Playoff Picture: Sewing Seeds of Hope

Another weekend is in the books, which means a whole new crop of teams saw their playoff hopes disappear. Or did they? One of the funny things about this new era of college football is that around this time doors are constantly being closed and then re-opened. Last week, I thought the Pac-12 had probably been eliminated from playoff contention. This week? I’m not so sure. For this week’s Playoff Picture (sans Bonus Bowl this week but it should be back next week), I’ll take a look at the playoff hopes for each team and try to find the narrative that could send them to the playoff.

Sugar Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Alabama vs. Miami

Mickey Welsh:Montgomery Advertiser
Photo Courtesy of Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser

Alabama and Georgia are pretty much interchangeable at #1 and #2 at this point, and as long as Alabama doesn’t slip up then the two are on a collision course so it doesn’t really matter. Obviously if Alabama wins out then they will not only be a playoff team, but the #1 seed. A more interesting discussion is can Alabama get in with a loss?

The scenario that everyone has already discussed is losing to Georgia in the SEC title game, but what if they were to either lose this weekend to Mississippi State or in a few weekends to Auburn? Alabama clinches the SEC West this weekend with a win over Mississippi State and an Auburn loss to Georgia, but it Auburn beats Georgia then the Iron Bowl will be a de facto SEC West Championship game. I don’t believe that an 11-1 Alabama that doesn’t make the SEC title game would be in, but a 12-1 SEC Champion Alabama is almost definitely in. So, Alabama can afford one loss somewhere along the way, but it would need to be one that doesn’t cost them the SEC West. I’ll address the possibility of Alabama and Georgia both being undefeated in the SEC title game and the scenario for the loser to make the playoff in the Georgia section.

An undefeated Miami is also a lock for the playoff, but let’s ask can they afford a loss? The most likely culprit for a loss is this coming weekend against Notre Dame. If they lose that game, then win out and enter the ACC title game at 11-1, then they might can still get in with a win. For that to happen, I believe two things need to occur. The first is that Notre Dame needs to close out 11-1 and make the playoff too. The second is that an 11-2 Big Ten East team needs to win the conference title game. (It also wouldn’t hurt if Alabama or Georgia left the SEC title game with a second loss). In this scenario, I’m assuming that the playoff would end up being: 13-0 SEC Champion, 11-1 Notre Dame, 12-1 Big XII Champion, 12-1 ACC Champion Miami. Would a 12-1 Miami get in over an 11-2 Michigan State/Michigan/Penn State/Ohio State? I think so. Then the question comes would a 12-1 ACC Champ Miami get in over a 12-1 Georgia or Alabama? Probably so, but there is an outside chance that if the 12-1 team was Georgia the committee might use the convoluted scenario of, “Georgia beat Notre Dame who beat Miami” to put a second SEC team in ahead of Miami.

Rose Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Georgia vs. Wisconsin

AP Photo:John Bazemore
Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/John Bazemore

Let’s examine whether or not a 12-1 Georgia team would be in the playoff. For starters, a 12-1 SEC Champion Georgia is a lock regardless of whether that loss is to Auburn, Kentucky or Georgia Tech. A 12-1 Georgia coming off a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game is a tougher proposition. I believe what they would need to happen is have a two-loss team win the Big Ten and either the ACC or Big XII and Notre Dame to remain 11-1. In that scenario, the Playoff might be: 13-0 Alabama, 11-1 Notre Dame, 12-1 Georgia and a one-loss Big XII or ACC Champion. Washington could be the kicker in this, because they still have a real chance to go 12-1 and win the Pac-12. I’m honestly not sure how the committee would stack up 12-1 Georgia vs. 12-1 Pac-12 champion Washington, but the preliminary rankings suggest they would most likely take Georgia.

