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10 bold predictions for rest of college football season: Alabama misses the playoff, USC wins Pac-12 and more

Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (4) grabs a touchdown reception against Arkansas during the second half Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (4) grabs a touchdown reception against Arkansas during the second half Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Vasha Hunt/AP)

From Alabama missing the playoff to Minnesota winning 11 games to Kansas beating a ranked opponent, here are 10 bold predictions for the rest of the college football season.

LSU goes undefeated and wins the SEC.

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Considering LSU is the No. 1 ranked team in the country and 8-0, this might not be considered bold. But the Tigers still have to get through Alabama and the SEC East champion to do it.

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban hopes quarterback Tua Tagovailoa won’t miss more than one game after having surgery to repair a high-ankle sprain. That puts the Heisman Trophy contender on track to return Nov. 9 in a pivotal game against LSU. But how healthy will he be?

Even before Tagovailoa’s injury, LSU looked like the conference’s best team, led by a revitalized offense under star quarterback Joe Burrow and assistant Joe Brady. In a more modern, quarterback-friendly scheme, Burrow set the school record for touchdown passes in just seven games, with 29. Before it ended in Saturday’s win over Auburn, his streak of 10 straight games with at least two touchdown passes was the longest in the Power 5.

With Alabama vulnerable because of injuries on defense and the health of its starting quarterback unclear, this is the Tigers’ best chance to win the conference since 2011. That season ended with a loss to Alabama in the BCS national championship game. Which brings us to …

Alabama misses the playoff.

If the Crimson Tide lose to LSU and fail to reach the SEC title game, that could sink their playoff hopes.

The biggest question for a one-loss Alabama team would be its resume. If the Tide go 11-1 without an SEC title, their best win would be over a likely ranked Auburn team. Wins over Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss and Western Carolina in nonconference play would not impress the playoff committee, and neither would a road victory over Texas A&M.

The Tide might point to the SEC’s strength as a reason for inclusion, but just look at who Alabama has played or will play in the conference this year: South Carolina (3-5), Ole Miss (3-5), Texas A&M (5-3), Tennessee (3-5), Arkansas (2-6), LSU (8-0), Mississippi State (3-5) and Auburn (6-2). Is going 7-1 against that group — which is a combined 33-31 — really worth playoff consideration? How would Alabama stack up against other potential one-loss teams, like Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma, Baylor or Penn State?

Alabama can make those discussions moot if they go undefeated. But if Tagovailoa isn’t back to his old self and the Tide lose to LSU, all bets are off.

Minnesota wins 11 games, plays in the Big Ten championship game and reaches a New Year’s Six bowl.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The undefeated Golden Gophers host Penn State on Nov. 9 before facing Iowa and Northwestern on the road and wrapping up the regular season at home against a suddenly beatable Wisconsin team. To win 11 games, they’ll need to go 3-1 over that stretch.

ESPN’s FPI gives the Gophers a 0.3% chance of winning out and just a 4.3% chance of winning the conference. They’ll likely be underdogs in all but the Northwestern game, but Minnesota has already gotten this far by defying the odds.

Memphis wins the AAC and plays in the Cotton Bowl.

Undefeated SMU is getting all the attention in the AAC, and rightfully so. But the Tigers are lurking at 7-1 and jumped back into the Top 25 rankings (No. 24) just in time for a huge matchup against the No. 15 Mustangs.

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If the Tigers win this weekend, they’ll take control of the AAC West and have a good chance to finish 12-1 — with a head-scratching replay decision costing them dearly in a close loss to Temple. It won’t be enough for playoff consideration — unless there’s chaos at the top — but the program’s first major bowl berth is a nice prize for fourth-year coach Mike Norvell.

Georgia finishes the regular season 9-3 … and loses its bowl game.

Left on the Bulldogs’ schedule are: Florida, Missouri, Auburn, Texas A&M and Georgia Tech. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Georgia just a 5.9% chance of winning out, and just a 17.8% chance of winning the SEC.

If the Bulldogs continue to play the way they did against South Carolina and Kentucky, they might be lucky just to go 2-3 during that stretch. The offense has struggled to find capable playmakers outside of running back D’Andre Swift, and the play-calling has limited quarterback Jake Fromm to averaging just 6.8 yards per attempt in games against SEC opponents and Notre Dame.

