At the end of the 2017 College Football season, Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide stood a top the world of College Football as National Champions, having defeated Georgia in an enthralling national championship game. Despite their conference game loss to Auburn, they were the undisputed kings of the game. Except for some small dispute from Orlando, Florida…
Having gone 13-0 on the season, culminating in a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, the UCF Knights considered themselves to be the National Champions. In a season where they overcame Hurricane Irma and the turmoil around head coach Scott Frost’s decision to leave for Nebraska, where they were the highest scoring team in the country, with the best record, and having beaten the only team to defeat Alabama, you could certainly see their argument. Many agreed with them too. Several media outlets reported them as National Champions, they were honoured with a parade at Disney World and were ranked number 1 in the country by the Colley Matrix (a formula I won’t even pretend to understand).
Whether you agree with their self proclaimed status as National Champions or not, the feat of a perfect season is something so rare that it has to be marvelled at. It was this I was thinking of as I watched week 6 of the College Football season play out. In a sport of such unpredictability (Alabama aside) what does it take to put together an undefeated season? Without considering the play off implications, is there a team that could pull off a UCF repeat? Even before I began to turn thoughts in to words, contenders fell by the way side.
In the Red River Showdown, the Oklahoma Sooners hopes of an unbeaten season were shot down by the Texas Longhorns in a duel for the ages, settled finally by the boot of kicker Cameron Dicker.
LSU rolled in to Florida at 5-0 and were rolled over by a combination of defence and trickery in a 27-19 loss to the Gators.
The run away success of Benny Snell and the Kentucky Wildcats was ended by a stout Texas A & M rush defence, a heart breaking missed overtime field goal which clattered the upright, and eventually a Trayveon Williams Texas touchdown which gave the Aggies a 20-14 win.
Which leaves us eleven unbeaten teams going in to week 7. Are any of these capable of going the distance?
Let’s start with the defending co-National Champions. UCF currently hold the hottest winning streak in the nation with 18 games since their last defeat. Their turnaround from winless in 2015 to all winning in 2017 has been built around an up tempo offence and a stout defence. More than that, the sense of unity which the team has created has been a cornerstone of their success in a similar way that the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles have found success in the last two NFL seasons. There is genuine star talent on the roster, and a number of those players return to the team from last season. McKenzie Milton at quarterback is firmly in the Heisman conversation. They have a strong ground game with running back Adrian Killins Jr and last years success has enabled UCF to recruit better than any years before. One of the factors in the Knight’s success last year was their ease of schedule and it seems perverse that the main barrier to another undefeated season maybe their own success. Should they continue to go unbeaten, could they end up ranked in the top 4 and suffer defeat to Alabama?
The road from Orlando to this scenario runs through Cincinnati and South Florida, two other undefeated teams in the AAC. The three teams play each other over the last three weeks of the season and given the records between them last year, UCF blew out Cincinnati 51-23 and beat USF 49-42, the money is firmly on UCF to get the job done. The USF Bulls have a tough matchup at Ed Oliver’s Houston in week 9 so they may already be out of the question by the time the Knights visit Raymond James Stadium.
Two teams that will still, without a doubt, be unbeaten after this week will be Clemson and NC State. Fact. Both teams are on a bye in week 7 and will square off in Memorial Stadium, Clemson in week 8 to take another unbeaten contender out of the equation. Despite the undoubted talent of QB Ryan Finley, and a stifling defence which is only allowing an average of 17 points a game, I can’t see The Wolfpack overcoming Clemson in this one despite them running the Tigers close last season. In Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, Clemson have an intriguing air and ground attack which could be capable of taking them all the way undefeated. Their defence is without question one of the best units in College Football this year when you look at the talent of Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. Of all the teams I’ve discussed so far they have the toughest remaining schedule, four of their last 6 games are against opponents with a winning record at present, so an unbeaten season would be hard earned.
Colorado have reached 5-0 by way of wide receiver Laviska Shanault Jr. The Buffaloes have not been shy about using the multi talented offensive weapon any way they can and he has repaid them with touchdowns a plenty, six through the air and four on the ground. His 150 average yards a game ranks eleventh in the country. History is against them for an undefeated season, they’ve never won the PAC-12 Championship, and their matchup this week on the road against an up and down USC team will be their toughest test yet without mentioning the fact they are 0-12 against the Trojans. Oh, and the other fact that the Trojans are 18-0 in the Coliseum under current coach Clay Helton.
If you haven’t heard of Will Grier by now then you probably haven’t been watching College Football. Or maybe any football. In his hands, the West Virginia Mountaineers have gone unbeaten through five games. The offence is absolutely loaded, Grier put up nearly 3500 yards and 34 touchdowns on his way to Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the year last season and his prime targets from that award winning season surround him again this year. David Sills is one of the best receivers in the College game and Gary Jennings is pretty special too. As impressive as Grier has been, the difference between the start of this campaign and last years 7-6 season has been down to a much improved defence. Last year they haemorrhaged an average of 31.5 points per game. This season they have held teams to just over 18. To go undefeated they will have to overcome Kyler Murray’s Oklahoma in their last game. The dream may be over by then as they travel in to Texas to take on the Longhorns in week 9, a game they lost 28-14 last season.
After Enter Sandman had died down in Blacksburg, Virginia, and an early close game had been blown apart by Dexter Williams, talk turned to Notre Dame and their national ranking and the potential for a College Football play off berth. Whether the Fighting Irish make the final four is irrelevant, whether they can put together an unbeaten season is. Since the change of quarterback from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book, Notre Dame have looked as potent as any offence in the league. Their defence looks solid too, firmly in evidence in the victory against Virginia Tech. Their schedule is hardly littered with Alabama sized quality opponents. The Irish could legitimately run the table and do it with some ease. Maybe then, after an unbeaten regular season, the talk of the final four might be relevant.
Ohio State’s biggest challenge in the quest for perfection may already be behind them. When the Buckeyes beat Penn State in Happy Valley they set the ball rolling on the potential for an unbeaten season. Their offence, in the hands of Dwayne Haskins, is motoring along nicely averaging 49 points and over 550 yards a game. Not many defences are going to live with that. Haskins already has nearly 2000 yards and 25 touchdowns and we’re only just in to October. Two things stand in the way of Ohio State. Their defence isn’t quite at the same level as their offence, though the loss of Nick Bosa certainly hasn’t helped. Then there’s the final game of the regular season against Michigan. One of, if not THE, biggest rivalry games in College Football, hell all of football. Ending your rivals chance of a perfect season might just give you that little extra motivation don’t you think?
Then there were two. Alabama. Georgia. The Crimson Tide. The Bulldogs. Whilst few can argue that these two are amongst the best in College Football, their quest for perfection is slightly harder than many of the teams that remain unbeaten. Playing in the SEC means a higher level of competition, a tougher schedule to negotiate and ultimately the potential to meet each other in the SEC Championship game with one ending the others chances of being undefeated. If this does happen, give me Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa over Jake Fromm’s Georgia all day. He might even get the chance to play four quarters as so rarely has been the case such has been the dominance of the Crimson Tide so far this season. Before either team gets that far though they will both have to navigate the potential banana skin of LSU, starting with Georgia this week. The Bulldogs also have to travel to Kentucky to take on the Wildcats who will have something to prove after losing their own unbeaten record.
Vince Lombardi once said “Perfection is not attainable but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence” Maybe one of these eleven teams can attain both this year.
This guest piece was written by Oli Hodgkinson who is a Boston College fan. You can follow Oli on Twitter @ojhodgkinson #goeagles
photo credit : college football news.com