Analysis: College Football Playoff Scenarios

So here we are headed into major college football’s conference championship weekend, and I believe there are only eight – maybe nine teams left in the playoff pool.

Let’s start first with a couple of observations that become obvious when you look at where teams were ranked in the official College Football Playoff rankings coming into this weekend:

We’re sorry UCF fans, but you just don’t have a chance. True, the Knights could end up being the nation’s only undefeated team if Ohio State beats Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game and the Knights beat Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game. But heading into this weekend, UCF was No. 15 in the most recent rankings and even with a win over a solid USF team, they aren’t likely to jump more than one or two spots when Tuesday’s rankings come out. Memphis, meanwhile, was ranked ahead of only one team that will play in a Power 5 conference championship game. That was the Stanford Cardinal which will jump ahead of Memphis after beating No. 8 Notre Dame. That means with just one more chance to add to their resume, UCF can only beat a Memphis team that will likely be ranked lower than any team playing in a Power 5 title game.

That means the four playoff teams will come from Power 5 leagues, and the Pac-12 is the league that will be left out. USC is 10-2 heading into the title game, and they’ll take on a Stanford team that’s even worse at 9-3. Stanford can’t make the playoff with three losses no matter what happens leaving USC as the only Pac-12 team that could even, theoretically, be in the running. The problem is, USC was off this week after checking in at No. 11 in last week’s rankings – the second-lowest ranked team playing in a Power 5 title game just one spot ahead of No. 12 TCU from the Big 12. Stanford, meanwhile, will be the lowest-ranked team playing in a Power 5 championship game meaning all the winners of the other four Power 5 championship games will strengthen their resumes more than USC next weekend. That means there’s just no way for the Trojans to get back into the title conversation with the other two-loss teams that are in the running.

Alright, so we know who’s out – but is anybody guaranteed to get in?

Rumors have swirled around Gus Malzahn’s job status at Auburn for more than a year now, but he’s got his Tigers just one win away from the College Football Playoff.

The winner of the SEC Championship Game – Auburn vs. Georgia – is in. Seems like a no-brainer, but you do have a two-loss Auburn playing in the SEC title game. Of course, they’ve beaten the No. 1 team twice this season (Georgia and Alabama), and there’s no way they’d be left out at this point if they win to finish 11-2. Georgia is a no-brainer, too, if they win to finish 12-1. The loser of the SEC title game will fall behind Alabama in the pecking order, however, and that’s true even if the loser is Auburn (the Tigers would be 10-3, and Alabama would be 11-1 in that scenario). That means the loser of this game is definitely out because there won’t be three teams from one conference.

The winner of the ACC Championship Game – Clemson vs. Miami (FL) – is in. Both teams enter the game with a single loss (Clemson is 11-1 and Miami is 10-1), and this is essentially another quarterfinal game just like the SEC title game. The loser, however, is definitely out, and would fall behind Alabama in the pecking order.

Oklahoma is in if they beat TCU in the rematch. The Sooners will be 12-1 in this scenario, and they’d be an easy pick as a conference champion. TCU, on the other hand, is not likely to get in even with a win but we’ll take a closer look at the scenarios below. The loser falls behind Alabama and is definitely out.

Wisconsin is in if they beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers will be the only undefeated Power 5 team at 13-0 in this scenario, and while they still might not be the No. 1 seed, they’d be the easiest team to include in the field. Ohio State is also a pretty solid bet to get in if they win, and we will look at that closer below, too. The loser falls behind Alabama in the pecking order and is definitely out.

We can make some more deductions from all of that. With the SEC and ACC title game winners in and Oklahoma and Wisconsin in if they win, it could be a pretty easy day for the playoff committee if everything goes according to plan. But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it seems more likely that there could be an upset in one of the other games so here’s how I think the committee might look at things for the three teams that don’t clearly control their own destiny – Alabama, Ohio State and TCU.

Ohio State may or may not control their own destiny in regards to the playoff – but either way, they have to beat undefeated Wisconsin to have a chance.

