College Sports

TCU, Mississippi State face toughest tasks in playoff quest

A quiet Saturday on the upset front means the Magnificent Seven in the College Football Playoff race will ride into Rivalry Weekend with their playoff dreams intact.

All have one or fewer losses, including No. 5 TCU (9-1) and No. 7 Baylor (9-1). All face matchups against conference or in-state rivals that know their tendencies, their personnel and their frailties.

Expect Las Vegas odds to be irrelevant this week as teams in playoff contention seek to enhance their postseason hopes in energy-charged, emotional contests. In college football, these are the showdowns that produce the head-scratching, season-changing, legacy-making upsets that make the sport great.

Which of the seven front-runners hoping to secure spots in the CFP’s four-team playoff bracket is most likely to surrender that opportunity with a November loss on Rivalry Weekend? We’ll rank them below, starting with the most likely suspect:

• No. 4 Mississippi State (10-1): The Bulldogs play Saturday at No. 8 Ole Miss (8-3). Despite recent struggles, the Rebels have a stingy defense and remain the only team to beat top-ranked Alabama (23-17 on Oct. 4).

• No. 5 TCU (9-1): The Horned Frogs face a Thanksgiving night matchup in Austin against Texas (6-5), a team on a three-game winning streak after a dysfunctional start. It took until November, but Texas finally is playing well on both sides of the ball at the same time.

• No. 3 Florida State (11-0): With multiple fourth-quarter escapes this season, the Seminoles are capable of finding themselves backed against the ropes by anyone. Florida (6-4) has enough elite defenders to finish the job if given that opportunity Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla.

• No. 1 Alabama (10-1): Because this game will be played in Tuscaloosa, where the Crimson Tide has won 15 consecutive home games, Saturday’s matchup against No. 14 Auburn (8-3) does not seem as daunting as it did in August. Auburn’s inconsistent defense contributes to that conclusion. But no rivalry is more intense, and last year’s dramatic finish proved anything is possible in the Iron Bowl.

• No. 2 Oregon (10-1): The Ducks normally rule their rivalry against Oregon State (5-6). Oregon has won the past six meetings and 14 of the past 20. Oregon State’s last victory came in 2007, but the Beavers already spoiled one playoff candidate’s season by knocking off then-No. 6 Arizona State 35-27 on Nov. 15. OSU, the home team, must win Saturday to become bowl-eligible.

• No. 6 Ohio State (10-1): The Buckeyes have a nine-game winning streak and play Saturday against Michigan (5-6) in Columbus, Ohio. The Wolverines’ season cannot end soon enough for a team in need of a coaching change.

• No. 7 Baylor (9-1): No team is Teflon-coated when it faces a longtime rival. But the Bears should be almost unbeatable Saturday against Texas Tech (4-7), based on season-long trends. Baylor leads the nation’s 125 FBS teams in total offense (584.5 yards per game) and scoring (50.0 avg.). Tech heads into the contest at AT&T Stadium in Arlington ranked among the nation’s bottom three in total defense and scoring defense, allowing 509.5 yards and 40.6 points per game. Baylor also is plus-9 in turnover margin. Tech is minus-10.

Power 5 breakdowns

As we reach the final stages of the playoff push, one statistic worth tracking involves the performance of each Power 5 conference in intersectional games against other Power 5 leagues and Notre Dame. Through Saturday’s games, the cumulative records in those matchups favor the Pac-12 (7-3, .700 winning pct.) and SEC (5-3, .635 pct.). In turn, 12 of the top 20 teams in the CFP rankings are from those two leagues.

None of the other Power 5 leagues have winning records in these matchups, although the ACC (6-7, .462) has a chance to get there with four remaining games between SEC and ACC schools on Rivalry Weekend: Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, Florida-Florida State, Kentucky-Louisville. The Big 12 (4-6, .400 pct.) and Big Ten (6-11, .353 pct.) have completed intersectional play with losing records in Power 5 showdowns.

Key number

427 Rushing yards by Oklahoma RB Samaje Perine in Saturday’s 44-7 rout of Kansas, breaking the week-old NCAA record set by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (408 yards) in a 59-24 victory over Nebraska on Nov. 15.

Moving up

SWC bowl revival: Arkansas’ 30-0 upset of No. 8 Ole Miss made the Razorbacks (6-5) bowl-eligible and offered officials at the Texas Bowl in Houston a former SWC rival to match against Texas (6-5) in their Dec. 29 contest between a Big 12 team and an SEC opponent. Nothing is set, but a Texas-Arkansas matchup would be a good fit for that contest. Last week’s speculation about a Texas-Texas A&M matchup in Houston drew pushback from both schools. The teams have not played since the 2011 season.

Moving down

CFP bracket chaos: For the first time this season, Tuesday’s updated College Football Playoff rankings project to be unveiled with minimal fresh tweaks. None of the CFP’s top seven teams lost Saturday. The only notable tweak in Sunday’s Associated Press poll happened when Baylor (No. 5) and TCU (No. 6) swapped places by the narrowest of margins. The Bears, No. 7 in the CFP rankings, finished with 1,234 points from AP voters. TCU, No. 5 in the CFP rankings, finished with 1,233.

Key games this week

No. 5 TCU at Texas (Thursday): The Horned Frogs (9-1, 6-1 Big 12) face their final road trip of the regular season in efforts to claim a Big 12 title and boost their stock with the CFP selection committee.

No. 4 Mississippi State at No. 8 Ole Miss: The Bulldogs’ playoff hopes require a road victory against their in-state rival.

No. 14 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama: With a victory, the top-ranked Crimson Tide clinches a berth in the Dec. 6 SEC championship game.

Playoff projections

Here’s a projected playoff bracket, based on games played thus far and Tuesday’s anticipated rankings (including playoff seeds):

Semifinal: Alabama (No. 1) vs. Mississippi State (No. 4)

Semifinal: Oregon (No. 2) vs. Florida State (No. 3)

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