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Winners and losers: 12 legit playoff contenders through Week 4

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 9/22/2019 Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper

a group of football players on a field: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor is a Heisman favorite through the first four weeks of 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Manis) © Provided by Oath Inc. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor is a Heisman favorite through the first four weeks of 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Manis) It’s never too early to start talking about the College Football Playoff. And with four weeks of the 2019 college football season complete, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the pool of candidates the four playoff teams will come from at the end of the season.

And that pool isn’t very big, either. By our count, just 12 teams are serious CFP contenders after Week 4. Here’s a look at all of those teams. There’s a very good chance that the four playoff teams named in December will have come from this list.

ACC

No. 1 Clemson: This one’s pretty obvious. The defending national champions haven’t fired on all cylinders yet so far in 2019 and still haven’t been challenged. That’s got to be nice. The ACC could easily be the weakest Power Five conference but the Tigers should still be able to lose a game out of nowhere and be in good shape to make the playoff. Clemson beat Charlotte 52-10 on Saturday as Trevor Lawrence only had to throw nine passes and Travis Etienne only got 11 carries before the backups got a lot of work.

Big Ten

No. 6 Ohio State: The Buckeyes have swooped in to take favorite status in the Big Ten East in Ryan Day’s first season. Ohio State went down 5-0 early to Miami, Ohio on Saturday and reeled off a ridiculous 76 straight points in a dominating win. With Michigan getting steamrolled on Saturday and Michigan State having an offense that can be kindly described as inconsistent, the field in the East looks a lot less tough than we thought it would.

No. 13 Wisconsin: The Badgers were the better team in every facet during their 35-14 win over No. 11 Michigan on Saturday. The win deflated any Michigan fan’s hopes that this would finally be the year that Jim Harbaugh’s team lived up to preseason expectations and made Wisconsin fans wonder if the Big Ten East wasn’t nearly as up for grabs as initially thought. The Badgers have just two games against ranked opponents remaining on the schedule. And one of those is Ohio State’s visit to Madison on Oct. 26.

No. 13 Penn State: The Nittany Lions were off on Saturday after beating Pitt by seven a week ago. And suddenly that win looks a lot better with Pitt’s 35-34 upset over Central Florida. Penn State should be 5-0 heading into an Oct. 12 trip to Iowa. A win there and it’s not inconceivable that the Nittany Lions could be 10-0 or 9-1 before playing Ohio State on Nov. 23.

Big 12

No. 5 Oklahoma: The nation’s best offense (and an improved defense!) was off in Week 4. There’s nothing we’ve seen from the Sooners through the first three weeks that makes us think that Big 12 teams will figure out how to stop OU. Another split in the Red River Rivalry could be possible, but as long as Oklahoma ends the season with one loss or fewer and a Big 12 title then the Sooners should be deep in the College Football Playoff conversation.

a group of people posing for the camera: Texas is 3-1 after beating Oklahoma State on Saturday. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP) © Provided by Oath Inc. Texas is 3-1 after beating Oklahoma State on Saturday. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

No. 12 Texas: The Longhorns got a scare from Oklahoma State in Austin on Saturday night but broke the Cowboys’ five-game win streak at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in a 36-30 win. Thanks to that loss to LSU, Texas is likely out of the playoff mix with a loss somewhere down the line, so the path forward is pretty simple. The Longhorns need to beat Oklahoma in two weeks and then (likely) beat Oklahoma again in the Big 12 title game while winning every other game.

Pac-12

None: The Pac-12 isn’t a bad conference by any means. It may be the most balanced of any Power Five conference. But there are no elite teams out west as No. 10 Utah’s loss at USC showed on Friday night. A conference needs a great team (or two) to get a College Football Playoff berth and the Pac-12 hasn’t had that lately. A half-dozen teams or more could run the table the rest of the way to give the conference a playoff shot. But recent history tells us that the Pac-12’s depth will once again prove to be its playoff problem and prevent that from happening.

