With the B1G dominating the landscape of college football by boasting 4 of the top 8 teams in the country, along with the cavalcade of upsets we’ve seen over the past week, it’s become clear that silence is no longer an option for at least one member of the Tailgating crew. While I’m sure many of you were hoping to hear from Matt, unfortunately you’re stuck with me this week.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that last weekend was the most exciting college football weekend we’ve ever seen, but I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed a more improbable series of games? While Alabama was reminding everyone of how tired we are of them, #2 Clemson fell to unranked Pitt, #3 Michigan lost on a last-second FG to an unranked Iowa that was housed the previous week by Penn State, and #4 Washington lost to #20 USC. Add in losses by #8 Texas A&M and #9 Auburn, along with #5 Louisville going down this past Thursday night, and we’re in full-on mayhem mode. Let’s break down what this means for the top teams in the current playoff rankings, whether or not the committee has it right at this moment, and how I expect everything to shake out. It’s been awhile, but I’m glad to be back in the saddle. Here we go…
Where We Stand-- The Current Rankings
1. Alabama (10-0) 11/19 vs. Chattanooga, 11/26 vs. Auburn, 12/3 SEC Championship
Barring the impossible, the Tide are in. The biggest question is whether or not they’re invincible. A mediocre Ole Miss team was able to hang with them toe-to-toe in week 3, and LSU was able to hold them scoreless through 3 quarters a couple of weeks ago, but the Tide found a way to win both. Clemson, Ohio State, and Michigan are all capable of beating Alabama, but even though the SEC is not nearly as strong a conference from top to bottom as it was a few years ago, as long as Alabama is rolling, it will take a near perfect effort to bring them down. If they do bring home the title, I think it's time for us to officially declare this the greatest dynasty of all time.
2. Ohio State (9-1) 11/19 @ Michigan State, 11/26 vs. Michigan
It’s weird to say it, but I think there’s a significantly greater than zero chance that despite currently being the highest ranked team, Ohio State is the only one of the four B1G teams being considered that doesn’t control their own fate. I’m not saying this should be the case, but I am saying that after nearly witnessing this exact scenario play out last year with Alabama and Ole Miss, we may finally see once and for all how the committee values each of the criteria. Over the first couple years of the CFP, the committee has not yet selected a non-conference champion. The committee has also not yet selected a team with more than 1 regular season defeat. Yet Ohio State, even if they beat #3 Michigan, has that loss to potential B1G champ #8 Penn State hanging over their head. The criteria set forth by the committee is that a team that does not win its conference must demonstrate itself to be clearly better than a power conference champ. Ohio State’s win over #7 Wisconsin may be enough to rank them over the Badgers if they happen to take home the B1G championship. However, a title for Penn State could possibly throw a major monkey wrench at the committee, because despite having one more loss, Penn State would not only have the H2H matchup in their favor, but would also have the hardware. With #5 Louisville going down on Thursday, it would only take a loss by Washington to render this discussion moot and potentially lock two B1G participants into the playoff. But, if Washington and Penn State win out and add a title to their respective resumes, it’s at least possible that the committee could vault both the Nittany Lions and Huskies ahead of the Buckeyes and into the playoff.
3. Michigan (9-1) 11/19 vs. Indiana, 11/26 @ Ohio State
Michigan's path to the playoff is much more straightforward than Ohio State's. If they win out, they’re in the playoff as at least the 2 seed. If they lose, they’re out. Last week’s loss to Iowa was the most improbable upset of the season, and with QB Wilton Speight likely to miss at least this week with a broken collarbone, the Wolverines would be wise not to overlook an Indiana team that took them to OT last year, and nearly upset Penn State last week.
4. Clemson (9-1) 11/19 @ Wake Forest, 11/26 vs. South Carolina, 12/3 ACC Championship
Similar to Michigan, Clemson also has a clear path to a repeat appearance in the CFP. 3 wins and they’re in. 1 loss and they’re out. This was the case even before Louisville lost to Houston on Thursday night.
5. Louisville (9-2) OUT
The Cardinals' fate was sealed by a 36-10 loss on Thursday night at the hands of Houston. Their loss, coupled with a guaranteed loss for Ohio State or Michigan, opens things up wide for the next 3 teams on the list.