Georgia still has a strong defense and ranks sixth in the country in overall efficiency (in both FPI and SP+), but Kirby Smart’s in-game management continues to raise red flags. The Bulldogs were oh-so-close to a national title three years ago, and it seemed inevitable that Smart would eventually put Georgia back on top. But as conference rivals Alabama and LSU have embraced modern offenses, the Bulldogs seem stubbornly stuck in the run-first, ball-control days of old. Unless Smart and Co. make major changes after the bye week, a season that seemed destined for greatness is shaping up to be a major disappointment.

USC wins the Pac-12.

Believe it or not, the Trojans control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South after beating Utah earlier this year. So all they have to do is win out, and the division title is theirs. Easy, right?

Considering the uncertainty hanging around Clay Helton’s future, it’s hard to fathom that a conference title is even possible. USC has already lost three games, and each defeat has raised the drumbeat even louder for Helton’s firing. But what happens if the Trojans mess around and win the whole conference?

The advanced numbers like USC, which ranks 26th in SP+, 25th in Sagarin and 21st in FPI. The Trojans have already shown they can beat a conference power like Utah, and they nearly beat Notre Dame on the road. With rising star Kedon Slovis back at quarterback and one of the most talented rosters in the Pac-12, why can’t they topple Oregon at home, finish the regular season 9-3 and win the conference title game?

Appalachian State beats South Carolina and goes undefeated.

What a dream season this could be for the Mountaineers, who are set to cruise to another Sun Belt title and another 10-win season. Making it even sweeter would be two wins over Power 5 opponents. One down, one to go.

App State beat North Carolina earlier this year, their first win over a Power 5 opponent since making the jump back to FBS in 2014. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Of the Mountaineers’ 16 losses since 2014, seven have come against P5 foes, including one-score defeats against Penn State, Tennessee and Wake Forest. Against the rest of the FBS over that span, they’re 55-9, quietly becoming one of the premier Group of 5 programs in the country.

A win over South Carolina on Nov. 9 would not only be App State’s biggest since a shocking upset of No. 5 Michigan in 2007 (which came as an FCS team), but crucial for its hopes of reaching another program milestone — its first major bowl game. If the Mountaineers finish 12-0 with a conference championship and two P5 wins, they’d have a strong case for an invitation to the Cotton Bowl over a potential 12-1 AAC champion or 12-1 Mountain West champ Boise State. If that’s the scenario, it will be fascinating to see what the committee decides.

Illinois and Tennessee make a bowl game.

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With Saturday’s win over Purdue, the Fighting Illini are 4-4 and just two victories away from reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2014.

The shocking upset of Wisconsin might have truly altered the trajectory of Lovie Smith’s program. Without that victory, a six-win season would have seemed too far out of reach. But with games left against Rutgers and Northwestern, two of the worst teams in the FBS, there’s a simple path to bowl-eligibility. And who knows, maybe the Illini have some magic left in them to beat Michigan State or Iowa on the road.

For Tennessee, what once seemed unthinkable after a 1-4 start now seems possible. The Volunteers have won two of their past three to get to 3-5, and they finish the season vs. UAB, at Kentucky, at Missouri and vs. Vanderbilt. Despite its recent struggles against the Commodores, Tennessee should be able to beat its in-state rival this year, handle UAB at home and win one of the remaining swing games against conference foes. The sky might not be falling in Knoxville after all.

Kansas upsets a ranked opponent.

Let’s keep focusing on the positives, shall we?

The Jayhawks have been more competitive this season under Les Miles than they have been in years, evidenced by their near-win over Texas and dramatic victory over Texas Tech. They couldn’t quite finish off the upset in Austin, but there’s a good chance they can put a similar scare into another ranked conference foe.

Kansas faces No. 22 Kansas State on the road this weekend and gets a potentially unbeaten Baylor (currently No. 12) in the regular-season finale. And while chances are slim that they can beat those two, the Jayhawks have shown enough feistiness to trip up a team that doesn’t take them seriously enough. Plus, you know the Mad Hatter has a few tricks up his sleeve.

North Carolina wins the ACC Coastal.

Listen, picking anyone to win this division right now counts as a bold prediction. Through nine weeks, there’s still a mathematical chance for a seven-way tie at 4-4.

But let’s go with the Tar Heels, who have lost by just a combined 12 points in their four defeats this season, including a one-point loss to expected ACC champion Clemson. UNC finishes the season vs. Virginia, at Pitt, vs. Mercer and at North Carolina State, and needs to go 3-1 or better to have a realistic chance at winning the division. A win this weekend over Virginia is a must, since it would give the Heels a valuable tiebreaker.

A rematch against Clemson in the conference title game seems destined, and UNC has the talent on both sides of the ball to make it happen. Now if they can just get those one-score games to go in their favor ...

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