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Eyes on the Nation: Can anyone beat Alabama, Clemson or Notre Dame before the College Football Playoff?

Michigan’s margin for error is close to nil for them to make the playoff. That’s because three teams look destined for undefeated seasons. Who can beat the Tide, Tigers and Irish?

Clemson v Florida State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Notre Dame are on a collision course toward the College Football Playoff.

For one-loss teams such as Michigan and Oklahoma, the margin for error is close to nil. Both need to win out to contend for the No. 4 spot...unless an upset is on the horizon.

Will the Crimson Tide trip up against No. 3 LSU in Baton Rouge? Is Dabo Swinney due for a signature head-scratching upset a la Syracuse last year? Are the Irish set to repeat recent November failures?

One stubbed toe opens the door to chaos down the stretch. Who is the most vulnerable?


Nick Saban’s juggernaut has won every game in 2018 by at least 22, with the closest victory being a 45-23 home rout over now No. 25 Texas A&M.

The air suddenly gets thinner this weekend, as the Tide trek to Tiger Stadium to face the No. 4 Bayou Bengals at night (8 p.m., CBS).

S&P+ gives a 26 percent chance for LSU to spring the upset, marking it as 11-point underdogs. In the last three matchups in Baton Rouge, the Tigers have lost by only an average of seven points.

Alabama quarterback and Heisman front-runner Tua Tagovailoa will endure his biggest test, and might actually finally take a snap in the fourth quarter. Ed Orgeron’s defense, led by studs such as Greedy Williams, ranks No. 8 nationally per S&P+.

While a 25-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio is intimidating, Tagovailoa has accomplished this against defenses ranked no higher than No. 30. With a good, not great Alabama defense at No. 20 in the country, this has a chance to be interesting.

If Alabama gets out unscathed, the offense will face challenges against the No. 7 Mississippi State and No. 5 Auburn defenses. With those respective offenses lagging well behind, and both games in Tuscaloosa, the last chance to topple the mighty Saban would in the SEC Championship.

It’s likely Kirby Smart and No. 6 Georgia, who look to vanquish No. 11 Kentucky this weekend in Lexington. Out of all former Saban assistants, Smart came the closest to beating his mentor in last year’s College Football Playoff Final.

If Alabama’s middling No. 68 strength of schedule proves to be a mirage, and it drops one, it still might beat out other one-loss teams. The Tide have made every playoff since its inception.


Clemson has earned a reputation recently for an annual brain cramp under Dabo Swinney. Last year, it was a 27-24 upset to 4-8 Syracuse.

The Orange has a post-win expectancy of 47 percent, meaning even the computers could barely believe it happened.

In 2016, it was a 43-42 defensive collapse at home to Pitt (23 percent post-win expectancy).

After surely discarding the Louisville Cardinals this Saturday (noon, ABC), really only one hiccup looks realistic.

The Tigers ship up to Boston in two weeks for a potential top-25 bout with A.J. Dillon and No. 24 Boston College.

The Eagles returned Dillon — the ACC preseason player of the year — at running back last weekend against Miami (FL). The sophomore bullied the Hurricanes’ No. 13 defense for 149 yards on 32 totes en route to a 27-14 victory.

Despite missing two weeks of action, he has 801 yards and seven touchdowns at nearly six yards a pop. That’s a recipe to keep Clemson’s 44-point per game offense off the field, as well as set up quarterback Anthony Brown for play-action.

Last year, BC was deadlocked with Clemson at 7-7 entering the fourth quarter (eventually lost 34-7). In 2014, Don Brown’s defense stifled the Tigers for just 17 points in a four-point loss.

Tough running, inspired defense and a road venue seems a logical formula for a shocker.

After that, Swinney gets breathers against middling Duke and South Carolina teams. In the ACC Championship, he may really luck out if Virginia continues their run.


Brian Kelly used to own the month of November. From 2010 to 2012, his teams tallied a 10-1 mark in the last month of the regular season.

Since then, the Irish are 9-13 in the month. This year, a handful of landmines are in their path.

First, they drive an hour to Evanston for a night game against rising Northwestern (7:15 p.m., ESPN). Despite dropping early games to Akron and Duke, the Wildcats stand alone atop the totem pole in the Big Ten West after ripping apart Wisconsin 31-17.

As Wolverine fans know, they pushed Michigan to the brink in late September.

After inserting quarterback Ian Book for opening day starter Brandon Wimbush, Kelly’s offense has elevated to more than 40 points a game (first three games: 23.3). Lodged in that success was a 19-14 clunker against Pitt, the No. 80 team per S&P+.

Yes, Pat Fitzgerald helms the No. 64 team in the country per Bill Connelly. As described earlier in Conference Corner, his team defies analytics. The Irish are on alert.

Two weeks later, Kelly takes the Blue and Gold to Yankee Stadium for a Shamrock Series tilt versus No. 22 Syracuse. With a weird location and a team that had Clemson dead to rights, this will be challenging, as well.

The Irish finish in Los Angeles against Southern Cal. A road rivalry game against a talented USC team with nothing to lose? Watch out.

Out of all the undefeateds, Notre Dame looks most likely, based on schedule and precedent in November, to lose down the stretch.


  • NO. 6 GEORGIA (7-1, 5-1) at No. 11 Kentucky (7-1, 5-1) (3:30 p.m., CBS)

This one decides the SEC East champion, for all intents and purposes. Georgia probably has the best chance of downing West champion Alabama.

If you’re the Wolverines, you want Alabama to lose once to avoid a potential 1-vs-4 playoff semifinal. They don’t want to give Saban a month to game plan.

  • NO. 15 TEXAS (6-2, 4-1) against No. 12 West Virginia (6-1, 4-1) (3:30 p.m., FOX)

The more chaos in the Big 12, the better. Michigan wants to avoid jockeying with a one-loss conference champion.

  • NORTHWESTERN (5-3, 5-1) against No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) (7:15 p.m., ESPN)

Should Michigan win out and take the Big Ten Championship, that likely means two victories over Northwestern. Despite the head-to-head loss in the opener, the Wolverines could get in over the Irish based on results against the Wildcats.

  • TEXAS TECH (5-3, 3-2) against No. 7 Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1) (8 p.m., ABC)

See Texas-West Virginia. More parity in the Big 12 benefits Michigan’s playoff hopes.

  • NO. 1 ALABAMA (8-0, 5-0) at No. 4 LSU (7-1, 4-1) (8 p.m., CBS)

Yes, Michigan needs an Alabama loss to avoid the toughest semifinal matchup. However, as we found out last year, the committee could still slide the Tide into the top-4 even without a divisional title.

LSU could repeat Auburn’s fate in 2017: dominant victories over Alabama and Georgia, only to lose in the SEC Championship Game.

Michigan’s chances of edging Alabama increase if the Tide lose in the finale, rather than now.