Predicting The Chaotic Path To The College Football Playoff’s Final Four

Getty Image

Last weekend gave us the wildest, most chaotic Saturday of the season, a roller-coaster ride of upsets that… uh, changed almost nothing, actually. If anything, high-profile flops by previously unbeaten Clemson, Michigan, and Washington only served to reinforce the status quo: With three weeks to go before the playoff field is etched in stone, all three remain very much alive for one of the four golden tickets.

Still, simply watching three of the top-ranked teams in the nation go down in rapid succession, two of them at the hands of unranked opponents, also reinforced how little we really know about how the rest of the season will unfold and how quickly all of our standing assumptions can go up in smoke.

With that in mind, and with respect to the latest Top 25 released by the Playoff Selection Committee on Tuesday night, this week I’ve re-ranked the national contenders according to each team’s chances of actually making the playoff field in December, regardless of its current status. These projections take future schedules and multiple possible scenarios into account to determine the true pecking order, with the understanding and acceptance that the real winner in the end will be chaos. Always chaos.


The only team that can conceivably survive a loss at this stage…

1. Alabama (10-0). Obviously: The defending champs opened the season at No. 1 and remain as entrenched there as any front-runner in recent memory. Besides top billing from the committee, last weekend’s purge left Bama with all 124 first-place votes in the AP and Coaches’ polls, plus the high score in every notable computer ranking, for good measure. The Tide are so far ahead of the pack right now that it often feels like they’re not competing against other teams so much as they’re competing against themselves, and against the standard set by the championship outfits that came before them. So far, they’re winning.

Within the SEC, the margin is so wide that, hypothetically, Alabama could take the next two weeks easy, rest its starters against Chattanooga and Auburn, even — and again, I stress this is hypothetical — suffer a loss against the Tigers, and still cruise into the playoffs with a win over whichever sacrificial lamb the East Division offers up for slaughter in the SEC title game. That’s not going to happen, of course, in part because winning the Iron Bowl is a biological imperative in the state of Alabama independent of any broader context, and in part because Bama’s backups might still be favored. But it could, because in a season with no other unbeaten teams remaining in the Power 5 conferences, historic dominance is not a requirement.


Teams that control their own path, but with no margin for error…

2. Michigan (9-1). The Wolverines had been sufficiently Bama-esque over their first nine games that their 14-13 loss at Iowa is on the short list of the most stunning, consequential results of the season — the upset turned a two-team race in the Big Ten’s East Division into a three-team race (see below), and also cost Michigan its starting quarterback, Wilton Speight, who was just beginning to look like the real deal before suffering a broken collarbone in the loss. Going forward the offense will be in the hands of John O’Korn, a transfer from Houston who was widely expected to win the starting job prior to the season but has barely played.

Despite the ripple effects, though, the basic reality for Michigan hasn’t changed at all: Win out with victories at Ohio State and in the B1G Championship Game, and a playoff ticket is assured. At this point, it’s safe to assume that at least one Big Ten team is going to make the final cut, but of the five plausible candidates only the Wolverines have such a straightforward path.

3. Clemson (9-1). Ditto for Clemson, which hadn’t been nearly as dominant as Alabama or Michigan prior to last weekend’s lapse against Pitt — the Tigers had already survived a series of close calls en route to 9-0, most notably a skin-of-teeth escape against N.C. State — but which has arguably the easiest remaining path of any contender against Wake Forest, South Carolina, and a fringe Top-25 opponent to be named later in the ACC Championship Game. Clemson has a 77.9 percent chance of winning the league, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the best odds of any Power 5 conference team except Alabama.

4. Washington (9-1). There may be some quibbling with the assumption that the Huskies control their own path, especially after Saturday’s loss to USC dropped them behind Louisville in the latest rankings. U-Dub’s non-conference schedule is embarrassing, and no single win on the Pac-12 slate leaps off the page. But what the conference lacks in obvious, above-the-fold contenders, it makes up for in depth: Six Pac-12 teams made the committee’s Top 25 this week, matching the SEC for the most of any league, including two teams (No. 24 Stanford and No. 12 Utah) that the Huskies have already beaten.

Add No. 18 Washington State and the eventual South Division winner to that list — the front-runners in the South, Colorado and Utah, are both ranked in the top 12 with a chance to rise — and that’s a playoff résumé for a major conference champ. The bigger doubt about the Huskies right now is whether they have enough healthy bodies left on defense to see it through.


Teams that stand a fighting chance, but only under specific circumstances outside their control…

5. Penn State (8-2).
6. Ohio State (9-1). Here’s where predicting the future get dicey.

Let’s say Ohio State beats Michigan, eliminating the Wolverines and running its own conference record to 8-1. Hypothetical congrats to the Buckeyes. Their reward? Ceding the Big Ten East crown to Penn State: Barring a major upset in their next two games at the hands of Rutgers (0-7 in B1G play) or Michigan State (1-6, the lone winning coming against Rutgers), the Nittany Lions are also on track to finish 8-1, including a come-from-behind, 24-21 win over Ohio State on Oct. 22 that now looks like it’s going to hold up as the head-to-head tiebreaker that decides the division.

If it comes to that, Penn State would rep the East in the Big Ten Championship Game, and the committee would be on the brink of an unprecedented decision.

Now say Penn State beats the West champ in Indianapolis to claim its first conference title since 2008. A Big Ten team would be guaranteed one of the four playoff slots, but which team? In the red corner, there’s the Buckeyes, a supremely talented, brand-name outfit that (in this scenario) boasts an 11-1 record with wins over heavy hitters Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan — a worthy résumé by any standard. In the blue corner, you have the Nittany Lions, a late-surging darkhorse with fewer big wins than Ohio State and an additional loss outside the conference, but with two crucial advantages: The head-to-head win over OSU and the conference championship.

