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NCAAF Predictions: Forecasting the CFP

Eric Thompson

by Eric Thompson in College Football

Oct 27, 2016 · 5:55 AM PDT

How can it still be a week until the first official College Football Playoff rankings are released? This can’t be hard to figure out, people! For starters, Ohio State is obviously in the top four and … what’s that? They lost to Penn State? Well then, I guess their season is over.

Huh? They’re still one of the favorites to win the National Championship?

It seems like you’re telling me that none of this early season stuff matters … except when it totally does.

I’m not envious of those who have to decide where each NCAA team sits in the all-important CFP rankings each week. The process for deciding sounds insanely complicated, especially this early in the year, when crucial conference games have yet to take place. By the end of the season, though, it’s usually far easier to decide who are the four teams most deserving of a shot at a National Championship.

That’s what I’ve decided to focus on. Why wade through the muck and misery of deciding where we stand today, when today doesn’t matter? In Week 10 last year, LSU was holding down no. 2 in the CFP rankings, only to lose three of their last four. So who cares who looks good now? The question is, who will keep it up until November ends?

Here are the four teams that will be left standing at the end of the year.

Eric’s 2017 CFP Predictions

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

This one’s about as locked up as my Uncle Darryl’s knees. Alabama vanquished its tormentors of the last two seasons, Ole Miss, and since then they’ve been taking the rest of the SEC to task. You thought up-and-coming teams like Tennessee or Texas A&M were ready for the big time? The Tide waxed them by a combined score of 82-24. Their +110 point differential ranks fifth in the nation, but unlike the four teams ahead of them, they’ve already faced five ranked opponents.

Seventh in the nation in both points scored and points allowed, this Bama team pounds the ball on the ground and gets after quarterbacks on defense. Led by DE Jonathan Allen, the Tide have already racked up 32 sacks on the year.

Sure, it may look like Bama has a few more hurdles left, with LSU and Auburn still on the schedule. But neither team can throw the ball, and you aren’t going to beat the Tide on the ground. Alabama is gonna be perfect at the end of the year, and the unquestioned number one team.

And if this is a jinx, so be it. I can’t stand Alabama.

2. Clemson Tigers

Oh no, Deshaun Watson is struggling! While the QB’s exaggerated problems may concern Heisman voters and NFL scouts, it doesn’t really worry me about Clemson’s title shot. Even operating below the lofty standards we have for him, Watson is keeping the chains moving the Tigers. Wtih a top-20 passing attack and sitting 13th in third-down conversions, Clemson’s offense is putting up more than enough points to win with its suffocating defense.

Ranked eighth in points allowed and tied for fourth in the nation in sacks, Dabo Swinney’s bunch should be able to shutdown the lackluster offenses that remain on the Tiger schedule. Clemson’s only circled game comes this weekend, when they visit no. 12 Florida State. A win over the Noles would solidify a nice playoff resume, while a loss won’t bury them, since they’ll still hold the tiebreaker over Louisville in the Atlantic Division.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

If you’re going to have a stinker, it’s good to get it out of the way early. That was probably the Buckeyes’ thought process when they dropped last week’s 24-21 game to Penn State. But Urban Meyer’s bunch is still very much alive and “The Game” (OSU vs Michigan) should still be the biggest one remaining on the college schedule, barring another stumble by Ohio State.

That could be easier said than done, as they’ll host a potentially undefeated Nebraska team next week in a possible Big Ten Championship preview. If they can knock of Harbaugh’s Wolverines in the final game of the regular season, that is.

Michigan and Ohio State are very similar in how they play, right down to the suspect passing games. But while Wolverine QB Wilton Speight relies on the supports of his ground game, J.T. Barrett is the focal point of Ohio State’s offense. Having your top playmaker touch the ball every play is an advantage Michigan doesn’t have, because their top playmaker plays primarily on defense.

The versatile Jabrill Peppers seems to be playing a new spot every week, and has guided Michigan to the nation’s top scoring defense (10 points per game). That said, who have the Wolverines really played? Ohio State’s D is right behind them, allowing 14.4 per game, and that includes shutting down a top-tier offense in Oklahoma.

Should the Big Ten Championship (and therefore a playoff berth) truly come down to Michigan vs. Ohio State, I like that the Buckeyes have homefield: the Wolverines haven’t won in Columbus since 2000.

4. Louisville Cardinals

The CFP system is supposed to select the four best teams in college football, regardless of conference. While they’ve yet to choose a team that wasn’t a conference champion, this year, that feels like a distinct possibility. It would require some trip-ups in the Big 12 and Pac-12, but that’s something that feels like less of an “if” and more of a “when” these days.

It won’t be easy for Louisville to blaze a trail for non-conference winners. With Houston suddenly falling apart at the seams, the Cardinals’ toughest remaining game all of a sudden looks much simpler. As it stands now, they only have one win over a ranked opponent, but nearly all their wins have been undeniable beat downs.

If Bobby Petrino’s team wants to thrust their name in the conversation, they have to keep blowing out their remaining middling opponents; they can’t afford any more “close calls” like their game against Duke. Lamar Jackson is the talk of the college football, and perhaps the sporting world. That star power would certainly help separate the Cards from all the potential one-loss teams at season’s end.

And if I ultimately end up being wrong about this pick, I only hope it’s because they choose to send Western Michigan instead.

The Fallen

Washington hasn’t looked this good since the very first X-Men movie came out, so it feels a little mean to predict a setback for the Huskies. But if a trip to Utah doesn’t get them this weekend, a battle with their intrastate rival Washington State could. Statistically, there’s so much to like about this team, but some of their weaknesses did show in an overtime win over Arizona, particularly in pass protection and stopping the run. With rising expectations and a team not used to the spotlight, I won’t be shocked by a loss down the stretch.

The Big 12 has said no to expansion, and I in turn have said no to their playoff chances. Already short on public respect, none of the conference’s contenders are looking sharp at the the midway point.

Baylor played another cupcake non-conference schedule, meaning they still don’t have a single impressive win at the halfway point of the season.

Oklahoma went the other way, taking on too much and losing two of their first three against a then-good Houston team and Ohio State. Now they’re almost certainly done, and the only hope for Baylor or West Virginia is to run the table.

Should Michigan lose the Big Ten, they could still have a chance to grab the fourth spot as a runner up, but they’d need to continue boat racing opponents, and not drop the ball against Sparty again.

Photo Credit: Penn State (Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/].

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