Barring some utter chaos, here is where we are.
I have predicted all sixteen members of the field before the final release. I waffled a bit on Alabama-Ohio State last year, but I felt like the committee would default to fewer losses. I also would have personally picked Penn State over Ohio State in 2016, and Baylor over TCU or Ohio State in 2014, but I thought the committee would end up disagreeing with me.
After four years of data, the most significant thing has been win/loss record. Penn State— despite having a 13th data point, conference title and head-to-head win over Ohio State—lost out to the Buckeyes because they were 11-2 and Ohio State was 11-1 in 2016. Alabama jumped Ohio State in 2017—despite the Buckeyes having a 13th data point, a conference title and possibly a better schedule—because Alabama was 11-1.
The Committee can always change what matters. These are subjective questions, and there’s a good bit of political science and psychological research that shows people make decisions then try to justify them in existing frameworks. Baylor certainly had a better resume than Ohio State in 2014. But some folks thought Ohio State was better. Rather than just say the eye test mattered, people harped on Baylor’s non-conference schedule. That ignored that the longer Big 12 slate was much tougher, and that Ohio State didn’t really challenge themselves that season.
Control their own destiny: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, LSU and Georgia
There are three undefeated power five/Notre Dame teams left. No undefeated team—even the lucky to have been undefeated 2014 Florida State Seminoles—has been left out of the playoff. Given we can only have three undefeated teams in that mix, we’re already guaranteed a one loss team or a UCF appearance. A second one loss team or UCF isn’t going to jump an undefeated P5 or Notre Dame.
Alabama is the nation’s best team. They have the best player and have thrashed everyone. They play at LSU next week, The Citadel, Mississippi State and Auburn. If they win the SEC West, they’ll likely face Georgia in the SEC title game.
Clemson is also undefeated. The ACC hasn’t been great, and they just walloped the league’s second best team. They still have Louisville, Florida State, Duke, Boston College and South Carolina. But they’ll be massive favorites in all of those games. With the ACC relatively weak, a one loss Clemson team might be in a tough spot.
Notre Dame has five unranked teams left. They play Navy, Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC. The Fighting Irish figure to be favored in all those games. If they win out, their undefeated status, plus their win against Michigan, will help immensely. But this team hasn’t played a difficult schedule, and they didn’t look great against Pitt. I think a one loss Notre Dame would lose out to Ohio State, one loss Alabama, one loss Washington State or a one loss Big 12 champ.
LSU and Georgia control their own destiny because each finishing the season with one loss would mean a victory over Alabama. That would leave us with only two possible undefeated teams, and there’s no way a one loss SEC Champ is getting left out for two other one loss/UCF teams. Either Georgia or LSU with one loss would have a head-to-head win over Alabama, a 13th data point and the championship of the most respected conference.
A good chance to make it in if they win out, but they don’t control their own destiny: Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan
Let’s start with the three Big 12 teams. For each of them to win out, they’d be 12-1 and champions of the Big 12. With the PAC-12’s struggles—evidenced by having just one team remaining with one loss—and the Big 10’s problems, I think the Big 12 is the league poised to get the next spot.
The worst scenario for the Big 12 would be if Alabama finishes 11-1, Notre Dame goes undefeated, Clemson goes undefeated and 12-1 LSU or 12-1 Georgia wins the SEC. With how dominant Alabama has been, and with the cache they carry, I think an 11-1 Alabama would get the final spot. But that’s a wild series of events. One of those four things is probably not going to happen. Alabama going undefeated, or Notre Dame losing seems like the easiest path out of that scenario.
If Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame snag three spots, then the Big 12 champion would be in a very good spot against Washington State or Ohio State. Washington State has to deal with the perception of the PAC-12. They also still have to travel to Stanford and Colorado. And they host Washington. If they get through that slate, they’d then need to win the PAC-12 title. I don’t think Washington State will win out. But assuming they do, the PAC-12’s perception, and their loss to USC, will hurt them.
Ohio State has some issues overtaking the Big 12. They haven’t looked great lately, and even though the Committee isn’t supposed to consider margin of victory, their effort against Purdue is going to hurt them. The committee noted subjective feelings about Alabama when favoring them over the Buckeyes last season. One of those subjective feelings came from getting crushed by Iowa. Getting crushed by Purdue shouldn’t help them much either.
Michigan’s problem is that Notre Dame game. The Wolverines fans—and I like Michigan way more than any of the schools here—could face a very stupid penalty. Let’s say Notre Dame finishes 11-1. Would the Committee take 12-1 Michigan over 11-1 Notre Dame? It’s hard to ignore head-to-head, and the Committee didn’t ignore it in 2014. I think the Committee would actually punish Michigan, much like they punished TCU and Baylor in 2014. The 2014 Committee seemed to make the stupid error of saying TCU > Ohio State, Baylor > TCU but Ohio State > Baylor. Michigan fans should fear that same scenario. I could see the Committee believing that Michigan is better than Oklahoma, but they could also think that Oklahoma is better than Notre Dame. Last time that happened they ended up screwing TCU and Baylor in that scenario. I think the Committee could drop Michigan out. My hope is that the Committee would just say: “Michigan-Notre Dame was week one. The result was close. Since then, Michigan has been the better team. They also played a 13th game, and Notre Dame didn’t challenge themselves enough with their schedule. Reasonable minds could disagree, but we did not feel the resumes were close enough for the head-to-head to matter.” But I think Michigan will get left out if Oklahoma or Texas wins out.
These teams are all in decent shape because there is likely to be one open spot for them. Notre Dame could certainly lose once. If that happens, everyone but Michigan in this group would likely jump because of the issues I covered above. The Big 12 champ could have two losses, which is made more likely by the title game. Michigan or Ohio State could lose again. Clemson could falter. All of the non-Alabama teams have shown moments of real weakness. Asking any of them to win out if a tall task.
I’d love Mike Leach or UCF to make the playoff, but I don’t see it: Washington State, UCF and the rest
Washington State is 6-1 with a win against Oregon. But they still have quite a few decent teams. And they face the task of overcoming the PAC-12’s perception. I don’t see them jumping any of the other league’s with a one loss team.
UCF is hurt by the Committee’s past rankings. They’ve consistently ranked non-power five/Notre Dame teams low. UCF’s non-conference this year hurts them (though I’m cognizant of them struggling to find opponents). I support giving UCF, our reigning national champs, a shot.
Anybody else would need chaos. And even then, a two loss LSU or Georgia, or a two loss champion from above, would be in position to slot in.
1) Alabama (13-0)- This is the best team in the country. Their defense has some rough moments, so if someone could get lucky on turnovers, they might have a chance.
2) Clemson (13-0)- Trevor Lawrence dominated N.C. State. This team hasn’t been that dominant for much of the season. They could certainly lose.
3) Oklahoma (12-1)- After firing Mike Stoops, I think the Sooners are going to go on a run. I expect them to beat Texas in a rematch.
4) Notre Dame (11-1)- I’m not sure who the Fighting Irish will lose to, but expecting this team to finish undefeated is tough. This team isn’t that great, so they could certainly lose twice.
5) LSU (10-2)- Their offense isn’t good enough to beat Alabama.
6) Michigan (11-2)- I think Michigan will beat Ohio State, but their offense has moments of disaster. They’ll blow a game they shouldn’t.