College Football Playoff: Forecasting the Stretch Run

The College Football Playoff Rankings are believed to be somewhat pointless until we get to Conference Championship Weekend. I disagree with that sentiment.

If you’ve listened to the Saturday Morning Pregame, I have made it a big deal to mention possible scenarios for several teams and why they should or should not be in the College Football Playoff to have a chance to win a National Championship.

I figured I should put my thoughts onto paper and explain the teams that realistically can make the top four and get into this playoff and how they can do so.

There are 12 teams by my count that have a realistic scenario that could lead them to the College Football Playoff and a chance at the title. Let’s go in order of CFP Ranking from last week.

Joe Burrow

1. LSU (10-0)

Remaining Schedule: vs. Arkansas, vs. Texas A&M, SEC Championship

This is simple. Win the rest of your games and you’ll be the #1 seed. Especially considering that the SEC Championship will likely be against a top 5 team in Georgia.

However, if they lose that SEC Title Game to the Bulldogs, I still think it is appropriate that LSU is put into the top four ahead of a one-loss Pac-12 Champion, a one-loss Big Ten Champion, and a one-loss Big 12 Champion. So, assuming they don’t slip up against Arkansas or A&M at home, I think the Tigers are in the College Football Playoff regardless (assuming Georgia isn’t upset again as well).

Justin Fields of Ohio State

2. Ohio State (10-0)

Remaining Schedule: vs. #9 Penn State, at #15 Michigan, Big Ten Championship

The resume is pretty strong already and will only improve. Justin Fields and Chase Young are two of the best players in college football and that’s allowed them to absolutely steamroll their schedule so far.

Penn State and Michigan will not be pushovers, but if OSU wins both of these games they are clearly in the top two ahead of the Big Ten Championship, which will be against either Minnesota or Wisconsin. Win that game, it’s obvious they are in.

But much like LSU, I think there is a world in which the Buckeyes can sneak in with one loss. It can’t be to Penn State, because that would mean the Nittany Lions would likely be advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game. It’s not a truly conceivable scenario for Ohio State to make it in after dropping that game, or losing to Michigan.

But if Ohio State does lose in the Big Ten Championship to either Minnesota or Wisconsin, if the right things happen behind them, they could snag one of the last couple spots.

Trevor Lawrence of Clemson

3. Clemson (11-0)

Remaining schedule: at South Carolina, ACC Championship

This is the most likely team to get in. They have a bye this weekend, but will be a heavy favorite against South Carolina on the 30th and then at least a three touchdown favorite against whoever their opponent is in the ACC Championship. That team will likely be Virginia, Pittsburgh, or Virginia Tech, none of whom are ranked in any poll.

If they win both of these games, they are definitely in. If they lose one, they are definitely out. Pretty concise. Their best win? A 24-10 victory over then-#12 Texas A&M in Week 2. Texas A&M has gone on to be 7-3 with games against Georgia and LSU on the road left on the slate. This is not an impressive resume, but 13-0 is 13-0 when you’re in a Power Five Conference.

Jake Fromm of Georgia

4. Georgia (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: vs. Texas A&M, at Georgia Tech, SEC Championship

I was very shocked to see Georgia ahead of Alabama last week. Alabama’s loss came to #1 LSU at home. Georgia lost at home to unranked South Carolina a few weeks ago. Yes, Georgia has beaten Notre Dame, Florida, and Auburn. All three of them were in the top 12 at the time of their meetings. Alabama’s only ranked win was when they beat A&M when the Aggies were 24th in the AP Poll.

The road is simple here, too. Win the last three games, and you’re in. If Georgia loses to A&M or GT, it’s over. If they lose the SEC Title Game to LSU, I think it’s over as well. There is no room for a two-loss team in this year’s playoff (or any playoff for that matter).

