With just one week left in the college football regular season, most of the unbeaten teams have made the Committee’s job a little easier and removed themselves from the mix by losing. First came Ohio State, posting an all-time Urban Meyer-era low offensive output en route to a loss to division rival Michigan State. Then came Oklahoma State, digging itself into a 24-point hole in the second half before waking up a bit and losing to Baylor by 10. And the biggest surprise (with the smallest impact on the playoff) was Houston, limping into lowly UConn and losing by three. (But remember that I said a week ago that, “Nothing is easy in the AAC, so this week’s road game at 5-5 UConn might be closer than expected.”)
So now, only two unbeatens remain – Clemson and Iowa. The College Football Playoff Committee will undoubtedly see things much differently than I do, but remember that they’ve also appeared to weigh “politics” in their rankings. How else do you explain Notre Dame’s inclusion in the playoff from the outset, when clearly there were stronger teams ahead of them.
The next edition of the CFP rankings will be released Tuesday night (Nov. 24) at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Because of this weekend’s results, what you see tomorrow night will look a lot more like what you see playing in January. But there are still some big games that will have a major impact on the playoff. Consider that in the next two weeks, you’ll see:
• Navy at Houston, Friday, noon
• Baylor at TCU, Friday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
• Ohio State at Michigan, Saturday, noon, ABC
• Alabama at Auburn, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS
• Notre Dame at Stanford, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., FOX
• Florida State at Florida, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
• Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC
• AAC Championship (most likely Navy vs. Temple), Dec. 5, noon, ESPN
• SEC Championship (most likely Alabama vs. Florida) Dec. 5, 4 p.m., CBS
• ACC Championship (Clemson vs. North Carolina), Dec. 5, 8 p.m., ABC
• Big Ten Championship (most likely Iowa vs. Michigan State), Dec. 5, 8 p.m., FOX
There’s a lot of football to be played until we get the final four for this year’s CFP. The Committee’s rankings will be the most important, since they actually make a difference. But what you see below is closer to the truth. In this poll, undefeated teams get priority ahead of teams with losses. That has its limits, particularly when you’re looking at a clearly weak conference like the MAC or Sun Belt.
Also, teams that have beaten ranked opponents get priority ahead of teams that haven’t. That’s why Iowa sits at No. 2, ahead of an Alabama team that is possibly stronger.
No. 1 – Clemson (11-0). (Last: No. 2) While they’ve watched all but one unbeaten team fall from their path, the Tigers have consistently stayed on target and beaten all comers. Only South Carolina remains in the regular season, and given that the Gamecocks just lost to The Citadel from the FCS, that shouldn’t be much of a task. The bigger hurdle will be North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. The Tar Heels might not be ultimately impressive, but they have only one loss. The Tigers would be foolish to overlook them. If they don’t, they’ll have a clear path to the top seed in the CFP.
No. 2 – Iowa (11-0). (Last: No. 4) In a year full of great coaching performances, none may be more impressive than the job Kirk Ferentz has done at Iowa. Most pre-season pundits had the Hawkeyes being a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten West. Instead, Ferentz has Iowa booked in the Big Ten Championship Game, and just two wins away from a date in the CFP. It won’t be easy. The Hawkeyes play at 5-6 Nebraska this Saturday, and the Huskers need that elusive 6th win to become bowl eligible. Michigan State or Ohio State will be the opponent in the Big Ten title matchup, and either team would be by far the most difficult opponent the Hawkeyes have draw all season.
No. 3 – Alabama (10-1). (Last: No. 6) After losing to Mississippi, the Crimson Tide has done almost everything to prove that it belongs at or near the top of the CFP rankings. Alabama has a fairly easy path to the playoffs, especially compared to the other teams on the list. This week, the Tide plays in the Iron Bowl – the biggest game in this or any other year – against Auburn. But this is not the Auburn of most years; this season’s edition of the Tigers is a weak 6-5 team that has struggled to win most of its six games, against the likes of Jacksonville State, San Jose State, Kentucky and Idaho. A focused Alabama team – complete with a strong performance from Heisman front-runner Derrick Henry – will destroy Auburn, and then focus its sights on a Florida team that lacks an offense. In two weeks, the biggest upset of the season will be a CFP without Alabama in it.
