No. 10 Wisconsin is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that threatens its season. Big 12 flagbearer Oklahoma already has two losses. No. 14 Oregon, favored to win the Pac-12, begins play this weekend without three NFL-bound players who opted out. And No. 6 Cincinnati and No. 9 BYU can win all their games and it won’t matter because the CFP is rigged against Group of Five teams.
That leaves No. 3 Ohio State along among CFP contenders with no real crisis. The Buckeyes last weekend blew out then-No. 18 Penn State, the best team on their schedule. Quarterback Justin Fields looked great, as expected, and so did Ohio State’s defense.
Clemson had been the betting favorite all year until slipping behind Alabama and Ohio State because of Lawrence’s status. That seems premature if, as coach Dabo Swinney says, Lawrence will be able to practice next week. After Notre Dame, there isn’t another team on Clemson’s schedule that can challenge the Tigers at full strength.
Georgia is the best of the rest of the CFP contenders. Nothing about this season is normal, so maybe Georgia finally can ride an elite defense and vanilla offense back to the CFP. The Bulldogs are favored by a field goal over Florida. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Georgia a 63.8% chance of beating the Gators and at least an 86.8% chance of winning each of its last four regular-season games.
It’s true that Georgia' defense is beat up with injuries for Saturday’s game. It’s also the case that Florida coach Dan Mullen, offensive guru, has never been able to coax his teams to many points against opponents coached by Georgia’s Kirby Smart.
The two have tangled 11 times as head coaches or opposing coordinators, Mullen at Florida and Smart at Alabama. Mullen’s offenses averaged 11.7 points in those games. The only time Mullen’s group topped 20 points is when he had Tim Tebow at quarterback for the 2008 SEC championship game. That’s also the only time Mullen’s team won.
The college game has changed a lot since then. Good quarterbacks are even more essential to contend for championships. Even SEC QBs are slinging the ball around the field. Georgia got caught short with Fields transferring, Jake Fromm going pro and Jamie Newman opting out. Florida has the advantage at QB with Kyle Trask.
The quarterbacks for Clemson and Ohio State put those teams alone on the top tier nationally (assuming Lawrence returns to form). The QBs for the past four national champions: Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. All who went pro were selected within the draft’s first 12 picks and soon Lawrence and Fields will be, too.
Include Alabama with Clemson and Ohio State if you are sold on quarterback Mac Jones. He’s started just 10 games, but we just saw Burrow rapidly go from the edge of the NFL picture to the No. 1 pick. ESPN draft expert Todd McShay recently ranked Jones as the No. 5 draft-eligible QB. That puts him roughly in the same class as Hurts, who was selected No. 53 overall in his draft.
The Crimson Tide already did the heavy lifting on their schedule, which is why they are the betting favorite to win the CFP championship. Even without Lawrence, Clemson is favored by 5½ points over Notre Dame. Georgia can stay on track for the CFP by beating Florida to clear the one big hurdle left on its regular-season schedule.
Ohio State looks to have the easiest path to the CFP. The Buckeyes dispatched Penn State, leaving No. 13 Indiana and No. 23 Michigan as best foes left in the Big Ten East . They aren’t on Ohio State’s level. Now Wisconsin, the best team in the other division, is reeling because of COVID-19 infections.
Wisconsin looked great while beating Illinois in its opener. Graham Mertz, a top quarterback recruit in 2019, started his first game and had five touchdown passes. Then the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Badgers to cancel two games: last week vs. Nebraska and this weekend vs. Purdue.
Mertz and No. 3 quarterback Chase Wolf are reportedly among the players who tested positive. If the results are confirmed, both must sit out at least 21 days. Incumbent starter Jack Coan (foot surgery) already was out indefinitely.
Wisconsin must play all five of its scheduled games remaining to be eligible for the Big Ten championship game. If the Badgers can’t do that or fail to win the West, then Northwestern is the top team in the division. Georgia with one loss almost certainly would be a stronger CFP candidate than the Big Ten’s also-ran team.
Of course, that requires Georgia beating Florida on Saturday and winning a rematch with Alabama in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs may not be able to do it. They are a flawed team. Then again, so is every other CFP contender outside of Ohio State, Clemson and (probably) Alabama, so why can’t the Bulldogs be there at the end?