College Football Playoff 2020: Potential Disaster Scenarios for Top 4 Teams

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    Josh Morgan/Associated Press

    When the College Football Playoff rankings updated Tuesday night ahead of Week 14, there were no real surprises among the Top Four teams.

    But that could change soon, especially considering the uncertainty the pandemic’s caused.

    If chaos is the name of your game, the 2020 season is for you.

    The dominant Alabama Crimson Tide held down the top spot, and undefeated Notre Dame remained firmly at No. 2. After that pair, though, things are dicey. 

    Disaster scenarios loom for everybody, and all teams in contention face the possibility that a major contributor gets sidelined with COVID-19. Just ask the No. 3 Clemson Tigers, who had to deal with life sans quarterback Trevor Lawrence for a couple of contests. No. 4 Ohio State has to worry whether it will even have enough games played.

    Though the playoff rankings are anticipated and dissected each week, plenty can happen before December 20’s final rankings. Let’s take a look at some scenarios that could turn college football upside down.

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    The smoothest sailing belongs to the 8-0 Crimson Tide, who have been more consistently impressive than anybody else.

    Alabama lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy to the NFL, but the team’s impressive offense hasn’t missed a beat with signal-caller and Heisman Trophy candidate Mac Jones running the show (2,728 yards passing, 23 TD, 3 INT).

    When COVID-19 sidelined head coach Nick Saban for the Iron Bowl last week, interim coach Steve Sarkisian seamlessly entered and led UA to a 42-13 win over Auburn.

    It’s difficult to envision a playoff without Alabama, so it’s mostly about positioning for the Tide.

    If Saban’s team wins its final two regular-season games—on Saturday against LSU and potentially Dec. 12 against Arkansas—there’s virtually no way the committee could keep the Tide out, even if Florida beats them in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 19.

    With the 3-4 Bayou Bengals’ struggles, and considering first-year head coach Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks are much improved but have nowhere near UA’s talent level, it would take a collapse or a lapse in concentration for ‘Bama to lose one of those. 

    Those things don’t happen often with a Saban-coached team.

    If the Tide slip in one of the next two games but rebound with a victory over the Gators in Atlanta, they will still get a nod in a year when contenders are dropping like flies. 

    Down the stretch last season, Alabama lost Tagovailoa to a hip injury and with it, its spark. Freshman Bryce Young isn’t ready to lead a championship team, but if Jones stays healthy, the Tide will be fine.

    With Jones, the only scenario that would keep them out is a loss in one of the next two games and a setback against Florida. It’s possible the Tide roll undefeated into Atlanta and the Gators dominate them, which could be a bad enough look to keep them out.

    But this team has passed the eye test all year. The Tide are one of the four best squads in the nation, and the committee will see it.

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Notre Dame’s season has been surprisingly successful.

    It’s not that the Fighting Irish were expected to be bad. But considering they are in their first season in the ACC, where big, bad Clemson resides, it’s impressive they’re 9-0.

    Coach Brian Kelly‘s team may not garner style points, but it wins. 

    Some may think an Alabama-Notre Dame showdown would be similar to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game in which the Tide dominated 42-14. But quarterback Ian Book is an undervalued playmaker who has been terrific all year and is a weapon against anybody. He’s posted 2,096 yards passing, 12 touchdowns and one interception while running for 412 yards and six more scores.

    There is a long way to go before either of those two teams can think about a rematch, though.

    With only Syracuse remaining in the regular season, the Irish shouldn’t have a hiccup there. Either way, they’ve already clinched a berth in the ACC title game and are primed for a potential rematch with Clemson. 

    The disaster scenario would be the optics of a Clemson blowout in a rematch of the Irish’s 47-40, double-overtime win against the Tigers on Nov. 7.

    That, of course, happened without Lawrence in uniform because of a positive COVID-19 test. Though he wasn’t the reason Clemson lost—as freshman D.J. Uiagalelei filled in admirably—inserting arguably the nation’s best player into your starting lineup can make a huge difference.