SEC

No. 2 Alabama: Not even Alabama’s kicking game was spared from the team’s spate of injuries during a 49-7 win over Southern Miss on Saturday. Kicker Will Reichard had to leave the game with a hip flexor strain. But while the defense may be forced to play more young players than Nick Saban typically prefers, the offense is still humming. Tua Tagovailoa was 17-of-21 passing for 293 yards and five touchdowns and Henry Ruggs showed again why he could be the best deep threat in the country.

Kirby Smart wearing a hat: Kirby Smart was all smiles after beating Notre Dame. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) © Provided by Oath Inc. Kirby Smart was all smiles after beating Notre Dame. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 3 Georgia: The Bulldogs have the benefit of playing in the weaker side of the SEC and also have a marquee victory in a 23-17 win over Notre Dame on Saturday night. Things got a little too close for comfort late thanks to some interesting play calling and a shanked punt. But Georgia was the better team over the final 30 minutes and should be favored in every game the rest of the way. Even if the Bulldogs do slip up in the regular season, a win over Alabama or whoever the SEC West champion ends up being in the SEC title game should be good enough for a playoff berth.

No. 4 LSU: As Tagovailoa was throwing five touchdowns on Saturday, LSU QB Joe Burrow was throwing six. The Tigers are 4-0 as the offense has been more explosive through the first four games of this season than it had been in the last 10 years combined. There are a lot of teams that would rely on a signature win at Texas for a playoff resume, but with games against Alabama, Auburn and Florida still on the schedule, an SEC championship with a loss would be good enough for the Tigers.

No. 8 Auburn: Here’s where things get fun. Auburn clearly appears to be, at least, the fourth-best team in the conference after a win over Texas A&M on Saturday. While the Tigers may have the best defense in the SEC, having the best defense doesn’t mean as much as it did 15 years ago in the conference. And freshman QB Bo Nix isn’t playing as well as Tagovailoa and Burrow are. The ceiling for Auburn is still really high thanks to games against both LSU and Alabama remaining. But the playoff path isn’t as easily conceived.

No. 9 Florida: The Gators are here by the virtue of being an undefeated top-10 team. But Florida is starting backup QB Kyle Trask the rest of the season and has games against Auburn, LSU and Georgia remaining. Never say never, of course, but the month of October will tell us a lot about the Gators.

Independent

No. 7 Notre Dame: The Irish aren’t out of the playoff hunt after losing to Georgia. But the path to the playoff is a whole lot tougher than it was. A schedule that looked good entering the year isn’t so good now thanks to Stanford’s struggles and Michigan’s shellacking. An 11-1 Notre Dame will likely get playoff consideration, but it’ll also need the top teams in the SEC West to beat each other up for that consideration to be something close to serious.

Here are this week’s winners and losers.

WINNERS

LSU offense: The LSU offense just keeps on rolling. he Tigers scored 66 points in a blowout win over Vanderbilt and put up 599 yards of offense in the process. The 66 points was LSU’s most in regulation since 1990.

Joe Burrow threw for 398 yards and six touchdowns in the win, with 375 of those yards coming in the first half. Burrow has three games with 350 or more yards this season. By comparison, that happened only twice during Les Miles’ entire tenure in Baton Rouge: once in 2007 by Matt Flynn and once by Zach Mettenberger in 2013). Ja’Marr Chase was Burrow’s favorite target this week. Chase caught 10 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns.

USC WR Michael Pittman Jr.: The only receiver with a better statistical output better than Chase’s in Week 4 was Michael Pittman Jr. Even while playing with third-string QB Matt Fink, Pittman torched the heralded Utah defense for 232 yards on 10 receptions, including a 77-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Every time the Trojans needed a big play, Fink looked Pittman’s way. His touchdown grab was a great showcase of his skillset; he runs crisp routes and can flat out go up and get the ball when he needs to.

a group of people on a field: (via FS1) © Provided by Oath Inc. (via FS1)

Appalachian State: App State pulled out another Power Five upset but kept it in-state this time as it marched into Chapel Hill and upset North Carolina 34-31. App State jumped out to a 27-10 first-half lead, but needed a blocked field goal in the game’s final seconds to preserve a 34-31 victory over the Tar Heels.

