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Hartnett: Playoff picture yet to form

| Monday, September 22, 2014

The only thing we seemed to learn from Week Four of college football is that we don’t really know much about college football this year.

Which teams will make this year’s inaugural four-team College Football Playoff?

Well, we don’t exactly have a clear picture through the quarter point of the season for most teams.

In fact, the best thing that could be said about most of the top-25 teams this week is that they found ways to win.

Top-ranked Florida State needed Clemson to be Clemson — that is, make costly late turnovers and fail to convert on opportunities — in order to escape with a 23-17 overtime victory. Granted, the Seminoles were without Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback, but the inexperience of backup Sean Maguire doesn’t excuse their 13 rushing yards and eight penalties.

Along those lines, No. 2 Oregon needed Marcus Mariota to be, well, himself to get past upstart Washington State. And the senior quarterback obliged, throwing five touchdown passes to offset a Ducks defense that allowed nearly 500 yards.

No. 3 Alabama posted 645 total yards in its 42-21 win over Florida, but the Crimson Tide also turned the ball over four times and led by only a touchdown at halftime.

No. 4 Oklahoma was tied at halftime in a tough road environment at West Virginia and despite the second-half dominance of freshman running back Samaje Perine, still allowed over 500 yards to the Mountaineers.

No. 5 Auburn took a tough road trip to Kansas State and escaped with a six-point win after three turnovers and three missed field goals by the Wildcats.

And for the most part, no one in the top 25 really stood out. Some teams — I’m looking at you, Texas A&M, Michigan State and Georgia — had laughably easy wins, but they came against the likes of Eastern Michigan and winless Southern Methodist and Troy.

Other teams, such as BYU and Nebraska, came out with reasonably impressive wins against ACC competition to remain undefeated. But it’s tough to say whether the Cougars, which will likely play zero ranked teams the entire season, and the Cornhuskers, which will likely only play two top-25 teams, are threats to crash the playoff party.

And yet other teams committed the ultimate sin and lost to unranked teams. No. 8 LSU dug a hole it never could quite get out of and in a rare twist for night games in Baton Rouge, fell to a then-unranked Mississippi State squad. Meanwhile, Missouri dropped a home game to Indiana, which served as the showcase win on a pretty impressive day for the much-maligned Big Ten.

As much as last weekend failed to clear up the playoff picture, this upcoming weekend may prove just as unhelpful. One team will fall from the unbeaten ranks when UCLA and Arizona State play Thursday night, but otherwise, the schedule seems bare of real statement games — barring a major upset like North Carolina State over Florida State or Arkansas over Texas A&M.

In fact, the playoff picture might not even come into focus until Oct. 4, which might as well be dubbed “SEC Saturday.” Two matchups of the conference’s current unbeatens — Alabama-Mississippi and Texas A&M-Mississippi State — are on the menu that day, in addition to an equally-intriguing LSU-Auburn tilt.

Until then, it’s just best to sit back and enjoy playoff predictions that include everyone from the current top four teams to the presence of one-loss teams like Michigan State, Stanford and Georgia. It will essentially amount to a bunch of speculation that will likely bear little resemblance to the actual playoff race.

But is that speculation really a bad thing? Part of what makes college football great is its inherent unpredictability and our attempts to makes sense out of it. Any top-tier team can fall to another team on any given day. A single turnover, tackle or gust of wind could be the factor that changes one team’s playoff fortunes.

And that holds great value for you, the college football fan. So, don’t worry about whether your team is elite or a playoff lock at the moment. Much like the BCS of yore, the College Football Playoff will sort itself out and hopefully — this is a big hopefully — get it all right in the end.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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