After rivalry weekend, we’re now one week away from the College Football Playoff being finalized. In the weekend’s most basic scenario, five teams are battling for four spots, with Oklahoma virtually locked in (they do not play this weekend), Clemson and Alabama simply needing to win to secure their spot, and Michigan State and Iowa playing each other in the Big Ten Championship Game, which doubles as a de facto national quarterfinal and a play-in game to the Playoff.
However, should Clemson and/or Alabama lose on Saturday, chaos will ensue, as there will be plenty of debate about who should get in the top four. Ohio State, Stanford (should they win the Pac-12 on Saturday), and North Carolina (should they upset Clemson) would all have a Playoff case, and while Clemson and Alabama would drop with losses, they might also still have cases to hold on to the fourth spot.
Here’s how the teams stack up in relation to the playoff picture, with the field to be announced at noon on Sunday, just hours after the conclusion of Championship Saturday:
Controlling Their Own Fate
1. Clemson (12-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Ranking: 1st)
Sure, the Tigers only beat South Carolina (3-9) by five points, 37-32, but they never trailed the Gamecocks, and were able to hold on against an incredible effort from a huge underdog. To use a March Madness term, they “survived and advanced”, and enter the ACC Championship Game on Saturday with a perfect record. The Tigers have two wins over current top 10 teams, and can add a third with a win over North Carolina (11-1), who hasn’t lost since September 3, this weekend in Charlotte. With the Tigers currently ranked in the top spot, as they have been in each Playoff ranking so far, all they have to do is win the game to earn their bid to the College Football Playoff, as they aim for their first national title since 1981.
2. Alabama (11-1, LW: 2nd, CFP: 2nd)
Like Clemson, Alabama simply has to win Saturday to advance to the Playoff. The Crimson Tide are coming off of a 29-13 win over Auburn (6-6) in the Iron Bowl. To say that Florida (10-2), the Tide’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, is struggling on offense would be an understatement, as they totaled just two points (and that was a defensive score) in a 25-point loss to Florida State. The entire college football world would be stunned if Alabama lost to Florida, and they are favored by 18 points. Like last year’s 42-13 SEC title game win over Missouri, most (including me) are expecting this to be a coronation for the Crimson Tide as they march towards the playoff for the second straight year.
3. Oklahoma (11-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 3rd)
The Sooners demolished rival Oklahoma State (10-2) in the “Bedlam” game, 58-23. Since the Big 12 has no title game, the Sooners clinched the outright conference title with the win, and will be idle this weekend, having virtually assured themselves a berth in the Playoff. While Oklahoma does have a bad loss to Texas (4-7), their backloaded schedule has produced three straight wins over ranked opponents over the last three weeks, in addition to an early win over Tennessee, who crept back into the top 25 this week. The Sooners will be able to sit back and relax this weekend, as they prepare for a trip to the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve.
4. Michigan State (11-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 5th)
A week after a thrilling win over Ohio State, the Spartans put on arguably their best performance of the season in a 55-16 win over Penn State (7-5), clinching the Big Ten East and a berth in the league’s title game this Saturday in Indianapolis against Iowa (12-0). While they do have a loss, and Iowa does not, the Spartans seem like a better team on paper, and are a four-point favorite in the neutral-site contest. With the fourth and fifth ranked teams in the CFP rankings meeting in this title fight, the winner will lock up a Playoff berth, while the loser will almost certainly be left on the outside looking in.
5. Iowa (12-0, LW: 6th, CFP: 4th)
The Hawkeyes finished off a perfect regular season with a 28-20 win over Nebraska (5-7), but despite their undefeated record in a Power Five conference, are only fourth in the CFP and fifth here. This is because they have been less than dominant in a lot of their wins, including five wins by one possession (eight points or less), and several more that were close until they pulled away at the very end. They do have two wins over currently ranked teams (Northwestern and Wisconsin), with both coming on the road. While their resume isn’t as good as the teams around them in the rankings, they can fix that with a win over Michigan State (11-1) in the Big Ten Championship Game. Another thing that a win would do would be to put them into the College Football Playoff field.
