Entering Week 11, it appeared we were barreling toward the most drama-free postseason final four in the young College Football Playoff’s history. Much of the same was expected from a relatively ho-hum slate of games.
Three of the top four were at home and only one was playing a ranked (and three-loss) team. The other member of the group was on the road against a lackluster team still not bowl eligible, and the rest of the top 10 was playing unranked opponents. It was just one of those weeks that you might have been inclined to cross off a few things on the to-do list before flipping on the television or heading out to a tailgate.
But that’s not how college football works. When chaos is least expected, it usually reigns. That happened Saturday night as Clemson kept shooting itself in the foot and kept the door open for Pitt to nail a game-winning field goal. While it was a rare road trip for Michigan, much of the same could be said regarding the Wolverines' last-second loss to Iowa. Washington, holding the thinnest resume of the group, simply ran into the buzzsaw that is the nation’s hottest team in USC.
While all those surprising results finally gave us some late-season drama that we didn’t have coming into Saturday, they didn’t really change much despite No. 2, No. 3. and No. 4 losing. All three can still win out and would almost certainly slide back into playoff picture.
What those string of losses did do however, was open the door for even greater chaos down the road. As the weather gets colder across much of the country, the chances for an upset always seem to rise when you least expect it. Championship teams can overcome it but some good-not-great ones might not.
What kind of things will happen to the playoff Selection Committee’s top four? Thanks to a variety of tie-breakers, records, head-to-heads and huge games, here’s how the season could play out in the race for the national title from the mundane to the wild.
1. The status quo
Scenario: Alabama wins out as undefeated SEC champion. Clemson wins out as ACC champion. Washington wins out as Pac-12 champion. Michigan wins out as Big Ten champion.
The top four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Michigan, 4. Washington
The reasoning: It’s as if this past Saturday never happened. Each team would still wind up as conference champions, the Crimson Tide would still be the unquestioned No. 1 as the lone undefeated team, and all three one-loss teams would have better résumés than Big 12 champion Oklahoma or West Virginia. This is the dream run for the selection committee in avoiding criticism but things rarely work out that way.
2. Chaos-free with a B1G twist
Scenario: Alabama wins out along with Clemson and Washington. Penn State beats bottom-dwellers Rutgers and Michigan State, while Ohio State beats Michigan. The Nittany Lions then beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
The top four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Washington, 4. Penn State
The reasoning: Washington gets bumped up a seed line as a one-loss conference champion and avoids Alabama in the semifinals. Penn State gets in as a two-loss team thanks to a conference title, head-to-head win over No. 5 Ohio State. Even if Oklahoma wins out in this scenario, the Sooners don’t climb far enough to leapfrog the Nittany Lions.
3. 2015 on Repeat
Scenario: Alabama loses the Iron Bowl but wins the SEC. Clemson wins out. Houston beats Louisville and Oklahoma runs the table. Washington State wins the Pac-12. Michigan beats Ohio State and takes the Big Ten crown.
The top four: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Michigan, 4. Oklahoma
The reasoning: Take the ‘State’ away from last year’s final set of CFP rankings and you’ll see a mirror image of 2015’s top four. Clemson gets the slight edge over fellow one-loss Alabama (due to number of top-25 wins) for the top seed and get to play down the road in Atlanta. Michigan comes in at No. 3 due to the strength of the Big Ten and gives everybody a dream Saban vs. Harbaugh matchup. Because the final spot would come down to two-loss champions between the Big 12 and Pac-12, the committee opts to go with the hot hand that didn’t lose to an FCS team.
4. No choice non-division
Scenario: Clemson loses to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game while Louisville blows out Houston and Kentucky. Ohio State beats Michigan and Penn State loses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Washington wins the Pac-12. The Big 12 devolves into a two- or three-way tie but Oklahoma wins on tiebreakers.
The top four: 1. Alabama, 2. Washington, 3. Ohio State, 4. Louisville
The reasoning: Nick Saban versus the likely Heisman Trophy winner combined with Bobby Petrino’s return to the Georgia Dome to face an NFL-caliber defense, how juicy would that be? The other semifinal would likely feature the two winningest active head coaches (by percentage). The Buckeyes get in at 11-1 thanks to head-to-head wins over two conference champions. While Louisville doesn’t have a great résumé, chaos elsewhere and the fact that the Cardinals’ only loss was a close one on the road gets them the nod.
5. Let chaos reign
Scenario: Alabama loses to Auburn and is upset in the SEC title game by Tennessee. Virginia Tech beats Clemson in the ACC championship. West Virginia wins out. Washington State wins the Apple Cup and the Pac-12 in convincing fashion. Houston upsets Louisville. Penn State wins the Big Ten. Boise State wins out and convincingly beats San Diego State.
The top four: 1. Penn State, 2. West Virginia, 3. Washington State, 4. Boise State
The reasoning: The things presented above are not completely out of the question and in the realm of possibility. Even if Alabama were to beat Auburn but lose to Tennessee, the Tide could be swapped out of the top four with Boise State.
Stat of the Week
The longest regular-season winning streak — 112 straight dating back to 2005 — in the NCAA ended on Saturday as John Carroll shocked Mount Union in Division III action. The loss was just the Purple Raiders’ second in 224 games since 1994 and, because it was in the final game of the regular season, snapped a 24-year streak of Ohio Athletic Conference titles. John Carroll’s win also broke a string of 98 straight victories at home for Mount Union. Simply amazing.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Jalen Hurts, Alabama
Heisman five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 3. Jalen Hurts (Alabama), 4. Sam Darnold (USC), 5. Jake Browning (Washington)
Team of the week: USC
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Larry Fedora
Quote of the week: Dan Mullen: “They (Alabama) have more 5-stars on their punt team than we have on our roster.”
Play of the Week
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 12.
2. Ohio State
8. Penn State
13. West Virginia
14. Washington State
16. Oklahoma State
Best of the rest: Florida State, Boise State, Auburn, Navy, Western Michigan, Nebraska, Troy, South Florida, San Diego State
Oklahoma at West Virginia
The Sooners are playing as well as anybody in conference play and have one of the most dangerous offenses in the country with Baker Mayfield, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook all looking like award winners. The defense is suspect though and that’s where West Virginia shines. This seems like an evenly matched game with the Mountaineers playing at home so we’ll give them the edge by a field goal.
Washington State at Colorado
The Cougars travel to Boulder for a game with playoff implications, just like we all thought to begin the season. Wazzu’s defense has been better than most give the a Mike Leach-coached team credit for but have struggled more than normal on the road this year. With Colorado potent on both sides of the ball, we’ll lean the home team in this one but nothing would surprise us given how the season has gone for both teams.
San Diego State at Wyoming
It’s too bad this game isn’t on one of the late TV windows (which are lackluster to say the least this week), as it features the No. 1 (Donnel Pumphrey) and No. 3 (Brian Hill) leading rushers in the country with serious Group of Five and Mountain West title implications. While this would be a nice spot for a bounce-back game for Wyoming at home, we’ll lean toward SDSU getting things done in a close one thanks to that stout Aztecs defense.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.