6. Washington (9-1) 11/19 vs. Arizona State, 11/26 @ Washington State
As of this moment, Washington wouldn’t even be participating in the Pac-12 Championship. But, the Huskies do still control their own destiny thanks to a potential Apple Cup for the ages in Pullman against Wazzou (With Mike Leach and Chris Peterson prominently involved, it is a guarantee Matt and I would have left the Egg Bowl at the alter and run off with the Apple Cup had we not remained mostly muted this season). However, even if the Huskies win out, they could find themselves in an uphill battle against the numbers. Washington played the weakest non-conference schedule in FBS this season, and while they still have 2 more potential games against ranked opponents, a win would likely knock Washington State out of the top 25, and would knock whomever the beat in the Pac-12 championship further down the food chain, leaving them severely lacking in the quality wins category, especially when compared with the B1G candidates. We are getting to the point that it’s really difficult to envision a playoff without the B1G champ (even if the champ has 2 losses). Therefore, Washington fans should be rooting heavily for Michigan the rest of the way. If both Michigan and Washington win out, as conference champion, the Huskies would clearly be the pick over a 2-loss Penn State that didn’t make its conference championship, and would almost certainly beat out the Big 12 champ, whether it’s a 2-loss Oklahoma, a 2-loss Oklahoma State, or even a 1-loss West Virginia. But if Ohio State beats Michigan, and the B1G champ is either 2-loss Wisconsin or Penn State, things could get really murky for U-Dub.
7. Wisconsin (8-2) 11/19 @ Purdue, 11/26 vs. Minnesota
The Badgers are not locked into the B1G Championship game as of yet, but are the clear favorites to emerge from the West as we head into the final 2 weeks of the regular season. There’s a strong possibility that a 2-loss program will crash the playoff for the first time this year. If the Badgers win the B1G, it’s pretty clear that they’d be the top 2-loss team left standing. But would that be enough if Clemson, Ohio State, and Washington each win out?
8. Penn State (8-2) 11/19 @ Rutgers, 11/26 vs. Michigan State
I can’t think of a more unlikely team to be sitting in this position than Penn State, especially considering Michigan’s 49-10 beatdown of them just 2 months ago. I’d get into the why, but I’d need the benefit of an entire article to do that justice, so I’ll let us sit on the reality that Penn State has earned the opportunity to be very much alive in the B1G and playoff picture. And it’s not just the win over Ohio State. NO ONE does Iowa like that. With the Hawkeyes solidifying that point by rebounding to beat Michigan the very next week, most of the sting from 49-10 is officially gone. Thanks to remaining schedules and win probabilities, the current most likely scenario in the race for the B1G championship has Penn State emerging as the East Division champions to take on Wisconsin. I’ve talked plenty about the potential B1G playoff paradox above, but considering the committee’s clear focus on the importance of H2H as well as the designation of “champion” when determining the CFP participants, we may finally have some legwork to consider in the future if the final spot does indeed come down to the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes. As a Penn State fan, just the talk of a New Year’s Six bowl with this team has me giddy. That they are currently a legit member of the playoff conversation is something I’m still trying to fully comprehend. This program is only going to get better, folks.
9. Oklahoma (8-2) 11/19 @ West Virginia, 12/3 vs. Oklahoma State
Frankly, I think the Sooners are going down to West Virginia, but even if they don’t, they have a major uphill battle to climb. Considering the strength of the B1G, Oklahoma isn’t passing a 2-loss champion from that conference, especially since they won’t have a conference championship game of their own for added leverage. Even more problematic is that H2H loss against Ohio State that would give the Buckeyes the edge even if they find themselves sitting at home during conference championship weekend. But things also aren’t as simple as Oklahoma merely rooting for Michigan to win out since Ohio State would still own that H2H edge even if the Sooners have hardware on their side. For Oklahoma to get in, I think they’d need Washington to lose and Ohio State to win the B1G, meaning Penn State would need to lose to either Rutgers or Michigan State.
