AP Top 25 Takeaways: Back door to the College Football Playoff is likely to be blocked this season

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Washington safety Makell Esteen (24) runs with safety Mishael Powell (3) after making an interception against Washington State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

The back door to the College Football playoff is unlikely to be open for Ohio State or anybody else next weekend.

A season defined by almost-upsets and favorites finding a way continued during rivalry week with CFP contenders withstanding unranked in-state foes Saturday.

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No. 1 Georgia had to work harder than it has in years to beat Georgia Tech and complete a third straight perfect regular season.

No. 5 Florida State erased a double-digit deficit to beat Florida in its first full game without injured star quarterback Jordan Travis.

No. 4 Washington and Michael Penix Jr. used a bold fourth-and-1 play call and walk-off field goal to beat Washington State in the Apple Cup and stay unbeaten heading into the Pac-12 title game.

That was easy compared to what No. 8 Alabama needed to escape Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Jalen Milroe and Isaiah Bond connected for a touchdown in the final minute on fourth-and-goal ... from the 31! And the Crimson Tide stayed in CFP contention as they prepare for the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia.

As for the second-ranked Buckeyes, it was another painful end to the regular season. No. 3 Michigan, without coach Jim Harbaugh (or Connor Stalions) on the sideline, beat Ohio State for the third straight year.

Michigan's players, acting head coach Sherrone Moore and athletic director Warde Manuel all refused to bite when asked if the victory validated three years of victories that some believe are tainted. The program is facing allegations of in-person scouting and sign-stealing that have led to an NCAA investigation and a three-game suspension of Harbaugh by the Big Ten.

"I think it proves that this team is a great team," Manuel said. “And they can play through the adversity of their coach being suspended. Just really proud of their effort, the way they stick together. They’re passionate to play for each other. It’s just remarkable.”

Michigan turning getting caught cheating into overcoming adversity understandably feeds the ire of many fans. The Wolverines are a victory over No. 20 Iowa in the Big Ten championship game away from a third straight playoff appearance.

J.J. McCarthy and crew will wear the villains' black hats into the postseason and don't seem worried at all about your finger wags and eye rolls.

“We only care about us,” McCarthy said.

With only the worst offense in the Power Five standing in the way, if you're looking for a championship week upset, Indianapolis is probably not the spot.

Upsets have been hard to find this season. That's how you get five unbeaten Power Five teams heading into rivalry weekend. Michigan-Ohio State narrowed it to four.

Washington has dodged the upset bug over the back half of the season more than any of the unbeatens, but the Huskies managed to stay that way long enough to give the Pac-12 something it has never had: a championship game with two legitimate CFP contenders.

Washington (12-0) and No. 6 Oregon (11-1) have taken different paths to their rematch in Las Vegas on Friday night.

The Huskies have lived on the edge since beating the Ducks, winning six straight games by 10 points of fewer. The Ducks' last six victories have been by an average of 26 points, with no one-possession games. Huskies-Ducks II could break the Pac-12's playoff drought right before the conference falls apart.

Alabama (11-1) has been a work in progress all season, but that has still been good enough to give the Crimson Tide a chance to make the CFP for the eighth time in 10 seasons of the four-team format.

A Tide team that needed a small miracle to beat an Auburn squad that just a week ago was pounded at home by New Mexico State didn't look like a serious threat to derail two-time defending champion Georgia in Atlanta next Saturday.

But there is precedent.

In 2021, Bryce Young led a late game-tying drive and Alabama beat a mediocre Auburn team in OT on the way to Atlanta. That Tide team then ambushed the unbeaten Bulldogs to force their way into the playoff.

Georgia made the playoff without winning its conference that year, and then won it all. Ohio State was one of two teams that didn't win its league to make the playoff last year along with TCU, which lost the Big 12 title game after a perfect regular season.

That path probably won't exist this year.

No. 7 Texas (11-1) is the Big 12's only CFP hope and will need to beat No. 21 Oklahoma State in the conference title game in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys (9-3), who have been all over the place this season, needed a huge comeback behind Ollie Gordon II and double overtime against BYU to earn their chance to spoil the Longhorns' going-away party. Texas joins the SEC next year.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, Florida State is the lone CFP contender after No. 9 Louisville (10-2) was knocked off by Kentucky. The ACC has been the conference most prone to those rare upsets.

In the final season before playoff expansion to 12 teams, cutting the field to four might be tricky.


LSU's Jaylen Daniels is the leader in the clubhouse for the Heisman Trophy, but Penix and Oregon's Bo Nix will have the last word.

Daniels wrapped up a superb season with four touchdown passes and 120 yards rushing in a victory against Texas A&M. The 14th-ranked Tigers have been pushing hard for Daniels to win the Heisman, with the weight of the SEC propaganda machine helping.

Make no mistake, Daniels is worthy with more than 3,800 yards passing and 1,100 rushing. But Heisman winners on teams that lose three games and don't play championship weekend have been rare. Lamar Jackson of Louisville in 2016 was the last.

Nix and Penix will have huge stages and massive games to make a final pitch to voters on Friday.

Nix has been especially good as the Ducks have romped into playoff contention, completing 78% of his passes with 37 touchdown passes.

AROUND THE COUNTRY: The hiring season is about to go from zero to 60. Michigan State made its move Saturday by luring Jonathan Smith away from Oregon State, a tough blow for a school with an uncertain future when it comes to conference affiliation. ... Don't be surprised if most teams with openings act fast and don't wait for coaches involved in conference championship games. Not with the transfer portal opening on Dec. 4. Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Syracuse could all have their vacancies filled by end of business Monday. ... Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby seems to be the front-runner at Mississippi State. ... The Mountain West championship game will be set Sunday. UNLV, with a chance to clinch the top seed, lost its regular-season finale to San Jose State, creating a three-way tie atop the Mountain West with Boise State and the Spartans. A set of computer rankings will determine who plays for the conference title next week. Boise State seems to be a safe bet to grab one of the spots. ... SMU (10-2) tore up Navy and will face No. 18 Tulane (11-1) in New Orleans for the American Athletic Conference championship and maybe a spot in a New Year's Six bowl. The Green Wave would be a lock for a second straight big bowl appearance under coach Willie Fritz with another league title. If SMU wins, could that open the door for unbeaten and No. 22 Liberty? The Flames still have to take care of New Mexico State in the Conference USA title game to have to remain in consideration.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com. Get alerts on the latest AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. Sign up here.


AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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