On biggest day of the college football season – at least to this point – the picture for the College Football Playoff is almost crystal clear. Starting at noon today, six conference championship games will settle their respective bragging rights on the field (the way it should be done). Three of those games will have an enormous bearing on who will play in the three games that will determine this year’s national champion.
As with most college football seasons, some of this year’s best teams have been weeded from the field with just a loss or two. Others are sitting on the outside looking in because of the conference they play in. Honestly, we’ll never get a “true” champion until this field is expanded to eight or (better yet) 16 teams. That sort of playoff would generate unreal excitement and – more important to the powers that be – unreal amounts of money. But for now, we’ll have to be content with the four-team system at hand, even if it excludes a host of playoff-worthy programs.
With this afternoon’s and evening’s games looming, there are only eight teams left on this list. Realistically, only six (at most seven) of them have a shot to play in the CFP. Here what’s at stake:
No. 1 – Clemson (12-0). (Last: No. 1) Only two teams remain unbeaten through the regular season, and of the two, the Tigers have been the most impressive. Sure, they’ve played a fairly weak schedule (in large part because they’re in the ACC), but they haven’t faltered and have often looked impressive. Clemson might not be the best team in the country, but they’re solid on both sides of the ball and have a bona fide Heisman contender in Deshaun Watson. Tonight, they’ll get a very testy North Carolina team that has faint hopes of playing in the CFP if the Heels can pull an upset. After 12 wins, the Committee simply won’t care if Clemson doesn’t win this one. Ohio State is licking its chops and waiting for at least one upset. Of course, if there are multiple upsets tomorrow, Clemson could still slip in. That’s unlikely to happen. A win is the only way to ensure their place in the Orange Bowl.
No. 2 – Iowa (12-0). (Last: No. 2) They might be the third-best team in the Big Ten, but the Hawkeyes are the only one that’s undefeated, so they get the No. 2 spot on that merit alone. On top of that, Iowa has seemed to gain more confidence every week and is playing like a favorite. They’re not exactly blowing opponents away – evidenced by last week’s 8-point win over Nebraska. But they have shown grit and determination in doing something that only one other team has managed – stay undefeated. Tomorrow they draw Michigan State, and like Clemson, a loss in the Big Ten title game will almost certainly kick Iowa to the Rose Bowl instead of into a likely date in the Cotton Bowl.
No. 3 – Alabama (11-1). (Last: No. 3) Probably the best team in the country, Alabama sits in my No. 3 position because they stumbled early against Mississippi. While not impossible to beat, you have to play close to perfect to get past the Tide because they have a brutal defense and an very effective, if not sexy, offense. Alabama has just enough of a passing game to make the running game really hum, almost exclusive on the legs of Derrick Henry. While most of the country was clamoring over Leonard Fournette, Henry was quietly building his Heisman resume and now stands as the frontrunner. The Tide today draws what looks to be the easiest path to the CFP — the Florida Gators. That shouldn’t be easy, but the Gators are still suffering from the after-effects of the Will Muschamp era and still have no offense. (Note to South Carolina: If you choose Muschamp as your head coach, you get what you deserve. Buyer beware! Watch today’s Alabama-Florida game and ask yourself if what you see on offense is what you want.) If the Tide merely does what the Florida Atlantic Owls did two weeks ago, they’ll hold the Gators to 14 points, and those were largely assisted by the Florida defense. Meanwhile, the Gators’ defense will spend most of the day on the field trying to stop Henry, and by the fourth quarter, they’ll be gassed, and he’ll score almost at will. Alabama shouldn’t book their tickets to the Cotton Bowl quite yet, but they should keep the travel agent on speed dial for after the game.
