Forde-Yard Dash: Which undefeated team will run the table and make the playoff?

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FIRST QUARTER

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UNDEFEATED EQUALS PLAYOFF — WHO CAN GET THERE?

Going undefeated in a Power Five conference is hard. It has been done six times in the five-year College Football Playoff Era, and only by teams from the SEC, ACC or Independent. (Yes, the critics are free to point out that those teams play eight — or zero — conference games, while the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 play nine.)

Clemson and Alabama each have gone undefeated into the playoff twice (2016 and ’18 for the Crimson Tide, 2015 and ’18 for the Tigers). Notre Dame (2018) and Florida State (2014) have done it once. The last regular-season Pac-12 unbeaten was Oregon in 2010; the last Big 12 unbeaten was Texas 2009; the last Big Ten unbeaten was Ohio State 2012 (and the Buckeyes were serving a postseason ban for NCAA violations).

So, yeah, it’s difficult. But the rewards are great.

Every Power Five team that runs the table has been assured of a playoff berth. History has shown that the selection committee likes that zero in the loss column more than any other measurable. So it’s time to take a look at the top nine playoff contenders and calculate the difficulty of going 13-0.

The list, from easiest to hardest, using Sagarin Ratings as a metric to estimate point spreads, is below. The Dash is setting the over-under for undefeated Power Five teams at 1.5 for this season:

Clemson (1). The path: Florida State, at Louisville, Boston College, Wofford, at North Carolina State, Wake Forest, at South Carolina, ACC championship game (presumptive opponent Virginia). Current ranked opponents remaining: Two. Wake Forest (No. 19) and theoretically Virginia (No. 20).

Number of times Clemson will be an underdog, as of today: zero. Number of times Clemson will be a single-digit favorite: zero. Number of times Clemson will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: all of them. Closest spread: Favored by 16 against Virginia on neutral field in Charlotte. (It wouldn’t actually be a neutral field.)

Everyone would trade paths with the defending national champions right now. The ACC is a mundane collection of riffraff, rival South Carolina is no good, and the ACC title game is 135 miles from Clemson’s campus. The only downside: The Tigers would seem unlikely to be able to absorb a loss and still make the playoff field.

Ohio State (2). The path: at Northwestern, Wisconsin, Maryland, at Rutgers, Penn State, at Michigan, Big Ten championship game (presumptive opponent Wisconsin). Currently ranked opponents remaining: four. Wisconsin theoretically twice (No. 8), Penn State (No. 10), Michigan (No. 16).

Number of times Ohio State will be an underdog, as of today: zero. Number of times Ohio State will be a single-digit favorite: one (Wisconsin on a neutral field). Number of times Ohio State will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: four. Closest spread: Favored by eight in Indianapolis against the Badgers.

The Buckeyes would figure to be a 10½-point favorite over Wisconsin and 12½ over Penn State in the Horseshoe. Michigan in the Big House? A fat 15½ going strictly by the Sagarin numbers. It’s not all going to be that easy, no matter how good Ohio State has looked thus far. The Penn State game is a traditional white-knuckler, and beating Wisconsin twice would be a challenge.

J.K. Dobbins #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes takes off on a 67-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of his team's win over the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaw/teams/michigan-st/" data-ylk="slk:Michigan State Spartans">Michigan State Spartans</a>. (Getty)
J.K. Dobbins #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes takes off on a 67-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of his team's win over the Michigan State Spartans. (Getty)

Oklahoma (3). The path: Texas in Dallas, West Virginia, at Kansas State, Iowa State, at Baylor, TCU, at Oklahoma State, Big 12 championship game (presumptive opponent Texas). Current ranked opponents remaining: three. Texas theoretically twice (No. 11), Baylor (No. 22).

Number of times Oklahoma will be an underdog, as of today: zero. Number of times Oklahoma will be a single-digit favorite: three (Texas twice, at Baylor). Number of times Oklahoma will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: four. Closest spread: Favored by seven at Baylor.

The Sooners’ defense has been improved enough that they haven’t had to outscore an opponent yet. But the opposition has not been good. The Red River game Saturday will, as usual, tell us a lot. The lack of a quality non-conference win means a one-loss Oklahoma could be in jeopardy of losing a résumé contest, if it came down to that.

Alabama (4). The path: at Texas A&M, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, at Mississippi State, Western Carolina, at Auburn, SEC championship game (presumptive opponent Georgia). Current ranked opponents remaining: four. Texas A&M (No. 24), LSU (No. 5), Auburn (No. 12), Georgia theoretically in SEC title game (No. 3).

Number of times Alabama will be an underdog, as of today: zero. Number of times Alabama will be a single-digit favorite: three (LSU, Auburn, Georgia in theory). Number of times Alabama will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: four. Closest spread: Favored by 6½ at Auburn.

History says to pencil the Crimson Tide into the playoff, but they haven’t had a road this difficult before. Auburn is good, the SEC East champion would be a title-game test — but the biggest change is what looks like the best LSU team since 2011. Still, Alabama has three times advanced to the playoff with one loss, and once without winning its conference or division.

