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Playoff Picture: Week 3

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We take a weekly look at what happened in college football and how it will affect the race for the College Football Playoff.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Florida
Alabama held on late to secure a road win over Florida.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Week Three was a week mostly consumed with traditional powers dodging bullets and fringe contenders being exposed. Clemson, for its part, almost didn’t hold up against Georgia Tech thanks to a dreadful offensive performance (a theme!), while other top teams are having plenty of struggles of their own. This could be the most unique Playoff race yet.

BIGGEST WINNERS:

Alabama - A road win over a top-15 foe is always a notch on the belt, to be sure, but the Crimson Tide didn’t exactly parlay an early 21-3 lead over Florida to a convincing win. Quite the contrary, Alabama had to stonewall an uninspired 2-point conversion attempt in the final minutes to hold on to a 31-29 victory in The Swamp. The Tide was outgained by more than 100 yards in the game and didn’t show its usual penchant for burying opponents after building a lead. So while a win is a win, and Bama is still No. 1, they certainly haven’t achieved world-beater status yet in 2021.

Penn State - The Nittany Lions outlasted Auburn in the week’s primetime showcase, with Sean Clifford putting up a third straight solid performance to lead his team to a 3-0 start and a vault into the top 10. It’s a curse and a blessing for Penn State that they have about as tough a Big Ten schedule as one could possibly conceive, as there are plenty of opportunities to lose but also numerous chances for resume wins and a built-in margin for error. This remains one of the more consistently talented teams in the Big Ten, and perhaps even the nation, but could this be the year they break through and make a true Playoff push?

BYU - The nation’s only team with three wins over Power Five teams? You guessed it, BYU. The Cougars have risen to No. 15 in the AP poll with three wins over PAC 12 teams to open the season and aren’t too far from the fringe of the early Playoff discussion. The margin for error for a non-P5 team has traditionally been miniscule, of course, but BYU’s independence gives it a leg up over a Group of 5 team like Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina in the ability to schedule enough Power 5 opponents to accumulate a respectable strength-of-schedule number. And while BYU’s 2021 slate is devoid of any juggernauts, the Cougars have seven P5 games in addition to matchups with respected Group-of-5 programs Boise State and Utah State. Do we think BYU actually runs the table? Not exactly. But if it did, there would be enough on the resume to elicit consideration from the Playoff committee.

BIGGEST LOSERS:

UCLA - Just when you start to wonder if UCLA is ready to make a push toward relevance, they drop a home game to Fresno State to halt all momentum. It’s not that Fresno State is a bad team (We would even posit that it’s a good one), but the dominance of the Bulldogs’ win is not indicated in the 40-37 final score. The Bruins surrendered 455 passing yards on their way to being outgained 569-395 and had just 17 first downs to Fresno State’s 32, indicating that Chip Kelly’s bunch was not nearly as ready for primetime as some might have hoped.

Virginia Tech - The Hokies sprung a Week One upset of North Carolina that may have created some false optimism, as they went down this weekend on the road at West Virginia to spoil early hopes of a bounce-back season. Virginia Tech battled hard and gave itself opportunities to steal a win, but the majority of this game showed us more of the team we expected in Blacksburg this season.

Auburn - Auburn had a chance to tack on the ever-important non-conference resume win but fell short at Penn State. With that opportunity missed, the Tigers would have to go on an incredible run this season to even sniff the Playoff.

Florida - It’s a little tough to truly call Florida a “loser” after it shook off a rough start to go toe-to-toe with the nation’s No. 1 team, but it still has to sting knowing the game was within reach and didn’t go the Gators’ way. We wouldn’t dismiss Florida from Playoff contention just yet, as its remaining schedule is manageable and provides one more premier opportunity against Georgia in late October. We will put the Gators on the backburner for now, but they showed enough in this game to make us think we could be talking about them again.

STORYLINES:

Top programs struggling - Everyone here is familiar with Clemson’s issues, and they are numerous, but the Tigers are far from the only underperforming power. Oklahoma - a sexy national champion pick entering the season - has looked ordinary in close wins over a murderer’s row of Tulane and Nebraska. Ohio State’s offense has looked the part, but its atrocious defense has already caused one loss and two uncomfortable wins. Alabama barely won this week, and while Georgia has been solid, its entire resume rests on a win over Clemson — which is hardly a hat-hanger the way the Tigers have played thus far. That’s not even mentioning teams like Texas A&M and Notre Dame, which have each had near misses against terrible teams. All this is to say that no team has proven to be elite yet this season, and the teams that get it together the soonest will be the ones that are able to make a Playoff push.

GAMES TO WATCH:

No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 18 Wisconsin - Noon
No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 16 Arkansas - 3:30 p.m.
No. 14 Iowa State @ Baylor - 3:30 p.m.
No. 9 Clemson @ N.C. State - 3:30 p.m.
West Virginia @ No. 4 Oklahoma - 7:30 p.m.