It was App State’s first win over a P5 team since its infamous when over Michigan back in 2007 when App was still an FCS program. That victory, of course, was also capped off with a blocked field goal. App State was just a 3-point underdog on Saturday, so first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz didn’t think it was too much of an upset.

Cal LB Evan Weaver: Cal has to be one of the more surprising 4-0 teams in the country, right? The Golden Bears went across the country for an early kickoff against Ole Miss Saturday and emerged with an impressive, albeit controversial, 28-20 win. Chase Garbers threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns in the win, but the star for Cal was Weaver. He finished the game with 21 tackles, including the game-winning stuff of Ole Miss QB John Rhys Plumlee on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line as time expired.

Florida QB Kyle Trask: Trask made his first start since 2012 — yes, 2012 — and led his team to a 34-3 victory over Tennessee. Trask was the backup to D’Eriq King, — now a star at Houston — for three seasons in high school and has backed up Feleipe Franks throughout his time in Gainesville. His last start came for his high school’s freshman team, but with Franks sidelined for the year with an injury, Trask got the nod on Saturday.

After leading the ninth-ranked Gators to a come-from-behind victory over Kentucky last week, Trask completed 20-of-28 for 293 yards and two touchdowns against the Vols. Although he threw two interceptions, it was still a promising performance for Trask and something to build on as the Gators’ SEC season chugs along.

Houston QB D’Eriq King: Speaking of King, he broke a record previously held by some guy named Tim Tebow Thursday night. You may have heard of him. When King reeled off a highlight reel touchdown run in the second quarter against Tulane on Thursday night, it marked the 15th-straight game King notched both a rushing and passing touchdown in the same game. In the process, King broke an FBS record set by Tebow during his years at Florida. But it wasn’t all good for King on Thursday. Houston lost 38-31 in heartbreaking fashion.

SMU: If Cal is one surprising 4-0 team, the team coached by Cal’s former head coach is another. SMU, in its second season with Sonny Dykes as head coach, improved to 4-0 on Saturday by upsetting No. 25 TCU 41-38 in Fort Worth. With Texas transfer Shane Buechele leading the way at QB, the Mustangs gashed the Horned Frogs for 406 yards of offense and forced three TCU turnovers. SMU jumped out to a 18-7 lead after one quarter and a 31-17 lead at halftime but needed a defensive stop in the game’s final minutes to seal the win. It’s the first 4-0 start for SMU since 1984 and we’ll see if the Mustangs can keep the good times rolling when AAC play begins.

Florida State QB Alex Hornibrook: Hornibrook was impressive in his first action at Florida State. Hornibrook was a three-year starter at Wisconsin, but ended up transferring after a lackluster, injury-filled 2018 season. He landed at FSU as a graduate transfer and settled into a backup role behind James Blackman. When Blackman was injured Saturday against Louisville, Hornibrook was ready to roll. In a 35-24 win, the senior lefty completed 15-of-20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. His first throw was a 44-yard pitch-and-catch TD with Keyshawn Helton. His second TD pass — a 60-yarder to Tamorrion Terry — put FSU back in front, 28-24, after blowing a 21-0 lead.

LOSERS

Arkansas: Things are not going well at Arkansas after a 31-24 at home to San Jose State on Saturday night. That’s the same SJSU program that went a combined 3-22 over the past two seasons. Yikes.

Arkansas trailed 24-7 at halftime, but managed to climb all the way back and tie the score at 24-24 with 2:56 to play. But then an SJSU offense that had been shutout in the second half marched 75 yards in just five plays to score the winning TD. Arkansas would get the ball one more time, only for Nick Starkel to throw his fifth interception of the game.

The win in Fayetteville was the first over an SEC opponent in San Jose State history. It also marked the first time since 2006 that the Spartans knocked off a Power Five foe. For Arkansas, it’s the third loss to a Group of Five team (SJSU, North Texas, Colorado State) during Chad Morris’ tenure.

