Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
The fight for the fourth spot in the College Football Playoff has already begun.
Don’t believe it? Too soon? (Wait! There are still games on Sunday and Monday! It’s only Week 1!)
Yes, it’s early, but it’s not outlandish — even after only one week of games — to assume that the SEC (Alabama, Auburn and Georgia), Big Ten (Ohio State leads a deep field) and ACC (Clemson) began the season in the good graces of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
A season’s worth of scenarios will still unfold, and chaos is bound to ensue along the way, but it’s hard to imagine those three conference champions will be left out. That leaves the Pac-12, Big 12 and Notre Dame on the bubble, considering the Week 1 results.
The SEC, with Alabama and Auburn both earning impressive nonconference wins against Power 5 opponents, is in the same sturdy position as always. Alabama has been in the playoff each of the past four years, and it just dominated Louisville — with both quarterbacks. Auburn has an extremely tough schedule that includes November road trips to Georgia and Alabama, but after beating No. 6 Washington on Saturday, it not only has some wiggle room, it also has a win that will continue to carry weight with the committee through Selection Day.
In the playoff era, it’s only news if the SEC is left out.
The ACC has also been somewhat of a regular, thanks to three semifinal appearances by Clemson. The Tigers dismantled Furman 48-7 and are heavy favorites to win the ACC again — more than any other team in the FBS.
The Big Ten has a plethora of candidates from which the committee can choose. Even without suspended coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State pummeled Oregon State 77-31. Meyer will still be suspended for games against Rutgers and No. 16 TCU, but if the Buckeyes can start 3-0 without him, they should certainly be a contender with him. Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin cruised by Western Kentucky on Friday night, and Penn State and Michigan State both won, albeit unconvincingly and with more questions than answers.
Nobody entered the season with more questions, though, than the Pac-12. After a 1-8 record in the bowl season and no teams in the playoff, all eyes were on league favorite Washington on Saturday in Atlanta. Here’s a look at how Washington’s loss impacted the Pac-12, what Notre Dame’s win over Michigan means, and where the Big 12 stands in the playoff picture:
Here’s the benefit of the human element involved in having a 13-member selection committee: The committee members realize Washington traveled nearly 2,700 miles to Atlanta and lost by five points to a top-10 team in the season opener. While a win would have done wonders not just for Washington but the entire league, the loss doesn’t eliminate either from the playoff conversation.
What it does is put tremendous pressure on the Huskies to win out. North Dakota and BYU are their only other nonconference opponents — neither of which would really stand up against, say, Notre Dame’s win over Michigan or Alabama’s win over Louisville. And Washington certainly wouldn’t win the head-to-head argument if both the Huskies and Auburn finish as one-loss conference champs. Washington is favored by ESPN’s Football Power Index to win each of its remaining games, but it certainly won’t be easy. The Huskies’ strength of schedule also depends on how the committee perceives the Pac-12, which is evidenced by how many teams it ranks.
Asked on Saturday whether the game against Auburn helped or hurt the way people viewed his program, Washington coach Chris Petersen said, “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. I just really don’t.
“I mean, I don’t know how to say it any different. I mean, it was Game 1 against a good opponent, coming across the country, hostile territory, kids battled hard. We’ll just see where our team goes from here. It’s a long season. Had we won, I’d feel exactly the same, exactly the same. Kids stepped up, played a top team in the country, proud of them, and it’s a long season from here on out.”
The win over Michigan was exactly what Notre Dame needed, because the schedule only gets more difficult, and without a conference championship game in which to play, the Irish might only be able to afford one loss. Notre Dame has the potential to knock a second Power 5 team out of the top four, but so far in the playoff era, it hasn’t remained relevant long enough to see how the selection committee would handle it.
If the Irish can finish the season undefeated or with one loss, it would be difficult for the committee to leave them out, especially if Michigan can rebound and be a factor in the Big Ten race.
“Well, it was big because in our schedule we have to have a schedule that holds up to scrutiny — because we don’t play a championship game, so we have to have marquee wins and [Michigan’s] a really good defense,” coach Brian Kelly said. “That might be one of the best defenses in the country, so we have to have that and you got to keep winning. So this is one, and it’s going to be a marathon for us, but a good start to the season.”
According to the FPI, Notre Dame is favored to win each of its next three games by at least 83 percent, which would put it at 4-0 heading into its Sept. 29 home game against Stanford.
Entering this week, the Big 12 was in the most precarious position of the Power 5 conferences, with only a 29 percent chance to make the playoff — and Oklahoma again was the league’s best hope.
It might not be its only hope, though.
No. 17 West Virginia earned a convincing 40-14 win over Tennessee, another important Power 5 nonconference win. No. 16 TCU manhandled Southern 55-7, but we won’t know how seriously to take the Horned Frogs until they face Ohio State in Week 3.
Oklahoma did what it had to do, and proved it still looks sharp without Baker Mayfield.
“After the first game, everybody wants to come to these conclusions about what you are, what you aren’t,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “Did we learn something today? Yes, I think we’ve got some quality guys. I think we’ve taken some steps on special teams that I think will continue to be a weapon for us throughout the season. We had some young guys step in there and play very well, and the team’s competitive nature is really good right now.
“Now, after that, we’ve got so much left to go, so much left to get better at. It’s a long, long season, and so this is a great start — nothing more than that, nothing less than that.”
After all, it’s only Week 1.
But with four spots for five conferences — and six contenders if Notre Dame keeps winning — the bubble watch has already begun.