It’s Possible, But Not Probable
6. Ohio State (11-1, LW: 8th, CFP: 6th)
Facing with rival Michigan (9-3) after a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes may have been playing a bit angry Saturday, and it paid off with a dominant 42-13 win over the Wolverines. The loss to the Spartans, however, keeps the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship Game, and they will be idle for championship weekend. On one hand, the Playoff committee has conference championships as part of its criteria for measuring teams, which would hurt the Buckeyes’ chances. On the other hand, the Buckeyes’ only loss is to a Michigan State team that is favored against Iowa in a game that will propel its winner into the Playoff. On one hand, the one loss for the Buckeyes is much later than the loss for a lot of the other teams, assuming “time of loss” is a factor. On the other hand, their resume is still pretty good, and could be enough to reach the Playoff if either Clemson or Alabama falters this weekend. The Buckeyes case to make or miss the Playoff in that case may be the most confusing.
7. Stanford (10-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 7th)
Stanford’s game against Notre Dame (10-2) was a “whoever has the ball last” type of affair, and that is indeed how it turned out, as the Irish scored with :30 to play to take the lead, but Stanford still found enough time to drive into field goal range, and win 38-36 on a 45-yard Conrad Ukropina field goal. Generally, I don’t like the idea of a two-loss team making the playoff, particularly in this year’s field of teams where there are seven other contenders with one loss or less. They won’t get in unless they get some help on Saturday, and win themselves against USC (8-4) in the Pac-12 title game. But we know the committee likes conference champions, and the only losses this team has are to Northwestern (10-2) and Oregon (9-3). It’s a long shot, and I wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled if it happens, but the Cardinal do still have a chance.
8. North Carolina (11-1, LW: 13th, CFP: 10th)
The Tar Heels defeated NC State (7-5) for their 11th straight win, jumping out to a 35-7 first quarter lead on their way to a 45-34 victory. The committee isn’t particularly high on the Heels, as they are ranked lowest among one-loss teams from Power Five conferences. The argument against the Tar Heels is that their loss came to a 3-9 South Carolina team, and that two of their wins are over FCS opponents. They also lack a big-time win, with none of the 11 teams they have beaten currently ranking in the top 25. However, should they beat Clemson (12-0) on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game, a lot of that would go away, as a win over the #1 ranked team would certainly boost their resume and would void the argument about the lack of a quality win. Would it be enough to vault the Tar Heels into the Playoff? The committee has given teams a big jump in their rankings after big wins before, and a North Carolina win over Clemson would be arguably the best win by anyone in college football this year. They may or may not still need some help if they upset the Tigers, but there’s still a chance of the Tar Heels shocking the world and making the four-team playoff.
Better Luck Next Year
9. Notre Dame (10-2, LW: 4th, CFP: 8th)
The Irish took a 36-35 lead on Stanford (10-2) with :30 remaining, but the Cardinal fought back to kick a game winning field goal as time expired, beating the Irish 38-36. An argument for the expansion of the College Football Playoff (not saying I’m for or against it, just presenting the argument) is that the Irish are potentially two plays from being 12-0 and the top seed, but instead have no chance at the four-team tournament. What other sport does a team that’s that close to being the title favorite not even make the playoffs?
10. Florida State (10-2, LW: 14th, CFP: 9th)
The Seminoles showed their dominance over a struggling Florida (10-2) offense, winning 27-2, as the Gators only score was a safety. If not for the freakish play that allowed a Georgia Tech team that finished 3-9 to upset the Seminoles on October 24, Florida State would be right in the thick of the Playoff picture, with a lone loss to Clemson. Instead, with the loss to the Yellow Jackets after a blocked field goal attempt was returned for a touchdown as time expired, the ‘Noles will have to settle for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
11. TCU (10-2, LW: 16th, CFP: 11th)
12. Baylor (9-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 12th)
13. Northwestern (10-2, LW: 15th, CFP: 14th)
14. Ole Miss (9-3, LW: 19th, CFP: 13th)
15. Houston (11-1, LW: 21st, CFP: 19th)
16. Oklahoma State (10-2, LW: 10th, CFP: 17th)
17. Florida (10-2, LW: 9th, CFP: 18th)
18. Oregon (9-3, LW: 18th, CFP: 16th)
19. Michigan (9-3, LW: 11th, CFP: 15th)
20. Temple (10-2, LW: 24th, CFP: 22nd)
21. USC (8-4, LW: unranked, CFP: 20th)
22. LSU (8-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 21st)
23. Wisconsin (9-3, LW: unranked, CFP: unranked)
24. Tennessee (8-4, LW: unranked, CFP: 25th)
25. Navy (9-2, LW: 17th, CFP: 24th)
Also ranked in CFP Rankings: Utah (9-3, CFP: 24th)
Fell from Rankings: UCLA (8-4, LW: 20th), Mississippi State (8-4, LW: 22nd), Washington State (8-3, LW: 23rd), Toledo (9-2, LW: 25th)