No. 4 – Oklahoma (10-1). (Last: No. 7) If not for an odd rivalry loss to a woeful Texas team, the Sooners would stand as the third undefeated team. Instead, they’ve been on the outside looking in to the playoff lineup until the past two weeks, when they’ve downed Baylor and TCU. Now is the season’s final test – on the road at blood rival Oklahoma State. The Cowboys title dreams are likely shot, but they can still cost the Sooners a shot at the title. The biggest thing OU has going against it is the Big 12’s lack of a championship game. While the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC decide their champions in head-to-head contests, the Big 12 will watch on TV after concluding their season this Saturday. Still, with a win over the Cowboys, Oklahoma should make a strong case for their inclusion in the CFP.
No. 5 – Michigan State (10-1). (Last: No. 10) What a difference a week makes. One week ago, most of the nation was convinced that Ohio State was the anointed Big Ten champion, destined for a chance to defend its national title. Today, they’re hoping that Michigan State stumbles against Penn State on Saturday. After one of the biggest wins in program history, the Spartans come home to East Lansing to host a Nittany Lions team that is good, but far from great. Injured QB Connor Cook may or may not come back this week, but his replacement, Tyler O’Connor, has been efficient in Cook’s stead. Penn State should be the easy task. The harder one will be in two weeks against an Iowa team that believes it’s good enough to win the Big Ten and the CFP.
No. 6 – Ohio State (10-1). (Last: No. 1) At about 3:25 p.m. on Saturday, all anyone could talk about was the greatness of Urban Meyer as a head coach. Just a few hours later, his own star running back was questioning his game planning. Such is the effect that one big loss can have on a program. To be fair, I still think Urban Meyer will go down as one of the greatest college coaches of all time. And I think that Ezekiel Elliott was an idiot for questioning Meyer publicly. But less than 150 yards of offense is ridiculous, and it really does show that Ohio State isn’t the best team in the country, and might not be one of the top four. Amazingly, the Buckeyes still have a shot at the playoff if they beat Michigan and if Michigan State falls to Penn State. If that happens, they’ll get the Big Ten East slot in the championship game. But first things first: get over the Michigan State loss and win at Michigan.
No. 7 – Baylor (9-1). (Last: No. 8) Last week, Baylor looked unhinged after losing to Oklahoma. The next week, the Bears are back in the mix (if only on the fringe) after manhandling Oklahoma State in a game that wasn’t as close as the score. Baylor doesn’t control its own destiny – that right belongs to Oklahoma. But if the Bears take care of the business at hand – this week at TCU and next week versus Texas – they will stand atop the Big 12 with an 11-1 record and 7-1 in conference. Whether they’re alone at the top or not still remains to be decided. Baylor will need Oklahoma State’s help in defeating the Sooners. It would be hard to exclude a team with Baylor’s resume from the playoff, especially if two teams in front of them fall.
No. 8 – Notre Dame (10-1). (Last: No. 9) Watch the official CFP rankings carefully on Tuesday night. If Notre Dame still figures in the Top Four for the playoff, then the fix is most certainly in. The Fighting Irish won 19-16 this week over Boston College – a team that has gone 1-8 since starting 2-0. BC’s best win of the year was 17-14 over Northern Illinois, and yet Notre Dame’s three-point win over them will still likely give the Committee ammunition to keep them in the playoff. Honestly, they’re just not a great team. Yes, they’re good, but we should expect greatness in a playoff that’s limited to four teams. A 10-1 record doesn’t mean a lot unless it has some strong wins, including a few against good to great teams. Notre Dame’s schedule is littered with a good team or two, followed by a host of wins over not-so-good and downright bad teams. They should get a major bowl, but not a slot in the CFP.
