When the newest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings are released Tuesday, the top four are likely to consist of some combination of Alabama, Miami, Oklahoma and Clemson, with Wisconsin and Georgia the first two teams left out.
Since all six teams have no more than one loss, all six seemingly control their own destiny. Win every remaining game, and they’re probably in. Lose, and things get murky. And with just three weeks to go before the playoff field is set, the “what if” scenarios are in full swing.
Either Alabama or Georgia is guaranteed to lose before the final rankings are revealed. An Alabama loss to Auburn would keep the Crimson Tide out of the SEC Championship Game, and two-loss Auburn could very well jump its archrivals and into the playoff. A loss to either the Tide or Tigers in Atlanta (or Kentucky or Georgia Tech for that matter) would end Georgia’s hopes after last week’s ugly loss in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Elsewhere, the playoff committee has already expressed its concerns over Wisconsin’s strength of schedule, which means a loss to either Michigan or Minnesota could doom the Badgers’ playoff hopes regardless of what happens in the Big Ten Championship Game. A Sooners loss in the revived Big 12 Championship Game would likely cost the league its hopes of a playoff bid, and if Clemson falls to an undefeated Miami squad in the ACC Championship Game, the defending national champions would surely be left out as well.
If chaos truly breaks loose, it could create an opportunity for a two-loss team to sneak into the final four. Looking ahead, and taking into account the worst-case scenario for the teams above, here are the current two-loss teams ranked based on their likelihood of earning a playoff bid.
Record: 8-2 (6-1 SEC)
AP Ranking: 6
Best Wins: 40–17 vs. Georgia, 49-10 vs. Mississippi State
Losses: 14-6 at Clemson, 27-23 at LSU
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. ULM, Nov. 25 vs. Alabama, *Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game vs. Georgia
Thanks to the overall strength of its remaining schedule, specifically the Iron Bowl against potential No. 1 Alabama (which will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium), which would earn the Tigers a rematch against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Auburn has the best chance of any two-loss team to sneak into the College Football Playoff.
If Auburn wins out, it would pick up two more wins over top-10 opponents, a conference title, and also own a head-to-head “tiebreaker” with a one-loss Alabama squad. The Crimson Tide might still make it into the final four depending on how the other Power 5 conference shake out, but Auburn would almost assuredly be the higher ranked of the two. Auburn almost controls its destiny. It appears the only scenario in which the SEC champion Tigers wouldn’t make it to the playoff would be if Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Clemson all win their respective conferences with the Tigers picking up a close win over a previously undefeated Miami squad in the ACC title game, keeping the Hurricanes in the playoff picture.
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
AP Ranking: 9
Best Wins: 38-18 at Michigan State, 49-14 vs. USC, 35-14 vs. NC State
Losses: 20-19 vs. Georgia, 41-8 at Miami
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Navy, Nov. 25 at Stanford
Notre Dame is the only team on our list with three victories over teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25, and though the Fighting Irish were completely outclassed Saturday on the road against Miami, losses to the undefeated Hurricanes and old No. 1 Georgia are the most forgivable of the group. The Irish also have two tough remaining games against a pesky Navy squad and on the road at Stanford, which should help offset the lack of a conference championship game. If Auburn falls short of its bid, and Oklahoma, Clemson and Wisconsin lose again, Notre Dame would have a strong case to be the No. 4 seed.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten)
AP Ranking: 8
Best Wins: 39-38 vs. Penn State, 48-3 vs. Michigan State
Losses: 31-16 vs. Oklahoma, 55-28 at Iowa
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Illinois, Nov. 25 at Michigan, *Dec. 2 Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin
Ohio State has two very impressive wins over Penn State and Michigan State, and has an opportunity to pick up two more by beating Michigan in the regular season finale and Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. The loss to Oklahoma is forgivable; the loss to an unranked Iowa squad could be difficult to overcome. If both Auburn and Notre Dame win out, the loss to the Hawkeyes likely erases any path to the playoff for Ohio State.
4. TCU Horned Frogs
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big 12)
AP Ranking: 11
Best Wins: 44-31 at Oklahoma State, 31-24 vs. West Virginia
Losses: 14-7 at Iowa State, 38-20 at Oklahoma
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 at Texas Tech, Nov. 24 vs. Baylor
TCU gave up 38 points in the first half of Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma, but the Horned Frogs shut out Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield after that to keep the final score respectable. The 44-31 victory over Oklahoma State earlier this season gives TCU the tiebreaker over the Cowboys and a win over the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game would be a big step towards a playoff spot.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big 12)
AP Ranking: 10
Best Wins: 50-39 at West Virginia, 49-42 at Iowa State
Losses: 44-31 vs. TCU, 62-52 vs. Oklahoma
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Kansas State, Nov. 25 vs. Kansas, *Dec. 2 Big 12 Championship Game vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma State needs quite a few dominoes to fall to get back into the playoff hunt, but hope remains in Stillwater. Should TCU lose to either Texas Tech or Baylor, the Cowboys would have an opportunity to avenge its Bedlam loss. Unfortunately, a win over the hated Sooners in the Big 12 title game might not be enough.
