(updated to include College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night)
After rivalry weekend, the field of likely contenders for the college football playoff is down to six, with Mississippi State’s loss to Ole Miss. That being said, there are other teams who still have an outside shot, if three or more of the top six were to fall on championship weekend.
Before we look into the rankings, I’ll take this opportunity to say this: I really like the new playoff format. Everyone knew the system from the BCS years needed an overhaul, and the powers that be came up with the four-team playoff idea. While some will say the field is too small, and will clamor for an eight or 16 team field, I feel like four is just right, as the bracket is not too easy to get in to, and every single game still means so much. At the same time, like the Wild Card rule in baseball, it keeps more teams in more parts of the country in the race until the very end.
The Six Contenders
These six teams are in the most control when it comes to earning a playoff berth. While the top two should be able to simply win to get in, the next four could all make a case for the fourth spot with a win, as the fifth and sixth teams are playing a tougher opponent this week than third-ranked TCU. That being said, Ohio State and Baylor are in positions where they just need a small amount of help to move into a “control their own destiny” position.
1. Alabama (11-1, Last Week: 1st, CFP Ranking: 1st)
The Crimson Tide dominated in the final quarter and a half to take the Iron Bowl over Auburn, 55-44, and clinched the SEC West title. They now head to Atlanta to face Missouri for the SEC Championship, as they are now one win away from the inaugural College Football Playoff, and likely being the top seed as well. The Tide have won seven straight since an October 4 loss to Ole Miss, their only blemish, including four wins over ranked opponents in that span. By the statistics this team isn’t necessarily the best, but by the so-called “eye test”, there is little doubt in my mind they are.
2. Oregon (11-1, 3rd, 2nd)
The Ducks season story is similar to that of Alabama, as they recovered from a loss in earlier October, which was to Arizona, to run through conference play with seven straight wins, including strong wins over UCLA and Utah on the road, and convincingly beat rival Oregon State to ride a wave of momentum into the Pac-12 title game. They additionally have a home win over Michigan State from way back on September 6. However, the Ducks face a tougher test than Alabama does on Championship Weekend, as they will play a rematch against Arizona. The last two seasons, Oregon is 0-2 against the Wildcats and 22-1 against everyone else.
3. Florida State (12-0, 2nd, 4th)
In what has seemingly become a weekly occurrence, the Seminoles survived a close game in an upset bid on Saturday, this time against rival Florida. They have now won 28 straight games, dating back to their last loss, against Florida in 2012, but their average margin of victory, which last year set a record at 39.5, is just 12.6 points per game, and the margin of their last three victories is a combined 12 points. They have trailed at some point in six straight games and in nine of their last 10, but as Herman Edwards once said, “You play to win the game!”, and they are still doing that. This week, however, they will face arguably their toughest test of the year, as they play Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, as they have fallen to fourth in the CFP rankings and now sit on the playoff bubble.
4. TCU (10-1, 4th, 3rd)
TCU started the season on no one’s radar, as I said they were projected to finish at 8-4 in fourth in the Big 12. Now, as the team has four wins over ranked opponents, their only blemish is a 61-58 loss to Baylor in a game they led by 21 in the fourth quarter, and they prepare to face Iowa State, who is winless in the Big 12 and 2-9 overall, in their final regular season test. With Mississippi State, who had been fourth in the CFP rankings, losing to Ole Miss, the Horned Frogs jump into the top four in the rankings, also passing Florida State, although with the two teams behind them both playing top 15 competition this week, they will still have to defend their spot, which may mean (unfortunately) running the score up on the Cyclones.
5. Baylor (10-1, 6th, 6th)
Baylor has run through their Big 12 slate, with the exception of a road loss at West Virginia, and as mentioned beat TCU in their head-to-head meeting in a 61-58 thriller. Texas Tech pushed the Bears to the limit this week, coming a two-point conversion short of potential overtime, as the Bears survived, 48-46. The Bears have one more test this week when Kansas State comes to Waco, as they try to clinch the Big 12 title. Their case for the playoff includes the argument that, since they beat TCU head-to-head, they should be ahead of TCU in the rankings. However, the resume of the Bears is not quite as strong as that of TCU, although with a strong performance Saturday by the nation’s top scoring team, they can certainly make a case to change that.
6. Ohio State (11-1, 7th, 5th)
Since the second week of the season, the Buckeyes have been about as good as anyone, winning ten straight games, and scoring 42 or more eight times. However, a September 6 loss to Virginia Tech is the biggest hole on their resume, and is easily the worst loss suffered by the teams in the top six. In addition, this team is hard to rank after the loss of QB J.T. Barrett in the midst of their win over Michigan to a broken ankle, as no one really knows how strong they are with Cardale Jones under center (remember, he’s the third string QB, Barrett was Braxton Miller’s backup). Road wins at Michigan State and Minnesota are the highlight of the Buckeyes schedule, and a Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin could as well if they beat the Badgers on Saturday. However, sitting in this position, even with a potential win over Wisconsin, they will need some help from the opponents of the teams ahead of them.