No. 9 – Oklahoma State (10-1). (Last: No. 3) Oklahoma State fans have to feel like the college football equivalent of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Who could blame them if they began to chant, “Wait ‘Till Next Year!” The Cowboys have had so many brushes with greatness in the past. Jimmy Johnson as a head coach in the 1980s before his greatness at Miami. Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders at running back in the late 1980s. Strong winning seasons in 1984, 1987 and 1988 when the only losses came to Nebraska and Oklahoma. Les Miles as a head coach 15 years ago before his greatness at LSU. Eleven wins in 2010, when Nebraska and OU spoiled again. And 12 wins in 2011, when an upset by Iowa State cost them everything. This year, once again, the Cowboys were just two steps away from a chance at greatness. Now, with Oklahoma and Baylor between them and the playoff, they have to do what so often seems impossible – beat the Sooners – and hope that Baylor stumbles to TCU. Even then the Committee might pass them over. It would be interesting to see Oklahoma State force their hand.
No. 10 – Navy (9-1). (Last: No. 13) In a perfect world, a team like Navy would have a chance to play for the National Championship. Of course, that perfect world would have an eight- or sixteen-team playoff, and Navy could win or lose the title on the field. Instead, because the Midshipmen had an off day against Notre Dame, and because they play in the AAC, their best hope is to win out and get an awesome bowl bid to a major game. Three games are probably left for the Middies – this week against Houston, next week in the AAC Championship Game and on Dec. 12 against Army. That won’t be easy, but if Navy navigates that route perfectly, they should get a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl.
No. 11 – North Carolina (10-1). (Last: No. 14) All North Carolina has done this year is win. In 11 games this year, the Tar Heels have posted 10 wins – all of them in a row. If not for an opening day blunder to South Carolina, the Heels would be perfect at 11-0, and looking at a matchup of two unbeatens in the ACC Championship Game. That matchup is set on Dec. 5 against Clemson, and it should be an interesting – and maybe even good – game. But this week’s contest is interesting enough – the rivalry game at N.C. State. The Wolfpack are good, and are bowl-bound with seven wins. An eighth win over UNC would make their season, so expect this game to be hard-fought and close. For UNC, an outside shot at the CFP is still in the balance. If they win both of the next two games, the Committee might just exchange them with Clemson and put them in the fourth playoff slot.
No. 12 – Florida (10-1). (Last: No. 11) Florida also has remote playoff dreams. But that would assume that the Gators have an offense that can help them win two more games. Their fortunes have nosed downward since starting QB Will Grier was declared ineligible for taking a banned substance. Replacement QB Treon Harris has shown some effort, but ever since he looked good in the close loss to LSU, he seems to get worse each week. Last week, he was positively putrid in Florida’s 20-14 overtime loss to Florida Atlantic, a team that had previously gone 2-8 in the horrific Sun Belt Conference. Now, the Gators draw hated rival Florida State at home, and most likely Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. If the offense plays to its most recent form, those two games figure to be losses, and Florida could get bounced from the CFP past the Sugar Bowl and all the way down to the Citrus Bowl. Granted, most Gator fans didn’t figure their team would eclipse seven or eight wins. But it’s hard to stomach watching an offense that not even Will Muschamp could love. Hopefully, the Gators will find a way to at least look competitive and not embarrass themselves.
No. 13 – Houston (10-1). (Last: No. 5) As the Cougars approached last weekend, they had two big challenges ahead of them – against Navy this week, and, with a victory there, in the AAC Championship Game next week. The Connecticut game wasn’t supposed to be a challenge, but it turned out that way. Now, with a loss to a 5-5 team, Houston not only has no chance at the playoff – it likely will have no chance at a major bowl game. With even one more loss, the Cougars will probably end up in the Military Bowl. That’s a far cry – and an infinitely lower payday – than they would have had in a Selection Committee Bowl.
No. 14 – Toledo (9-1). (Last: No. 15) Sadly for Toledo, being on a list like this doesn’t count for anything. The one-loss Rockets are praying to the football gods that Northern Illinois inexplicably loses to Ohio and paves the way for them to win their MAC West and reach the conference title game. Otherwise, Toledo will just be a 10-1 team that gets a bowl with a really nice locale, like the Bahamas Bowl. (Honestly, if the bowl doesn’t have a great payout, that or the Hawaii Bowl would be my first choice!)
Dropping out: No. 12 TCU