Stiles on Sports’ Best of 2015

With 2015 coming to a close, it is time to look back on an exceptional year in the sports world.  Here is the best of 2015:

Best Posts of the Year:

1/22: Gordon Takes the White Flag

1/24: Mike Krzyzewski: One In A Thousand

2/5: The Nasty Side of Recruiting

2/22: The Beauty of Daytona

8/21: Trailing Tiger at the Wyndham

9/11: When the World Stopped Turning

10/8: Trends of a World Series Champion

10/14: The Head Ball Coach Hangs Up His Visor

11/1: Gordon Wins Wild One at Martinsville

11/3: Royals Take the Crown for the First Time Since 1985

11/20: The Day Modern NASCAR Was Born

12/31: American Pharoah: Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year

League Champions and Best Players:

College Football:  Ohio State Buckeyes def. Oregon Ducks, 42-20
Heisman Trophy:  Alabama RB Derrick Henry

Super Bowl XLIX:  New England Patriots def. Seattle Seahawks, 28-24
NFL MVP:  Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Super Bowl MVP:  Patriots QB Tom Brady

College Basketball:  Duke Blue Devils def. Wisconsin Badgers, 68-63
Naismith Player of the Year:  Wisconsin C/PF Frank Kaminsky

NBA Finals:  Golden State Warriors def. Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-1
NBA MVP:  Warriors G Stephen Curry
NBA Finals MVP:  Warriors G/F Andre Iguodala

College World Series:  Virginia Cavaliers def. Vanderbilt Commodores, 2-1
Golden Spikes Award:  Arkansas OF Andrew Benintendi

PGA Tour FedEx Cup Champion: Jordan Spieth
The Masters:  Jordan Spieth
U.S. Open:  Jordan Spieth
The Open Championship:  Zach Johnson
PGA Championship:  Jason Day
PGA Tour Player of the Year:  Jordan Spieth

World Series:  Kansas City Royals def. New York Mets, 4-1
NL MVP:  Nationals OF Bryce Harper
NL Cy Young Award:  Cubs RHP Jake Arrieta
AL MVP:  Blue Jays 3B Josh Donaldson
AL Cy Young Award:  Astros LHP Dallas Keuchel

NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion:  Kyle Busch
Daytona 500 Champion:  Joey Logano
IndyCar Series Champion:  Scott Dixon
Indianapolis 500 Champion:  Juan Pablo Montoya

Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup Classic Champion:  American Pharoah

Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year:  American Pharoah
Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year:  Serena Williams
AP Male Athlete of the Year:  Stephen Curry
AP Female Athlete of the Year:  Serena Williams

 

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American Pharoah: 2015 Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year

After a triumphant stretch like no other in the history of his sport, American Pharoah is the 2015 Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year.

The thoroughbred, owned by Ahmed Zayat, trained by the legendary Bob Baffert, and jockeyed by Victor Espinosa, became the first horse to win horse racing’s Triple Crown since 1978, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes over the span of a remarkable 36-day period, all in dominant fashion.

After becoming just the 12th winner in the long history of the Triple Crown, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner to also win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the most lucrative event in horse racing, nearly five months later on Halloween, achieving the newly-coined “Grand Slam.”

The choice of American Pharoah as the year’s best is not an easy one, particularly considering that, although his performance this year was unprecedented, he is a horse.  In the end, however, it turns out that this horse’s accomplishments make him the most qualified for an award like this one, even over other candidates who have had tremendous years such as Stephen Curry, Jordan Spieth, and Serena Williams.

Curry was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and helped lead his team, the Golden State Warriors, to their first championship since 1975, before leading them to an NBA record beginning-of-season winning streak of 24 games.  Curry is an extremely explosive scorer, and while he’s one of the best shooters the game ever seen, he is also a tremendous all-around player.  Curry’s 2015 accomplishments resulted in him being named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, joining Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James as basketball players to win the award.

Basketball has had other superstars, however, and even several players to win both the league’s MVP and the NBA Finals.  Curry’s playing style is unique, but his level of success has been achieved in his sport before.  American Pharoah is the first horse to ever win all four of thoroughbred racing’s biggest events.  Anyone 40 or younger has grown up with the Michael Jordans, Kobe Bryants, and LeBron Jameses of the world, so they’ve seen hoops superstars before, but have never seen a Triple Crown winner.

