Saturday, October 23, 2021

Tide, Tigers maintain ‘unbeatable’ status with close losses

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Forget rankings and conference championships.

One thing that Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame do, apart from being mighty in their own right, is remain undefeated. Despite falling a collective two games back in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls on Tuesday night, these same two teams are at the top of the leaderboard that will likely dictate a No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff from 2018.

The last team to come within three games of that – Alabama in 2011, when it had 16 straight wins – was undefeated and propelled by Nick Saban’s swagger. Just two years later, Jimbo Fisher’s 4-0 Clemson Tigers are putting up three-loss performances like they were in high school. (The Tigers’ two setbacks came to No. 4 Notre Dame, which the Irish lost to, 27-23, on Saturday, and No. 3 Oklahoma, 17-14, in a fight for a spot in the national championship game.)

Neither Florida State nor Georgia are vying for a playoff spot this year, though they aren’t out of the running, either. The Seminoles have the first of two remaining undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference foes next week when they play Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney. Georgia will need to win out against its own series with Florida, as well as North Carolina, to be considered for the postseason.

The other two remaining unbeaten teams in the SEC, Georgia and Alabama, have already accomplished a daunting feat in defeating top-10 teams. Both have done it with relative ease, and don’t appear as if they’ll face particularly daunting schedules in the remainder of the regular season.

Indeed, the remaining schedule for Clemson and Alabama is a gift for the league: both should avoid meeting the traditional top-tier teams in the regular season until next season, when they’re likely to be campaigning to recapture their own third national title.

Outside of Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, no other undefeated team has a real shot to become the third team to successfully defend its national title. Among the four playoff contenders, only two will likely finish the regular season undefeated: Washington will have the toughest, non-conference schedule, while Auburn has the toughest conference schedule.

The Wildcats might have to face two Heisman Trophy contenders in Khalil Tate of Arizona and Kyler Murray of Oklahoma if they hope to win their Pac-12 division and find themselves as a first-round playoff pick. Meanwhile, LSU has an incredibly difficult task ahead in winning its own division while then having to take down a quality team outside its conference in the playoffs. Wisconsin and Penn State are supposed to be the class of the Big Ten East, but their conference schedules are neither dominant nor challenging.

This is why it is most likely that two or two of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will have just one loss. If all four teams finish unbeaten, there will be four spots available in the final playoff rankings, and the first three will be virtually impossible to fill.

This indicates that what happens in November matters only slightly more than what happens in October. Top-tier teams aren’t nearly as easy to defend as we may think. There is such a thing as a little adversity.

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