Wisconsin’s preliminary ranking basically suggests that the only way they are going to the playoff is if they go 13-0 and win the Big Ten. I’m going to assume that’s true, because that’s probably how it should be considering Wisconsin’s strength of schedule. The Badgers would clench the Big Ten West with a win in any of their next three games against Iowa, Michigan or Minnesota. However, they need to win all three to have a realistic shot at the playoff. I don’t believe a one-loss Wisconsin, with or without Big Ten title, gets in over one-loss Alabama or Georgia, one-loss Notre Dame, one-loss Clemson, one-loss Oklahoma or TCU and whether or not they would be in ahead of one-loss Washington would depend on who, how and when they lose.

Orange Bowl- Clemson vs. Notre Dame

Gerry Broome:AP
Photo Courtesy of Gerry Broome/AP

Now for the one-loss teams. I’ll go ahead and throw it out there that if any one of these teams lose at this point then their playoff hopes are dashed. Clemson will clench a spot in the ACC title game with a win over Florida State OR an N.C. State loss to Boston College, Wake Forest or North Carolina. Given that Clemson is already sitting at #4 with the one loss, and how Kirby Hocutt defended their loss last week, I’m assuming that a 12-1 Clemson is probably in no matter what happens. That’s especially true considering that at least one of the three teams currently ahead of them will definitely lose a game before the final rankings come out.

Notre Dame is an interesting situation that really throws a wrench in the title hopes of all of the potential one-loss or two-loss conference champions not named Clemson. Here’s a list of teams that have a vested interest in rooting against Notre Dame: Miami (plays them this week so naturally they will pull for themselves), Alabama (probably only shot at getting in if they drop a game is to have Notre Dame be out of the hunt), Auburn, Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, TCU, Oklahoma State, Washington, USC, Washington State and UCF. Much like Clemson, I think that Notre Dame currently sitting at #3 means they are in if they win out no matter what, especially considering that they close with games at Miami, home for Navy and at Stanford.

Fiesta Bowl- Washington vs. TCU

Bettina Hansen:Seattle Times
Cover Photo Courtesy of Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times

In the intro, I mentioned that last week I thought the Pac-12 had been eliminated, but now I’m not so sure. What changed? Three of the eleven teams ranked ahead of Washington lost and at least three more are guaranteed to lose by the end of the season. If you’re doing the math, that means Washington should move up at minimum to #6 if they don’t lose again, except that there’s a chance that two of those three future losses could go to teams that are currently undefeated and might still stay ahead of Washington with a loss. I still think Washington needs significant help to get in, but it seems more realistic today than it did a week ago. The big issue is that I think a one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington would still be behind a one-loss Big XII champ, a one-loss ACC champ, SEC Champ, one-loss Notre Dame and could potentially be behind a one-loss SEC team without a conference title and/or a two-loss Big Ten champ.

Other than Notre Dame-Miami, TCU-Oklahoma is the biggest game of the weekend and has significant playoff implications. The loser is most likely eliminated from the playoff, with the winner having an inside track to the Big XII title game (although neither would clench due to the fact that the Big XII plays nine conference games and has no divisions). At the end of it all, a one-loss Big XII champion is probably in, but they still need some help. Notre Dame and Wisconsin are the two teams that Oklahoma and TCU both need to be pulling against. If Miami beats Notre Dame this weekend and Wisconsin loses either before or in the Big Ten title game, then I think the playoff ends up looking something like: SEC Champion, Big XII Champion, ACC Champion and either Pac-12 champion or one-loss SEC runner-up. I’ll expound more on this with the Oklahoma section next.

Cotton Bowl- Oklahoma vs. Michigan State

Ian Maule:Tulsa World
Photo Courtesy of Ian Maule/Tulsa World

Since Oklahoma and TCU are essentially in the same boat, let’s just continue with what a one-loss Big XII champion needs. The real question comes down to: how does a one-loss Big XII champ stack up with other potential one-loss teams? I believe that a one-loss Big XII champion ends up behind a one-loss Notre Dame and a one-loss ACC champion, but ahead of one-loss Washington, one-loss Wisconsin (if they lose), one-loss Georgia or Alabama without an SEC title. That basically means that Oklahoma and TCU should be rooting hardcore for Miami for the rest of the season, because the Canes have a shot to take out the only one-loss teams that currently have the edge over them. If Miami goes 13-0, then they would be guaranteeing a spot both for themselves and a one-loss Big XII champion.