Jordan Spieth won golf’s first two majors of the year, The Masters and the U.S. Open, before missing a playoff at the third major, The Open Championship, by a single shot, finishing tied for 4th.  Spieth then finished second at the PGA Championship, three strokes behind winner Jason Day, and went on to win the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s season-long points championship.  Spieth was the first player since 2002 to have a chance at the Grand Slam after two majors, and came within four shots of winning all four majors, something that has never been done since the Masters was established, and has only been done once overall, by Bobby Jones in 1930 (the events considered majors were different at the time).

Spieth’s performance in the majors this year was amazing, and resulted in a “Grand Slam Watch” of sorts throughout much of the summer before the Texan fell just short at St. Andrews.  However, Spieth isn’t in unchartered territory, as Tiger Woods won the first two events in 2002, and won all four in a row (but not in a calendar year) from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters.  After this generation has seen Tiger’s udder domination of the game, the Summer of Spieth wasn’t overwhelmingly better than other players in other seasons, including Rory McIlroy winning two majors just last year.  While what Spieth did in 2015 is comparable to others, including contemporaries, American Pharoah’s season replicated no other, and may never be seen again.

In August, Serena Williams was within two matches of winning the tennis version of the Grand Slam, after previous wins at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon.  Williams was upset by Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, but had still won the previous four majors over two years, known as the “Serena Slam”.  At one point this season, the distance between Williams and the 2nd-ranked player in the WTA rankings was the same as the distance between 2nd and 1000th.  At a time in her career when most are beginning to fade, Williams thrived through her age 33 season.  As a result, Williams was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, becoming the first solo female athlete to win the award since track star Mary Decker in 1983, and the first tennis player since Arthur Ashe in 1992.

However, Williams season isn’t unique in the history of her sport, and isn’t really even unique within her own career.  Williams has won 21 majors in a remarkable career, and has won multiple majors in seven seasons.  In 2002, Williams won three majors, and didn’t lose a match in a major all season, failing to win the Grand Slam only due to missing the Australian Open with injury.  Williams’ 2015 record of 53-3 is exceptional, and the three losses were the least of her career in a full season, but she had a slightly better winning percentage during a 78-4 season in 2013.  These numbers show that Williams whole career has been magnificent, but also show that her 2015 season wasn’t necessarily one-of-a-kind like that of American Pharoah.

One thing that can be said about Curry, Spieth, and Williams that cannot for any non-human athlete is that all three showed the utmost grace in their prodigious successes in 2015.  All three, and particularly Curry and Spieth, displayed humility and dignity, even through moments of great personal triumph.

But maybe it can be said that American Pharoah was graceful in running and winning on horse racing’s biggest stages.  In winning the Triple Crown, and later the Breeders’ Cup, the horse used his astounding agility, balance, and finesse to establish a beautifully smooth and polished form and elegantly prevail with such ease in a sport that is among the most rhythmic of all, displaying tremendous poise through such palpable pressure.  Even as a thoroughbred, American Pharoah exhibited that he was the epitome of gracefulness on his dash to immortality.

In a Sports Illustrated article arguing that American Pharoah was worthy of that publication’s Sportsman of the Year award, jockey Victor Espinosa described the horse’s stride as “beautiful and smooth.”  Espinosa said that with most horses he can tell when the horse is going all out, including War Emblem and California Chrome, who both won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before falling short at the Belmont.  But with American Pharoah, he would feel as if the horse was on an easy gallop, and he would look back and the colt was several lengths ahead of the competition.

Another reason American Pharoah is deserving of this honor is the athleticism he showed in powerfully dominating in each victory.  He entered the Kentucky Derby having won each race except his very first, with each of the victories by three and a quarter-lengths or more, including a margin of eight lengths in the Arkansas Derby, his final start before the Kentucky Derby.  At Churchill Downs, American Pharoah faced his toughest test, and beat Firing Line to the finishing line by a single length, as part of a brisk three-way stretch run with third-place finisher Dortmund, who was the second betting favorite behind American Pharoah.  At Pimlico in the Preakness, he turned a one-length lead at the top of the stretch into a seven-length victory, exploding through the final furlongs to run away with the race.  Against a primarily different field at Elmont Park in the Belmont, the horse similarly erupted in the final portion of the race, turning a one-length lead at the top of the stretch into a five and a half-length victory to complete the Triple Crown, running the second quickest Belmont race of any Triple Crown winner.  American Pharoah was even more dominant at the Breeders’ Cup, with a more comfortable two- to three-length lead through much of the last half of the race, and another potent stretch run to pull away to a decisive six and a half-length triumph.  These runaways were not in any way against weak fields, but against the best thoroughbreds in the world.

