Student of the Game: CFB Playoff Breakdown

Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport.  The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative.  As always, hopefully you will enjoy this.  Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.

Raise your hand if you think your team still has a shot to make the college football playoff.  Now, if your team is not in the playoff Top 25, has more than two losses, or is in a Group of Five conference and isn’t undefeated put your hand down.  If your team doesn’t fall into one of those categories keep it up (if you want to do so metaphorically so that your arm doesn’t get tired I’ll allow it).  With the first college football playoff ranking being released yesterday, let’s take a look at the teams that are still in the hunt.  The teams who are still listed can essentially be stratified into four tiers based on how much control they have over their own fate.

Tier One: Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington

Jabrill Peppers (Photo Courtesy of Tony Ding/Associated Press)

Here are some quick stats for you: there have only been four undefeated Power 5 conference champions entering bowl season since 2010, 2010 was also the last time there were multiple undefeated Power 5 champions entering bowl season, and the last time there were three was 2004.  The point being that it’s a far cry for us to assume that these teams will win out.  However, should they do so these will be the four playoff teams, and yes I know Texas A&M is currently ranked ahead of Washington but that is both absurdly ridiculous and highly unlikely to hold if the Huskies don’t slip up.

Washington does seem like the most likely team to slip up between now and the playoff though, with tough games against USC and Washington State still to go, plus a potential trap game in Berkeley this weekend.  They will also have to beat either Colorado, Utah or USC in the Pac-12 title game if they navigate the remainder of the regular season unscathed.  Jake Browning has firmly entrenched himself in the Heisman discussion, and he’ll need to keep playing like that if the Huskies are to make it to 13-0.

Clemson has the best chance to win out with the toughest part of their schedule behind them, even with the ACC title game.  The Tigers beat Louisville and Auburn earlier, and last weekend they were able to excise their Tallahassee demons against the ‘Noles in thrilling fashion.  Clemson seems like they have yet to fulfill their maximum potential this season, but sometimes that makes a team even more dangerous as the postseason draws nigh.

Michigan and Alabama are in similar positions.  Both have looked fantastic virtually all season, but both still have major obstacles to clear before they can start looking towards a playoff berth.  Alabama’s remaining tests lie in the form of LSU (in Death Valley no less) and against Auburn, and I don’t think anyone needs reminding of what happened the last time Alabama tried to complete a perfect regular season against the Tigers.  Michigan still has Ohio State left and, if they win, a date with either Nebraska or Wisconsin in the B1G title game.

Tier Two: Texas A&M, Louisville, Ohio State, Florida, Nebraska

Lamar Jackson hurdling a Syracuse defender (Photo Courtesy of Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

It should go without saying that the margin of error for the rest of these teams is nonexistent from this point forward.  Ohio State, Florida and Nebraska are actually sitting in the best position of these five teams though, because their path to 12-1 runs right through one of the four teams above, essentially providing an opportunity for a “loser leaves town” match for the playoff.

As for Texas A&M and Louisville, the initial playoff rankings indicate that Texas A&M would be in if the season ended today, which is just wrong but it is reality for now.  The Aggies have been really good this season, but an undefeated Power 5 team should always get to go.  Anyway, if Texas A&M does happen to win out and one of the undefeated teams slips up then they are waiting in the wings and the rankings indicate that they are the next man up should that happen.  However, like I mentioned above, if one of the one-loss teams knocks off an undefeated they could leapfrog the Aggies.

Louisville is a team in a peculiar position.  They have a Heisman candidate at quarterback, their only loss is to Clemson in Clemson, and they have a pretty clear path to getting to 11-1 from this point on if they can take care of business in Houston a few weekends from now.  Unfortunately, a win over Houston now won’t look nearly as good as it would have a month ago.  So, the Cards are probably in the position of needing the most help of these five teams, but they are also the most likely to be in position to capitalize should that help come their way.

Tier Three: Wisconsin, LSU, Auburn, Oklahoma

Here’s what needs to happen for one of these four teams to make the playoff:

That being said, it’s not impossible.  LSU and Auburn are in the same position of needing to win out to win the SEC West.  It’s worth mentioning that either scenario would involve a win over Alabama.  LSU would also have to beat Florida and Texas A&M along the way.  Then the question comes down to how much pull a two-loss SEC champion carries?  The answer is probably a heck of a lot.  The one issue they could bump up against is if Michigan, Clemson, and Washington stay undefeated, and Louisville is sitting at 11-1.  Would a one-loss Louisville get a nod over a two-loss SEC champion?  Who knows?  Also, what if Baylor or West Virginia wins out as an 11-1 Big XII champion?  These are things that would have either LSU or Auburn sweating it out until the playoff teams are announced if it were to come to fruition.  Also, how would say a one loss Michigan or Ohio State factor into that equation?  My guess is that a two-loss SEC champion would get the benefit of the doubt, but honestly who knows.  It’s a situation that either team would both love and hate to be in.

