Slowly, we’re gaining some clarity in defining a path to the College Football Playoff.
Yes, we know we just completed Week Three.
Yes, we know there are still 37 unbeaten teams remaining in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
It is definitely early.
But some patterns are developing, some trends are shaping.
As we enter into this week’s guesses for the four teams headed to the CFP final four, we feel confident about three holdovers and welcome a new program to the party.
For now at least.
My current favorites:
No. 1: ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
So Far: 3-0 (defeated Ole Miss 48-43; opened the season by defeating USC 52-6 and Western Kentucky 38-10).
Synopsis: Nobody beats Nick Saban three times in a row. Well, Ole Miss almost did. The Rebels put a scare into the Crimson Tide, mounting a 24-3 lead late in the first half, but Alabama closed with a 45-6 scoring run, then held on behind freshman QB Jalen Hurts (158 yards passing, 146 yards rushing). After regular-season losses against Ole Miss the past two seasons, Alabama is off and running in the SEC West race. (For the record, Michigan and Purdue each had three straight victories against Saban when he was at Michigan State).
Who’s Next: The Crimson Tide gets a breather and a break from SEC play by hosting Kent State (1-2) of the Mid-American Conference. The Golden Flashes broke into the win column Saturday by beating Monmouth, 27-7. Kent State’s visit might seem inconsequential, but there’s actually an interesting hook. In the early 1970s, Kent State once had a defensive back by the name of Nick Saban — along with a linebacker teammate named Jack Lambert — so it’s a sentimental journey of sorts. Also a potential milestone: Saban’s career record is 199-60-1. He’s going for win No. 200 against his alma mater.
No. 2: OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
So Far: 3-0 (defeated Oklahoma 45-24; opened the season by defeating Bowling Green 77-10 and Tulsa 48-3).
Synopsis: Saturday’s bad weather and lightning caused a delay, but maybe it only delayed the inevitable. Coach Urban Meyer moved to 19-0 in road games with the Buckeyes in an ultra-impressive victory at Oklahoma. QB J.T. Barrett was flawless with four touchdown passes to Noah Brown, while running back Mike Weber raced for 123 yards. It was a clinical, precise victory against a program that is usually money at home.
Who’s Next: Ohio State gets next Saturday off before opening Big Ten Conference play by hosting Rutgers (2-1) on Oct. 1. The Buckeyes have been merciless against the Big Ten-newbie Scarlet Knights, winning by large margins in 2014 (56-17) and 2015 (49-7). This Saturday, Rutgers opens its Big Ten slate by hosting Iowa.
No. 3: LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
So Far: 3-0 (defeated Florida State 63-20; opened the season by defeating Charlotte and Syracuse).
Synopsis: The Cardinals are the talk of college football after their crowd-pleasing dismantling of FSU, then ranked No. 2. Of course, Cardinals QB Lamar Jackson was the headliner (accounting for 362 yards and five touchdowns), but Louisville’s defense was equally impressive in throttling the Seminoles’ usually high-powered offense. FSU managed just 284 yards and QB Deondre Francois was under constant pressure.
Who’s Next: Louisville, which no doubt will be celebrated from coast to coast this week, will travel to Conference USA foe Marshall (1-1), which lost at home against Akron, 65-38. It was the most points scored against Marshall in regulation since 1915. The Thundering Herd, with promising sophomore QB Chase Litton, have actually won four straight in a spread-out series against Louisville, including bowl-game victories in 1998 and 2002.
No. 4: MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
So Far: 3-0 (defeated Colorado 45-28; opened the season by defeating Hawaii 63-3 and UCF 51-14).
Synopsis: After outscoring their first two opponents 114-17, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines were forced to work a bit against a game Colorado squad. Michigan trailed three separate times before finally pulling away.
Who’s Next: The Wolverines host Penn State (2-1) in the Big Ten Conference opener. The Nittany Lions defeated Temple 34-27, one week after losing against Pittsburgh. Michigan has beaten Penn State two straight times after dropping four straight, including an epic 43-40 four-overtime clash in 2013.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Michigan (Peach Bowl) — The Crimson Tide and Wolverines have met four times in history, and it’s 2-2 (with Alabama taking the most recent meeting, 41-14, to open the 2012 season). There’s no love lost between Alabama’s Nick Saban and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, who has delighted in tweaking Saban via Twitter. Saban sought to defuse the little feud, saying, “I don’t really care what he thinks or tweets.’’ If this matchup comes about, we’d have to give Saban the edge. He’s been in plenty of head-coaching games like this. Harbaugh would be making his national semifinal debut. Winner: Alabama.
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Louisville (Fiesta Bowl) — You won’t find many more dynamic matchups of quarterbacks. It’s Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. We’ll go with the hot hand and envision the Cardinals outscoring the Buckeyes in a crazy, back-and-forth game. Winner: Louisville.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Louisville (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) — Nick Saban versus Bobby Petrino. Well, that’s interesting. A battle of the masterminds, so to speak, and a pretty intriguing SEC-ACC matchup for the second straight season. The Crimson Tide had all kinds of trouble against Clemson QB Deshaun Watson last season, and no doubt Louisville’s Lamar Jackson will pose an equally formidable threat. However, we’ll go with proven experience and the probability of Alabama winning its fifth national title in the past eight seasons. Winner: Alabama.
WELCOME TO TAMPA
To get you in the mood for a potential trip to Tampa’s College Football Playoff championship game, we will offer a weekly primer on the city’s culture, folklore, cuisine and history.
Not far from the planned fan activities at the College Football Playoff is Bayshore Boulevard, which overlooks Hillsborough Bay and offers picture-perfect vistas of Tampa’s downtown waterfront. The Bayshore has what’s purported to be the world’s longest continuous sidewalk (4.5 miles), which is constantly used by runners and walkers. It also has some of Tampa’s most exclusive homes.