American Pharaoh and his accomplishments were cause for great celebration within not just the sport of horse racing, but throughout the entire sports world.  While his connections could have undoubtedly decided to retire the horse after winning the Triple Crown without anyone blaming them for it, they decided, as a gift to the sport, to continue to race.  American Pharoah won the Haskell Invitational, and finished second at the Travers Stakes, before prevailing in his final start at the Breeders’ Cup.  In Espinosa’s article, he described how continuing to run the colt was so beneficial to the sport.

“The decision of owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to keep American Pharoah running after he won the Triple Crown was a real gift to the sport, and the year’s greatest display of sportsmanship. The colt could have been retired to a very good career as a stallion in June, and there was a large element of risk in bringing him back to the racetrack. Horse racing can be dangerous. But Ahmed and Bob kept him running, and kept him winning. For fans—for everyone, really—to be able to see him run some more races was the gift of a lifetime. Like I said, we may never see another Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was a star that made our whole sport look good.”

In a fan poll of which finalist should be SI‘s Sportsman of the Year, American Pharoah was the overwhelming favorite, winning 47% of the vote, compared to other nominees which included the Kansas City Royals (29%), Lionel Messi (6%), Stephen Curry (4%), and Jordan Spieth (3%), among others.  The amazing widespread popularity of American Pharoah is, in many ways, unmatched in the sports world, and his accomplishments were celebrated nationwide like the successes of few others.

American Pharaoh reached the pinnacle of horse racing by winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, and in accomplishing a feat that has become notoriously hard to achieve (since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 13 horses won the first two legs and failed to win the Belmont), may have become the final horse to win the Triple Crown, or at the very least, the last to do it for a very long time.

Someone wins the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and collegiate national championships every year.  Someone is always awarded the MVP awards in the NFL, MLB, and NBA.  Someone always wins major championships in golf and tennis, and although Jordan Spieth and Serena Williams both had a shot to win a Grand Slam in their respective sports, their accomplishments in 2015 weren’t as unique and as special as that of American Pharoah.

The horse of a lifetime is also one of the best athletes of a generation, and as a result, is the sportsman of an exceptional sports year in 2015.

 

College Football Power Rankings Entering the Postseason

The most unique postseason in sports begins Saturday, as college football’s bowl season begins.  While the best teams don’t play until after Christmas, fans will be entertained by teams who are from smaller conferences, or didn’t have as good of seasons (three 5-7 teams qualified for bowls, after all), in the interim between now and the games that really matter, particularly including the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve.  It feels weird that the four teams for the Playoff were decided without controversy, but the way the season played out made it very clear who should be in the Playoff.

1. Clemson (13-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Ranking: 1st)
Bowl:  Orange vs Oklahoma (College Football Playoff)
The Tigers, looking for their first national title since 1981, beat North Carolina (11-2), 45-37, in the ACC Championship Game to advance to the four-team tournament.  On New Year’s Eve, the Tigers and quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in Heisman voting, will meet Oklahoma (11-1), and their quarterback, Baker Mayfield, in the best quarterback matchup of bowl season.  The Sooners will be a tough out for the top-seeded Tigers, as they have played very well since October 10 loss to Texas, but Clemson is undefeated for a reason.

2. Alabama (12-1, LW: 2nd, CFP: 2nd)
Bowl:  Cotton vs Michigan State (College Football Playoff)
The Tide and Heisman winner Derrick Henry took total control of the SEC Championship Game, beating Florida (10-3), 29-15, after Henry ran for 189 yards on 44 carries.  This season, Henry broke Herschel Walker’s SEC rushing record for a single season, and is just 14 yards away from becoming the first 2,000 yard rusher in a single season in SEC history.  The Tide’s defense has starred this season, allowing more than 23 just once, and allowing 16 or less in six straight games, and eight out of nine.  Another defensive minded team, Michigan State (11-1), will be the Tide’s opponent in the Cotton Bowl, as Nick Saban tries to win a fourth national title at Alabama and fifth overall, coaching in the semifinal against his former school.

