College Football Playoff takeaways — Irish in trouble, SEC rolling and more

For better or for worse, Notre Dame has always embraced its status as an independent. But Saturday night’s game was an example of where it hurts, and the Fighting Irish know it.

As impactful as Georgia’s 23-17 victory was for its playoff hopes, the result was far more devastating to the Irish, who don’t have a conference championship game to help compensate for a loss along the way. It was hardly a bad loss — a close game on the road in prime time against the No. 3 team in the country — and it might not keep Notre Dame out of the top four, but it’s going to make it a lot harder for the Irish to get in.

According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Notre Dame’s chances of finishing within the top four dropped from 39% to 25% on Saturday night. Bottom line: Notre Dame can’t lose again.

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The Irish’s imposing schedule heading into the season has since lost its luster, especially with unimpressive starts by Stanford and No. 11 Michigan, which is apt to sink like a rock in the next Associated Press Top 25 poll. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Notre Dame more than a 50% chance to win each of its remaining games, but it might not be enough.

If Notre Dame is being compared to other one-loss teams at the end of the season, those Power 5 teams likely will add another ranked opponent to their résumés in their respective conference title games.

Notre Dame’s defeat also could create a domino effect, further opening the door for a second SEC team or possibly the Big Ten champion — which was snubbed last season in favor of the undefeated Irish — to make it. The selection committee also considers head-to-head results, so that could come into play if Georgia and Notre Dame are both jockeying for a spot.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s win further cements its place in the playoff race and gives the Bulldogs some wiggle room during an SEC lineup that includes a road trip to Auburn and a home game against Texas A&M.

No game had a greater impact on the playoff race on Saturday, but there were plenty of other lessons learned:

1. Auburn’s remarkable start won’t matter if it can’t finish
For Auburn to go on the road with a true freshman quarterback and beat a ranked SEC West team spoke volumes about the Tigers’ potential. Add that to the neutral site win against Oregon in the season opener and Auburn has arguably one of the best résumés to date.

“That’s two quality wins, I’ll tell you that right now,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Just wait until you see at the end of the year how they are and how that Oregon team is, and I think we’ll feel even better about it.”

Right now, those wins give Auburn a much-needed cushion heading into the rest of what is the fourth-hardest schedule in the FBS. The Tigers play three road games in October (at Florida, Arkansas and LSU) and face Georgia and Alabama at home in November.

It is reminiscent of 2017, when Auburn had a similarly challenging schedule that included both Georgia and Alabama. But even with two losses that year, the Tigers were in the CFP conversation until they lost to Georgia in the SEC championship game. That season, the Tigers’ two regular-season losses came at Clemson and at LSU, but they beat Alabama and Georgia. The schedule is again a double-edged sword, and we won’t know how seriously to consider Auburn in the playoff race until it gets through October.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Auburn less than a 50% chance to win at Florida and at LSU.

“Nobody expects us to win,” Auburn senior right guard Mike Horton said. “Even this game we weren’t favored to win, but nobody gives us a chance, so we’re just going to continue to prove people wrong.”

2. Forget Michigan, but Wisconsin is a serious contender
What did Michigan do on its bye week — take another field trip?

The Wolverines had 40 rushing yards and two turnovers and converted zero third downs against Wisconsin on Saturday. While Michigan searches for answers (along with a road win against a ranked opponent) under coach Jim Harbaugh, Wisconsin is emerging as the top challenger to league favorite Ohio State. ESPN’s FPI projects the Badgers to win every remaining game, except Oct. 26 at Ohio State. If that were to come to fruition and Wisconsin finishes with one loss, the two could meet again in the Big Ten title game.

The selection committee has seen that show before. There’s no rule that says it has to be the Buckeyes, and the Big Ten could certainly benefit from having both teams highly ranked and with one loss or fewer playing on championship week. After having its conference champion left out of the top four in each of the past three seasons, the Big Ten would increase its odds with two contenders — even if one of them isn’t Michigan.

3. Does anyone want to represent the Pac-12?
Sorry, Utah and Washington State, you’ve been replaced as the flavor of the week. Who’s next? Cal? Oregon? Washington?

On Friday, USC beat No. 10 Utah, knocking off the league’s highest-ranked team and again opening up the question: Who wants it? Then late — very late — on Saturday, Washington State went down in an instant classic, 67-63, to winless UCLA. Washington earned a convincing 45-19 win at BYU (which beat USC a week earlier), but it already has lost to Cal, which also is undefeated.

Oregon began the season with the highest expectations, and its win against Stanford on Saturday proves that it shouldn’t be counted out just because of the loss to Auburn.

“I think we walked in that locker room in Dallas, and yeah, we were heartbroken,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “Let’s call it what it is. You have a chance to win a game a couple of different ways, and you don’t. One thing that really stood out … as opposed to a year ago is that there was overwhelming feeling in conversation where our guys, where they all said and felt we could have a really good football team. We have the pieces. We have the makeup. We have the DNA. We’ve got to put it together and let actions speak louder than words.”

4. Texas avoided disaster
The selection committee wouldn’t penalize Texas for the loss to LSU if it is the Longhorns’ only defeat of the season and LSU continues to soar like it has been; but falling at home to Oklahoma State for a second September loss would have been devastating.

Instead, Texas is in a similar position to that of last season. It has a chance to play spoiler to Oklahoma and actually enter the playoff conversation if it does. The Oct. 12 Red River Rivalry is the most difficult game remaining on the Longhorns’ schedule.

5. UCF missed a major opportunity by one point
With games against Stanford and Pittsburgh, UCF finally had a respectable enough schedule that, if it had gone undefeated, it likely would have at least been in the debate for a top-four spot. UCF beat Stanford, but after a devastating 35-34 loss to Pitt on Saturday, there’s no Cinderella story this year.

UCF still is in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl — which is awarded to the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion — along with undefeated Boise State. But we’re likely going to have to wait for another undefeated Group of 5 team with a similar schedule to know how high the Knights could’ve climbed.

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