Forde-Yard Dash: How conferences have stacked up so far, 4 picks for the playoff

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where Cyclone-on-Cyclone crime does not pay:

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CONFERENCE CALL

Three weeks in, we are starting to get some clarity in the annual conference bragging rights tussle. And yes, it does (or should) matter when it comes to College Football Playoff parsing. While fans will cherry-pick the results that fit their arguments for or against certain leagues, The Dash has looked at all the data before making some conclusions.

Herewith, the top six leagues, in order, based solely on non-conference results to this point:

Big 12 (1).

Non-conference record: 22-5, .815 winning percentage.
Record vs. Power Five opponents: 6-4, .600.
Road/neutral record: 7-2, .778
Percentage of non-conference games played away from home: 33.
Best wins: Kansas State at Mississippi State; Kansas at Boston College; TCU at Purdue; West Virginia over North Carolina State.
Worst losses: Kansas to Coastal Carolina; Texas Tech at Arizona.
Percentage of non-conference games against FCS opponents: 29.7 (8-0 record).

The Big 12 hasn’t done much wrong thus far — there are five undefeated teams, and nobody has a losing record. Texas’ home loss to LSU was a big missed opportunity, and Oklahoma’s non-conference schedule looks softer now than it did before the season started with Houston and UCLA a combined 1-5. While Iowa State’s start has been a bit disappointing, Kansas State is off and flying under new coach Chris Klieman. There is definitely some padding of the record from scheduling FCS opponents, but the Big 12 hasn’t been scared to go on the road — and to win on the road.

Strongest playoff contender: Oklahoma.

Jalen Hurts and Oklahoma have been the best team in the best conference so far this season. (Getty)

Big Ten (2).

Non-conference record: 27-7, .794 winning percentage.
Record vs. Power Five opponents: 4-4, .500.
Road/neutral record: 5-4, .556
Percentage of non-conference games played away from home: 26.5.
Best wins: Iowa at Iowa State; Ohio State over Cincinnati; Maryland over Syracuse; Michigan over Army.
Worst losses: Purdue at Nevada; Illinois to Eastern Michigan; Maryland at Temple.
Percentage of non-conference games against FCS opponents: 11.8 (4-0 record).

There are six unbeatens remaining in the Big Ten, three in each division. But of those six, only Ohio State and Wisconsin have won all their games authoritatively. Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Penn State have, to varying degrees, had to sweat out some tense situations. The West Division looks less balanced now than it did coming into the year, thanks to wobbly starts by Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska. Meanwhile, the deeper and stronger East saw two teams fizzle Saturday (Maryland and Michigan State). Credit the Big Ten for limiting its FCS opponents, but the league also has been the most home-heavy thus far.

Strongest playoff contender: Ohio State.

Southeastern (3).

Non-conference record: 25-8, .758 winning percentage.
Record vs. Power Five opponents: 5-4, .556.
Road/neutral record: 5-5, .500.
Percentage of non-conference games played away form home: 30.3.
Best wins: LSU at Texas; Auburn over Oregon; Florida over Miami; Alabama over Duke; Missouri over West Virginia.
Worst losses: Tennessee to Georgia State; Missouri to Wyoming; South Carolina to North Carolina; Mississippi to Memphis.
Percentage of non-conference games against FCS opponents: 27.3 (9-0 record).

The anticipated surge in Eastern Division competitiveness hasn’t happened — it still looks like Georgia head and shoulders above everyone else, though credit to Florida for finding a way to be 3-0. The rest of that division has found a way to underachieve. In the West, LSU and Auburn have the two best wins anyone has posted thus far in the entire nation, and neither of them were at home. And Alabama remains very much Alabama, albeit without much of a running game. There are too many FCS opponents, and it must be noted that the SEC is a bleak 1-4 in true road games out of conference.

Strongest playoff contender: LSU (for the moment).

Pac-12 (4).

Non-conference record: 22-10, .688 winning percentage.
Record vs. Power Five opponents: 4-3, .571.
Road/neutral record: 4-5, .444.
Percentage of non-conference games played away from home: 28.1.
Best wins: Utah at BYU; Arizona State at Michigan State; Colorado over Nebraska; Arizona over Texas Tech; Stanford over Northwestern.
Worst losses: Arizona at Hawaii; Colorado to Air Force; UCLA to San Diego State.
Percentage of non-conference games against FCS opponents: 18 (7-0 record).

The maligned Pac-12 has had some good moments, none bigger than Arizona State winning in East Lansing on Saturday and sweeping a two-year series against Michigan State. It also has taken its lumps against the Mountain West Conference. The early losses for Oregon and USC do not help the league’s visibility, and the defensive collapse of Stanford has been shocking. On the other hand, credit Stanford (Central Florida) and UCLA (Cincinnati) for going to play quality American Athletic Conference opposition on the road.

