Clemson and Alabama are significant favorites in their conference championship games. Oklahoma is an outright Big 12 champion with no games left to play. And the Big Ten championship game is between Nos. 5 and 6.
If everything holds steady, the playoff picture seems so ... clean.
TCU fans, though, would be quick to remind anyone that things can change quickly and even a No. 3 team winning by 52 points can get left out of the four-team playoff without warning a week later.
There’s always hope, though. That Clemson or Alabama will lose. That the committee will wake up and decide that conference championship games really are that important.
The question this week is who needs to do the hoping.
Stanford is best positioned for chaos
The Cardinal checked in at No. 7 behind Ohio State, but Stanford may still have the best case for the College Football Playoff in the event of an upset of Clemson or Alabama — provided the Cardinal win the Pac-12 title game. Stanford could finish the season with a Pac-12 title and wins over five teams with winning records (USC twice, UCLA, Washington State, Cal, Notre Dame, plus 6-6 Washington and Arizona). By comparison, Ohio State wouldn’t even have a division championship and just two wins over winning teams (Michigan and Penn State).
North Carolina doesn’t have much hope
The Tar Heels’ rise during the last month has been impressive — from unranked to 23rd, 17th, 14th and now 10th. Yet it’s tough to see North Carolina moving up six more spots even if the Tar Heels can add a win over a No. 1 team to its résumé and an ACC championship. “It’s hard to speculate on that until we see that game, if they won, how they won the game,” selection committee chairman Jeff Long said. “I can’t anticipate how the committee will respond to that.” But at the same time, Long said two other things that shed light on how the committee would view ACC champion North Carolina. First, the committee hasn’t seen the “depth and breadth” of a résumé that has allowed Oklahoma to all but clinch a playoff spot despite a loss to 4-7 Texas. The Heels lost to 3–9 South Carolina, played two FCS teams and won one of the weakest divisions in a Power 5 conference. Second, Long indicated the committee considers Ohio State’s strength of schedule to be significantly better than North Carolina’s even though both are ranked in the 60s according to Sagarin. Put that together and a potential Pac-12 champion Stanford would almost certainly rank ahead of ACC champion North Carolina, and the committee may have enough evidence to say a non-conference champion such as Ohio State or Notre Dame is “unequivocally” better than the 12-1 Heels.
Ohio State will have some entertaining TV watching
The Buckeyes continue to get the benefit of the doubt in the rankings at No. 6 despite a résumé that essentially includes one notable win (Michigan). The Buckeyes may still be a Playoff team with a combination of Clemson and/or Alabama losing and Stanford losing to USC. And Ohio State can still play in the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl’s Big Ten participant is up to the discretion of the bowl itself, but the game will weigh each team’s rank, division title status, head-to-head result (not applicable here) and last trip to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since the 2009 season. Iowa hasn’t been since 1990. The Buckeyes should root for a comfortable Michigan State win for a trip to the Rose Bowl — but they’re still well-positioned for the Fiesta or Peach bowls regardless.
Get ready for the next mini-controversy: Oklahoma playing in Dallas
If the seeding remains as is, with Clemson at No. 1 and the Big Ten champ at No. 4, that leaves Alabama and Oklahoma playing in the Cotton Bowl. Of course, Dallas is a stronghold for the Sooners. Long made clear that the No. 1 team determines the semifinal sites, in this case Clemson playing at the Orange Bowl. The committee, he says, will not fudge seeding to ensure that a lower-seeded team, in this case, Oklahoma, doesn’t play in front of a friendly crowd. The only ways Oklahoma doesn’t play in Dallas, then, would seem to be either Michigan State or Iowa moving to No. 3.
The AAC champion will play in a major bowl
Either Houston or Temple will play in a College Football Playoff host bowl, likely the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. The AAC champion seemed destined for this for weeks now, but there was a bit of a question last week when Houston was unranked, Temple was No. 25 and Toledo was at No. 24. Houston’s win over then-No. 15 Navy put the Cougars back in the top 25 with a matchup with No. 22 Temple in the AAC title game. At the same time, Toledo fell out of the rankings and was eliminated from the MAC championship game with a loss to Western Michigan.
New Year’s Six Projections
Orange Bowl semifinal: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Iowa
Cotton Bowl semifinal: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Rose: No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 7 Stanford
Sugar: No. 12 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Baylor
Fiesta: No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Florida State
Peach: No. 19 Houston vs. No. 6 Ohio State