Top storylines for college football’s final quarter

By David Kenyon
John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

The final stretch up to conference championships…

John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

One week into the closing month of the 2018 regular season, the most impactful topics in college football are readily apparent.

Alabama? Really good, as usual. Everyone is chasing Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, though three other programs remain undefeated at this point.

While Bama appears a College Football Playoff lock, the final stretch up to conference championships will both solidify and discard contenders. Showdowns between highly ranked teams will shape the standings.

League titles, CFP berths and major-bowl bids are at stake. Who stays hot?

That, and more, in our season-ending storylines.

 

No letdown for Alabama, right?

Ed Orgeron

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Whether you considered LSU a top-three squad or something a little behind, Ed Orgeron’s team was one of the better/best teams in the nation. And Alabama wrecked the Tigers. Just dominated ’em. Mississippi State took the Tide to the wire in 2017 and Auburn will be motivated to stun its rival, but neither side has a consistently threatening offense. It seems the only ways an upset happens are if Alabama’s defensive front has a shocking nightmare of a day or Tua Tagovailoa throws four interceptions. He has one this season. The Tide should enter the SEC Championship Game at 12-0.

 

Georgia’s long-term outlook is set, but…

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“Win and you’re in.” Even after losing to LSU, Georgia could fall back on that phrase. Thanks to consecutive victories over Florida and Kentucky, the Bulldogs locked up the SEC East and sealed a place in the title matchup against Alabama. Now, they must arrive there without further blemish. Georgia won’t leave Athens for its three remaining games, hosting Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech. Rivals should never be overlooked, even if neither Auburn nor Georgia Tech inspire fear. The Dawgs know Alabama is on the horizon, but they need to focus on the visible road right now.

 

Notre Dame inching closer to CFP

Hi Jesse Reed

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Northwestern put a brief scare into Notre Dame, yet Brian Kelly’s squad emerged from Evanston with a 9-0 record. Only three victories stand between the Fighting Irish and the College Football Playoff. The official home finale is opposite a reeling Florida State team, then Notre Dame travels to Yankee Stadium to take on Syracuse and ends at USC. While there’s a slim chance the Irish could fall once and still reach the CFP, they’re assured of a place at 12-0. It’s silly to suggest “all eyes” will be on Notre Dame, but fans will closely be monitoring those results.

 

Florida State’s bowl streak may be ending

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Entering the final three weeks of the regular season, Florida State holds a 4-5 record. To say the program’s 36-year bowl streak is in jeopardy would be an understatement.

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The Seminoles’ remaining slate includes only ranked opponents: Notre Dame, Boston College and Florida. And so far this season, FSU is 0-4 against teams that have spent time in the polls. Unless the Seminoles conjure up two brilliant showings on offense, which hasn’t happened all year, a 6-6 mark is not happening. Not exactly how Willie Taggart expected his debut season to finish.

 

Clemson is Alabama’s primary threat

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Not only are the Tigers 9-0, they’re steamrolling everything in their path so much that Dabo Swinney’s son is scoring touchdowns. Since October, Clemson has outscored its four opponents 240-36. That’s a 51-point average margin of victory. True freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has thrived, save for a risky play that led to injury against Syracuse. He’s logged a pair of 300-yard games with nine touchdowns to one interception. The running game is excelling along with the talented defense. Clemson and Bama are on a collision course for Round 4.

 

Which Group of Five school appears in a major bowl?

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Central Florida still hasn’t lost. But as every week passes, the chances of UCF soaring into a top-four position in the CFP rankings get thinner and thinner. The 8-0 Knights may settle for a return trip to the Peach Bowl. Or, they’ll be upset along the way and create a significant opportunity for a different program. All of Cincinnati, Fresno State, Utah State, UAB and Buffalo currently own 8-1 records. UCF hosts Cincinnati, and Fresno State could meet Utah State in the Mountain West title, so those programs are the front-runners to represent the Group of Five.

 

Is this the year, Michigan?

college football

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Jim Harbaugh has endured criticism for his lack of marquee victories. While some was deserved, the negativity was out of proportion. Since losing to Notre Dame in the opener, the Wolverines have ripped off eight straight wins. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State have fallen short of expectations, but defeating those programs in a row is still impressive. Given Ohio State’s recent struggles, Michigan is the Big Ten’s team to beat. As long as nothing shocking happens against Rutgers or Indiana, the Wolverines can back up their billing and end a six-year skid to OSU.

 

Perils of Big 12 Championship Game

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The conference boasts about its round-robin schedule, and the marketing spin is ensuring the top two teams play for the crown. But the Big 12 Championship Game might do more harm than good. Oklahoma and West Virginia could enter the regular-season finale in Morgantown with one-loss records. The proper round-robin format means the winner would win the conference. Instead, a 10-1 OU vs. a 9-1 WVU means Nov. 23 would simply be the prequel to the title matchup if Oklahoma wins (or Texas loses in the meantime). The Big 12 should feel awfully foolish if the title game costs the league a CFP representative.

 

Buckeyes hanging on by a thread

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Ohio State held championship expectations and mostly looked the part through September. Dynamic offense, dominant wins, big comeback on the road against Penn State. All good things. But it’s been awfully ugly for the Buckeyes since then, highlighted by a demolition at the hands of Purdue. If they lose at Michigan State — or, seemingly incomprehensibly, at Maryland — Michigan will celebrate a Big Ten East title before the rivals even meet in Columbus. Ohio State still has realistic CFP dreams, but the string of near-letdowns is concerning for Urban Meyer’s club.

 

The Pac-12 is a mess

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Washington fell out of the CFP picture because of a mediocre offense. Stanford tanked because of its defense, as did Oregon. USC never really had a chance. Arizona has been an afterthought since starting 2-3. Hey, did you know Arizona is tied for the Pac-12 South lead? Yes, that’s how ridiculous 2018 has gone in the conference. Washington State is 8-1, but a subpar strength of schedule means Mike Leach’s team needs a minor miracle to get serious CFP consideration after championship week. And there’s no guarantee the Cougs can navigate the rest of the season anyway. The Pac-12 is limping to the finish line.