3. Oklahoma (12-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 4th)
Bowl:  Orange vs Clemson (College Football Playoff)
The Sooners had championship weekend off, as the Big 12 has no title game, and were passed by Michigan State in the CFP rankings, dropping them into the fourth spot.  That results in a matchup with #1 Clemson (13-0) in the College Football Playoff at the Orange Bowl.  Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, a former walk-on at Texas Tech who transferred to Oklahoma, finished fourth in the Heisman voting after a remarkable season.

4. Michigan State (12-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 3rd)
Bowl:  Cotton vs Alabama (College Football Playoff)
The Spartans came from behind to win the Big Ten title game over Iowa (12-1), handing the Hawkeyes their first loss, after a 12-play, 84-yard drive that took over nine minutes ended in a game-winning touchdown by L.J. Scott.  The Spartans have rebounded nicely from their November 7 loss to 5-7 Nebraska, beating Ohio State and Iowa, giving them a total of four wins over the current top 15 in the Playoff rankings, the most among any team.  Now Sparty will prepare for the Cotton Bowl and a Playoff matchup with Alabama (12-1)

5. Ohio State (11-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 7th)
Bowl:  Fiesta vs Notre Dame
The Buckeyes played an excellent season, but a November 21 loss to Michigan State took away their shot at a Big Ten title, and ended up costing them a Playoff berth as well.  While I have the Buckeyes ahead of Iowa, the Hawkeyes are ahead of the Buckeyes in the real rankings, giving Iowa a Rose Bowl bid, and relegating the Buckeyes to what should be an excellent Fiesta Bowl matchup with Notre Dame (10-2).

6. Iowa (12-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 5th)
Bowl:  Rose vs Stanford
When L.J. Scott scored to propel Michigan State over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, he was hit at the 1-yard line by Iowa defenders, before reaching the end zone on his second effort.  Somewhere in a parallel universe, Scott might have been tackled and stopped short of the touchdown, and the Spartans might have been stopped again on fourth down, giving Iowa a 13-9 win, instead of a gut-wrenching 16-13 defeat, and a berth in the College Football Playoff.  Instead, the Big Ten runners-up will play Stanford (11-2), the Pac-12 champions, in the Rose Bowl.

7. Stanford (11-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 6th)
Bowl:  Rose vs Iowa
The Cardinal’s playoff hopes were slim at best heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game against USC (8-5), but they did deliver a conference championship back to Palo Alto with a 41-22 beating of the Trojans.  Christian McCaffrey gained 461 all-purpose yards in the win, including 207 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards, 120 kick return yards, 29 punt return yards, and even 11 passing yards.  In doing so, McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA all-purpose yards record, and nearly did enough to win the Heisman, finishing second behind Derrick Henry, who entered championship weekend as the favorite.  While losses to Northwestern and Oregon kept Stanford out of the Playoff, the Pac-12 title earns them a bid to the Rose Bowl, on New Year’s Day against Iowa (12-1).

8. Notre Dame (10-2, LW: 9th, CFP: 8th)
Bowl:  Fiesta vs Ohio State
The Irish were definitely only two plays away from the playoff, losing late to Clemson and Stanford, and maybe even one play away if the committee had found favor in the Irish with one loss.  As is, they will face Ohio State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl in a matchup of two of the most polarizing teams in college football.

9. North Carolina (11-2, LW: 8th, CFP: 10th)
Bowl:  Champs Sports vs Baylor
The Tar Heels lost in the first ACC title game appearance, falling to Clemson (13-0), 45-37.  The Heels played well against the Tigers, but couldn’t stop Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson, although they would have had a better chance in the closing minutes if not for a horrendous offsides call on what had been a successful onside kick.  The Tar Heels were also robbed in the CFP rankings, and the resulting bowl bids, as they are, in my opinion, better than Florida State, but the Seminoles, as the higher ranked ACC team, qualified for the Peach Bowl.  That being said, Carolina will still have an excellent bowl matchup, as they face Baylor in what should be a high-scoring Champs Sports Bowl.

