With college football season in the home stretch, there are still a lot of questions to be answered.
Going into championship weekend, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Washington are in the desired top four spots in the College Football Playoff rankings, and should likely be in the four-team Playoff with a win this weekend (Ohio State doesn’t play this weekend, but more on that later).
But if one or more of those teams don’t win on Saturday, chaos could ensue, something that we’ve already seen on multiple Saturdays this season.
Could a two-loss team get in the Playoff? Does a team that didn’t even win their division, like Ohio State or Michigan, deserve a playoff bid? Could the Big Ten get more than one team in the four-team field? Could a Pac-12-champion Colorado team or the Big Ten champion get in?
In short: yes, and it is actually guaranteed to happen if either Clemson or Washington lose; yes, because the best four teams should get the four spots; yes, with some help, and there is even a long-shot, chaos-driven, doomsday scenario with three Big Ten teams getting in; maybe, although even a win and some help doesn’t guarantee them anything.
Each team’s best chance to reach the playoff is listed below, with still a variety of possible scenarios–perhaps the most entering championship weekend in the three years of the College Football Playoff format.
The last few weeks, I have not had the time to write a rankings post, but have posted my top 25 on Twitter. (See rankings for Week 10 here, and Week 11 here). I ranked the teams after Week 12 last week, but never posted them to Twitter; however, those rankings are reflected below, listed as each team’s “last week” ranking.
The Current Top Four
1. Alabama (12-0, Last Week: 1st, CFP Ranking: 1st)
Last Week: def. #13 Auburn, 30-12
This Week: SEC Championship Game vs. #15 Florida
The Crimson Tide are the only Power Five conference team who is undefeated, with 10 “convincing” wins that include triumphs over USC and Auburn, as well as a 10-0 road win over LSU. Even if the Tide are upset by Florida in the SEC Championship Game, their resume would still be good enough to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff.
2. Ohio State (11-1, 2nd, 2nd)
Last Week: def. #3 Michigan, 30-27 (2ot)
In the first two years of the Playoff format, all eight teams to make the four-team field have been conference champions. Ohio State will not be a conference champion, as their lone loss to Penn State cost them the Big Ten East Division title, but the Buckeyes have played four of the top nine teams in the CFP’s current rankings, and beat three of them, including Wisconsin and Oklahoma on the road, and Michigan in last week’s double-overtime instant classic. Yes, the committee infamously dropped TCU from third to sixth after a win in the final week of the 2014 season, but I see no way they would drop the Buckeyes three spots and out of the playoff field.
3. Clemson (11-1, 3rd, 3rd)
Last Week: def. South Carolina, 56-7
This Week: ACC Championship Game vs. #23 Virginia Tech
Clemson’s loss is to Pittsburgh, who is now a top 25 team, appears to have been a wake-up call for the Tigers, as all they’ve done in the two games since is outscore their competition 91-20, including a 56-7 win over rival South Carolina, the largest win in the series since 1900. Clemson is one of the teams that could make things interesting–even chaotic–with a loss, but if the Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the ACC title tilt, the 2015 runners-up will be back in the Playoff for the second straight year.
4. Washington (11-1, 5th, 4th)
Last Week: def. #23 Washington State, 45-17
This Week: Pac-12 Championship Game vs. #8 Colorado (Friday)
The Huskies dominated rival Washington State, clinching the Pac-12 North Division. Washington has the least impressive resume of the one-loss teams, which is why they’re fourth and not higher, and has a loss to the highest ranked team they’ve played, USC. CFP committee chairman Kirby Hocutt even said the margin between Washington and Michigan is “extremely small.” However, past precedent shows the committee values conference championships, and if the Huskies win they would not only have a conference trophy but also a new signature win over an 8th-ranked opponent (Colorado), which should be enough to seal their spot. If they lose, since their game is Friday night, if could make Saturday’s action even better as the teams below the top four would have added hope knowing a spot is already potentially open.
5. Michigan (10-2, 4th, 5th)
Last Week: lost at #2 Ohio State, 30-27 (2ot)
The Wolverines, like Ohio State, did not win the Big Ten East, although unlike Ohio State, Michigan did beat Penn State head-to-head. After Hocutt’s comments on the small difference between Washington and Michigan, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit inferred that, should one or both of Clemson and Washington falter, the Wolverines would be the next team on a hypothetical Playoff depth chart. Two three-game stretches are the key to Michigan’s resume: back-to-back-to-back wins over Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin could, in the end, be what gets the Wolverines in the Playoff, but losing two out of three to end the season–even with the losses by just one on the road to Iowa and to Ohio State only after a controversial fourth-down spot to keep the Buckeyes’ eventual game-winning drive alive (it was very close, but yes, it was a first down)–could be what keeps them out of the four-team field.
6. Wisconsin (10-2, 6th, 6th)
Last Week: def. Minnesota, 31-17
This Week: Big Ten Championship Game vs. #7 Penn State
On one hand, Wisconsin’s biggest win came way back on Sept. 3 over LSU (who has changed coaches since), although they have also beaten Iowa and Nebraska. The Badgers two losses are in tough games they played well in–a 7-point loss at Michigan and an overtime loss to Ohio State. If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten on Saturday, they will have a new signature win over Penn State, but they need some help to have any Playoff shot, especially since one of the teams they would have to jump is a Michigan team they’ve lost to.
7. Oklahoma (9-2, 7th, 9th)
Last Week: idle
This Week: vs. #10 Oklahoma State
With the Big 12 lacking a conference championship game, the league has regular season games this weekend. However, as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State play their “Bedlam” rivalry game, it will double as a de facto league title game, with the victor winning the Big 12. The Sooners have won nine straight after early-season losses to Houston and Ohio State, although they only have one win over a team that is currently ranked, West Virginia. The CFP committee did not rank the Sooners as high as I have, which means they face a very uphill battle to have any Playoff shot–it would likely take a huge blowout of the Cowboys and losses by both Clemson and Washington, and even then that probably would still not be enough, as the Sooners are would have to jump two teams out of Michigan, the eventual Big Ten champion, and Colorado (who would be the team to potentially beat Washington).
8. Penn State (10-2, 8th, 7th)
Last Week: def. Michigan State, 45-12
This Week: Big Ten Championship Game vs. #6 Wisconsin
The Nittany Lions are one of the nation’s best stories of the season, winning 10 games and the Big Ten East after two straight 7-6 seasons, and just three years removed from postseason ban that followed the Jerry Sandusky scandal. To some, Penn State have a better case than a couple of the teams directly above them, given their eight game winning streak that includes wins over Ohio State and Iowa. The Nittany Lions also won a division most consider the toughest division in college football this year, preventing Ohio State and Michigan from doing so. Two September losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh are what hurts the Nittany Lions chances, especially considering the Michigan loss was by 39 points. Still, Penn State may have a shot at the top four, albeit a small one, with a win Saturday night in the Big Ten Championship Game and some help from a couple of the teams ranked above them.
9. Colorado (10-2, 9th, 8th)
Last Week: def. #22 Utah 27-22
This Week: Pac-12 Championship Game vs. #4 Washington (Friday)
The Buffaloes may have an even better story than Penn State. They are in playoff contention after clinching their first bowl appearance since 2007 and their first winning season since 2005, and had won just 11 conference games in the last eight years entering this season, finishing last (tie or outright) all five seasons in the Pac-12. Now, they are the champions of the Pac-12 South, with their only losses coming to Michigan and USC, although they lack a true signature win (#20 Utah is their best). At the very least, they can play the role of spoiler in Friday’s title bout against #4 Washington. It would take a dominant performance and a lot of help, but if chaos occurs, the Buffaloes could still have an outside shot at the four-team field. Regardless, Mike McIntyre is easily the national coach of the year.
10. Oklahoma State (9-2, 10th, 10th)
Last Week: idle
This Week: at #9 Oklahoma
Mike Gundy’s Cowboys have quietly put together another solid season, and are one win away from the Big 12 title, facing Oklahoma in the “Bedlam” game on Saturday. While the Cowboys have wins over West Virginia and Pittsburgh, although they also have losses to Baylor and Central Michigan. The latter is the worst loss among any of the Playoff contenders, although the game was only lost after the officials made a procedural error at the end of the game that allowed Central Michigan an untimed down, on which they scored, an error the Big 12 later admitted to. The Cowboys resume doesn’t have the punch that the nine teams above them do, and with the two Big 12 contenders ranked 9th and 10th they are likely out of Playoff contention, even in the most unusual circumstances, although if the Pokes blow out Oklahoma and have a lot of help, they may have a sliver of hope.
Great Team, But No Playoff Case
11. USC (9-3, 14th, 11th)
Last Week: def. Notre Dame, 45-27
USC may be the hottest team in the country, with eight straight wins, including victories over both Pac-12 division winners (the only conference loss for both teams), leaving a few of the more radical pundits clamoring for the Trojans to be considered for the Playoff. But the Trojans lost three games in September, and only one of them was close. This is a hot team, and one which I would not want to play as an opposing player or coach, but three losses is simply too much for a team to be even considered for the Playoff.
12. Western Michigan (12-0, 13th, 17th)
Last Week: def. Toledo, 55-35
This Week: MAC Championship Game vs. Ohio (Friday)
The Broncos are one of two undefeated teams in FBS, alongside Alabama, but with their MAC schedule I agree with the committee that they aren’t a Playoff team (although I do have them five spots higher than the committee does). It’s not that they haven’t been dominant–the Broncos have scored 34 or more in 11 games and allowed 21 or less in eight games–but looking over their schedule there are no truly quality wins. I can’t even identify who their “best win” is. Western Michigan plays Ohio for the MAC title on Friday night, and currently holds a two-spot edge over Navy to be the highest ranked “Group of Five” champion, a distinction that earns an automatic “New Year’s Six” bowl bid (this year, the Cotton Bowl).
The Best of the Rest
13. Florida State (9-3, 15th, 12th)
14. Florida (8-3, 12th, 15th)
15. LSU (7-4, 23rd, 21st)
16. West Virginia (9-2, 21st, 16th)
17. Louisville (9-3, 11th, 13th)
18. Auburn (8-4, 16th, 14th)
19. Iowa (8-4, unranked, unranked)
20. Virginia Tech (9-3, unranked, 23rd)
21. Stanford (9-3, unranked, 18th)
22. Pittsburgh (8-4, unranked, 25th)
23. Navy (9-2, unranked, 19th)
24. Nebraska (9-3, 17th, unranked)
25. Utah (8-4, 22nd, 20th)
Also ranked in CFP Rankings: Tennessee (8-4, CFP: 22nd), Houston (9-3, 24th)
Fell from Rankings: Tennessee (8-4, Last Week: 18th), Houston (9-3, 19th), Boise State (10-2, 20th), Texas A&M (8-4, 24th), Washington State (8-4, 25th)