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College Football Playoff: Ohio State loss has opened the door

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

In one fell swoop, the Ohio State Buckeyes suffered a fourth-quarter collapse against Penn State on Saturday night, losing 24-21, putting in motion a different outlook for the College Football Playoff.

The one-loss Buckeyes can’t be dismissed yet, but they must run the table. One-loss Louisville is a stronger football factor. West Virginia and Baylor, the unbeaten teams at the top of the Big 12, have some hope.

The Washington Huskies can no longer be ignored.

Was last weekend an anomaly — or the start of weekly upheaval?

There are still nine unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision — and plenty of excellent one-loss squads — so we’re a long way from settling this issue.

My current favorites:

No. 1: ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

So Far: 8-0 (defeated Texas A&M 33-14; opened the season by defeating USC 52-6, Western Kentucky 38-10, Ole Miss 48-43, Kent State 48-0 and Kentucky 34-6, Arkansas 49-30 and Tennessee 49-10).

Synopsis: The Crimson Tide, winners of 20 straight games, were trailing Texas A&M in the third quarter, but put the hammer down and pulled away. The game turned on a 30-yard fumble-return touchdown by defensive end Jonathan Allen, making it 10 straight games for Alabama to score on defense or special teams. Meanwhile, freshman QB Jalen Hurts has matured into a very efficient weapon on offense.

Who’s Next: The Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC) have a bye week before traveling to LSU (5-2, 3-1) on Nov. 5. Alabama has five straight victories against LSU, one of its most ferocious SEC West rivals.

Michigan is making a move in the College Football Playoff derby. -- Photo by Andy Shippy / Sports In The Mitten and Today's U Sports

Michigan is making a move in the College Football Playoff derby. — Photo by Andy Shippy / Sports In The Mitten and Today’s U Sports

No. 2: MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

So Far: 7-0 (defeated Illinois 41-8; opened the season by defeating Hawaii 63-3, UCF 51-14, Colorado 45-28, Penn State 49-10, Wisconsin 14-7 and Rutgers 78-0).

Synopsis: Michigan cruised past Illinois, scoring touchdowns on its first four drives to open a 28-0 lead just 19 minutes into the game. Just to make things interesting, Michigan worked in a fake punt while leading 34-0.

Who’s Next: The Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) travel to Michigan State (2-5, 0-4). Who can forget last season’s outcome? Michigan lost on the final play, 27-23, when its punter dropped the snap and unsuccessfully tried to kick the ball away in traffic. The muffed play was returned for a jaw-dropping Spartan touchdown.

No. 3: CLEMSON TIGERS

So Far: 7-0 (Coming off a bye week; opened the season by defeating Auburn 19-13, Troy 30-20, South Carolina State 59-0, Georgia Tech 26-7, Louisville 42-36, Boston College 56-10 and N.C. State 24-17 in overtime).

Synopsis: Some people think Clemson has been terribly unimpressive, but maybe that’s a production of unrealistic expectations. The Tigers are still unbeaten, although they were incredibly fortunate to escape N.C. State on a shanked 33-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of regulation. However, the Tigers have strong wins against Auburn and Louisville, so they are right on course.

Who’s Next: It might not be the ACC’s ultimate game, but it’s still a large showdown. Clemson (7-0, 4-0 ACC) travels to Florida State (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday and the Atlantic Division title hangs in the balance. Clemson hasn’t won in Tallahassee since 2006.

No. 4: WASHINGTON HUSKIES

So Far: 7-0 (defeated Oregon State 41-17; opened the season by defeating Rutgers 48-13, Idaho 59-14, Fresno State 41-3, Arizona 35-28, Stanford 44-6 and Oregon 70-21).

Synopsis: The Pac-12 is turning into a different environment with Stanford and Oregon falling well short of expectations, but Washington has taken advantage of that and is soaring behind the play of sophomore QB Jake Browning. Now the expectations are on the Huskies, who have an increased degree of difficulty down the stretch.

Who’s Next: Washington (7-0, 4-0 Pac-12) travels to Utah (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday for what could be a defining Pac-12 matchup.

NATIONAL SEMIFINALS

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington (Peach Bowl) — This would probably be the biggest game in the history of Washington’s program, though the 1992 Rose Bowl against Michigan would have a place in the discussion. Huskies coach Chris Petersen once guided Boise State to a riveting Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma, but that one was fresh and fun. This one is more of a pressurized atmosphere. Washington will do a great job to get here, but we can’t see the Huskies on the same level as Alabama right now. Winner: Alabama.

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Clemson (Fiesta Bowl) — Clemson, after last season’s appearance in the national title game, has been a target all season. Michigan hasn’t been in this position for a long time, but we think the Wolverines are capable of an excellent semifinal performance and ending the Tigers’ season-long quest to get another shot at Alabama. Winner: Michigan.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Michigan (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) — Alabama coach Nick Saban has been in this position before — plenty of times, actually. The Crimson Tide are going for their fifth national title in the past eight seasons. Meanwhile, it’s a new experience for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who is accustomed to a rapid ascent (such as guiding his San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in his second season). Overall, experience will decide this outcome. Alabama will get it done. 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.

Tampa has a bustling array of professional sports options, led by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bucs, who endured 26 straight defeats when the franchise debuted in 1976, captured Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season. The Lightning won the 2004 Stanley Cup. The Rays reached the 2008 World Series before falling to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.

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