6. Washington State Cougars
Record: 9-2 (6-2 Pac-12)
AP Ranking: 15
Best Wins: 30-27 vs. USC, 24-21 vs. Stanford
Losses: 37-3 at Cal, 58-37 at Arizona
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 25 at Washington, *Dec. 1 Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC
Two teams on our list are currently ranked higher in the AP Poll, and Washington State has arguably the most inexcusable loss of the group (the 37-3 turnover-fest on Friday the 13th in Berkeley), but don’t count the Cougars out of the playoff mix just yet. Mike Leach and company have a bye week to prepare for the Apple Cup, which gives Washington State an advantage ahead of the upcoming trip to Seattle. A win over the Huskies would secure the Pac-12 North title, and the Cougars would then have an opportunity to beat USC for the second time. With an 11-2 record, a conference title, and at least three wins over teams ranked in the top 15, Washington State would have a solid resume – especially since the committee has been known to reward big wins more than penalize ugly losses. If the Cougs get enough breaks elsewhere, they could sneak into the committee’s final four.
7. USC Trojans
Record: 9-2 (7-1 Pac-12)
AP Ranking: 12
Best Wins: 42-24 vs. Stanford, 49-35 vs. Arizona
Losses: 30-23 at Washington State, 49-14 at Notre Dame
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 25 vs. UCLA, *Dec. 1 Pac-12 Championship Game vs. Washington State/Washington/Stanford
A preseason playoff contender, there’s still an outside shot for USC to make it into the final four. The 49-14 loss to Notre Dame is an ugly blemish on the resume, but the Trojans have two wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 and there’s a chance to pick up another in the Pac-12 title game. USC needs a lot of help (including another Notre Dame loss and chaos in the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12) but hope is not lost yet.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big Ten)
AP Ranking: 13
Best Wins: 42-13 vs. Michigan, 31-7 at Northwestern
Losses: 39-38 at Ohio State, 27-24 at Michigan State
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Nebraska, Nov. 25 at Maryland
Other than Michigan State, Penn State was the biggest loser after Ohio State destroyed the Spartans Saturday. Yes, the Nittany Lions needed the Buckeyes to lose to put themselves in a better position to sneak into the Big Ten Championship Game, but the lopsided score makes Penn State’s 27-24 loss in the rain in East Lansing much worse than it did at the time. James Franklin’s team has two wins over teams currently ranked in the Top 25, and with slumping Nebraska and Maryland on the schedule to end the season, there’s a great chance Penn State finishes 10-2. However, the Nittany Lions need a lot of help to win – most notably an Ohio State loss – and it’s there’s no way Penn State would earn a spot in the final four without winning the conference title.
9. Michigan Wolverines
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big Ten)
AP Ranking: 19
Best Wins: 33-17 vs. Florida, 33-10 vs. Minnesota
Losses: 14-10 vs. Michigan State, 42-13 at Penn State
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 at Wisconsin, Nov. 25 vs. Ohio State, *Dec. 2 Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin
Did you forget about Michigan? We basically wrote off the Wolverines after they were blown out by Penn State, and it’s absolutely worth noting Jim Harbaugh’s squad hasn’t beaten a team that currently owns a winning record. Nevertheless, Michigan is actually in a similar situation to Auburn. If the Wolverines can get by Wisconsin and Ohio State over the next two weekends, Michigan would have a much improved resume. The Wolverines are still on the outside looking in in the Big Ten East Division, but if Michigan is can find a way to make it to Detroit, it’s very possible the team could finish with the momentum of three straight victories over top-10 opponents.
10. Washington Huskies
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Pac-12)
AP Ranking: 16
Best Wins: 38-3 vs. Oregon, 48-16 vs. Fresno State
Losses: 13-7 at Arizona State, 30-22 at Stanford
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Utah, Nov. 25 at Washington State, *Dec. 1 Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC
Last week, Washington appeared to be an underrated College Football Playoff candidate quietly building momentum. Had the Huskies beaten Stanford Friday night, Chris Petersen’s team would likely be no worse than No. 6 in Tuesday’s playoff rankings with a great opportunity to move into the top four once the other conference races played out. But a 30-22 loss to the Cardinal now means Washington must rely on an unlikely Cal upset of Stanford to have any chance of winning the Pac-12 North. The Huskies also have zero wins over teams ranked in the Top 25, and both losses came against currently unranked opponents. As a result, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Huskies finish the season with the best resume among two-loss teams.
*Conference championship games to be determined
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.