College football winners and losers: Two-loss Auburn is one step from a stellar playoff case
Running down the highlights and lowlights of the Saturday that was in college football …
Auburn is two-thirds of the way to owning a stellar playoff case for a two-loss team.
When the Tigers lost at LSU earlier in the fall for their second defeat of the season, there was at least a path in front of them to remain relevant in the playoff race. They had to beat Georgia. They had to beat Alabama. Then they had to win the Southeastern Conference title game, which turned out to be a rematch with Georgia.
Well, Auburn smashed Georgia two weeks ago to hand the Bulldogs their first loss. And they won the Iron Bowl, 26-14, against Alabama on Saturday to deal the Crimson Tide their first setback against an SEC team since September 2015.
It’s the same path Auburn followed four years ago to the national title game, without that season’s ridiculousness. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare came against Georgia. The Kick-Six came against Alabama.
These Tigers (10-2, 7-1 SEC) are simply better, armed not only with a capable quarterback (Jarrett Stidham) and a reliable back (Kerryon Johnson) but a defense that has acquitted itself well from its very first major test.
Remember that? It was a 14-6 loss at Clemson. Auburn gave up 281 total yards that night, and one of the major impressions from that Week 2 contest was a miserly defense that wasn’t going to get beat on the ground.
As for the other loss, it was a 27-23 setback at the other Death Valley. LSU returned a punt for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and later kicked a pair of field goals on drives that had totaled a combined 25 yards to erase a nine-point deficit.
There’s not much to be embarrassed about in those two defeats. There certainly isn’t an example of getting half-a-hundred hung on them, as was the case for Ohio State at Iowa. A two-loss team isn’t going to be a regular playoff participant, but Auburn — if it can beat Georgia a second time — is going to be at the top of the list of teams with multiple stumbles to get a semifinal invite this season.
* Clemson. The Tigers (11-1) are a victory away from their third consecutive playoff berth after handling South Carolina, 34-10. It’s just business as usual for Dabo Swinney’s team, which has been much sharper since coming out of its open date last month.
* Stanford. The Cardinal (9-3) was a double-winner. Beating Notre Dame, 38-20, behind K.J. Costello’s four touchdown passes was enjoyable enough, but David Shaw’s team also booked passage to the Pac-12 title game when Washington drilled Washington State, 41-14. Stanford will face Southern California on Friday in Santa Clara, Calif.
* Wisconsin. Paul Bunyan’s Axe remains with the Badgers, who smashed Minnesota, 31-0, to complete a 12-0 regular season. Alex Hornibrook threw three touchdown passes and freshman Jonathan Taylor rushed for another 149 yards for the Badgers, who are a victory away from a playoff berth.
In the big picture, it didn’t matter whether Wisconsin won this game by a point or by 50. But the Badgers’ latest methodical triumph behind a stingy defense is a testament to their identity as a program. With Ohio State possibly turning to backup QB Dwayne Haskins (see more below) in next week’s Big Ten title game, Wisconsin’s blueprint might just be enough to get to the semifinals.
* Oklahoma. Simply put, the Sooners handled their business in routing West Virginia, 59-31, behind Rodney Anderson’s four touchdown runs and Baker Mayfield’s 281 yards and three touchdowns passing.
Mayfield did nothing to diminish his Heisman candidacy, even if he did come off the bench a few plays into the game as a disciplinary measure for his sideline antics against Kansas last week. Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) will look to lock up a playoff berth when it meets Texas Christian in next week’s conference title game.
* Ohio State. Ignoring the quarterback injury situation (still more on that later), the Buckeyes can’t complain about leaving Michigan with a 31-20 victory. Ohio State (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten), already ensured a place in the conference title game, kept its hopes of reaching the playoff intact and also remained perfect under Urban Meyer in six meetings with the Wolverines.
* Chip Kelly. As covered before, UCLA is a fit that makes sense for the former Oregon coach. He won’t be the center of attention in Los Angeles, he won’t have ridiculous expectations and he’ll have plenty of access to talent as he returns to college coaching.
He’ll also make $23 million over five years. That works, too.
* Georgia. The Bulldogs’ trip to Georgia Tech had the potential for anxiety. Instead, Kirby Smart’s team rolled to a 38-7 victory, holding the Yellow Jackets to just 226 yards.
Georgia (11-1) faces what amounts to national quarterfinal in next week’s Southeastern Conference title game. Win, and the Bulldogs will be hard to keep out of the playoff. A win-and-in game is as much as any team could hope for entering December.
* Fresno State. The Jeff Tedford-engineered turnaround hit another peak as quarterback Marcus McMaryion (who is enjoying more success with the Bulldogs than he ever did at Oregon State) threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-17 victory over Boise State.
The reward for Fresno State (9-3)? Another meeting with the Broncos on the same field next Saturday in the Mountain West title game. That’s probably more than most Bulldog fans could have dreamed of coming off a 1-11 season a year ago.