Things get even dicier as we try to carve a path for a team who already has two losses to get into the playoff. At this time, I will remind you that this has never happened before and is extremely unlikely to happen now. Despite being ranked #24 in the initial CFB committee rankings, I believe that Michigan State has the second best odds of any two-loss team to make the playoff. I’m mostly basing that on three facts: Michigan State and USC are currently the only two-loss Power 5 division leaders, the Spartans already have a win against Penn State in the bank and have a shot at a road win against Ohio State and a Big Ten championship, and the committee considers the Big Ten stronger than the Pac-12 (rightfully so). What hurts Michigan State is that USC picked up a top-25 win this weekend too and both teams currently have losses to Notre Dame, but USC’s was a road loss and Michigan State’s was a home loss. I would point out that USC lost by 15 more points than Michigan State did, but the committee doesn’t care about margin of victory…allegedly. Actually, the more I think about this I think USC is probably a more likely two-loss playoff team than Michigan State based on all this, but it’s still a long shot. So, make Michigan State the third most likely two-loss team to make the playoff behind USC and stay tuned for the most likely. (For what it’s worth, I personally would still have Michigan State in over USC, but I don’t think the committee would).

Peach Bowl- Auburn vs. UCF

Bob Levey:Getty Images
Photo Courtesy of Bob Levey/Getty Images

This next paragraph is going to be painful for me to write, but it has to be said. Auburn is the most likely two-loss team to make the playoff, mostly because the path would include a win over Alabama and two wins over Georgia in the last month of the season. If that happens, they still need some help but they are doing a lot of the work themselves. They could also benefit from only one of the Clemson/Miami/Notre Dame triumvirate staying alive, but if Notre Dame and Clemson are still in the hunt then they basically need a two-loss champion from two of the other three Power 5 conferences. A two-loss Auburn would be in over any other two-loss team and based on current rankings there’s an outside chance they would even get a nod over a one-loss Washington, Wisconsin or Miami (assuming that the committee would consider the three wins Auburn would pick up enough to have them leapfrog those three).

Poor UCF has all but been eliminated from playoff contention, considering that they came in behind three two-loss teams in the first playoff rankings. I got crushed on the Twitter for this by a certain fanbase (three guesses which and the first two don’t count) after the first rankings came out, but I stand by what I said. UCF is undefeated and has annihilated most of their opponents. What hurts them is the fact that they likely won’t get a chance at another top-25 win thanks to USF dropping out and the fact that if they beat Memphis again in the AAC title game it would most likely drop Memphis out of the top 25. The only doomsday scenario I really see happening for UCF to possibly get in: Miami eliminates Notre Dame and Clemson, Auburn takes out Alabama or Georgia and then the same team loses in the SEC title game (or Auburn does), Wisconsin somehow loses twice down the stretch but wins the Big Ten, USC loses out and Arizona wins out and wins the Pac-12 and then Oklahoma or TCU beats the other twice in the next month and Oklahoma State drops another game. All of that, and I’m still not positive if they’d get a nod over two-loss Penn State/Ohio State/Michigan/Michigan State who doesn’t win the division but it would at least give them a shot at a playoff that looks something like this: undefeated UCF, undefeated Alabama/Georgia, undefeated Miami and one-loss Oklahoma/TCU.

Final note: The rankings on Tuesday will reveal much of what the committee believes right now, and I will be taking to Twitter again on Tuesday and taking the fire from slighted fanbases to share my opinion. Also, tune into the Spread Offense with Brian Hall and me and we will further breakdown playoff scenarios. Lastly, here is what I believe is the most likely playoff as of today: SEC Champion Alabama/Georgia, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Big XII Champion Oklahoma/TCU.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

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