    Even if a Lawrence-led Clemson blows out Notre Dame in another showdown, it may take more to keep the Irish out. If the Irish lose the ACC title game, Ohio State plays and wins all of its remaining games and Florida handles Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, it’s possible Florida and Alabama both get in and Notre Dame stays home.

    It’s hard to envision the committee putting in a one-loss Texas A&M that was dominated by Alabama and didn’t make the conference title game over a Notre Dame team that made the ACC version and lost. It’s also tough to imagine the committee taking a Group of Five team or a Pac-12 squad with an abbreviated schedule.

    All bets are off if the Irish get dominated in the ACC title game, though. That brings a lot of scenarios into play where they don’t control their destiny.

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    Ken Ruinard/Associated Press

    Clemson, 8-1, has a much tougher path to the CFP than Alabama and Notre Dame, and it’s not completely the Tigers’ fault.

    Coach Dabo Swinney’s team has endured its share of adversity, as COVID-19 sidelined its Heisman candidate quarterback, Lawrence, for two games. Before the season started, the Tigers lost receiver Justyn Ross for the year because of a spinal issue.

    But you have to play with the guys you’ve got, and Clemson has done a good job of that. The Tigers have looked dominant with Lawrence under center for seven games. 

    While nobody expects Virginia Tech and its 109th-ranked defense to give Clemson fits this weekend, the Hokies have scored 33.2 points per game, so they could do damage against Brent Venables’ young defense. Still, anything less than a two-score win for Clemson would be a disappointment.

    The real issue lies in the rematch with Notre Dame.

    Some are writing off Clemson’s earlier loss as a fluke that maybe wouldn’t have happened had Lawrence played. The only evidence you need for that is its No. 3 ranking when its only loss is to No. 2.

    By comparison, Texas A&M is ranked fifth, with its only loss being to No. 1 Alabama, and 7-1 Florida is ranked sixth, with its loss coming to the Aggies.

    If the Tigers lose to Notre Dame again, they’re done. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which a two-loss Clemson would get in over the Aggies (if A&M beats both Auburn and Tennessee to end the year) or even perhaps Cincinnati if it can stay undefeated.

    The biggest—and onlyfeasible disaster scenario is Clemson losing again to Notre Dame. If that happens, Swinney’s team will need a whole lot of help to get in, and there could be several other ticked-off teams in their wake.

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Ohio State’s biggest concern is playing the rest of its games.

    The Buckeyes’ matchups against Maryland and Illinois were canceled for virus-related reasons. They’ve only got games against Michigan State and Michigan remaining, with this weekend’s Spartans tilt still an uncertainty.

    The Buckeyes resumed team-related activities Tuesday and expect to play Saturday as coach Ryan Day sits following a positive COVID-19 test

    Any more cancellations, and Ohio State won’t qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. It’s hard to believe the committee would select a team that played just five games, and one that stages seven games should still be scrutinized.

    That’s the most 4-0 OSU can get to.

    The Big Ten didn’t do itself any CFP favors by starting later in the year, limiting available makeup dates. The conference also isn’t staging nonleague games, the way the Pac-12 has shifted to allow.

    But there’s no real blueprint for a pandemic, so it’s difficult to be too critical, as safety is paramount. The conference may just have to play for bragging rights and a (possible) Rose Bowl berth rather than a chance for a national title.

    If the Buckeyes do play the Spartans and Wolverines, neither of those teams will pose much of a threat. Awaiting them in a conference championship game would be perhaps Northwestern, Wisconsin or Iowa, and not one of those squads is on OSU’s level.

    In other words, the Buckeyes’ biggest remaining opponent is a virus that has wreaked havoc on the world, and that makes Ohio State’s situation the most tenuous of the Top Four.

    If the Buckeyes can’t play the rest of their games, it would leave the door wide open for one of the non-Alabama SEC teams or a Cinderella Cincinnati to sneak in.

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