Across the past five edifying autumns, it has grown possible to grasp how College Football Playoff selection committees think, even given their varying memberships year to year and even given that the act of gathering such knowledge demonstrates a misspent existence. That’s why it’s too bad the committee can’t hold a mock meeting Monday and Tuesday as this September closes, place Auburn at a deserved No. 1 and wait for the howling.
Some exquisite howling might even come from within Alabama.
Of course, the committee doesn’t meet until early November this year, but surely its 13 far-flung members noticed that Auburn (5-0) just followed its big win at Texas A&M with a 56-23 clobbering of Mississippi State in an alleged letdown bowl. “They played their best football, as a team, to date tonight,” Coach Gus Malzahn told reporters afterward. Surely the committee’s strength-of-schedule statistics churn already with those wins plus Auburn’s opener against Oregon in Arlington, Tex.
Heading into a hard inter-division, all-top-10 game Saturday at Florida (5-0), Auburn has proved the most of any team thus far.
Of course, the rankings at the moment, the Associated Press media poll and that festival of the oblivious known as the coaches’ poll, do not reflect this. That’s because rankings rely upon ancient American methods passed down through the generations, valuing categories such as Programs That Were Great Last Year, Programs That Have Been Great A Long Time, Teams I Thought Were Really Good In August When Everybody Was 0-0, Teams I Perceive To Be Better Than Those Who Have Proved More At This Point and, in the case of the coaches, Teams I Wrote Down Because I Have No Life And Don’t Have Any Time To Put Into This Process.
Alabama ranks No. 1 in the Associated Press, trading places with No. 2 Clemson. The teams with the most impressive wins — Auburn, LSU and Georgia — stand at Nos. 7, 6 and 3.
Auburn’s re-rise, which seems to happen every few years like some bird migration of a haphazard frequency, has made the Southeast seem even more crowded with monsters than usual, and four games remaining on its schedule — at Florida and at LSU, home to Georgia and Alabama — do cause the skin to roil. Florida itself went from forgettable to curious in one moment Sept. 14 in Kentucky, one of those crazy junctures in American life when an unknown quarterback (junior Kyle Trask) comes in at some dismal point (the start of the fourth quarter) and suddenly everything looks different from then on (turning a 21-10 deficit into a 29-21 win).
As for Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, do gaze at these stats from his fifth-ever college game and his second Southeastern Conference game: 16-for-21 passing, 335 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions; seven rushes, 56 yards, one touchdown, one 30-yard run. What numerical beauty, and no wonder Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead said, “He’s obviously a coach’s son, very poised and polished, and well-coached, for a true freshman midyear enrollee.” (His father, former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, coached him in high school in Pinson, Ala.) Said Malzahn, “I think you see him, every game and every snap, he’s feeling a little bit more confident, and the game gets slower.”
The committee members can see all that even without going to that magic football room at the gaudy hotel in Dallas-Fort Worth, but even if they probably wouldn’t rank Clemson No. 1, they do know Clemson when they see it. Among other things across the various escapes of its dynasty, Clemson has shown a rarefied mastery of the fine point of the game known as two-point-conversion defense.
There’s defensive end Carlos Watkins’s tackle against Notre Dame for that 24-22 win in 2015, Austin Bryant’s chase of Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond to enable the interception and 28-26 win in 2018 and, Saturday in that hairy 21-20 win, the three-man corral of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, starring Xavier Thomas, Nolan Turner and James Skalski. (It’s important to give full credit to two-point-conversion defenders, whose exploits change the moods of entire towns.)
That’s not even counting the fan panic attacks of Clemson’s national-title year of 2016 — against Lamar Jackson’s Louisville, yearning for N.C. State to miss a field goal (which it did), a 37-34 ping-pong match with Florida State, the 43-42 loss to Pitt — or the 94-yard drive to elude Syracuse in the national-title year of 2018, hinging on its fourth-and-six pass from Chase Brice to Tee Higgins.
The point is, paths to titles often bubble with bygone peril, such that Clemson ought to fashion some historical plaque honoring its two-point defenses. “I am unbelievably proud of our guys for finding a way to win,” Coach Dabo Swinney told reporters Saturday in Chapel Hill, adding, “That’s what winners do.” He said: “It’s not easy to win. I know we’re just supposed to show up and beat everybody by double digits and all that, but this is college football.”
His sophomore quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, seems to have lost the Heisman Trophy after being given the Heisman Trophy this summer even though they don’t give the Heisman Trophy until December, all in a lunatic nation. His touchdown-to-interception ratio stands at so-so after eight offseason months of unrequested hype and five in-season games, but he does look happy anyway. He said, “I think this game will make us a lot better,” and: “The thing I’ll take out of this is never, I guess, [never] don’t enjoy the win. It’s easy to forget how hard it is to win.”
With that in mind, any committee, even one in a bar, would ponder other teams — especially Ohio State (5-0), which, after the 48-7 hushing it dealt Nebraska, is doing a great job at the hard job of beating people the way everyone thinks it’s supposed to beat people. For enchantment, think of Wake Forest (5-0 for the first time in 13 years), SMU (5-0 with a treasured win over TCU), Baylor (4-0 with a good win over Iowa State as Coach Matt Rhule soars again), Memphis (4-0) and that clot in the Big Ten West of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, which have combined for zero losses.
Then revel a moment, as should all, in Appalachian State (4-0), which followed its emotional win over North Carolina with a no-letdown, 56-37 win over Coastal Carolina, lending appeal to its Nov. 9 date with South Carolina, given the way the Mountaineers clearly handle Carolinas.
At the top of it all, though, moving into October, a studious committee should place Auburn, then adjourn, cup its ears and listen. It might even hear caterwauling from those who know Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, steering through the predicted routs of outmanned others, has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 23-0. That’s a wow almost as compelling as Auburn’s schedule.