Strongest playoff contender: Utah.

Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (3) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Northern Illinois on Sept. 7. (Getty)

Mountain West (5).

Non-conference record: 20-11, .645 winning percentage.
Record vs. Power Five opponents: 7-9, .438.
Road/neutral record: 5-8, .385.
Percentage of non-conference games played away from home: 41.9.
Best wins: Boise State over Florida State; Wyoming over Missouri; Nevada over Purdue; Air Force over Colorado; Hawaii over Arizona; San Diego State over UCLA.
Worst losses: UNLV to Arkansas State.
Percentage of non-conference games against FCS opponents: 32.3 (10-0 record).

What a start for a league that had been slumping in recent seasons. The MWC has four unbeatens, all of whom have knocked off a Power Five opponent. As usual, the Mountain West teams are willing to play on the road — 42 percent of their non-league games have been away from home. And as Missouri, Purdue, Arizona and Oregon State found out, you take your chances giving these teams home shots at Power Five opposition. Is there a legit playoff dark horse in the bunch? That may be a stretch.

Strongest playoff contender: Air Force. The win at Colorado might be the best for any MWC team, and the Falcons probably have the strongest remaining schedule if they can somehow run the table.

Atlantic Coast (6).

Non-conference record: 20-10, .667 winning percentage.
Record vs. Power Five opponents; 3-7, .300.
Road/neutral record: 6-5, .546.
Percentage of non-conference games played away from home: 36.7.
Best wins: Clemson over Texas A&M; Wake Forest over North Carolina*; North Carolina over South Carolina.
Worst losses: Georgia Tech to Citadel; Florida State to Boise State; Boston College to Kansas; North Carolina State at West Virginia.
Percentage of non-conference games against FCS opponents: 23.3.

(*Yes, this was actually a non-conference game.)

Wow, has the non-Clemson portion of the ACC been bad. That 3-7 record against Power Five competition is cringe-worthy, and there have been a couple of non-P5 losses that were brutal as well. Virginia could be the best in the Coastal Division, but the Cavaliers tried every way possible to blow a home game against a bad Florida State team Saturday. The motley state of the conference puts pressure on Clemson to go 13-0, because its strength of schedule looks like it will be suspect. One thing to keep in mind with the ACC, though: It still has several important non-league matchups to come, with four teams playing Notre Dame and the four annual rivalry games at season’s end against SEC East opposition.

Clemson Tigers linebacker Isaiah Simmons (11) reacts to a defensive play with teammates Justin Mascoll (7) and Xavier Kelly (back) against Syracuse on Saturday. (Getty)

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

How The Dash would draw up the College Football Playoff bracket if today were Selection Sunday:

Peach Bowl: Top seed LSU (7) vs. fourth seed Ohio State (8).

The Tigers keep their hold on the top spot because they still have the best win of the season, at Texas. There was a slight Austin hangover to start against Northwestern State on Saturday, but it didn’t last long enough to matter. For the first time since 1930, LSU has scored at least 45 points in each of its first three games. (The 1930 team was averaging 77 points after its first three games, then lost at South Carolina 7-6. Here’s guessing LSU scores more than six Saturday at Vanderbilt.)

The Buckeyes make their first appearance in the Fab Four following their first trip away from the Horseshoe. Ohio State was impressively complete in thrashing Indiana 51-10, scoring points in all three phases with a blocked punt for a safety and a pick six. The Buckeyes have been throwing early knockout punches: Through three games, they are outscoring their opponents 86-13 in the first half.

Fiesta Bowl: Second seed Clemson (9) vs. third seed Auburn (10).

Clemson has three wins over Power Five competition, which nobody else can say at this point. Its road wipeout of Syracuse, coupled with the home win over Texas A&M the previous week, moves Clemson up to the No. 2 seed this week. The Tigers led the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed per carry last year, then graduated five studs off that defense, and are still No. 6 nationally in that category this year. Amazing work yet again by coordinator Brent Venables.

Auburn’s neutral-site win over Oregon continues to hold up well. This Tigers team is built around its defensive line, but they finally got the offense cranked up in a rout of Kent State on Saturday. Auburn ran the ball 62 times for 467 yards against the Golden Flashes, its most carries and rushing yards in a game in three years. The Tigers can entrench themselves in the Fab Four (or perhaps fall out) Saturday with a trip to Texas A&M.

Dropped out: Alabama.

Also considered: Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Central Florida, Utah.

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