by Owen Tedford and Chris Murphy
After last week’s college football games, the race for the four playoff spots has never been this open or this unclear so late in the season since the four-team playoff format began in 2014.
Realistically, there are eight teams (Auburn, Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Miami, and Ohio State) with a chance of making the playoffs. In that group, three come from the SEC, two from the ACC, two from the BIG TEN, one from the Big 12, and none from the Pac-12. While it looks like the Pac-12 will definitely miss out on the playoffs, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for this year to see two teams from the SEC and see either the BIG TEN or Big 12 miss out depending on outcomes of this week’s championship games.
Out of the four spots up for grabs, two will most likely be reserved for the ACC champion (Miami or Clemson) and the SEC champion (Auburn or Georgia). This leaves two open for madness, which will vary depending on what happens in the respective title games. Let’s go through how each team can make the playoffs.
No. 1 Clemson (11-1, 7-1 ACC)
Easy way: Win the ACC title and they’re in.
Hard way: If Clemson loses the ACC title, things get complicated. They would definitely need losses by Oklahoma and Wisconsin, and the committee would also probably have to see them as better than either Ohio State or Alabama. They would be seen as better than Ohio State assuming the ACC championship is close; it’s also hard to take OSU and not take OU since OU beat them head-to-head. On top of that, Clemson’s strength of schedule should push them over Alabama. There’s a way, but it would depend how the committee views these factors and what happens in the other games.
No. 2 Auburn (10-2, 7-1 SEC)
Easy way: Like Clemson, Auburn just has to win their conference championship against Georgia (who they beat 40-17 3 weeks ago) and they’re in
Hard way: There really is no other option for Auburn to get in. While the Alabama win was huge for their resume, their 2 losses make it impossible for them to lose a third game even if it is a close loss. This is a win-or-go-home game for the Tigers.
No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1 Big 12)
Easy way: Win the Big 12 title and they’re in.
Hard way: If they lose the Big 12 title, Oklahoma’s argument for a spot definitely gets weaker. The best-case scenario for them may be to see the favorites (Clemson, Auburn, and Wisconsin) all win, since that essentially leaves just them and Alabama for the last spot. In such a scenario, Oklahoma could take the spot on the strength of its win over OSU earlier in the year and its more difficult schedule than Alabama.
No. 4 Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0 BIG TEN)
Easy way: Win the BIG TEN title and they’re in. The committee won’t deny an undefeated Power 5 conference champion.
Hardy way: If they lose the BIG TEN title, Wisconsin may not make it. Like Oklahoma, having the favorites win is probably the easiest way for them to have a chance by minimizing the number of teams in the conversation. That being said, they would have to get picked over Alabama and an OSU team that just beat them, which sounds like a near impossible task. As a result, a loss in the title game likely ends Wisconsin’s playoff hopes.
No. 5 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Easy way: If one or more teams in the top 4 to lose, Alabama is right back in the hunt for a playoff spot. None of the comparisons seem overly difficult for Alabama to have to face, especially when you factor in the committee’s decision to include 1-loss Ohio State over 2-loss Big Ten Champion Penn State. This precedent matters for the Tide and they will be counting on it to be repeated in 2017 for them to have a shot. Alabama’s strength of schedule, according to teamrankings.com, is currently 7th in the nation and ahead of fellow would-be playoff contenders Georgia (11), TCU (10), and Miami (27). While these ratings will improve with the conference title games looming, Alabama will be comparable to Georgia and TCU while still ahead of Miami. Again, the committee will be weighing whether or not a 1-loss team who looked the part for the entire season is more worthy than a 2-loss conference champion. I think a TCU or Georgia upset puts Alabama back in the college football playoff, while the other two games represent play-in opportunities only for the participating teams. So the Tide are rooting for TCU, Georgia or 2 teams to lose this weekend.
Hard way: If everything goes according to plan, the top 4 will remain the same; none of them will lose and Bama will be left as the best team to not make the CFP in the rankings’ young history.
No. 6 Georgia (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Easy way: Obviously, Georgia needs a win. But even after that, things are still difficult for the Bulldogs. Them being ranked 6th, 1 spot behind Alabama, shows us that the committee still believes the Tide are better than the Bulldogs. This could change with the win against Auburn. If they could extract revenge on a team that demolished them by earning a blowout win themselves, they would almost be a sure in to the top 4. A close win that comes down to a few plays or a questionable call will leave Georgia vulnerable for someone like Alabama to jump them. A 1-loss SEC champion SHOULD be rated higher than the 1-loss Crimson Tide, but then again the Crimson Tide should have been in this position themselves and failed to do so. If OU or Wisconsin lose, however, Georgia will have their spot locked with a win regardless of how “convincing” it was.
Hard way: A 2-loss team will not make the playoff unless it’s a conference champion (looking directly at Auburn here). A loss for them means their CFP hopes are extinguished.
No. 7 Miami (10-1, 7-1 ACC)
Easy way: Miami has perhaps the most straightforward scenario for any team currently outside of the top 4. Despite the blemish on their perfect season, convincing wins over Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, coupled with Clemson’s stunning road loss to Syracuse make the ACC Championship game a play-in game. Despite Miami’s low strength of schedule rating, they will make the playoffs by beating Clemson, adding ACC Champion and a third top 25 defeat to their belt.
Hard way: Again, very straightforward here. If the Canes lose, it’s off to a New Year’s Six Bowl for them.
