It's only week 8, but we already have a conference on the College Football Playoff chopping block and a coach trying to get off the chopping block. I also take a look at the key player behind Syracuse's upset win over Clemson in this week's Cover 3.
1. The Pac-12's playoff hopes are on the line this week
The conference is already in serious jeopardy after Washington squandered an assist from a cupcake schedule and ended its undefeated season last week against Arizona State. If USC fails to win on the road, that leaves Washington as the only viable one-loss option left with the runway to build a resume that can compete on the national landscape. Washington State's one-loss resume is fairly meaningless with a 37-3 loss to Cal.
So with two losses at USC and Stanford, and Washington boasting a nonconference schedule of Montana, Rutgers and Fresno State vs. what Oklahoma, Georgia, TCU and Ohio State went through, it paints a bleak picture.
If USC does win this weekend, the Trojans could find some new life. They haven't looked like a playoff team with the exception of their win over Stanford. A road win in South Bend would change that perception and it is probably USC's toughest remaining game on the schedule.
If it doesn't win. The following teams all would top anything the Pac-12 could produce.
- A one-loss Georgia team with wins over Notre Dame and either Auburn or Alabama
- Any undefeated or one-loss ACC champion
- An undefeated or one-loss Penn State
- A one-loss Big Ten Champion Ohio State
- A one-loss Big Ten Champion Wisconsin
- Any one-loss Big 12 Champion
- A one or two-loss Notre Dame
With the Pac-12's hopes on its shoulders, USC heads to South Bend with a banged up roster hoping to stop one of the most physical ground games in the country. Should USC win, suddenly not only are the Trojans back in the playoff picture, but so is Washington with an opportunity to beat a good Stanford team and potentially a USC team in the Pac-12 title game that is highly ranked and well-regarded by the committee.
2. The path to 2018 for Butch Jones
The hot boards are already being formulated. The 'dead man walking' headlines have surfaced. After a 41-0 loss to Georgia and a touchdown-less loss to South Carolina, Butch Jones is as good as gone at Tennessee.
At least that's been the assumption.
But that assumption is driven by message boards and talk shows. The 'sources say' stories haven't followed. The real decision makers have been quiet. And as disappointing as this season has been, there is still a very clear path to Jones remaining in Knoxville beyond 2017.
If Tennessee beats Alabama this weekend as a 34-point underdog, any hotseat rumors vanish and Jones will start negotiating for an extension. That won't happen though so let's begin this exercise with Jones' Vols sitting at 3-4 -- a start similar to the one Butch Jones had only two years ago. Six straight wins to close the season followed in 2015.
The remaining schedule this year features winnable games against Kentucky, Southern Miss, Missouri, LSU at home and Vanderbilt. Tennessee is likely to be favored in at least three of those games if not more, and all of those teams are in the same weight class as the South Carolina and Florida teams that Tennessee was within one play of beating.
There may be skepticism among Tennessee fans that a run like that is feasible. But while all of those teams are competent, who among them is striking fear in the hearts of Tennessee players? A Kentucky team that has lost to Tennessee 31 of the last 32 tries? A Vanderbilt team that is giving up 50 points per game in a 0-4 stretch? A Missouri team without an FBS win? How about an LSU team with a home loss to Troy on its resume? Southern Miss tops even that with a loss to North Texas.
So what is five wins over that ilk even worth then? A lot. A five-game win streak, with the opportunity for a sixth in the post season is a lot of feel good energy for a program in need of it. With a redshirt freshman quarterback, a top 10 incoming recruiting class and a roster that returns almost all meaningful contributors, the narrative would undergo a metamorphosis on the heels of a run like that.
But the biggest reason why Jones could survive this season is that Tennessee is looking for an excuse to keep him. All he has to do is give them one. The fans get caught up in the week-to-week roller coaster of emotions, but that's not a luxury afforded to athletic director John Currie. He's made it clear in the past that he's not anxious for change and that the program is on the right trajectory under Jones. If Tennessee gets to 8 wins with a shot at 9, that trajectory is still on pace.
Even if Jones isn't the Nick Saban that everyone covets, he has still delivered the best three-year run since 2004 and likely the best four-year run in the same stretch following this season. And the price tag to cut a coach that has brought that kind of success would still be upwards of $14 million when you include assistant coach buyouts.
This isn't Texas A&M where an athletic director was publicly setting strict expectations for his head coach prior to the season and where influential regents are calling for a firing on social media. Tennessee has publicly and privately been supportive of Jones. It's begging for success. Five more wins this season would be success enough. It's up to him to get it done.
3. The man behind Syracuse's upset of Clemson
Take a quick glance at the Pro Football Focus analytical ranking of the top quarterbacks in college football and it won't raise any eyebrows to see Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield sitting atop the list. But prior to last weekend, you might have been a little bit startled to see the No. 2 player on the list was Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey. After the nation watched Dungey pick apart one of the best defenses in college football for the one of the year's biggest upsets last Friday night, I don't think that ranking would cause a double take anymore.
Ironically, Dungey's performance against Clemson was one of his least impressive but his 278 yards, 3 touchdowns and 61 yards rushing was the most efficient quarterback showing this Clemson team had seen all season long.
In Year 2, Dungey has thrived under Dino Babers. The kid has always been talented but until this weekend, he's been just out of the spotlight. A product of Lake Oswego, Oregon, Dungey was underrecruited in high school. Oregon -- whose main target was Blake Barnett and later Travis Jonsen in that cycle -- never really pursued. Neither did Oregon State. Tennessee was actually one of the major programs that was most interested but even after in-person evaluations, never could muster the courage to pull the trigger on an offer electing to go with Jauan Jennings and Quentin Dormady out of the same class at quarterback.
Dungey was likely heading to the Ivy League at either Harvard or Yale before a late offer and official visit to Syracuse under coach Scott Shafer changed things. Dungey started as a true freshman, but never had a chance given the players around him and was beaten up badly in his first season. In his second season -- and first under Babers -- Dungey didn't fare much better and while his talent always flashed, his team couldn't protect him and he missed four games.
This season has been different. According to Pro Football Focus, Dungey has been pressured 26.8 percent of the time. That's down from 28.5 percent in Babers first season and 36.4 percent before Babers arrived. Babers' quarterback friendly offense has been exactly what Dungey needed to find a groove and Dungey's skill-set is exactly what Babers needed to take that second-season leap.