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Beyond the Fort: The fourth playoff spot is entirely up for grabs

But a couple teams could be eliminated from contention this weekend.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Cincinnati
The Bearcats have had plenty of reasons to celebrate, but the best may be yet to come.
The Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, Michigan State lost to Rutgers, spoiling Mel Tucker’s Spartans debut.

Saturday, Michigan State beat Michigan, once again raising questions as to what, exactly, John Harbaugh and his khakis are doing in Ann Arbor.

Harbaugh, for his part, blamed the officiating, saying “it could’ve been like to see that same technical call be called both ways in the game but I think it affected how our corners played.” But the Wolverines need to get real: Harbaugh is year six, gets paid $7.5 million dollars annually, and has a 49-19 record (33-13 in conference), one tie for first in his division, and one bowl win — back in his first year at the helm (2015).

Locals are calling it his worst as Michigan head coach, and that seat is getting awfully warm. “Losing to an Ohio State team that’s on an elite decades-long run can be explained. Falling short against teams like Alabama, Wisconsin and Penn State on occasion is inevitable.

But getting dominated at home by a less talented team and refusing to punch back? That’s cause for deeper concern than how far Michigan falls in the rankings. It casts doubt on the very foundation on which this program is being built.

“If not Jim Harbaugh, then who?” is a reasonable question. But after a performance like that, it’s worth wondering if we’re one step closer to finding out the answer.”

Michigan isn’t the only program in a world of hurt; after surviving a scrappy Boston College team, Clemson now must face down facing a top five Notre Dame program in South Bend — with Game Day in the house while Trevor Lawrence remains confined to his. The Tigers will once again be without their star QB, who will sit a second consecutive week due to contracting the coronavirus. Dabo Swinney, who made some waves earlier in the year regarding the pandemic, was clear on what would happen behind center. “Trevor will not be able to play. I want to go ahead and get that out there,” Swinney said. “There’s protocol.” ACC protocols require a player to sit out for a minimum of 10 days following a positive test and a re-acclimatization period follows that 10-day window. “You got the 10 days, but then you have the cardiac part,” Swinney said. “He won’t be able to get through that in time to play next week.”

True freshman D.J. Uiagalelei started in Lawrence’s place against the Eagles, going 30-of-41 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns and adding a 30-yard touchdown run that helped Clemson close the gap in the second half. Clemson trailed 28-13 at halftime to BC but scored 21 unanswered points in the second half for the win.

This was set to, quite possibly, be the best game of the regular season — and while some shine has certainly come off of it, it should still be a fun one between two teams vying to lock up a playoff spot. And, in all reality, even if Clemson loses Saturday, as long as they win out from that point they will still likely be one of the final four.

Speaking of the final four, are there four elite teams in college football this fall?

Sure, Alabama and Ohio State look just about unbeatable, and with a healthy Trevor Lawrence, not many are touching the Tigers. Maybe Notre Dame puts themselves in the mix if they can pull of the win this weekend, but outside of them, who would you slot in the fourth playoff position?

The Big 12 is all but out of it; Oklahoma State’s loss Saturday eliminates an undefeated champion, and no one loss team from that league — not named Oklahoma or Texas — is getting the call this year. And both of the blue bloods have already been dinged more than once. The Pac-12’s six game schedule probably isn’t going to excite anyone, and might well eliminate them from contention before they even start.

Sitting out in the land of undefeateds are three teams, two of which will play Friday night. The winner or BYU at Boise State will have a case (albeit not a particularly strong one) and Cincinnati is hanging out there with some quality wins and a national darling team.

Are the Bearcats poised to make the best argument in CFP history for including a team from outside the Power 5? Yes. We’ll see how they finish, but in the past couple of weeks Cincy (5-0) has untracked its offense to complement an outstanding defense. The Bearcats hung 42 on SMU and then 49 on Memphis the past two games, piling up big rushing totals. They’re in the top 12 nationally in both scoring offense (39.6) and scoring defense (12.0), which is something only Clemson and BYU can also say among teams that have played more than one game. Cincy’s two drawbacks at present: no ranked opponents remaining on the schedule, and finishing with three straight road games after a COVID-related postponement of the game against Tulsa.

Oh, and if you really want to panic, Texas A&M has just one loss (to Alabama), a ‘quality’ win (over Florida), and a pretty damn easy schedule the rest of the way.

Buckle your seat belts, kids, this one isn’t over.