10. Florida State (10-2, LW: 10th, CFP: 9th)
Bowl:  Peach vs Houston
While, as I just mentioned above, I feel the Seminoles should not be ahead of the Tar Heels in the rankings, there is another way to look at this team.  If it weren’t for their crazy last-second loss to Georgia Tech, their only loss would be to #1 Clemson, and the ‘Noles would be, at the very least, in the conversation for the College Football Playoff.  As is, they will play in the Peach Bowl against Houston, who qualified for the New Year’s Six as the highest ranked non-Power Five conference champion.

11. TCU (10-2, LW: 11th, CFP: 11th, Alamo Bowl vs Oregon)
12. Houston (12-1, LW: 15th, CFP: 18th, Peach Bowl vs Florida State)
13. Northwestern (10-2, LW: 13th, CFP: 13th, Outback Bowl vs Northwestern)
14. Ole Miss (9-3, LW: 14th, CFP: 12th, Sugar Bowl vs Oklahoma State)
15. Oklahoma State (10-2, LW: 16th, CFP: 16th, Sugar Bowl vs Ole Miss)
16. Baylor (9-3, LW: 12th, CFP: 17th, Champs Sports Bowl vs North Carolina)
17. Oregon (9-3, LW: 18th, CFP: 15th, Alamo Bowl vs TCU)
18. Florida (10-3, LW: 17th, CFP: 19th, Citrus Bowl vs Michigan)
19. Michigan (9-3, LW: 19th, CFP: 14th, Citrus Bowl vs Florida)
20. LSU (8-3, LW: 22nd, CFP: 20th, Texas Bowl vs Texas Tech)
21. Wisconsin (9-3, LW: 23rd, CFP: unranked, Holiday Bowl vs USC)
22. Tennessee (8-4, LW: 24th, CFP: 23rd, Outback vs Northwestern)
23. Navy (10-2, LW: 25th, CFP: 21st, Military Bowl vs Pittsburgh)
24. Temple (10-2, LW: 20th, CFP: 24th, Boca Raton Bowl vs Toledo)
25. Western Kentucky (11-2, LW: unranked, CFP, unranked, Miami Beach Bowl vs South Florida)

Also Ranked in CFP Rankings:  Utah (9-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 22nd, Las Vegas Bowl vs BYU), USC (8-5, LW: 21st, CFP: 25th, Holiday Bowl vs Wisconsin)

Twitter Picks for College Football Championship Saturday

Game of the Week

#5 Michigan State (11-1) at #4 Iowa (12-0)
Big Ten Championship Game, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Michigan State by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Michigan State- 4th, Iowa- 5th

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#10 North Carolina (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (12-0)
ACC Championship Game, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Clemson by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  North Carolina- 8th, Clemson- 1st

 

#18 Florida (10-2) vs #2 Alabama (11-1)
SEC Championship Game, Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Saturday, 4:00 pm ET, CBS
Favorite: Alabama by 17
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Florida- 17th, Alabama- 2nd

 

#22 Temple (10-2) at #19 Houston (11-1)
AAC Championship Game
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Houston by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Temple- 20th, Houston- 15th

 

Upset of the Week

#20 USC (8-4) vs #7 Stanford (10-2)
Pac-12 Championship Game, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Saturday, 7:45 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Stanford by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  USC- 21st, Stanford- 7th

 

NFL Game of the Week

Seattle Seahawks (6-5) at Minnesota Vikings (8-3)
Sunday, 1:00 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Vikings by 2

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 58-47
Last Week: 3-5
College Overall Record: 49-40
Game of the Week: 8-5
Big Game Guarantee: 28-17
Upset of the Week: 6-13
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 8-7

College Football Power Rankings for Week 13

After rivalry weekend, we’re now one week away from the College Football Playoff being finalized.  In the weekend’s most basic scenario, five teams are battling for four spots, with Oklahoma virtually locked in (they do not play this weekend), Clemson and Alabama simply needing to win to secure their spot, and Michigan State and Iowa playing each other in the Big Ten Championship Game, which doubles as a de facto national quarterfinal and a play-in game to the Playoff.

However, should Clemson and/or Alabama lose on Saturday, chaos will ensue, as there will be plenty of debate about who should get in the top four.  Ohio State, Stanford (should they win the Pac-12 on Saturday), and North Carolina (should they upset Clemson) would all have a Playoff case, and while Clemson and Alabama would drop with losses, they might also still have cases to hold on to the fourth spot.

