(NOTE: This is an addendum to my third State of the College Football Playoff address, which aired Wednesday afternoon. You can find all three on the TribLive Radio podcast page.)
The secret to understanding what Jeff Long and the College Football Playoff Committee are trying to tell college football fans with their weekly puzzle book of postseason contenders is that they are not just telling you which four teams are the best four teams right now; they’re also telling you which teams could find their way in if certain circumstances change between now and the end of the season.
The problem with that message is that not all 25 teams really have a chance of making it into the top four, nor are all postseason circumstances created equal. So to help decipher the code, let’s start by eliminating eight of the teams in the top 25 who already have two or three losses: Florida State, LSU, Northwestern, Memphis, Ole Miss, Oregon, Southern Cal and Wisconsin.
That leaves us with 17 teams, which I’ve broken up into four specific groups:
– THEY’RE IN (for now): (1) Clemson, (2) Alabama, (3) Ohio State, (4) Notre Dame – All four of these teams have just one job to do: keep winning. The top three teams will hold their spots if they win out and claim their respective conference titles, and as long as Notre Dame beats Stanford in Palo Alto in their regular season finale, they’re in.
– KNOCKING ON THE DOOR: (5) Iowa, (6) Oklahoma State, (8) Florida, (9) Michigan State, (17) North Carolina – Oklahoma State has the easiest path of this group: win just two games — Baylor and Oklahoma, both at home — to stay undefeated and win the Big 12 Championship, but if Notre Dame holds serve it may not matter, fair or unfair.
Iowa has to beat Purdue and Nebraska, and then win the Big Ten Championship Game. Then they will be rewarded with a spot in the playoff, replacing Ohio State… unless Michigan State beats Ohio State and takes out the Hawkeyes for the conference title.
Florida (assuming they don’t stumble against Florida Atlantic) must survive Florida State at home in their final regular season game, then beat (likely) Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in order to claim a spot. That sounds like a steep hill to climb, but not impossible.
North Carolina is the sleeper agent in all of this. They’re on a roll after thrashing Duke and Miami in back-to-back weeks and they’ve got a stranglehold on the ACC Coastal division. If they win out and beat Clemson badly enough in the conference title game similar to how Ohio State shut out Wisconsin, 59-0, for the Big Ten trophy last season, they could play that same role and ride a hot streak into that fourth spot.
(Now if you’re feeling like an agent of chaos, just imagine if Florida, Oklahoma State, Iowa and North Carolina all won out, completely replacing the current top four. That could actually happen.)
– HELP WANTED: (7) Oklahoma, (11) Stanford, (12) Michigan, (13) Utah – On the surface, it seems simple for Oklahoma as long as they win at home against TCU and beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater. But it’s all for naught if Notre Dame keeps winning. The Sooners and Fighting Irish have a common opponent in Texas (4-6). Oklahoma lost to the Longhorns in Dallas, while Notre Dame beat them by five touchdowns.
Stanford and Utah were on course to meet for the Pac-12 Championship and possibly put the winner in the playoff, provided they won their remaining games, except both teams dropped the ball last week — Stanford against Oregon and Utah losing to Arizona in double overtime. Now both teams have two losses and need several dominoes to fall to get back into playoff contention, regardless of who wins the conference title.
Both teams would need Oklahoma to lose to TCU, but then beat Oklahoma State to leave the Big 12 without an undefeated champion. Then Stanford would have to beat Notre Dame on November 28. Then maybe, just maybe the Pac-12 Champion could still sneak in.
Michigan (8-2) has an even more weird road to get in: they need that same scenario with Stanford and Utah to happen, AND they have to beat Ohio State. Oh yeah, Michigan State also has to lose to Ohio State in Columbus this weekend and at home against Penn State next weekend.
– OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: (10) Baylor, (16) Navy, (18) TCU, (19) Houston – TCU and Baylor face each other next weekend in Fort Worth, so someone won’t survive. Plus TCU needs to beat Oklahoma, Baylor needs to beat Oklahoma State, and then both teams have to hope Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State in “Bedlam” and Notre Dame loses to Stanford. And even then, still nothing is guaranteed. (Yeah, it’s that bad.)
Navy and Houston meet on November 27, so one of them will cancel out. The winner of that game needs the same help that TCU and Baylor need, plus the same help that Stanford and Utah need, plus the same help that Michigan needs, plus Notre Dame losing to Boston College at Fenway Park this weekend, plus… oh, forget it. They’re both screwed.
The good news is this picture should get somewhat clearer as early as next week, and with the flow chart of games still pending, odds are the four teams left standing will be the correct four, unless even a portion of the potential revelry listed above takes place. That is when the real mystery will begin.
You know what? Keep those magnifying glasses handy, just in case.