Northwestern QB Hunter Johnson: When Hunter Johnson announced his transfer to Northwestern, it was a really big deal in Evanston. Johnson was a five-star recruit when he landed at Clemson but wouldn’t see the field with Trevor Lawrence on the roster.

Johnson has been anything but impressive so far for the Wildcats. Johnson threw for just 88 yards and an interception in Saturday’s loss to Michigan State and, at one point, got benched in favor of Aidan Smith, who began the year as the third-stringer. In three games, Johnson has completed 33-of-68 passes (48.5 percent) for 308 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.

a man wearing sunglasses: South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp's team is 1-3. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson) © Provided by Oath Inc. South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp's team is 1-3. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

South Carolina: South Carolina is staring at a really, really tough season in the face. The Gamecocks lost 34-14 to Missouri on Saturday to drop to 1-3 on the young season. The offense struggled mightily and mustered only 271 yards. Just 16 of those came on the ground.

QB Ryan Hilinski, making his third start for the injured Jake Bentley, was just 13-of-30 on the afternoon. He also contributed to one of the weirder touchdowns of the year for Missouri and also threw a 100-yard pick-six in the third quarter. Things won’t get easier from here. The Gamecocks still have four ranked teams — Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Clemson — on the schedule. A bowl game would be a miracle at this point.

Miami: Miami improved to 2-2 with a win over Central Michigan, but nobody in the program should feel good about it. The game’s final score was 17-12, and if CMU didn’t turn it over three times the Hurricanes may have legitimately been on upset watch. Miami led 7-2 at halftime after turning it over on downs, giving up a safety and losing a fumble before the break. The second half wasn’t much better.

In all, the Hurricanes gave up four sacks, were penalized 13 times for 93 yards, went 1-of-10 on third down and got jus 54 rushing yards on 31 attempts in the win. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano got benched during Saturday's loss to Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux) © Provided by Oath Inc. Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano got benched during Saturday's loss to Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano: Saturday was a rough one for Tennessee, but it was especially rough for Jarrett Guarantano. Guarantano was benched in the Vols’ 34-3 loss to Florida. The junior went 10-of-17 for just 107 yards and two interceptions and ended up getting benched for Brian Maurer, a true freshman. Both of his interceptions came in the first half, causing Maurer to open the second half. Pruitt eventually went back to Guarantano, but the Vols didn’t really have a chance. Tennessee is now 1-3 on the year headed into a bye week. After that is a visit from No. 3 Georgia. Godspeed, Vols.

Temple: Perhaps Temple got a little too confident after beating a ranked Maryland team last weekend. On Saturday, the Owls visited Buffalo and were soundly beaten 38-22. The game wasn’t as close as the final score may indicate either.

The Bulls led 38-10 midway through the fourth quarter before the Owls scored twice in garbage time to make things look somewhat respectable. The Owls turned it over four times in the loss, including three interceptions by junior quarterback Anthony Russo. Russo had a rough day, going just 18-of-40 for 190 yards.

Houston: Houston is off to a 1-3 start in its first season with Dana Holgorsen as head coach and the most recent loss was a brutal one. The Cougars blew a 28-7 lead Thursday night against Tulane, eventually losing in heartbreaking fashion. UH tied the score at 31-31 with 21 seconds left in regulation, only to allow the Green Wave to go 71 yards in two plays to win the game. Holgorsen called the ending “completely unacceptable on every single level” and said seen an ending like that in his 25 years of coaching. UH’s president infamously said a few years ago that “we’ll fire coaches at 8-4.” In that case, Holgorsen’s team has to win out just to avoid that record.

UMass: Not much is ever expected from UMass football. And an 0-4 start is not especially surprising, but the Minutemen’s defense in Year 1 under Walt Bell has been outrageously bad so far. In a 62-28 loss to mighty Coastal Carolina on Saturday, UMass allowed the Chanticleers to put up 636 yards of offense. The Minutemen have allowed at least 500 yards of offense in all four of their losses, not to mention the 207 total points allowed to these juggernaut opponents: Rutgers, Southern Illinois, Charlotte and now CCU.

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