-0 shutout win over Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense. The remaining schedule features LSU, Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas. It’s possible that none of those teams will be ranked when they play Alabama. The path toward yet another SEC championship appearance is open for Nick Saban, who celebrated his 69th birthday in style.
4. Notre Dame (6-0)
The Irish improved to 6-0 with a 31-13 victory against Georgia Tech, and that sets up a top-five showdown with Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium next week. Ian Book has lost just three games as a starter with the Irish, but two of those were against top-10 teams. Notre Dame can take a big step toward a second Playoff berth under Brian Kelly with a victory against the Tigers. The Irish are 2-5 at home against the No. 1 team, and the “Bush Push” game in 2005 was the last one.
MORE: Michigan, Jim Harbaugh get that sinking feeling again in stunning loss to Spartans
5. Georgia (4-1)
Georgia returned from a bye week to beat Kentucky 14-3 in a grind-it-out-game. Georgia averaged 5 yards per carry, but Stetson Bennett had 131 passing yards and threw two interceptions against the Wildcats. The Bulldogs can take control of the SEC East race against Florida on Nov. 7, but there is no margin for error the rest of the season.
6. Cincinnati (5-0)
The Bearcats are keeping the American Athletic Conference in the Playoff discussion, and they are getting better with each week. Cincinnati hammered last year’s AAC champion Memphis 49-10 in Week 9, and they are one of four teams with multiple victories against ranked teams. Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina are the others.
7. Oregon (0-0)
The Ducks have not held a spot in the Playoff in our weekly bowl projections, but this would likely be their spot if the rankings started this week. Oregon has the disadvantage of a six-game conference schedule, leaving no margin for error beginning with Stanford in Week 10. Still, we like Oregon in this position for now.
8. Texas A&M (4-1)
This is the dropoff point in the race. Texas A&M has done its part since a 52-24 loss to Alabama, and Jimbo Fisher has righted the Aggies’ program. That continued in a 42-31 victory against Arkansas in Week 9, but that tiebreaker against Alabama will likely keep Texas A&M out of the SEC championship game. The best hope is to finish 9-1 and hope the competition fails. Road games at South Carolina and Tennessee the next two weeks are intriguing.
Florida (3-1) returned after a three-week absence and beat Missouri 41-17 after a halftime brawl, but the Gators won’t be taken seriously unless they beat Georgia … BYU (6-0) is unbeaten and has a Heisman Trophy contender in Zach Wilson, and they get a chance to prove it against Boise State next week … Miami (5-1) will be watching that Clemson-Notre Dame game closely next week. … Wisconsin (1-0) might be the last challenger left for Ohio State in the Big Ten, but when will the Badgers return to the field?