We’re coming down the homestretch of college football’s regular season, with just two weeks of games left before the conference championships and bowl season. Last Saturday saw a pair of top-three teams get blown out on the road, as then-#10 Auburn beat then-#1 Georgia 40-17, and then-#7 Miami beat then-#3 Notre Dame 41-8. Those upsets shook up the latest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, with Miami jumping to #3 and Auburn moving up to #5.
The new top four is #1 Alabama, #2 Clemson, #3 Miami and #4 Oklahoma. With two weeks left, there’s still plenty that is unsettled about this college football season. Can those four teams do enough to convince the committee they deserve to be in the playoff? Will anybody knock them off their perch? Who will take the reins at Florida and Tennessee to try and turn those programs around? To try and answer some of these questions, we caught up with CBS Sports college football analyst and 11-year NFL veteran David Diehl ahead of the second-to-last week of college football’s regular season.
CBS Local Sports: Two huge upsets this past weekend, with Auburn taking down Georgia and Miami knocking off Notre Dame. Which one of those results surprised you more?
David Diehl: When you really look at it, the Auburn-Georgia game, at least that’s a rivalry game, so you know that it can swing either way. How can you not give Gus Malzahn and his team and staff credit? They had a complete 20-point collapse three weeks ago at LSU, and they bounced back with their foot on the gas. Look at the last two games that they played before this Georgia one. They put up 52 points versus Arkansas, put 42 on Texas A&M and then a 40-17 win over Georgia.
Jarrett Stidham is playing so much more consistently than he ever has. The thing that he’s doing right now is he’s adding that extra run component that’s forcing defenses to respect him and play 11-on-11 football, which opens things up for Darius Slayton and for everybody downfield. Kerryon Johnson, their running back, has been phenomenal. During this three-game winning streak, they’ve had a 42-point margin in the second half. That means you’re hot at the right time. You’re pushing the pedal, and you’re off to [a] fast start in games.
Their big road test is going to be this Alabama game. This week, Auburn’s playing Louisiana-Monroe, and everybody kind of has a easier game this week. But that November 25th Iron Bowl game against ‘Bama is going to be huge.
CBS Local Sports: The latest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings came out on Tuesday night with Bama at 1, Clemson at 2, Miami at 3 and Oklahoma at 4. There was a lot of questioning why the committee had Clemson second, ahead of Miami, despite the Hurricanes being undefeated. What do you think of who the committee has as their four right now?
David Diehl: I never like when it comes down to a competition committee, or to this game, or strength of schedule. At some point, you have to turn on the film, and the film doesn’t lie. We were just talking about Auburn; their two road losses were at Clemson and at LSU, and they were outscored 20-0 in the second half of both of those games. So when you look back at Clemson and think about this team, one, there’s still two weeks of football left before the title games. And then, you look longterm, we’ll see who the true teams are that are going to advance.
For Miami, they deserve a ton of credit. Mark Richt and his staff have completely changed everything at that program. They’re 9-0 overall, 6-0 in ACC play. They just completely crushed Notre Dame and, you have to look at the butt-whooping they put on Virginia Tech the week before. When you look at them (Miami) as a football team, big teams that are supposed to be in the top four, show up during primetime games. They just passed those tests, and they’ve passed all nine this season.
The big thing is their title game comes against Clemson. That’s going to be the real, legitimate test for them, because they’ve beaten a Power Five team, they beat a top-15 team, they’re already in the ACC title game. People think the turnover chain is a gimmick. But to watch that defense fly around and swarm to the football… I’ve watched the coaches’ copies, and each time you look at the frame, you’re seeing seven or eight Miami guys surrounding the football. They’re the first team to force at least four turnovers in four straight games since 2004. Out of their starters, 10 are freshman or sophomores and only one is a senior. You just say ‘wow’ at that point.
CBS Local Sports: One of the other interesting things with the rankings is an undefeated Wisconsin team sitting at #5. If they win out, do you think they get into the playoff?
David Diehl: Well, obviously, they need one of those top-four teams to lose in order for them to move up. When you look at the Badgers, you get the knock that they didn’t play Penn State or Ohio State or Michigan State. And their first win over a ranked team was their domination of Iowa last week, 38-14. But when you look at this team, Jonathan Taylor is killing it running the football. This guy is 400 yards away from breaking Adrian Peterson’s 2004 record at Oklahoma for most yards by a freshman running back; 1,925 yards is what A.P. had in 13 games. We’re watching this kid, who has 219 carries for 1,500+ yards with three games to go? The sky is the limit.
When you really look at this Wisconsin team, their QB Alex Hornibrook hasn’t thrown over 20 times in a game this season. You know they’re a ground-and-pound team. But their defense gets overlooked a little bit. They held Iowa’s offense scoreless and allowed them only 66 total yards. They’re only allowing 13.4 points per game, number one in the country in yards allowed per game at 247.6. But they’ve got a big test this week against Michigan, to see if they’re a legit football team. We’ve heard Coach Harbaugh saying ‘We’re going to be the spoilers for everyone,’ so you know that they’re going to come into that game swinging. Wisconsin will have a chance to prove this week whether they’re a legit football team or just a team that beat Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU.
CBS Local Sports: Two big SEC programs have let go of their coaches, with Florida and Tennessee moving on from Jim McElwain and Butch Jones respectively. If you’re hiring for those schools, who are the names you’re looking at? Let’s start with Florida first.
David Diehl: Well, if you’re looking at Florida… to say that Florida, of all teams, doesn’t have a quarterback, it’s stunning. That’s the one thing you expect them to have is a guy that can sling it. They need to get back to that type of football. My number-three guy would be Mike Norvell at Memphis. The Tigers just climbed to #21 in the rankings; they’re 8-1, 5-1 in conference. He guided them to a 8-5 record last year, and he runs a potent offense that puts up a lot of numbers and a lot of points, which is perfect for what Florida wants to be.
Number two would be Scott Frost. UCF just moved up to #15. Frost took over a 0-12 team from 2015, they went 6-7 last year, and now they’re 9-0, 6-0 in conference. The only thing you wonder with him is whether his longterm goal is to be back at Nebraska, his alma mater.
The clear number one, who everybody is talking about, outside of Chip Kelly, is Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. We just saw how tough the Bulldogs played Alabama. Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida when Tebow was there. He worked with the athletic director there. So there’s that home fit, where he knows what a Florida type of structure should be and what’s been successful there.
CBS Local Sports: How about Tennessee? Who are the top candidates there?
David Diehl: Mike Norvell fits here too. Matt Campbell at Iowa State is another one. He’s had wins over TCU and Oklahoma, but he’s always been a Midwest guy. He’s a ground-and-pound, run-the-football type of guy. That’s not Tennessee football. When you look at the number-one candidate, it’s Chip Kelly. He was 46-7 in his time at Oregon. He’s the sharpest mind available out there in college football. You know it wouldn’t be a huge price point, because he’s still being paid by the San Francisco 49ers. But the big thing is Kelly has a show-cause penalty from the NCAA hanging over him. But Kelly would be the perfect fit there.