Here’s how the teams stack up in relation to the playoff picture, with the field to be announced at noon on Sunday, just hours after the conclusion of Championship Saturday:

Controlling Their Own Fate

1. Clemson (12-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Ranking: 1st)
Sure, the Tigers only beat South Carolina (3-9) by five points, 37-32, but they never trailed the Gamecocks, and were able to hold on against an incredible effort from a huge underdog.  To use a March Madness term, they “survived and advanced”, and enter the ACC Championship Game on Saturday with a perfect record.  The Tigers have two wins over current top 10 teams, and can add a third with a win over North Carolina (11-1), who hasn’t lost since September 3, this weekend in Charlotte.  With the Tigers currently ranked in the top spot, as they have been in each Playoff ranking so far, all they have to do is win the game to earn their bid to the College Football Playoff, as they aim for their first national title since 1981.

2. Alabama (11-1, LW: 2nd, CFP: 2nd)
Like Clemson, Alabama simply has to win Saturday to advance to the Playoff.  The Crimson Tide are coming off of a 29-13 win over Auburn (6-6) in the Iron Bowl.  To say that Florida (10-2), the Tide’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, is struggling on offense would be an understatement, as they totaled just two points (and that was a defensive score) in a 25-point loss to Florida State.  The entire college football world would be stunned if Alabama lost to Florida, and they are favored by 18 points.  Like last year’s 42-13 SEC title game win over Missouri, most (including me) are expecting this to be a coronation for the Crimson Tide as they march towards the playoff for the second straight year.

3. Oklahoma (11-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 3rd)
The Sooners demolished rival Oklahoma State (10-2) in the “Bedlam” game, 58-23.  Since the Big 12 has no title game, the Sooners clinched the outright conference title with the win, and will be idle this weekend, having virtually assured themselves a berth in the Playoff.  While Oklahoma does have a bad loss to Texas (4-7), their backloaded schedule has produced three straight wins over ranked opponents over the last three weeks, in addition to an early win over Tennessee, who crept back into the top 25 this week.  The Sooners will be able to sit back and relax this weekend, as they prepare for a trip to the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve.

4. Michigan State (11-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 5th)
A week after a thrilling win over Ohio State, the Spartans put on arguably their best performance of the season in a 55-16 win over Penn State (7-5), clinching the Big Ten East and a berth in the league’s title game this Saturday in Indianapolis against Iowa (12-0).  While they do have a loss, and Iowa does not, the Spartans seem like a better team on paper, and are a four-point favorite in the neutral-site contest.  With the fourth and fifth ranked teams in the CFP rankings meeting in this title fight, the winner will lock up a Playoff berth, while the loser will almost certainly be left on the outside looking in.

5. Iowa (12-0, LW: 6th, CFP: 4th)
The Hawkeyes finished off a perfect regular season with a 28-20 win over Nebraska (5-7), but despite their undefeated record in a Power Five conference, are only fourth in the CFP and fifth here.  This is because they have been less than dominant in a lot of their wins, including five wins by one possession (eight points or less), and several more that were close until they pulled away at the very end.  They do have two wins over currently ranked teams (Northwestern and Wisconsin), with both coming on the road.  While their resume isn’t as good as the teams around them in the rankings, they can fix that with a win over Michigan State (11-1) in the Big Ten Championship Game.  Another thing that a win would do would be to put them into the College Football Playoff field.

It’s Possible, But Not Probable

6. Ohio State (11-1, LW: 8th, CFP: 6th)
Facing with rival Michigan (9-3) after a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes may have been playing a bit angry Saturday, and it paid off with a dominant 42-13 win over the Wolverines.  The loss to the Spartans, however, keeps the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship Game, and they will be idle for championship weekend.  On one hand, the Playoff committee has conference championships as part of its criteria for measuring teams, which would hurt the Buckeyes’ chances.  On the other hand, the Buckeyes’ only loss is to a Michigan State team that is favored against Iowa in a game that will propel its winner into the Playoff.  On one hand, the one loss for the Buckeyes is much later than the loss for a lot of the other teams, assuming “time of loss” is a factor.  On the other hand, their resume is still pretty good, and could be enough to reach the Playoff if either Clemson or Alabama falters this weekend.  The Buckeyes case to make or miss the Playoff in that case may be the most confusing.