So You're Saying There's a Chance-
The only other Power 5 team I haven’t mentioned with a chance to finish with just 1 loss on the season is West Virginia
. The Mountaineers host the Sooners this week, and Matt brought up a great point a while back about WVU’s significant advantage in home conference games considering the travel involved for the other schools in the Big 12. If West Virginia can take advantage and beat Oklahoma, I think they suddenly have a really interesting case. However, they’d also still need Oklahoma State
to lose at some point as well, otherwise it would be the Cowboys who are declared as the official champion of the Big 12. And why not Colorado
, who's currently the 10th ranked team according to the CFP? They host Washington State and Utah to close the season, and if they win, could meet Washington for the Pac-12 championship. If they can navigate their way through that 3 game gauntlet, the Buffs, whose only losses are at Michigan and at USC, would have a very strong resume for the committee to consider. Utah
and Washington State
are each also a potential 2-loss Pac-12 champ, but are pretty far back in the rankings at this point, and probably have too many mountains to climb unless a complete eruption of chaos continues to ensue over the next 3 weeks.
Does The Committee Have it Right?
I mean, for now? Sure. But this is where they’ve left us a bit confused in the past. Just 2 years ago, TCU was ranked ahead of Baylor and Ohio State every week leading up to the unveiling of the final rankings. Despite each of those 3 teams not losing another game, TCU dropped from #3 to #6 behind both Ohio State and Baylor in the final rankings, thanks in part to their H2H loss against Baylor (even though that hadn’t played a role in the previous 6 weeks), and because of the official edition of B1G hardware that was added to Ohio State’s resume. That leads me to believe that we could be in store for some strange shake-ups again this year.
Let’s Shake This Thing Out-
Alabama is getting in and will be the overwhelming favorite. How’s that for some groundbreaking analysis?
If Michigan wins out, they're in and it almost certainly locks the committee into selecting 4 conference champions. If Clemson wins out, they're in. That would leave the last spot for the Pac-12 or Big 12 champ. Washington would be the 4th team if they win out. If they lose, that opens the door for Oklahoma. But if Oklahoma and Washington each lose and WVU sticks with just 1 loss, the committee would have a tough choice between WVU and a 2-loss Pac-12 champ, with Oklahoma State, who owns the H2H over WVU, still in the mix as well if they win out. The best 2-loss team without a conference championship would almost certainly be Penn State thanks to their H2H over Ohio State, but it would take something mammoth to happen for them to be considered in this scenario.
However, if we stay on schedule and Ohio State takes care of Michigan at home (they'll be the slight favorite), I think there's a real chance Penn State or Wisconsin could trump even a 1-loss Washington. If Wisconsin beats Ohio State or Michigan in the B1G Championship, that may be enough for them to leap all teams not named Bama or Clemson. But I also don't think a Wisconsin win over Penn State would be enough for them to pass Washington. Penn State's path could be a bit more transitive. If the committee believes Ohio State is superior than Washington, but they also value PSU's H2H and Championship over OSU, then it's at least possible both could pass the Huskies. Beyond that, it's very clear at this point that any 2-loss B1G champ would trump any 2-loss champ from any other conference, and that a 1-loss Ohio State non-champ would trump a 2-loss champ from the ACC, Big 12, or Pac-12. I also think West Virginia can't pass the B1G champ, even if they end up with only 1 loss. The lack of a Big 12 championship game is really going to hurt them this year. And yes, if mass chaos continues to ensue, there is as high as a 0.37% chance we could reach a point where the best non-Alabama teams remaining are Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan.
Well, if we’ve learned anything from the past week, it’s that we know nothing. You’d think we’d have already learned that, but it seems like each year we’re reminded at some point of exactly how little we know. The big games this weekend are in Morgantown and Boulder, but as always, we never know when another big game may make a random appearance. Indiana looked frisky last week against Penn State and nearly beat Michigan last year. Michigan State may finally have a little bit of momentum, and while this clearly isn’t the same Sparty that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, Mark Dantonio is still their coach, and they’ve had Ohio State’s number in recent seasons. Also, TCU hosts fringe contender Oklahoma State in a tricky spot for the Cowboys, and USC and UCLA should be all kinds of beautiful at the Rose Bowl in a late 10:30 kick on ESPN.
Enjoy your College Football Saturday everyone!