The best regular season in sports is heading toward its climax. On Halloween, 17 teams still had a shot of making the College Football Playoff (CFP), and I predicted that many top teams would lose in the weeks to come. Two weeks later, the number of undefeated or 1-loss teams has dropped from 17 to 9. Over the next three weeks, that number will likely dip to a handful (or fewer).
For the purposes of discussion, I’ll list two rankings for each team: The first is from the CFP Selection Committee, and the second is from the Anderson & Hester Computer Rankings (which I co-created and which were part of the BCS throughout its 16-year run).
Of the 17 teams still in the mix a fortnight ago, 10 have since lost. Four of those 10 are now out of the running for a playoff spot: #17/#14 Michigan State (7-3) is now toast. Ditto #18/#20 Washington (8-2), #22/#21 Stanford (7-3), and unranked/#28 Virginia Tech (7-3).
As for the baker’s dozen that remain alive—plus one addition that didn’t make my original list of 17—here’s how their chances stack up, as of the release of the CFP Rankings on Tuesday night:
Controlling Their Own Destiny (7 teams):
Mathematically, no more than four of these teams can win out, and anyone that does is going to make the playoff. Indeed, Alabama may not even need to win out. Depending on what happens in other games, it might be enough for the Crimson Tide merely to lose close at Auburn or—if they win that game—in the SEC championship game the following week against Georgia.
Clemson, Miami, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin also each have an outside chance of losing a game and still making the playoff—provided they win their respective conference championship games. Oklahoma has a longshot chance of making the playoff even if the Sooners lose the Big 12 championship game.
(Yes, the Big 12, which doesn’t have divisions—its round-robin schedule lets every team play every other team—is going to subject its 1st-place finisher (almost surely Oklahoma) to a “championship game” against the team that finishes 2nd, quite possibly costing the conference a playoff spot in the process.)
Very Much Still in the Mix (1 team):
#9/#11 Ohio State (8-2)
If the Buckeyes win out and thereby win the Big Ten, capping their season by beating #24/#12 Michigan and #5/#3 Wisconsin, the committee would likely pick them over Notre Dame, the Pac-12 champion, the Big 12 champion (if it’s not Oklahoma), or an undefeated UCF.
The SEC and ACC champions are going to make the playoff, so that leaves two spots. The Buckeyes could still miss out if Oklahoma wins the Big 12 and the committee decides to take a second team from the SEC or ACC—or even if Oklahoma doesn’t win the Big 12 and the committee decides to emphasize the Sooners’ head-to-head, 15-point win at Columbus. But the odds are that an 11-2 Ohio State would make the playoff, despite the Buckeyes’ 31-point loss to unranked/#22 Iowa in November.
Kind of Still in the Mix (2 teams):
#8/#7 Notre Dame (8-2) and #10/#9 Penn State (8-2)
The good news for the Irish is there’s a reasonable chance they won’t get caught from behind in the committee’s rankings, except by an Ohio State team that wins out. The bad news is they’ll have to move up four spots without the benefit of a conference championship or a truly marquee game still to come. Notre Dame’s best bet is to have Oklahoma lose to West Virginia or, more likely, to TCU or Oklahoma State in the Big 12 “championship game” (see above), have Alabama beat both Auburn and Georgia, and have Miami beat Clemson somewhat convincingly (or else have Clemson lose at unranked/#19 South Carolina).
If all of that happens, the Irish would likely join Alabama, Miami, and the Big Ten champion in the playoff—if they can beat Navy and #22/#21 Stanford to finish 10-2. Notre Dame could also potentially prevail if the Big Ten’s eventual champion loses between now and the Big Ten championship game.
With that said, Penn State does have a chance to catch Notre Dame from behind, especially if the Irish look uninspiring the rest of the way. The Nittany Lions have lost 2 games (both on the road) by a total of 4 points, yet they have no realistic way to win their conference title and have been somewhat forgotten.
Penn State needs Michigan to beat Ohio State and Ohio State to beat Wisconsin, in which case the Nittany Lions would likely be the committee’s top choice from the Big Ten—and the committee will want to include a Big Ten team. (That desire is not without justification, as the Big Ten has been the top conference so far this season.)