The playoff committee doesn’t have any hard-and-fast rules for untying this knot; it can apply whatever criteria it wants. But it does have some loose guidelines, as laid out in the original protocol under the heading “How to select the four best teams” (emphasis added):

If this scenario actually unfolds, my guess is that popular opinion will heavily favor Ohio State for the Big Ten ticket — the Buckeyes have the more impressive résumé overall, and they’re currently ranked No. 2; it seems impossible to imagine watching an elite team vanquish an elite rival and subsequently drop in the pecking order. Surely that team is “unequivocally” one of the four best in the country, right? On the other hand, we’re also assuming that the same team will be the de facto runner-up in its own division; sitting at home on the final Saturday of the regular season while the rest of the contenders are making their final statements could cost OSU dearly. (And the Buckeyes should know better than anyone how important it is to make the last impression count.) If the committee accepts conference championships and head-to-head wins as its top priorities, then by that logic how could it deny Penn State?

For now, I’m willing to give the tentative nod in this scenario to Penn State based on the only guidelines we have. But I honestly have no idea how the committee will handle it in reality, and I’m looking forward to watching the debate unfold.

7. Wisconsin (8-2). The Badgers are in a similar position as Penn State, with one advantage over the Nittany Lions — they don’t need any help to win the Big Ten West — and one big disadvantage: They lost their head-to-head meeting against Ohio State. So unlike Penn State, whose path depends on the Buckeyes eliminating Michigan, Wisconsin will be rooting for Michigan to eliminate Ohio State and facilitate a winner-take-all rematch with the Wolverines in the Big Ten title game.

If Michigan/OSU goes the Buckeyes’ way, thereby sending Penn State to Indy instead, the Badgers can still win the Big Ten. (They’d likely be favored to beat Penn State.) In that case, though, even with a conference title to their credit their chances of leaping an 11-1 Ohio State team that beat them earlier in the year are much lower. Again, barring an upset in the next two weeks that knocks PSU from the East race, Wisconsin would much rather see Michigan.

Got all that? In short: One way or another, Wisconsin needs Ohio State to lose.

8. Louisville (9-1). Ah, poor Louisville. While we’re all sending telepathic vibes into the cosmic ether in the hopes of facilitating a matchup between Lamar Jackson and Alabama’s defense, the deck remains stacked against the Cards: Their head-to-head loss at Clemson left them with no realistic path to winning the ACC, and aside from their obliteration of Florida State in mid-September they don’t have any notable wins that would justify snubbing the Big Ten champ, or 12-1 Washington, in their favor. They pass the eye test; the résumé just isn’t quite there.

That said, it’s possible Louisville has enough juice to potentially replace the Pac-12 champ if it’s anyone other than Washington — elevating a two-loss Colorado, Utah, or Washington State above an 11-1 outfit with the runaway Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback would not go over well.


Teams with a shot, but only barely…

9. Florida (7-2). I can’t bring myself to bump the Gators any higher than this, because their odds of winning back-to-back road games at LSU and Florida State and stunning Alabama in the SEC title game are infinitesimal. (FPI gives Florida a 0.5 percent chance of winning out against the Tigers and Seminoles, without even taking the Crimson Tide into account.) They can play defense, for sure, but nothing this team has done in its first nine games suggests it has the offense to pull off even one upset in that stretch, much less three in a row.

Still, even if they don’t have a realistic chance down the stretch there’s no denying that the Gators have an opportunity. Take advantage of it, win them all, and — impossible as it seems now — it will be very difficult for the committee to say no to an SEC champion that also happens to be the hottest team in the country.

10. The Eventual Big 12 Champion. Three teams are still alive here (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia), but the Big 12’s severely diminished national rep makes it hard to gauge how much opportunity they have to advance relative to Louisville, or to a Pac-12 champion that isn’t Washington. (See below.) For the time being, the committee favors Oklahoma, which comes in at No. 9 this week, and Oklahoma State, at No. 12, even though both have suffered multiple losses; West Virginia, at 8-1, is relegated to No. 14. But the Mountaineers get Oklahoma this weekend, in Morgantown, their first real chance to break through into the national consciousness. The winner of that game will be poised to climb if there any more surprises at the top.

In the long-term, though — especially if West Virginia is out of the mix — it will be easy for the committee to go on ignoring the Big 12 entirely unless there’s a massive, wholly unexpected conflagration that somehow wipes out half the top 10. Most likely the Oklahoma/Ok. State Bedlam game on the first weekend of December has no bearing on the playoff one way or another. But there are too many variables in play between now and then to rule it out.

11. Colorado (8-2) or Utah (8-2) or Washington State (8-2). If Washington comes up short, the Pac-12’s best bet is for one of its trio of upstart contenders to catch fire, run the table through the conference championship game, and leave no prisoners in their wake. I’m not sure of these teams are capable of that, or of surpassing Louisville in the pecking order even if they do. (The fact that, as brands, Colorado, Utah, and Washington State do nothing to move the needle nationally won’t help.) Most likely, a second Washington loss at any point now will be interpreted as eliminating the Pac-12 from contention and opening up a slot for Louisville, or in three weeks that assumption could be left in the dust.


Long story short…

It’s impossible to account for every conceivable scenario; if Wake Forest beats Clemson this weekend, or Indiana knocks off Michigan, or whatever, then all bets are off. So with that caveat, here’s my best guess at how the current pecking order stands with regard to the rest of the season, as concisely as I can present it: