Wins and losses at beginning of season can make or break a team’s CFP chances


Think of college football in slightly different terms. Something like the Indianapolis 500.

In this era of the College Football Playoff, the official race doesn’t begin until October, when committee members launch the weekly rankings that ultimately determine which four teams play for the national championship.

But anyone starting too far back in the pack won’t have much chance of catching up by December, so the early weeks of the season are like qualifying, with contenders jostling for poll position.

“These games are pointed to the rest of the year,” said Gary Danielson, a longtime CBS analyst. “They end up making part of that last, final argument.”

The sprint began last weekend with a handful of games that included two ranked teams and a taste of bigger things to come.

No. 14 Stanford defeated Rice in Sydney, Australia, and No. 19 South Florida defeated San Jose State. Neither game figure to move the CFP needle.

The real jockeying should commence on Saturday, with No. 1 Alabama versus No. 3 Florida State and No. 11 Michigan against No. 17 Florida. The next week brings Stanford at No. 4 USC, No. 7 Oklahoma at No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 12 Auburn at No. 5 Clemson.

“We’ve got to go play people,” said Dabo Swinney, coach of defending national champion Clemson. “And we’ve got to beat them.”

The field looks tightly bunched at this point, as it often does before games are played.

Alabama gets automatically penciled in as the favorite as winners of four of the last eight national titles. Others in the top 10 — including No. 6 Penn State, No. 8 Washington and No. 9 Wisconsin — could have the horsepower to make a championship run.

A lot will depend on the maturation of new and young quarterbacks at a slew of major programs.

Just look at the lineup of sophomore passers in the spotlight: Jalen Hurts at Alabama, Deondre Francois at Florida State, Sam Darnold at USC and Jacob Eason at No. 15 Georgia.

All had impressive freshman debuts but will need to take the next step. At least they are known quantities.

Clemson must find a replacement for Deshaun Watson, who is off to the NFL. With running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Mike Williams also gone pro, the Tigers have lost more than three-quarters of last season’s offensive production.

“What are we going to do?” Swinney asked in mock horror this summer. “Oh, man.”

Florida has hinted at experimenting with three quarterbacks — including Malik Zaire, a transfer from Notre Dame — in the opener against Michigan.

“You’re going to see a bunch of them in there playing,” coach Jim McElwain told reporters this week.

There will also be new faces calling the shots from the sideline, starting with Tom Herman, who jumped from Houston to Texas in the offseason’s biggest coaching move.

P.J. Fleck will see whether his “Row the Boat” approach translates to the Big Ten Conference as he takes over at Minnesota. The Pac-12 Conference has newcomers in Willie Taggart at Oregon and Justin Wilcox at California.

After three rough seasons at Texas, Charlie Strong shifts to South Florida, where he figures the scrutiny will start immediately. “This is where it all counts,” he said.

The next few months will surely spark arguments about which region has the most talent — can the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big Ten supplant the Southeastern Conference? — and which Cinderella team from the Group of Five can push its way into the Power Five elite.

Three years into the CFP configuration, it also remains to be seen whether a two-loss team can squeeze into the playoffs when the final four is announced on Dec. 3.

The loser of Alabama-Florida State could become a test case if it drops another close game yet ends up winning an elite conference. “I think the ACC is as good a league as there is in football,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.

But all of that comes later. As the flag drops on a new season — and his Stanford team gets a head start on Saturday — coach David Shaw warned against looking too far ahead.

“I’m not a fan of pressure,” he said. “Usually pressure comes from other people’s expectations.”

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By David Wharton

Los Angeles Times