The Long Shots
These teams are in a different position, as all of them need a win (if they have a game this weekend) and a lot of help if they want to reach the top four. The good news for these teams is that the ones who are playing this weekend are all playing a team ranked above them, giving them an opportunity to make a statement and make up some ground with a win. That being said, these teams’ playoff scenarios begin with at least three of the top six losing.
7. Michigan State (10-2, 8th, 8th)
It will be very hard for the Spartans to make the playoff, even with some help, as they don’t have a game this weekend to help them make their closing statement to the committee. The Spartans can boast that the teams they’ve lost to, Oregon and Ohio State, are both in the group of six contenders, as they come off of their season finale win against Penn State.
8. Wisconsin (10-2, 11th, 13th)
The Badgers came from behind to beat Minnesota in the de facto title game in the Big Ten West, clinching their spot in Indianapolis for the conference championship against Ohio State. After early season losses to LSU and Northwestern, the Badgers have been very impressive, particularly with their rushing attack which averages 334 yards per game, and with a sizeable win over Ohio State, may have an outside shot at the final four.
9. Arizona (10-2, 15th, 7th)
The Wildcats have one of the season’s signature wins, beating Oregon in Eugene, as well as a road win over Utah and a home win over rival Arizona State to win the Pac-12 South, even with good losses (if such a thing exists) to USC and UCLA. The Wildcats have beaten Oregon twice in a row, and get another chance Friday in the Pac-12 title game in Santa Clara, CA. Another upset of the Ducks could really put Rich Rodriguez’s program on the map, if not more.
10. Mississippi State (10-2, 5th, 10th)
The Bulldogs playoff hopes are likely over after they lost to rival Ole Miss, 31-17. After ascending to the #1 ranking, losses in two out of their last three games have likely spelled doom for the Bulldogs, as they have no conference title game this week to prove themselves in, so it will be very likely to move back into the top four, even with a lot of help. That being said, this has still been the school’s greatest season since 1999, and one of their best three ever.
11. Georgia Tech (10-2, 17th, 11th)
Both Georgia and Georgia Tech can say they should have won their rivalry game in regulation, but it was the Yellow Jackets who prevailed once the game went to overtime. Beating the Bulldogs helps a resume that is somewhat weak otherwise, with their only other signature win coming against Clemson, and includes losses to North Carolina and Duke. While those defeats will likely keep the Yellow Jackets out of the playoff discussion, you never know what could happen if they were to beat Florida State in a rematch of the 2012 ACC title game in which the Yellow Jackets nearly stunned the Seminoles.
12. Missouri (10-2, 18th, 16th)
The Tigers are coming off of a 21-14 win over Arkansas which clinched them the SEC East and a shot at Alabama in the SEC title game. Their biggest issue is a resume lacking big wins, as both ranked opponents they have beaten have since fallen well out of the rankings, and no one the Tigers defeated has won more than eight games. They also have a 34-0 loss to Georgia, as well as maybe the worst single loss out of all of the contenders, a 31-27 home loss to Indiana in September. If the Tigers could stun Alabama, they would have the title of SEC champion, but they would need a massive amount of help to make the playoff.
13. Kansas State (9-2, 12th, 9th)
After blowing out rival Kansas 51-13, the Wildcats now face Baylor, and still have an outside shot at an outright Big 12 title with a win and a TCU loss. That being said, for a shot at the playoff they need to blow out Baylor, to show their worth, and then get tons of help. The Wildcats do have signature road wins against Oklahoma and West Virginia (and play Baylor on the road), and have no bad losses, falling to Auburn and TCU, but they don’t really have a playoff resume unless they have the title of conference champion.
The Best of the Rest
14. Ole Miss (9-3, 19th, 12th)
15. Georgia (9-3, 9th, 14th)
16. UCLA (9-3, 10th, 15th)
17. Arizona State (9-3, 13th, 17th)
18. Oklahoma (8-3, 20th, 20th)
19. Clemson (9-3, 22nd, 18th)
20. Auburn (8-4, 14th, 19th)
21. Louisville (9-3, 24th, 21st)
22. Nebraska (9-3, unranked, unranked)*
23. Boise State (10-2, unranked, 22nd)^
24. USC (8-4, unranked, 25th)
25. LSU (8-4, unranked, 24th)
Also ranked in CFP Rankings: Utah (8-4, unranked, 23rd)
Fell from Rankings: Marshall (11-1, 16th, unranked), Colorado State (10-2, 21st, unranked), Arkansas (6-6, 25th, unranked)
*Editor’s Note: Yes, the team I have ranked 22nd and the AP has ranked 25th is the same Nebraska team which just fired coach Bo Pelini. I can’t ever remember a ranked team firing a coach for on-field performance (as opposed to a moral issue).
^Editor’s Note: Boise State is currently the leading “Group of Five” team, which would earn them a New Year’s Six bowl bid.