That being said, I think Ohio State may control its own destiny. think if Ohio State wins, the fact they would be Big Ten champions would be hard to overlook for the same reason that a two-loss Auburn would be in if they win the SEC. Ohio State arguably plays in college football’s toughest division, and it wouldn’t hurt that they’d be adding a win over a Wisconsin team that now clearly should be ranked in the Top 4. Ohio State will likely be no worse than No. 8 heading into the Big Ten Championship Game, and the only team that could keep them out with a win would be Alabama so it depends partly how far Alabama falls after the loss to Auburn. I think the Tide will be No. 3 or No. 4, but they don’t have another game to bolster their resume. Would a win over a Top 4 Wisconsin team be enough to propel a two-loss Ohio State over a one-loss Alabama that’s also ranked in the Top 4? That’s the million-dollar question, and Ohio State would certainly have multiple wins that are better than any of Alabama’s wins. I think that would be the tiebreaker along with a conference title, and that tells us more about Alabama’s chances.

Alabama probably needs TCU to win. I think a one-loss Alabama even without an SEC title would rank higher than a two-loss Big 12 champion which is what TCU would be in this case. Alabama was No. 1 and TCU was No. 12 in the most recent rankings, and beating a 1-11 Baylor squad this weekend did nothing to strengthen TCU’s resume. On the flip side, TCU would be coming off a win over an Oklahoma team that could be ranked as high as No. 2 going into the game so the Horned Frogs would have a better win on their resume than anything Alabama has accomplished – not to mention a conference title. So while it seems unlikely TCU would make up that much ground, we leave open the possibility that the committee could decide against taking a second SEC team and reward the Frogs for a big finish. A side effect of a TCU win is that it would almost certainly guarantee Ohio State a spot if the Buckeyes also win.

TCU’s Gary Patterson and his Horned Frogs may have a very narrow path to the playoff.

So what I’m saying is, the key game is likely the Big 12 Championship Game. With possibly three of the playoff spots going to the winners of the ACC, SEC and (maybe) Big Ten, that really narrows it down to the Big 12 Championship Game where a TCU win would likely bring Alabama back into the mix.

But let’s add one more little twist – does it matter who wins the SEC Championship Game?

I personally think it could play a role in determining whether Alabama gets a lifeline or not from the committee. For example, if Auburn wins, they’re in the playoff, and Alabama’s only loss will be to a playoff team. If Ohio State and/or TCU win their respective title games, then I think Alabama has a better case than if Georgia wins the SEC title game.

Think about it, if Georgia beats Auburn, then the Tide would move back ahead of Auburn just by virtue of an 11-1 record vs. what would be a 10-3 record for the Tigers. That head-to-head result between Alabama and Auburn will still be fresh, however, and it might be hard for the committee to stomach taking Alabama over a team that beat them the previous week. Ohio State feels like a given in that scenario to make the playoff with a win over Wisconsin, but it could also give TCU a stronger case by virtue of the fact the Horned Frogs would have a better win on their resume than Alabama – not to mention a conference title.

Just give it to me straight, Doc.

  1. Alabama (11-1) – Could get in over Ohio State. Probably gets in over TCU. Case is stronger either way if Auburn beats Georgia. Also, if Auburn wins and both Ohio State and TCU win, it could strengthen Alabama’s case as the committee might be trying to avoid a scenario where there’s three two-loss teams in the playoff.
  2. Auburn (10-2) – Win and they’re in.
  3. Clemson (11-1) – Win and they’re in.
  4. Georgia (11-1) – Win and they’re in.
  5. Miami (FL) (10-1) – Win and they’re in.
  6. Ohio State (10-2) – Probably in with a win. Chances look even better if Georgia beats Auburn and/or TCU beats Oklahoma.
  7. Oklahoma (11-1) – Win and they’re in.
  8. TCU (10-2) – A win puts them head-to-head against Alabama, and it doesn’t look great for the Frogs. A Georgia win over Auburn would make TCU look better, but it still might not be enough for a committee that could be desperate for teams with a single loss.
  9. Wisconsin (12-0) – Win and they’re in.

The bottom line is, it appears to be extremely long odds for Alabama or TCU. Alabama almost certainly needs TCU to win in any scenario where they make the field, but they might need a Georgia upset over Auburn to go with it and maybe even an Ohio State win over Wisconsin. That’s a lot to ask for.

TCU, meanwhile, has to win to have a chance, of course, but the Frogs also strengthen Alabama’s case by winning leaving them in an awkward position with a very narrow path to the playoff.



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