Nick Saban of Alabama

5. Alabama (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: vs. Western Carolina, at #12 Auburn

I hurt for Tua. No matter what happens, fair or not, the committee will look at Bama differently without their Heisman Trophy candidate. That being said, rolling through Western Carolina and Auburn will give them at least an opportunity to slide in the CFP once again.

It’s incredibly unlikely, however. A 12-1 Pac-12 Champion will certainly jump the Crimson Tide and with Bama sitting on the sidelines on Championship Weekend, there’s no opportunity to make one last impression to the CFP Committee.

What will it take? Oregon and Utah both losing one more time, Wisconsin and Minnesota both losing once more, Ohio State beating Penn State then losing to Michigan and whomever they play in the Big Ten Championship Game, Georgia losing before the SEC Championship Game, Oklahoma losing again, and maybe even Baylor losing again.

Yes, missing the SEC Championship will require most or all of that to happen for the Tide to make a return trip to the CFP.

Justin Herbert of Oregon

6. Oregon (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: at Arizona State, vs. Oregon State, Pac-12 Championship

I think if Oregon wins the rest of their games and there are no upsets, they are the clear #4 team behind LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson. The resume isn’t super strong right now, but they will have to beat a fellow top 10 team in Utah for the Pac-12 Championship. That’s all the more they’ll need to get pushed over the top.

Now, if upsets happen, like Penn State, Minnesota, or Wisconsin winning out? It could get dicey. But the Ducks are in much better position than Alabama the rest of the way.

Utah Utes Celebrating

7. Utah (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: at Arizona, vs. Colorado, Pac-12 Championship

Same story here for the Utes: Win your last three and I think you are in if there are no upsets. A victory over #6 Oregon would be the big win it would take to solidify that position. Their loss at USC earlier in the year could hold them back if a team like Minnesota finishes the year 12-1 and beats Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, but there might be room for both teams in that scenario.

PJ Fleck of Minnesota

8. Minnesota (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: at Northwestern, vs. #14 Wisconsin, Big Ten Championship

The gigantic matchup with Wisconsin will decide the Big Ten West Champ and send the winner to Indianapolis. The loser will be effectively out of the mix without a chance to beat a top-five team in the Big Ten Championship Game.

For argument’s sake, however, let’s pretend Minnesota wins out, including beating either Ohio State or Penn State (again) for the Big Ten Championship Game. That’d be two wins against top-five teams (Penn State was #4 when the Gophers won a couple weeks ago) and another win over a ranked Wisconsin team.

In theory, that would be enough to leapfrog the Pac-12 Champion and Alabama and would definitely jump over two-loss Georgia if they were to lose to LSU in the SEC Championship. This team is not out of it.

James Franklin of Penn State

9. Penn State (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: at #2 Ohio State, vs. Rutgers, Big Ten Championship

If Penn State upsets Ohio State in the Horseshoe, they will jump into the top four before their game against Rutgers and ahead of the Big Ten Championship Game. That means they will just need to beat the Big Ten West Champion to stamp their ticket to the College Football Playoff.

But if they lose again, either to Ohio State or in the Big Ten Title Game, they’ll be out. Again, no way a two-loss team gets into the CFP this year. Pretty cut and dry for the Nittany Lions.

Lincoln Riley and Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma

10. Oklahoma (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: vs. TCU, at #22 Oklahoma State, Big 12 Championship

This is a super longshot. The best win this team has right now is their comeback against previously unbeaten Baylor. If they survive against their last two regular season opponents, they’ll likely have to beat the Bears again, which wouldn’t enhance their resume at all.

Remember everything Alabama needs to go their way? Well, the Sooners will need both Pac-12 teams to lose again, Penn State to lose again, and Minnesota to lose again just to be in the conversation. Texas isn’t what we thought they’d be when they were ranked 11th earlier in the year when OU beat them by seven points. A one point win over Iowa State and a squeaker of Baylor in their first meeting surely doesn’t have the committee impressed.

