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Carson: College Football Playoff contenders will be revealed this weekend

| Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Through four weeks of the college football season, we’ve learned a bit. Louisville has jumped from preseason dark horse to the No. 3 team in the country, Wisconsin might just be the surprise team of the season and Texas A&M is off to a fast start.

Wait, that last thing ain’t much of a surprise, is it?

But by and large, as September draws to a close, we haven’t learned all that much about some preseason favorites. No. 4 Michigan and No. 5 Clemson are largely sitting in the top five based on August expectations, not in-season performances. That can change this weekend — and that’s lovely.

Between Friday and Saturday, we’ll see three matchups between top-10 teams — matchups with direct playoff implications that could start to help us trim the number of legitimate contenders as the calendar turns to October.

No. 7 Stanford at No. 10 Washington

Like the aforementioned Wolverines and Tigers, Washington is a top-10 team largely based upon preseason expectations — ones that perhaps came out of nowhere for casual fans. Predictive metrics loved the Huskies before the season started — their defense was highly-rated last year, and Washington returned nearly all of its team from 2015 — but through four games, their best opposition has been Arizona. It took an extra overtime period for Washington to get through that challenge.

The Cardinal, on the other hand, have at least been challenged a little more, with Saturday night’s tight, last-minute win over UCLA the key one coming to mind. Stanford is, I think, what we all thought it would be: a team that won’t be flashy and won’t always blow people out. And sometimes, that’ll come back to bite the Cardinal.

But fundamentally, Stanford should be considered the class of the Pac-12 until it’s usurped by someone else. And with the way the rest of the conference looks so far, the Huskies are the only team that looks particularly capable of doing that. Friday night’s showdown will more than likely determine the North division’s winner — and the conference’s one shot at a playoff berth.

Give me the Cardinal in a tight, low-scoring affair at a loud Husky Stadium.

No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan

So, this is a matchup between a team I’m still not convinced is pretty good and a team I need to be convinced is pretty good.

Truth be told, I didn’t expect the Badgers to amount to much of anything this year. But after wins over LSU and now-No.17 Michigan State, it’s time to start considering whether or not they are a pretty good — if not playoff-caliber — team. Of course, the Badgers don’t have the luxury Iowa had a year ago coming out of the Big Ten’s West division in avoiding the Wolverines and Ohio State; they only have to play them in back-to-back contests. If Wisconsin is to win the Big Ten, and make the playoff at 12-1, it probably needs to win this game.

On the other hand, Michigan really hasn’t proven much this season. Sure, the Wolverines have looked good, but their best opponent to date is still Colorado. I entered this season thinking 2017 was a better “arrival date” for Jim Harbaugh’s team, and until it proves to me otherwise, I’m going to classify Michigan as a good, probable 10-2 team for this campaign.

I’ll take Michigan on the day, but neither is good enough to top No. 2 Ohio State down the road.

No. 3 Louisville at No. 5 Clemson

To date, Saturday night’s showdown is going to be the game of the college football season. The Cardinals, once ACC dark horses, have suddenly morphed into a favorite for a playoff berth after demolishing Florida State a couple weeks back. Lamar Jackson is the September Heisman winner — though past history (hi, Geno Smith) shows that doesn’t indicate much success for the last two-thirds of the season — and the Cardinals have legitimately been the best team in college football so far. If I had a ballot, based on what they’ve done, I’d vote them No. 1.

On the other hand, Clemson looks like a team coming off a title-game loss hangover. Winning at Auburn should never be scoffed at, but in their most impressive win, DeShaun Watson and the Tigers didn’t look great. But at the end of the day, the best teams get up for the biggest games, and Saturday marks the first “biggest game” Clemson plays this season.

While Jackson’s been the story so far, I like Watson and the Tigers at home by double digits. Sorry, Louisville: the dream season ends this week.

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

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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