Oklahoma is an interesting case, and a chance for people who believe in “recency bias” to add another example to their argument.  The case for the Sooners, obviously assuming they win out, is that their two losses were very early to quality opponents and that they settled down and went undefeated in conference play.  The problem is that the value of the Houston loss continues to decrease as they look more and more pedestrian, and Oklahoma still needs tons of outside help.  They would likely need the Pac-12 South champion to win that title game and the SEC East champion to not be an 11-1 Florida and win that championship game or a 10-2 (or preferably 9-3) Virginia Tech or North Carolina to win the ACC title game.  Any one of these three scenarios seems unlikely, but two of the three would make for one of the more bizarre conference championship Saturdays ever.

Wisconsin players and fans celebrating a win over LSU at Lambeau Field (Photo Courtesy of Morry Gash/Associate Press)

That leaves Wisconsin.  The Badgers are better than I, or pretty much anyone else, anticipated coming into this season.  Unfortunately they’ve lost tight ones to two really good teams and they aren’t exactly a “ratings boost” waiting to happen.  However, if they can win out, and have Nebraska fall to Ohio State this weekend, they’d be in the B1G championship game with a chance to knock off either Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State.  Best case scenario for them is they actually get Penn State, meaning that Michigan and Ohio State screwed up and are probably out of the playoff hunt too.  Then, assuming they win the title game, they still probably need a loss from Texas A&M and Louisville and Washington, Clemson and Alabama to hold pat.  Not so crazy, but still fairly unlikely.

Tier Four: Baylor, West Virginia, Colorado, Utah, Penn State, Western Michigan

Here’s what we need for one of these five to make the playoff:

Either that or for Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck not to make it to that meteor in time.

Anyway, let’s try to parse through what needs to happen starting with the two Big XII teams.  Baylor and West Virginia are suffering severely from losing both recently and from being third and fourth, respectively, in the conference currently despite just the one loss.  If they win out, however, then they would be the conference champion (with one lone exception being a scenario in which West Virginia and Oklahoma State win out).  Then, they would also need a minimum of one of the four undefeated teams to lose, and probably have Louisville, Texas A&M, and Ohio State all lose too.  Oh, and one side note to Big XII fans who think you’re conference is being punished for not having a conference championship game: you are and why shouldn’t you be punished for giving your champion one less opportunity for a quality win?  That’s the key that nobody seems to want to mention.  It isn’t the extra game, it’s the extra game against a (usually) quality opponent that makes the difference.  Also, if you’re Baylor you’re being punished for your appalling lack of ability to protect the women on your campus who needed it.

Speaking of schools that failed to protect people who needed it, Penn State is somehow in the playoff mix after their big win over Ohio State.  The Nittany Lions have somehow survived a loss to Pitt and a 39-point loss to Michigan to still have some outside playoff and conference title hopes.  They would need to win the Big Ten and have the same help Baylor or West Virginia would need to have a shot.  They also could use Oklahoma State winning the Big XII and Colorado/Utah/USC winning the Pac-12 title certainly wouldn’t hurt.  On an unrelated note, that might be the segue I’m simultaneously most proud and ashamed of making.

Colorado and Utah probably have no hope of reaching the playoff, but they aren’t completely dead in the water.  First off, one of them needs to win the South (USC is the other team with a shot).  Then, they need to win the Pac-12.  Then, they need at least one other Power Five champion to have two losses and they need that Power Five champion to not be Oklahoma, LSU, Auburn, or Wisconsin.  Then, they need all those floating one-loss, non-champions (can we make the abbreviation OLNC a thing?) to lose too.  In other words…

Western Michigan almost assuredly won’t get voted in even if they are undefeated and some of these doomsday scenarios come true, but we have yet to have an undefeated Group of Five team since the advent of the playoff so it would be interesting to see what happens.  Unfortunately, these Broncos don’t have the same clout in college football circles that the Broncos that play on Smurf Turf do, so I doubt they get in even if there are two or more 2+ loss Power Five champions and no OLNCs available (yeah sorry I made an executive decision to make that a thing).

Anyway, there you have it, that’s what will happen in the rest of the college football season, so feel free to stop watching now right.  Also, if one of you artsy types want to put this into a flow chart I’ll gladly add it to the post retroactively.

Cover Photo courtesy of Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

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