7. Stanford (10-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 7th)
Stanford’s game against Notre Dame (10-2) was a “whoever has the ball last” type of affair, and that is indeed how it turned out, as the Irish scored with :30 to play to take the lead, but Stanford still found enough time to drive into field goal range, and win 38-36 on a 45-yard Conrad Ukropina field goal.  Generally, I don’t like the idea of a two-loss team making the playoff, particularly in this year’s field of teams where there are seven other contenders with one loss or less.  They won’t get in unless they get some help on Saturday, and win themselves against USC (8-4) in the Pac-12 title game.  But we know the committee likes conference champions, and the only losses this team has are to Northwestern (10-2) and Oregon (9-3).  It’s a long shot, and I wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled if it happens, but the Cardinal do still have a chance.

8. North Carolina (11-1, LW: 13th, CFP: 10th)
The Tar Heels defeated NC State (7-5) for their 11th straight win, jumping out to a 35-7 first quarter lead on their way to a 45-34 victory.  The committee isn’t particularly high on the Heels, as they are ranked lowest among one-loss teams from Power Five conferences.  The argument against the Tar Heels is that their loss came to a 3-9 South Carolina team, and that two of their wins are over FCS opponents.  They also lack a big-time win, with none of the 11 teams they have beaten currently ranking in the top 25.  However, should they beat Clemson (12-0) on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game, a lot of that would go away, as a win over the #1 ranked team would certainly boost their resume and would void the argument about the lack of a quality win.  Would it be enough to vault the Tar Heels into the Playoff?  The committee has given teams a big jump in their rankings after big wins before, and a North Carolina win over Clemson would be arguably the best win by anyone in college football this year.  They may or may not still need some help if they upset the Tigers, but there’s still a chance of the Tar Heels shocking the world and making the four-team playoff.

Better Luck Next Year

9. Notre Dame (10-2, LW: 4th, CFP: 8th)
The Irish took a 36-35 lead on Stanford (10-2) with :30 remaining, but the Cardinal fought back to kick a game winning field goal as time expired, beating the Irish 38-36.  An argument for the expansion of the College Football Playoff (not saying I’m for or against it, just presenting the argument) is that the Irish are potentially two plays from being 12-0 and the top seed, but instead have no chance at the four-team tournament.  What other sport does a team that’s that close to being the title favorite not even make the playoffs?

10. Florida State (10-2, LW: 14th, CFP: 9th)
The Seminoles showed their dominance over a struggling Florida (10-2) offense, winning 27-2, as the Gators only score was a safety.  If not for the freakish play that allowed a Georgia Tech team that finished 3-9 to upset the Seminoles on October 24, Florida State would be right in the thick of the Playoff picture, with a lone loss to Clemson.  Instead, with the loss to the Yellow Jackets after a blocked field goal attempt was returned for a touchdown as time expired, the ‘Noles will have to settle for a New Year’s Six bowl game.

11. TCU (10-2, LW: 16th, CFP: 11th)
12. Baylor (9-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 12th)
13. Northwestern (10-2, LW: 15th, CFP: 14th)
14. Ole Miss (9-3, LW: 19th, CFP: 13th)
15. Houston (11-1, LW: 21st, CFP: 19th)
16. Oklahoma State (10-2, LW: 10th, CFP: 17th)
17. Florida (10-2, LW: 9th, CFP: 18th)
18. Oregon (9-3, LW: 18th, CFP: 16th)
19. Michigan (9-3, LW: 11th, CFP: 15th)
20. Temple (10-2, LW: 24th, CFP: 22nd)
21. USC (8-4, LW: unranked, CFP: 20th)
22. LSU (8-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 21st)
23. Wisconsin (9-3, LW: unranked, CFP: unranked)
24. Tennessee (8-4, LW: unranked, CFP: 25th)
25. Navy (9-2, LW: 17th, CFP: 24th)

Also ranked in CFP Rankings:  Utah (9-3, CFP: 24th)

Fell from Rankings:  UCLA (8-4, LW: 20th), Mississippi State (8-4, LW: 22nd), Washington State (8-3, LW: 23rd), Toledo (9-2, LW: 25th)