No. 8 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1 BIG TEN)
Easy way: Any “easy” way for the Buckeyes will require them to win the BIG TEN championship because losing this is a non-starter for them to make the playoffs. The easiest way for them to see Oklahoma lose because they will just open up a spot in the four, which would allow OSU and Alabama to make it assuming the rest of the favorites (Clemson and Auburn) all win. The only problem with this is what the committee makes of Oklahoma having beaten OSU earlier in the year in a head-to-head matchup, but the conference title for OSU should mean more.
Hard way: So if Oklahoma does win over TCU then this would pretty much mean that it’s either Alabama or OSU for the last spot. Arguably this would be a hard thing to win for OSU given their worse record, worse strength of schedule, and bad loss at Iowa. But the big argument in favor of OSU in this case would have been winning the BIG TEN title, perhaps the only thing in Ohio State’s favor, but certainly not something to be sniffed at considering one of their losses (Oklahoma) would have come to one of the teams in the playoffs.
Starting with the obvious two games for me, I think Oklahoma walks away winners behind a big performance from Baker Mayfield and Clemson beats Miami a team who’s been fairly lucky all year and it seems its luck has run out. It’ll be a shame to see the Turnover Chain not in the CFP, but it’s not likely.
Next, in the BIG TEN I think this all comes down to J.T. Barrett’s health. I think it’s likely that he plays either way, but at full health I’m not sure Wisconsin has a way to stop him and OSU’s dynamic offense which has only been held under 25 points twice this season, both games which the Buckeyes lost. They’ve scored more than 45 points in seven games this season, something Wisconsin did once against Utah State in its first game of the season.
Lastly, the SEC. This really is where the drama will be this weekend. We should get a great game between Auburn and Georgia, but I think Auburn will win in the end on the back of Kerryon Johnson, who, to me, is more ready to shine in this spotlight than Georgia’s freshman QB Jake Fromm.
To me, this puts Clemson, Auburn, and Oklahoma definitively in the playoffs. And the question comes down to OSU versus Alabama for the last spot. I think OSU’s conference title is ultimately enough to put them in over Alabama giving them the fourth seed in the playoffs.
Final Rank: Clemson, Auburn, OU, OSU
TCU vs OU (noon): Good for the NCAA making this an early afternoon game. To put this against the Big Ten or ACC Championship games in the nightcap would have crushed viewership for this game. All of these fans would have been unable to watch Mayfield’s final case for the Heisman Trophy. I think last week put his mind in the right place and if the WVU game is any indication of what that brings, TCU should be worried. Oklahoma put up 646 yards last week and while TCU’s defense is much better, it won’t hold OU under 500 yards. Great run TCU, hopefully you get a New Year’s Six Invite (Pick: Sooners – 45, Horned Frogs – 28)
Georgia vs. Auburn (4 PM): This Auburn season is eerily similar to the Tigers miracle run in 2013. That year, they beat Georgia and Alabama in back to back home games en route to an SEC championship and spot in the BCS Championship. This year, their winning those games convincingly with Kerryon Johnson as the bellcow, Jarrett Stidham as the commander and Gus Malzahn as the brains behind it all. Georgia will do their best to keep this a low scoring affair, but I don’t think they can compete with the level of play the Tigers are putting out there right now (Pick: Tigers – 28, Bulldogs – 17)
Miami vs. Clemson (8 PM): This is the game of the week for me. Clemson looking to go to the CFP for a third straight year against the U, desperate to return to the title stage. This game will come down to which defense makes the most big plays. I think the turnover chain will make an appearance, but Clemson’s D will win the field position battle throughout the game and the offense will do enough to get the win. They looked locked in playing against a USC team that had everything to gain by beating their archrival. And I don’t know if Miami has solved that quarterback situation we saw at Pitt. Clemson gets a chance to repeat (Pick: Tigers – 20, Hurricanes – 13)
OSU vs. Wisconsin (8 PM): Can Wisconsin go undefeated? That has been the question all season. Who is going to be the OSU QB? That has been the biggest question this week. Even if Barrett plays, you’ll have to figure he’ll be limited by his injury. That being said, we saw this narrative once before…and OSU won 59-0. While I don’t think this score will be anywhere close to that, I do think the Buckeyes are going to win and get a chance to fight for the 4th seed. (Pick: Buckeyes – 24, Badgers – 10)
And now the ultimate debate: does a 2 loss Big Ten Champion Ohio State or a 1 loss Alabama – the face of college football excellence the past decade – earn the 4th seed. There are many angles to consider: the strength of schedule of both teams, the relative strength of each conference, the current level at which both teams are playing, etc. For me, this argument comes down to two main points. Firstly, the committee established the precedent last year that a 2 loss conference champion CAN lose out to a 1 loss team that didn’t play for a title. Ohio State had it help them last year when many thought a tough road loss to Penn State (decided by a blocked FG) resulted in them not playing for the title ultimately won by the Nittany Lions. This year, we must consider an OSU team that lost at home to Oklahoma and was blown out on the road to an unranked Iowa against an Alabama team that lost to Auburn on the road. The biggest things to take away here are that while OSU is the Big Ten Champ, their two losses (1 at home, 1 unranked blowout) are both huge holes to their resume. In contrast, the Bama loss is not all that bad. Secondly I think the committee must consider the SEC vs. the Big Ten. This season, the SEC has played to a higher standard; it’s FPI as a conference is higher according to ESPN. Additionally, I argue the ranked teams from the SEC are a stronger group than the ranked Big Ten teams. Michigan having a down year really hurts Ohio State’s chances. Therefore, I think Bama gets the final spot in the closest CFP race so far.
Final Rank: Clemson, Auburn, OU, Alabama