If Oklahoma loses, the Nittany Lions could well beat out any 2-loss Big 12 team. That still leaves Notre Dame, USC, UCF, and a second team from the SEC or ACC to contend with. But none of those teams would clearly prevail over Penn State (unless the second SEC team is a 1-loss Alabama that was beaten narrowly at Auburn), and the first three could easily lose.
Meanwhile, Penn State is basically in the clubhouse, having only unranked/#67 Nebraska and unranked/#57 Maryland left on its schedule. If the rest of the Big Ten slate goes Penn State’s way, the Nittany Lions have a realistic shot of making the field of four.
Should Be in the Mix (But Probably Isn’t) (1 team):
#15/#4 UCF (9-0)
The Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl four seasons ago, play in the underrated American Athletic Conference—which has been only marginally worse than the Big 12 this season (.516 to the Big 12’s .525) based on success in non-conference play.
The Knights have handed #21/#15 Memphis (8-1) its only loss and have yet to have a game decided by less than a touchdown. UCF still has to play 1-loss (unranked/#29) South Florida and then likely Memphis in a rematch for the conference title. If UCF finishes 12-0 (against an above-average schedule), the Knights will deserve a chance to show their mettle against one of the big boys in a David-vs.-Goliath playoff matchup.
Hanging on by a Thread (3 teams):
#11/#10 USC (9-2), #12/#17 TCU (8-2), and #13/#18 Oklahoma State (8-2)
USC didn’t make my original list of 17, but there now appears to be a path for the Trojans—however unlikely.
For USC to have any chance to make the playoff, Stanford must beat Notre Dame. That’s true for three reasons:
(1) USC can’t get ahead of Notre Dame, which beat the Trojans by 35 points, unless the Irish lose and no longer have the same record as the Trojans.
(2) There’s a good chance USC will play Stanford in a rematch (having already beaten the Cardinal in the Coliseum) in the Pac-12 championship game, and USC needs as much credit for that game as possible.
(3) A Stanford win over the Irish would make the whole Pac-12 (which has already been much better than the Big 12) look better.
Even if Stanford beats Notre Dame, USC still needs Oklahoma—or else both Ohio State and Wisconsin—to lose.
And even then, the Trojans would have to beat out Penn State, a 2-loss Big 12 team, UCF, and a second team from the SEC or ACC.
But stranger things have happened. USC, in that scenario, would be the Pac-12 champion and would be 11-2 against one of the nation’s toughest schedules (#20 now and poised to get tougher).
If TCU wins out—beating Oklahoma in a rematch in the Big 12 “championship game”—the Horned Frogs would have a longshot chance of making the playoff. The same could be said for Oklahoma State if TCU stumbles over the next two weeks and the Cowboys then beat the Sooners in a rematch.
But either TCU or Oklahoma State would likely need Stanford to beat Notre Dame, or else Michigan to beat Ohio State and then Ohio State to beat Wisconsin. Even then, Penn State, USC, Oklahoma (even as a non-conference-champion), UCF, or a second SEC or ACC team could well keep the Horned Frogs or Cowboys from making the cut.
The problem for TCU and Oklahoma State is that each has 2 losses, and neither has played a top-50 schedule to date.
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So, with three weeks to go, there are seven teams in great position, one in pretty good position, two in not-so-enviable position, and four longshots (counting UCF).
One final thought: Does the subjective CFP Selection Committee realize that Clemson lost to unranked/#69 Syracuse (4-6)? On ESPN’s Tuesday night broadcast, committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, who talks as if the committee is judging diving or gymnastics, awarding style points to teams as it sees fit—“The style of play that Wisconsin is, on defense, their productivity on the defensive side of the ball, is something that has really impressed the selection committee”—spoke about the committee’s decision to rank Clemson #2, ahead of three undefeated (and, based on the Anderson & Hester Rankings, more deserving) teams.
Hocutt observed, “Miami has not played a winning team on the road yet”—but he didn’t note that Clemson has played a losing team on the road. And Clemson lost. Yes, the Tigers are the defending national champions, and yes their quarterback was out against Syracuse, but do the Tigers really deserve a mulligan?
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard