Matt Vautour: Contenders and pretenders among the college football’s unbeatens

Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2015
With Utah and Florida State losing Saturday, there are 12 undefeated teams left in college football.

On that list are legitimate championship contenders and teams that will be long forgotten by Thanksgiving. Obviously being undefeated isn’t a requirement to make the four-team playoff, but it’s certainly a good place to start. Here’s a look at who is for real and who’ll fizzle down the stretch.

No. 1 Ohio State (8-0) — The 2015 Buckeyes feel a lot like 2014 Florida State. A year after winning the title, they’re undefeated, but feel vulnerable. Still, they should be undefeated heading into their final two games against Michigan State and at Michigan. If they win those, just like the Seminoles, they’ll be in the playoffs with a chance to defend their crown. Verdict: Contender.

No. 2 Baylor (7-0) — Who knows how much losing quarterback Seth Russell will hurt. Ohio State won with its second- and eventually third-string quarterback last year. Everyone is saying the right things about true freshman Jarrett Stidham, but after Saturday’s game against a Kansas State, Baylor will face No. 14 Oklahoma at home and then travel to No. 12 Oklahoma State and No. 5 TCU in consecutive weeks. That would be tough to sweep with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Verdict: Probably a contender, but tough to call until Stidham has played.

No. 3 Clemson (7-0) — The biggest reason to doubt Clemson is that the Tigers usually flame out. They have a good win over Notre Dame, which helps the committee ignore an otherwise weak nonconference slate. A home game against not-as-good-as-it’s-been Florida State and the ACC championship game, where it would play a team from the Coastal Division, which has no ranked teams, are the biggest obstacles to being undefeated. Verdict: Contender.

No. 4 LSU (7-0) — After a bye this week, the Tigers go to Alabama. Win that game and they’re in the driver’s seat to win the SEC and the SEC champ is a lock to go to the playoff. Verdict: Contender.

No. 5 TCU (7-0) — After having no teams in the College Football Playoff last year, the Big 12 has at least two elite contenders. The beauty of the league only having 10 teams is that everybody plays everybody. Unlike the Big Ten, where Iowa can potentially skate to the conference championship game (see below) without being challenged, Big 12 teams will all be tested.

The Horned Frogs have been cruising along, but they have a bear of November with games at No. 12 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Oklahoma before hosting No. 2 Baylor. Verdict: Contender.

No. 6 Michigan State (8-0) — The Spartans don’t blow people out. Their offense isn’t nearly as dynamic as some of the teams in contention, which has made some people inclined to doubt their legitimacy. Their win over Oregon isn’t as good as it looked when it happened and their win over Michigan was about as fluky as they come. With all that said, the Spartans look like a worthy playoff contender. Their defense is excellent and Connor Cook is reliably good. They’ll have to beat Ohio State (Nov. 21 in Columbus) to get there, but they’ll have a legitimate shot. Verdict: Contender.

No. 10 Iowa (7-0) — Despite wins over two ranked teams, nobody is taking the Hawkeyes playoff bid seriously.

The ranking comes from their record. Their big wins are over a slightly down Wisconsin team and a Northwestern squad that has fizzled since beating Stanford to open the year. But Iowa doesn’t have to play either Michigan school or Ohio State during the regular season. It finishes the year with Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska, which are a combined 2-15 in the Big Ten. Verdict: Pretender.

No. 12 Oklahoma State (7-0) — Are the Cowboys a team of destiny, finding their way to win close games en route to a special season, or a slightly above average team that’s gotten lucky so far? The latter seems more likely as they haven’t beaten an FBS team with a winning record yet. Nobody would be surprised if OK State went from 7-0 to 8-4. Verdict: Pretender.

No. 16 Memphis (7-0) — Memphis’ convincing win over Ole Miss, which beat Alabama, gives the Tigers some hope. They still have to win on the road at No. 21 Temple and No. 18 Houston, but it would make for some fun debate if a one-loss Tide squad got in and Memphis didn’t. Verdict: Long shot at best.

No. 18 Houston (7-0) — It’s more likely that an SEC, Big 12 or Big Ten team with two losses gets into the playoff than Houston. It’s not the Cougars’ fault that this was the year Louisville is lousy. When the game was scheduled it looked like an opportunity for a big win. But the fact is that Houston has no significant wins. Verdict: Pretender.

No. 20 Toledo (7-0) — The Rockets might be good enough, but their résumé is unlikely to be. They boast wins over two Power 5 teams (Arkansas and Iowa State), but neither of them have had good seasons. To be considered, they’d likely need Clemson, Temple and Memphis to lose and even then, they’d be far from a lock. Verdict: Hard to imagine.

No. 21 Temple (7-0) — How much are things stacked against non-Power 5 teams making the playoff? Playing No. 9 Notre Dame Saturday (see below) is an opportunity for a huge win for the Owls. But if the Fighting Irish lose to Temple, most national experts will treat it like a strike against Notre Dame instead of a feather in the Owls’ cap.

If Temple goes undefeated, it will boast wins over Penn State, Notre Dame, No. 16 Memphis, maybe No. 18 Houston (if the Cougars reach American Conference title game) and a lot of otherwise forgettable opponents. There’s no way the Owls get into the playoff if there are four or more obvious Power 5 teams. It’s almost certain that the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC will each get one team. If No. 8 Stanford (the Pac-12’s best team) and Clemson each lose down the stretch, could Temple sneak in?

There’s a lot of football between now and then, but it’ll make an interesting test case if Temple runs the table. Verdict: Long shot.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: Notre Dame at Temple, Saturday 8 p.m., ABC — This might not be the biggest game ever at Temple, but it’s close.

MAC GAME OF THE WEEK — Central Michigan at Akron, Saturday 2 p.m., ESPN3 — Just four MAC games this week as mid-week MAC play is getting started. This one pits a pair of teams with hopes of bowl eligibility.

PLAYOFF BOUND — TCU, Michigan State, Clemson, LSU.

IF I HAD A HEISMAN VOTE — Leonard Fournette added another 150 yards to his mounting total of 1,352 yards. It would take a lot to unseat him.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage