Why you should care

Two months into the CFB season, here’s what we know … and what could still surprise us.

With more than half the college football season in the rearview mirror, some reflection is in order. We’ve seen expected dominance (Roll Tide) and surprising national power adjustments (the entire Big Ten, for instance), but football fans know the madness has only just begun. For several College Football Playoff contenders, this season has gone according to plan. But history dictates that won’t last.

The College Football Playoff committee announces its first rankings on Oct. 30. And while we think two programs are a lock to make the four-team semifinal, late-season upheaval is guaranteed. Here’s a rundown of where we stand, what we know (and don’t) and where a late-season shake-up looms largest.

What We Saw Coming: It’s Alabama and the Field

What a surprise: Alabama is 8-0. Again. Ever the contrarian, I picked Bama to finish second in the SEC and third nationally in OZY’s preseason predictions (behind No. 1 pick Georgia). While Alabama could falter against No. 4 LSU or Auburn to close the season, I’m not holding my breath. With the nation’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate, Tua Tagovailoa, at quarterback, Alabama has been so good that Tagovailoa has yet to even take a snap in the fourth quarter. Its average margin of victory (against a fairly weak schedule to date) is 38 points. “Alabama has been so good that [head coach Nick] Saban is worried about his team going on cruise control,” says Adam Zucker, host of CBS’ College Football Today. “He’s looking for new ways to motivate them.” The Tide have yet to be truly tested, but that’s more a product of the team’s sheer dominance. They’ll be on full alert from here on out.

Clemson is a good bet to go undefeated, but the diminished ACC tells us nothing about the Tigers’ capabilities. With Ohio State’s shocking blowout loss to Purdue in Week 8, the Big Ten is a free-for-all. The No. 11 Buckeyes meet No. 5 Michigan on Nov. 24. If both teams win out (no easy task in this year’s B1G), that winner will head to the Big Ten championship and a likely spot in the playoff. But don’t forget about LSU and No. 7 Georgia. Both have to beat Alabama to remain in playoff contention, but that kind of win will earn brownie points from the committee.

What We Didn’t: The Tides Are Turning

No, not the Crimson Tide. While Alabama dominates, the rest of the nation plays musical chairs. Every few years, new cream rises to the top of each respective conference. Sometimes, entire conferences overtake one another. That’s been the case with the ACC and Pac-12 this season. Without undefeated Clemson carrying an awful ACC, that Power Five conference would have no team in the playoff. Meanwhile, winning is no easy task in the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten. With Notre Dame still undefeated, the committee has no easy task deciding the fourth playoff spot. The Big Ten championship winner will have a strong case, as would No. 6 Texas or No. 8 Oklahoma, assuming one wins the Big 12. (Sidenote: Please get a championship game, Big 12.) Unfortunately, the Pac-12 once again looks like the odd man out. Such is life when no team distances itself from the pack.

What We’re Learning: Are Notre Dame, Michigan and Texas Real Contenders?

With respect to the regular season, yes. With five unranked opponents remaining on the schedule, Notre Dame (7-0) is a good bet to go undefeated. Most pundits point to the season-ending matchup with USC as a potential upset, but expect the Irish to roll if the chance of an undefeated season remains.

Texas (6-1), meanwhile, is America’s most exciting rehabilitation project. After several years of sinful irrelevance in the Lone Star State, Tom Herman has the Texas defense in top shape, with a capable, albeit flawed, offense. The Longhorns are back, to a degree. Can they win the Big 12? Absolutely. But anything after that is icing on the cake. Texas isn’t winning a title, but for the first time in a decade, that goal feels possible.

It’s a similar story in Ann Arbor. Michigan (6-1) has rebounded beautifully from its season-opening loss to Notre Dame, but don’t expect the winning streak to last. With No. 18 Penn State and No. 3 Ohio State looming, Michigan is due for one more loss. And that’s fine. A 10-2 season is terrific in the Big Ten gauntlet. With Jim Harbaugh finally finding a quarterback in Shea Patterson, Michigan should be a title contender next season.

What We Know: Another Big Surprise Is Coming

The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 are the only meaningful conferences to watch. On Nov. 3, Penn State poses a real threat to Michigan’s aspirations, and Ohio State should have real concerns about facing an angry Michigan State on Nov. 10. There’s a scenario in which the Big Ten beats itself out of playoff contention, leaving the door open for Texas or Oklahoma.

Elsewhere, West Virginia (5-1) is still a threat to win the Big 12, facing Texas on Nov. 3. In the SEC, both Georgia and Alabama have November games against Auburn, which “could ultimately decide who wins the SEC,” says CBS analyst Rick Neuheisel. No one is beating Clemson in the ACC, but a season-ending bout with in-state SEC foe South Carolina could prove disastrous.

TBD: What Role Will Defense Play in the College Football Playoff?

These days, a modern defense’s goal is seemingly merely holding an opponent under 30 points. Statistically, high-rated defenses are often not the teams that can win the biggest games. So, while Notre Dame, Michigan and Iowa rank in the top 20 nationally in points allowed, will that hold up against a playoff-caliber powerhouse like Alabama? The short answer is no. If these squads find their way into the playoff, expect an Alabama rout.

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