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Sorting the 9 (or so) teams that still have shots at the 2017 college football national title

No matter how the early top four looks, here are the nine remaining lanes to the Playoff.

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

1. There are basically nine (clusters of) national title contenders

As ridiculous as I think the weekly College Football Playoff rankings are in their ability to infuriate fans while providing no true insight into the future, I have to admit: I’m somewhat intrigued about 2017’s initial rankings unveil on Tuesday night. The main reason: I have no true idea what to expect.

We probably know who the top two will be. Georgia’s unbeaten record and road win over Notre Dame will probably give the Dawgs the No. 1 spot, and Alabama’s unbeaten record and general Bama-ness (read: cruel, somewhat selective dominance) should be enough to wrap up No. 2.

The No. 3 spot is perhaps most likely to go to Notre Dame, though there’s a case for plenty of others. And among those others, it’s almost impossible to figure out who will get No. 4. Clemson, I guess?

The pure uncertainty in this particularly uncertain season is interesting. But let’s not get confused: It still doesn’t tell us what’s on the horizon. For that, let’s take a quick look into the S&P+ crystal ball.

This week’s Football Study Hall stat profiles have been updated, and now that the CFP is officially a topic, the S&P+ win probabilities for each team become particularly noteworthy. No matter what kind of matchups the committee spits out tonight, realize that we’ve still got a month’s worth of nonsense to go.

Unbeaten P5 teams’ chances of winning out

  1. Alabama 36%
  2. Georgia 34%
  3. Wisconsin 34%
  4. Miami 17%

That there are only four unbeaten power conference teams remaining is noteworthy. Including mid-majors, we’re at only five overall, which means we’re a week ahead of schedule.

If we are to remain a week ahead of schedule, either Alabama must lose to LSU (15 percent chance, per S&P+), Georgia to South Carolina (11 percent), Miami to Virginia Tech (44 percent), Wisconsin to Indiana (25 percent), or UCF to SMU (31 percent). Our odds of all five teams winning: only 22 percent. We’re in pretty good shape to trim the list in Week 10.

Since 12-0 Alabama and 12-0 Georgia would play each other in the SEC title game, we’re guaranteed only three unbeaten P5 teams at most. More likely, we’re looking at about one.

One-loss P5 teams’ chances of winning out

  1. Ohio State 52%
  2. Clemson 42%
  3. Penn State 39%
  4. Washington 34%
  5. Oklahoma State 32%
  6. TCU 25%
  7. Notre Dame 18%
  8. Virginia Tech 17%
  9. Oklahoma 13%

The nine one-loss P5 teams all enter November thinking they have excellent “win out, and you’re in” shots.

There are clusters here, though. Clemson and Virginia Tech will play an elimination rematch in the ACC title game if they both win out. Oklahoma still has to play both OSU and TCU (and perhaps OSU or TCU again, due to the ridiculous existence of a title game in a round-robin league).

As good as Notre Dame has looked, the Irish still have a lot of work to do. Of their four remaining games, three are against current S&P+ top 25 teams (No. 24 Wake Forest, at No. 14 Miami, at No. 19 Stanford), and a fourth is against Navy, whom the Irish have only beaten in six of the last 10 meetings.

Most of these teams control their own destinies. But to reach the Big Ten title game, Penn State would need Ohio State to lose twice, perhaps at Iowa (18 percent) and at Michigan (22 percent). Ohio State made the Playoff last year without a B1G title, but circumstances are different this time, in both ways. Penn State doesn’t have as strong an out-of-division schedule as Ohio State had last year, but the barrier for Playoff entry might be lower this year, too.

Of course, there’s another pool of potential one-loss teams.

Unbeaten P5 teams’ chances of finishing with one loss

(Odds of finishing with either zero or one loss in parentheses)

  1. Georgia 46% (80%)
  2. Alabama 45% (81%)
  3. Wisconsin 42% (76%)
  4. Miami 41% (58%)

Georgia, Alabama, and Wisconsin are likely to reach December with one loss at most. UGA and Bama would play each other, and odds are good that Wisconsin will face Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

By the way, there’s one more contender worth mentioning.

The unbeaten G5 team’s chances of winning out

  1. UCF 42%

The only way the committee is going to put a Group of 5 team in the CFP is if it almost literally has no other choice. It’s unfair, but it is what it is.

If UCF (which is up to No. 5 in S&P+, by the way) gets by SMU on Saturday, the Knights’ odds of reaching the AAC title game unbeaten rise to 61 percent. And if the decision is between an undefeated UCF and, say, a two-loss power conference team, Scott Frost’s Knights might have a chance.

This, then, is your pool of title contenders, no matter who ranks among the early top four

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Ohio State or Wisconsin
  • Clemson, Virginia Tech, or Miami
  • Penn State
  • Washington
  • Oklahoma State, TCU, or Oklahoma
  • Notre Dame
  • UCF

This is going to be fun.

