The college football season has crossed an invisible line, a point of no return, and Baker Mayfield knows it.
Speaking with reporters this week, the Oklahoma quarterback acknowledged that the margin of error had shrunk for his Sooners and every other team chasing a spot in the playoff.
“You’ve got to win as the season goes on,” Mayfield said. “The most important ones are late in the year.”
This weekend serves as a perfect example.
The schedule holds a slew of tests for the top College Football Playoff contenders; if any of them stumble, they won’t have much time to climb back up the rankings.
Top-ranked Georgia needs to get past No. 10 Auburn on the road and No. 2 Alabama must overcome injuries at linebacker against No. 16 Mississippi State. Mayfield and his fifth-ranked team face No. 6 Texas Christian and No. 3 Notre Dame visits No. 7 Miami in the rekindling of an intense rivalry from the 1980s.
“This part of the season, obviously in November, all of the teams that are in contention are focused on one game at a time,” Fighting Irish Coach Brian Kelly said. “And it’s single elimination for most teams.”
It might take an upset or two to shake loose the tangle among the leaders of the CFP race.
When the selection committee issued its latest ranking Tuesday evening, the top five teams held their spots.
That left Oklahoma, TCU, Miami and No. 8 Wisconsin on the outside looking in.
There were mumbles of discontent as Barry Alvarez, the Wisconsin athletic director, told ESPN he couldn’t imagine an undefeated Power Five conference champion left out of the playoffs.
Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley offered a similar perspective, suggesting he shouldn’t have to campaign for a spot if his one-loss team ends up winning the Big 12 title.
“If we were to take care of business in this league,” he told reporters, “that would be all the statement we would need.”
The monkey wrench in the CFP machinery right now is independent Notre Dame.
With four playoff slots and five major conferences, at least one champion gets left out. This season, two or even three of the big boys could fail to make the cut.
The possibility adds even more drama to Notre Dame-Miami, a rematch of the 1988 game known as “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
The name originated from a T-shirt printed by Notre Dame students playing off Miami’s outlaw reputation at the time. Both teams were undefeated that season. The No. 4 Irish won, 31-30, when the top-ranked Hurricanes scored a last-minute touchdown but failed on a two-point try.
This time around, Notre Dame is hoping to stay in the top four while Miami is hungry to prove it deserves more respect for an 8-0 record that includes a few last-second escapes.
“I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to be riled up,” Miami linebacker Shaquille Quarterman said. “It’s really us against the world.”
Kelly, the Irish coach, said: “Two programs that have great traditions, they have won national championships. You would think sooner or later they’re going to meet again with something that’s on the line.”
One race that doesn’t look quite as crowded at the moment is the battle for the Heisman Trophy.
Saquon Barkley has fallen off the pace with his Penn State team losing for a second time. Same with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.
This week, Mayfield appears to have put some distance between himself and the pack with a massive performance in Oklahoma’s 62-52 victory over Oklahoma State.
Hard to argue with 598 yards and five touchdowns passing, plus another score on a run, in a rivalry game that lived up to its “Bedlam” moniker.
His coach did not hesitate when asked about the quarterback. “You talk about the total package of intelligence, of arm talent, of leadership, drive, being able to move,” Riley said. “He’s one of the most complete ones I’ve been around.”
Mayfield was predictably cautious on the subject, preferring to focus on the challenge ahead.
“I’m worried about winning ballgames,” he said.
It’s that time of year.
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