College football held midterm exams this weekend and the grades have now been posted.
Alabama remains firmly at the head of the class but, after that, the bell curve gets a bit wiggly.
Among the Associated Press poll top 10, Clemson and Louisville seemed beatable. Wisconsin and Tennessee were beatable. Even Ohio State showed weaknesses in a marquee Saturday night victory.
“We’re good,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Just got to get a little better.”
If nothing else, the first half of the season has confirmed that the race for the College Football Playoff is a wide-open affair, with half a dozen or more teams capable of grabbing a spot in the final four.
That means the members of the CFP selection committee will have their work cut out for them when they begin issuing a weekly ranking in November.
And it’s likely that playoff-bound teams will have to survive some close calls over the next two months.
As Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the Tigers barely escaped an upset loss Saturday: “It’s not always pretty.”
Alabama has separated itself from the pack, at least for now, with a combination of old and new. The Crimson Tide are playing trademark defense while continuing to develop a up-tempo offense led by a young, dual-threat quarterback in Jalen Hurts.
Much of the credit goes to third-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. This weekend’s 49-10 demolition of Tennessee, where he was once the coach, completes a personal vengeance tour that began with the season-opening victory over another former employer, USC.
“Lane has done a really good job of bringing our guys along, sort of doing what they can do, adapting to the players that we have extremely well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Offense is more of a concern for two other teams down the list.
No. 2 Ohio State “still has a long way to go,” Meyer said after an overtime win at Wisconsin. And Clemson, which slipped to No. 4 with its overtime victory against North Carolina State, is clearly not the same juggernaut from last season.
Despite clutch performances, quarterback Deshaun Watson is completing fewer of his passes and throwing more interceptions. And the Tigers are tied for 122nd in the nation with 16 turnovers.
Swinney sounded skeptical when asked about the North Carolina State win, which relied upon the other team missing a 33-yard field-goal attempt at the end of regulation.
“There’s something to be said for finding a way to win,” he mused. “And that’s all I can say.”
Elsewhere in the top 10, Louisville stuck at No. 7 despite a less-than-impressive performance against Duke and Nebraska was probably graded on the biggest curve, rising two spots to No. 8 after hanging on for dear life at Indiana.
“Offensively, we really sputtered around tonight, worst than at any point that I can remember this season,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “There is so much football that we have to do to be better.”
The teams that fared best this weekend might have been the ones that didn’t play.
Fifth-ranked Washington and No. 6 Texas A&M held onto their spots. Michigan rose to No. 3 by virtue of Clemson’s struggles.
Looking ahead, the current batch of playoff contenders face plenty of challenges. Undefeated Baylor and West Virginia are creeping their way up the rankings while Houston hangs around with one loss.
There are more tough games left on the schedule.
Alabama must face Texas A&M on Saturday and Clemson travels to No. 13 Florida State at the end of the month. Washington still has No. 19 Utah, plus three “also receiving votes” opponents in USC, Arizona State and Washington State.
All of which serves as a precursor to the Michigan-Ohio State match-up Nov. 26.
A decade has gone by since the last time the traditional Big Ten Conference rivals squared off with such lofty rankings. If they can remain undefeated, it will be the season’s marquee game.
Given the way things have proceeded this fall, that’s a big “if.” When Meyer described the grit required to defeat Wisconsin, he might as well have been talking about surviving the rest of the season.
“It’s just what we do and what good, competitive football teams do,” he said. “Just keep swinging away.”
Three thoughts for the coming week:
1. We might have a better feel for No. 12 West Virginia with a home game against Texas Christian on Saturday. Or we might have to wait for the quietly undefeated Mountaineers to play No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 9 Baylor down the road.
2. Things could go from bad to worse for injury-riddled Miami, which has slipped from the national rankings and must travel to Virginia Tech on Thursday.
3. Former USC interim coach Ed Orgeron has two straight victories since taking over at Louisiana State. The Tigers are back in the rankings at No. 25 but face No. 23 Mississippi at home.