Fortune favors the Phoenix

Per Twitter, this was too incredible for me to not pass along:

After winning just 9 games in their last 4 years, with only 7 coming against FCS competition, Elon has incredibly started the season 7-1 and has vaulted into the FCS Top 10. The Phoenix has 7 wins over FCS opponents this year alone, including 4 against teams ranked in the FCS Top 25 when Elon beat them.

But what’s even more amazing is how Elon has done so under first-year head coach Curt Cignetti. After losing their season-opener at FBS Toledo by 34 points, the Phoenix has won 7 games in a row, and all by a single possession. Elon has won by 3, 2, 3, 6, 8, 1 and 5 points on the season, with scores in the 30s (36-33, 35-34) and a shutout (6-0).

The sheer unlikeliness of this accomplishment makes it noteworthy in and of itself. It's even more incredible that the Phoenix are doing this in the damn Colonial, maybe the strongest FCS conference.

Their victims have included four teams that were ranked at the time: No. 16 (at the time) Charleston Southern, No. 6 Richmond, No. 19 Albany, and No. 13 Villanova. And they still have No. 21 New Hampshire and No. 1 James Madison to go. The magic will almost certainly run out, but this is a run to celebrate.

Big play watch

Arizona v California
Arizona’s Khalil Tate
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There are still 10 FBS offenses that haven’t generated more than four gains of 40-plus yards. You know, despite the fact that we are now entering November. That’s so crazy to me that I feel the need to shame them by naming them: Miami (Ohio), Middle Tennessee, Oregon State, Purdue, San Jose State, South Carolina, UTEP, Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, and Wyoming.

There are some decent offenses in that bunch, but ... four huge gains is a really low bar.

It’s also the size of Arizona’s lead in the 40-plus category. The Wildcats now have 24 such gains, and no one else — not even Oklahoma State (20), Oklahoma (17), or Missouri (17) — can come particularly close.

Rich Rodriguez’s Wildcats are on an absolutely stupid run of offense. During their four-game winning streak — which has taken them to 6-2 overall and has kept them within a half-game of the Pac-12 South lead in advance of this week's trip to division leader USC — they have averaged 49 points per game and a staggering 9.4 yards per play.

The primary reason: quarterback Khalil Tate, who returned from injury against Colorado and has laid waste to every Pac-12 defense he’s seen since.

Remember all those good stories we were reading about Washington State's competent defense earlier this year? Yeah, Tate torched the Cougars for 146 rushing yards (including an 82-yarder) and completed 10 of 17 passes for 275 yards and two more scores.

After trailing 23-14 at halftime, Wazzu surged ahead of the host in the third quarter, taking a 27-23 lead seven minutes in.

Arizona then proceeded to go on a 28-3 run. Tate had a 49-yard score. Mighty mite J.J. Taylor, a 5'6 freshman, ripped off a 79-yarder. And with 11 minutes left, Colin Schooler's 66-yard interception return (even their pick-sixes are long) all but sealed the deal.

A month ago, we assumed Rodriguez was a couple of losses from getting fired. Now he’s got a sophomore who could end up in New York for the Heisman ceremony.

Gunner of the Year watch

NCAA Football: San Diego State at South Alabama
Yes, I’m using this Deonta Moore picture again. It is wonderful.
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Out of pure curiosity, I’ve been tracking special teams tackles this year. Maybe we’ll give a pretend award out to whomever has the most of them at the end. Winner of the award gets it named after him.

Your fake award watch list through nine weeks:

  • South Alabama’s golden-mouthed, shades-wearing Deonta Moore continues to lead the nation in special teams tackles with 11. He’s taken part in three kick returns (average return when he’s involved: 8 yards) and 10 kick returns (18.8). The 5’10, 210-pounder also has 59 rushing yards and 18 receiving yards for a Jaguars team whose bowl hopes took a big hit with Saturday’s loss to Georgia State.
  • WMU’s Alex Grace moved back into the No. 2 spot in the ST tackles list with 9.5. He’s taken part in five punt returns (7.4 average) and six kick returns (17.8). As a backup linebacker, the junior also has a tackle for loss, a run stuff, and two forced fumbles.
  • Kansas’ Kyron Johnson is rising quickly. The freshman linebacker from Arlington (Tex.) is up to third in ST tackles with nine. He’s taken part in stopping four punt returns (11.0 average) and seven kick returns (28.1). His role has mostly been as a mess cleaner instead of a playmaker. I guess that makes sense, considering the team he plays for.
  • Maryland sophomore running back Jake Funk is on the rise as well. Not only is he tied for fourth with 8.5 ST tackles, he’s making them count: He’s taken part in stopping three punt returns (4.7 average) and six kick returns (18.5). He’s also got four rushing touchdowns and a touchdown reception. If Funk is involved, something good is happening.
  • This week’s new riser: UCLA’s Mo Osling III. The three-star freshman from Lancaster (Cal.) is up to eight ST tackles, and while he’s mainly a fire extinguisher on kick returns (he’s taken part in stopping six KRs that have averaged 24.7 yards), he’s made two stops on punt returns. The average of those two returns: zero yards.