The benefit the Sooners have, though, is that they play on Championship Saturday and could leave a great taste in the mouth of the CFP Committee should some of the teams in front of them suffer losses.

Denzel Mims of Baylor

13. Baylor (9-1)

Remaining Schedule: vs. #19 Texas, at Kansas, Big 12 Championship

With both #11 Florida and #12 Auburn suffering multiple losses throughout the season, there’s no use in giving them any argument to get to the College Football Playoff. Texas will be unranked when Baylor plays them and so will Kansas.

Baylor’s hope is that they get a chance to beat a top 10 Oklahoma team that they nearly beat at home last weekend. If they avenge that loss, their scenario is the same as Oklahoma’s: Oregon, Utah, Penn State, and Minnesota all need to pick up a second loss for the Bears to even be in the conversation.

Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin

14. Wisconsin (8-2)

Remaining Schedule: vs. Purdue, at #8 Minnesota, Big Ten Championship

I’m breaking my two-loss rule right here. If Wisconsin beats Minnesota, that’s possibly a top ten win. The Badgers would then play either Ohio State or Penn State, either of whom would likely be in the top four when they play in the Big Ten Title Game. Back-to-back top ten wins would look very strong, especially when you consider the wins against Michigan and Iowa, who are both also ranked inside the top 20.

Like I’ve said many times, a two-loss team should not be in the CFP. And they probably won’t. But if Wisconsin wins out and the Pac-12 Champion has two losses, there’s a path for the Badgers.

They would have to leap over Minnesota and Penn State for sure since they made it to the Big Ten Championship. If Ohio State loses to the Badgers in that game, they would only have one loss but it would be hard to justify leaving the Buckeyes ahead of Wisconsin after losing to them in their conference title game.

A one-point loss at Illinois stings, but it’s not all that much worse than a loss at USC (Utah), so if Utah has two-losses Wisconsin should be ahead of them, too. If Oregon were to lose a second time, it would be either to Utah or an unranked team, so the Badgers should jump them if they have two losses.

If Georgia loses to LSU, it would be a tricky decision. Georgia’s losses are to the #1 team and at home to unranked South Carolina. Wisconsin’s are to another top four team (Ohio State) and unranked Illinois on the road. Wisconsin would have wins over four currently ranked teams, including their last two in the top ten. Georgia has three ranked wins against Notre Dame, Florida, and Auburn. It’s so close, but I think you have to favor the Big Ten Champion over a team who lost in the SEC Championship with the same amount of comparable losses and wins.

The Badgers should jump Alabama for that reason as well. Bama only has one loss, but will have no top ten wins and will have missed the SEC Championship Game.

That leaves just the Big 12 Champion. It would be a tough argument to fight for a two-loss Big Ten Champion over a one-loss Big 12 Champion, but if Oklahoma is that team, their best win would be over Baylor (twice). Baylor would finish the season around the #20 range at best in the CFP rankings. Wisconsin would have at least four ranked wins including two in the top ten. If Wisconsin gets to avenge their loss to Ohio State, I think it makes sense to put the Badgers ahead of the Sooners. If Baylor avenges their loss against Oklahoma and finishes 12-1, it’d have to be the Bears ahead of the Badgers after their win over a top-ten team.

Either way, in this scenario, only LSU and Clemson remain undefeated and two spots would be wide open for the taking. Those could very well be the Badgers and the one-loss Big 12 Champion. It would be insane, but it is a conceivable result. Therefore, only Wisconsin has a path to the playoff with two losses.

College Football Playoff Trophy

I know this is playing a big “what-if” game, but that’s what I like to do.

What are my predictions? LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oregon. I don’t think there will be any major upsets. No chaos. Just teams winning the games they are supposed to win and the only drama is that a 12-1 Pac-12 Champion gets the nod over 11-1 Alabama.

Time will tell. Let’s hope the College Football Playoff Committee doesn’t find a way to mess it up.

Hear some of my rant from last week's show here:

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