College Football Playoff selection committee chair Gary Barta, the longtime athletic director at Iowa, was asked a simple question this week about No. 4 Cincinnati: If the 12-0 Bearcats win convincingly Saturday against No. 21 Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game, is it safe at assume they’ll be in the final four?
“We, as a committee, don’t project,” Barta said. “So they’re going to play a championship game against Houston. Georgia and Alabama are going to play. Michigan and Iowa are going to play. Oklahoma State and Baylor. We’re going to watch all those games. And until that occurs — until the last game is played — we won’t be having any conversations about who is going to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., and that’s the way we go about it.”
Translation: Prepare to be gutted, Bearcats Nation. Sure, you’re the first Group of Five team ever ranked in the top four. OK, so you won at No. 6 Notre Dame. But when it really counts, you might find out we were never all that into you to begin with.
Cincinnati needs No. 3 Alabama, which already has lost once, to go down against No. 1 Georgia in the SEC title game; no team has made the playoff with two losses. Even better would be if No. 9 Baylor, a two-loss team, upset No. 5 Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game. A 12-1 Cowboys squad could easily — and justifiably — leapfrog the Bearcats.
There are all sorts of playoff “ifs.” If Georgia loses to Alabama, the Bulldogs almost certainly will still be rewarded with a spot and the SEC will have two of them. But what if Alabama plays spectacularly in defeat? Given the pedigree of the Crimson Tide, who’s to say the committee won’t buck convention and give us a semifinal rematch?
If Iowa upsets No. 2 Michigan, the Big Ten will be unrepresented barring unimaginable Saturday chaos. If Baylor wins, the Big 12 will be out in the cold. And what about Notre Dame? It’s a long shot for the Brian Kelly-less Irish, but if any two of Michigan, Alabama, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State lose, they’ll have more than a little hope.
So much is up in the air, but, hey, no complaints here. This is what we call a good time.
Big 12: No. 9 Baylor (+5½) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (11 a.m., Ch. 7): These teams aren’t made for shootouts anymore. Just see Oklahoma State’s 24-14 win at home in October, when it turned the ball over three times but repeatedly was bailed out by its stellar defense. But can the Pokes gear all the way back up emotionally after such an intense Bedlam win against archrival Oklahoma? And what about Bears QB Gerry Bohanon’s iffy right hamstring? Pokes by 10 in Arlington, Texas — and into the playoff they go.
MAC: Northern Illinois (+3½) vs. Kent State (11 a.m., ESPN, 560-AM): The rematch in Detroit probably can’t top the game a month ago in Kent, when the teams combined for 99 points, 63 first downs and an unthinkable 1,345 yards of offense. The Golden Flashes took that one 52-47. Revenge for the Huskies? From winless in 2020 to a league title? Really? Make it so, 38-35.
Mountain West: Utah State (+6) vs. No. 19 San Diego State (2 p.m., Fox-32): How great is San Diego State punter Matt Araiza? So great, his nickname is “Punt God.” Brady Hoke’s team runs the ball well, stops the run even better and — God almighty — wins the field position battle week after week. Aztecs by seven in Carson, California.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State (-3) at No. 24 Louisiana (2:30 p.m., ESPN): They’ve already played once in Lafayette this season, with the Ragin’ Cajuns winning 41-13. Why on earth is this 11-1 team an underdog? One reason: ASU has won six straight since then and basically stopped letting opponents score. Another: Cajuns coach Billy Napier has already accepted the Florida job. Distracted much? Mountaineers, 31-27.
SEC: No. 1 Georgia (-6½) vs. No. 3 Alabama (3 p.m., Ch. 2): Nobody runs the ball on the Bulldogs, right? But Alabama’s offensive line is having a devil of a time pass blocking, so where does that leave the Tide? Basically, it leaves them in the same position Alabama’s opponents usually inhabit: needing a perfect-storm type of game in order to win. Can star QB Bryce Young put the offense on his shoulders? Will Nick Saban’s defense rise to the challenge? Isn’t Atlanta always the Tide’s kind of town? Dogs, 34-24.
American: No. 21 Houston (+10½) at No. 4 Cincinnati (3 p.m., Ch. 7): The Cougars have won 11 straight. They’re basically dead even statistically with Cincinnati’s offense. They’ve actually been stingier than the Bearcats on defense. But going on the road here is tough duty. Trying to block an experienced, deeply motivated team from what it believes is its playoff destiny? Good luck with that. Cincy, 31-23.
Big Ten: No. 2 Michigan (-11) vs. No. 13 Iowa (7 p.m., Fox-32): Early-season Iowa could’ve beaten Michigan. Early-season Iowa would’ve been favored head-to-head. But the Hawkeyes are pretty well broken offensively, and that’s a terrifying way to be against Aidan Hutchinson and the rest of the Wolverines’ defense. The only concern for Jim Harbaugh’s team is the letdown factor — last weekend against Ohio State was arguably the high point for this football school since 1997. Michigan by 14 in Indianapolis.
ACC: No. 15 Pittsburgh (-3) vs. No. 16 Wake Forest (7 p.m., Ch. 7): Come for the gorgeous deep balls thrown by the Panthers’ Heisman-hopeful quarterback, Kenny Pickett, to wonderful receiver Jordan Addison. Stay for what should turn into a two-way track meet on a beautiful night in Charlotte, North Carolina. Pitt, 45-35.
Last week: 7-2 straight-up, 3-6 against the spread. The check’s in the mail.
Season to date: 85-37-1 straight-up, 66-55-2 against the spread.