On Sept. 14, the Longhorns were sitting at 1-1 following yet another loss to Maryland and a narrow 28-21 win over a Tulsa team that’s now 1-5. At that juncture, Texas simply remaining competitive in the Big 12 would have signified a significant step forward.
What a difference a month can make.
Well well well, how the turntables.— Michael Scott (@Da_MichaelScott) October 4, 2018
On Sept. 15, Texas began to amass its current momentum with a convincing 37-14 win over No. 22 USC before following that up with another double-digit win over No. 17 TCU, and then a road victory over Kansas State for the first time since 2002. However, it wasn’t until Texas outlasted then-No. 7 Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown, 48-45, and jumped to No. 9 in the AP Top 25 that any talk of Big 12 title aspirations became very real and very attainable, and those discussions will now be even more frequent with the Longhorns standing alone atop the Big 12.
But talk of a Big 12 title is one thing.
Including Texas in College Football Playoff conversations paint an entirely separate — and at one point, seemingly unimaginable — picture, but that, too, can now be rooted in reality following an upset-filled Saturday that saw multiple top 10 teams fall.
Of the eight teams that entered the weekend ranked ahead of then-No. 9 Texas, four fell — No. 2 Georgia, No. 6 West Virginia, No. 7 Washington, and No. 8 Penn State.
When the latest AP Top 25 released on Sunday afternoon, the entire bunch was ranked behind Texas, which is now up to No. 7 in the nation. Suddenly, and still a bit surprisingly, to be quite honest, Texas is not only in the driver’s seat in the Big 12, but a mere three spots removed from the immediate four-team playoff picture.
With the résumé-building portion of Texas’ schedule in the rearview, per se, as only one ranked opponent remains in No. 13 West Virginia, the Longhorns would need a bit of help throughout the next six weeks from the six teams ranked ahead of the Horns. That is, of course, operating under the hypothetical assumption that Texas takes care of business, though the odds are largely in the Longhorns favor to that end, per ESPN’s FPI.
- @ Oklahoma State — 52.5%
- No. 13 West Virginia — 60.7%
- @ Texas Tech — 46.2%
- Iowa State — 72.1%
- @ Kansas — 84.6%
Elsewhere, though, what potential roadblocks could cause each of the nation’s top six teams to stumble, and thus, potentially open the door for the Longhorns to compete for a national title for the first time since 2009?
No. 6 Michigan: Following a dominant 38-13 win over Wisconsin to climb into the top 10, Michigan will travel to meet No. 24 Michigan State on Saturday, and after returning from a bye week, the Wolverines will host No. 18 Penn State. Three weeks later, Michigan will cap its regular season on the road against No. 2 Ohio State, which is projected to be the Wolverines’ downfall, per ESPN FPI.
No. 5 LSU: Fresh off of a convincing 20-point win over then-No. 2 Georgia, which marked LSU’s third top 10 win of the season, the Tigers will be challenged yet again on Saturday with No. 22 Mississippi State coming to Death Valley. Top-ranked Alabama awaits after a bye week, and if LSU can somehow remain undefeated entering the regular-season finale, it will be tested on its way out against what’s currently a No. 17 Texas A&M squad. Not to mention, that game will be played in front of 100,000-plus at Kyle Field, and then, of course, a potential trip to the SEC Championship would prove challenging.
No. 4 Notre Dame: Many have already penciled Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff, which is understandable considering what awaits the 7-0 Fighting Irish. After notching ranked wins over Michigan, Stanford, and Virginia Tech, Notre Dame isn’t currently expected to see another ranked opponent this season, and the five teams still to come have a combined record of 16-14. However, USC has now won three straight and Notre Dame will need to travel to take on the Trojans to complete the regular season, which could be a much more high-profile matchup if USC continues to win.
No. 3 Clemson: On paper, Clemson’s remaining schedule isn’t the most imposing, but it’s also not the most encouraging considering the Tigers had to escape with narrow wins over Texas A&M (28-26) and Syracuse (27-23). On Saturday, Clemson will welcome undefeated and No. 16-ranked N.C. State, and a pair of five-win opponents in Boston College (5-2) and Duke (5-1) to serve as potential stumbling blocks in mid-November. Clemson will be favored from here on out, but there are losable games on the schedule, nevertheless.
No. 2. Ohio State: For the most part, Ohio State has played pretty close to perfect football and that’s evident with a perfect 7-0 record. Six of the Buckeyes’ wins have come by at least 12 points, with the exception being a 27-26 road win over Penn State. But escaping undefeated will mean the Buckeyes will need to overcome to major hurdles in a road trip to meet No. 24 Michigan State on Nov. 10, while a regular-season showdown with Michigan may very well have playoff implications.
No. 1 Alabama: Outside of a mini-miracle, Alabama isn’t missing the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide have steamrolled their way to a 7-0 start, and per ESPN’s FPI, Alabama is favored by at least 75.6% in each of its remaining matchups. If you’re searching for a reason to convince yourself that Alabama isn’t all its cracked up to be, you could point to its last three opponents owning a 7-12 record and saying that the Tide are fairly untested, but that will change entering November. On Nov. 3, Alabama will travel to Death Valley for what’s shaping up to be a top-five matchup with LSU, and will then see No. 22 Mississippi State the following Saturday. Auburn awaits in the regular-season finale as well, but history and conventional wis suggest that Alabama will cap this stretch unscathed before heading to the SEC Championship with a trip to the playoff at stake.
Of this entire bunch, the good news as it pertains to Texas is that at least two of the six teams ranked ahead of the Horns are guaranteed to lose, as Alabama and LSU will play, as will Michigan and Ohio State.
However, the bad news is though Texas is sure to see at least two of the six teams ranked higher slip up, the Longhorns could suffer from a number of potential situations, such as No. 1 Alabama narrowly losing to LSU on the road and dropping to No. 4 or No. 5 and still sitting ahead of Texas. Furthermore, Georgia is still creeping at No. 8, and much like LSU and Michigan did this week, the Bulldogs could leapfrog the Longhorns with two top 15 matchups looming against No. 11 Florida and on the road against No. 14 Kentucky. This two-game stretch could very well be what decides the SEC East and sets up an SEC title game matchup with either Alabama or LSU, which, of course, would see the winner head to the College Football Playoff.
It’s worth noting, though, that unlike the BSC era, in which a computer algorithm dictated which teams would compete for a national title — surely you remember Texas controversially being snubbed in 2008 after owning the head-to-head win over Oklahoma — a playoff committee of actual people are the decision-makers these days.
“The selection committee ranks the teams based on the members’ evaluation of the teams’ performance on the field, using conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable.”
This is especially good news for Texas, as even today, the computers don’t take much interest in Texas, such as the No. 43-ranking in S&P+ for the No. 7 Longhorns. The Horns haven’t helped their case much to that end, beating lower-caliber teams such as Tulsa, Kansas State, and Baylor by a combined 18 points. But nevertheless, a win is a win, and if Texas can double its current streak and win six more games in a row, including a Big 12 title, it’s hard to believe a 12-1 Texas team riding a 12-game winning streak would miss out on a trip to its first College Football Playoff.
Of course, doubling a six-game winning streak that’s nearly ended on numerous occasions is far easier said than done, but considering the teams that Texas still has to see, it’s certainly doable, and doing so would almost certainly mean a playoff appearance.