LSU (5). The path: Florida, at Mississippi State, Auburn, at Alabama, at Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas A&M, SEC championship game (presumptive opponent Georgia). Current ranked opponents remaining: five. Florida (No. 7), Auburn (No. 12), Alabama (No. 1), Texas A&M (No. 24), Georgia theoretically in SEC title game (No. 3).

Number of times LSU will be an underdog, as of today: one (7½ points at Alabama). Number of times LSU will be a single-digit favorite: three (Florida, Auburn, Georgia in theory). Number of times LSU will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: four. Closest spread: Favored by 3½ vs. Georgia in SEC title game.

The Tigers have an absolute meat grinder ahead of them, which makes running the table unlikely — especially when their mission to end the eight-game losing streak to Alabama takes them into Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Tide hasn’t lost since September 2015. But as of now they would be favored in every other game, and they could put together a very compelling one-loss résumé.

Georgia (6). The path: South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida in Jacksonville, Missouri, at Auburn, Texas A&M, at Georgia Tech, SEC championship game (presumptive opponent Alabama). Current ranked opponents remaining: four. Florida (No. 7), Auburn (No. 12), Texas A&M (No. 24), Alabama theoretically in SEC title game (No. 1).

Number of times Georgia will be an underdog, as of today: two (Auburn, Alabama in theory), with a possible pick-em line against Florida. Number of times Georgia will be a single-digit favorite: one (Missouri). Number of times Georgia will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: three. Closest spread: pick-em vs. Florida.

The competition is formidable, but the locations are favorable. Four home games, a 50-50 crowd split in Jacksonville against the Gators, a short jaunt across the Chattahoochee River to Auburn, a drive to Atlanta to play Tech in front of a lot of red shirts, and a potential SEC title game in Atlanta as well. If Georgia gets to the SEC championship game undefeated, it could perhaps absorb a loss there (to nemesis Alabama?) and still make the playoff.

Florida (7). The path: at LSU, at South Carolina, Georgia in Jacksonville, Vanderbilt, at Missouri, Florida State, SEC championship game (presumptive opponent Alabama). Current ranked opponents remaining: LSU (No. 5), Georgia (No. 3), Alabama theoretically in SEC title game (No. 1).

Number of times Florida will be an underdog, as of today: two (LSU, Alabama in theory), plus a pick-em game against Georgia. Number of times Florida will be a single-digit favorite: one (Missouri). Number of times Florida will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: two. Closest spread: pick-em vs. Georgia.

The Gators almost assuredly aren’t going 13-0 with games remaining against three top-five teams, none of them in The Swamp. But on the flip side, winning two out of three would seemingly keep them in the thick of the playoff hunt, depending on what is happening elsewhere. Florida also has to figure out a way to beat Missouri, which has routed the Gators twice in a row and won four of the past six.

Wisconsin (8). The path: Michigan State, at Illinois, at Ohio State, Iowa, at Nebraska, Purdue, at Minnesota, Big Ten championship game (presumptive opponent Ohio State). Current ranked opponents remaining: three. Ohio State (No. 3) twice, Iowa (No. 17).

Number of times Wisconsin will be an underdog, as of today: two (Ohio State twice). Number of times Wisconsin will be a single-digit favorite: none. Number of times Wisconsin will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: five. Closest spread: eight-point underdog against the Buckeyes in Indianapolis.

The Badgers look much better than the rest of the Big Ten West, especially since Iowa is coming to Madison. But they have some ground to cover to match up with Ohio State, especially with the first meeting in Columbus. But a split of two potential meetings with the Buckeyes and six other victories would make Wisconsin a pretty compelling 12-1 team.

Penn State (9). The path: at Iowa, Michigan, at Michigan State, at Minnesota, Indiana, at Ohio State, Rutgers, Big Ten championship game (presumptive opponent Wisconsin). Current ranked opponents remaining: four. Iowa (No. 17), Michigan (No. 16), Ohio State (No. 3), Wisconsin theoretically in Big Ten title game (No. 8).

Number of times Penn State will be an underdog, as of today: two (Ohio State, Wisconsin). Number of times Penn State will be a single-digit favorite: two (Iowa, Michigan State). Number of times Penn State will be at least a two-touchdown favorite: three. Closest spread: two-point underdog to Wisconsin in Indianapolis.

With four road games remaining against teams with a combined record of 19-3, the going is tough. The Nittany Lions have played very well thus far, but the competition is about to escalate. How well does a young team — particularly a young offense — handle the challenge?

And the leading contender to go undefeated from the Group of Five conferences and be snubbed by the playoff? Boise State (10). The Broncos are 5-0 and, as of today, likely to be favored by 10 or more points against everyone but Utah State (in Logan on Nov. 23).

Boise’s problem is that the lone non-conference victory of note was against a Florida State team that is Florida State in name only. The Seminoles could do the Broncos a huge favor — while dealing a death blow to their own conference — by upsetting Clemson on the road Saturday. Good luck on that.

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