No. 4 – Oklahoma (11-1). (Last: No. 4) A funny thing happened on the way to the CFP; the Big 12 finally showed up as a major player. The only major conference without a championship game now has to wait to see what happens throughout the weekend and hope things line up for their champion. That, of course, would be Oklahoma. The Sooners might be at the top of this list if they hadn’t walked in flat against the usually useless Texas Longhorns. (Note: Watch today’s Baylor-Texas game at noon to see what the Sooners should have done against Texas.) Oklahoma is in the unfortunate position of not being able to help itself on Championship Saturday. If Clemson loses to North Carolina, the Committee could decide to put both North Carolina and Clemson in, and leave Oklahoma out. But if Iowa loses to Michigan State, that likely solidifies Oklahoma’s slot in the CFP. Regardless of what happens today, if OU is in the CFP mix, they’ll likely play in the Orange Bowl. It’s unlikely that the Committee will give the Sooners what would amount to a home game in the Cotton Bowl.
No. 5 – Michigan State (11-1). (Last: No. 5) While the Spartans appear to be on the outside looking in, they’re actually sharing a space with Iowa. The winner of that game is almost assured of a spot in the CFP. The other will get a honored date in the Rose Bowl that at this point will feel like kissing your sister. Bowl the Hawkeyes and Spartans want a chance to play for all of the marbles. Getting the cat’s eye simply won’t do right now. Because of the geographic makeup of the Big Ten, Michigan State had the difficult task of playing in the Eastern half, facing off against both Michigan and Ohio State. Meanwhile, Iowa got the easier, Western half, where Wisconsin was the only truly tough adversary. At this point, Michigan State is battle tested by rivalry games and will bring a harsh defense into Indianapolis today. Iowa will give up some points, so QB Connor Cook and RB Jeremy Langford will have a few good chances to see the end zone. Bottom line: If Michigan State plays true to form, they’ll win today and earn a trip to the Cotton Bowl. Lose, and it’s Pasadena, which even though it’s your sister, still isn’t a bad consolation prize.
No. 6 – Ohio State (11-1). (Last: No. 6) Because of the loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes are truly hoping for a miracle today. At least one upset has to take place in order for Ohio State to leapfrog into the playoff. If Clemson and Alabama lose, Ohio State is probably in. If only Clemson loses, the Tigers still might get the fourth spot. There are so many scenarios, but basically, Ohio State will be rooting for North Carolina, Iowa and Florida today. I wouldn’t be surprised to see light blue, black and gold and orange and blue sprinkled throughout the Buckeyes’ viewing party today. Given today’s matchups, Ohio State would probably be best served getting a jump on great hotels and restaurants in Phoenix, since they’re most likely bound for the Fiesta Bowl.
No. 7 – North Carolina (11-1). (Last: No. 11) North Carolina is in a very curious position today. Like the Florida Gators, no one expects them to win their conference championship game. But unlike the Gators, the Tar Heels actually have a chance. If you compare results, the Heels look a lot like the Tigers in terms of outcome save for one game: North Carolina strangely lost the season opener to South Carolina by four, while Clemson beat the Gamecocks in their season finale by five. Since their opening day debacle, North Carolina has strung together 11 straight wins and could really gum up the Committee’s plans if they pull the upset over Clemson. Currently, the Heels stand a No. 10 in their rankings behind my top six plus Stanford, Notre Dame, and Florida State. Should the Heels win today, they’d have to leap six spots into the playoff. Name to remember: Marquise Williams, North Carolina’s quarterback who plays in the shadow of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Today could be his coming out party. My verdict: If North Carolina wins today, it should be in the playoff. To keep it out would be a travesty, given that they would have wins over Committee darlings Clemson and Notre Dame.
No. 8 – Houston (11-1). (Last: No. 13) Of all of the teams on this list, Houston simply has nothing it can do about anything. They have no hope of reaching the playoff, since they foolishly dropped a game to the lowly UConn Huskies. A perfect Houston team, standing at 12-0 today entering their AAC Championship Game against Temple, might have a real case to make for why they should be in the playoff at 13-0 (given that they actually won the game). Understand that Houston is a very good team, maybe even good enough to hang on the field with any of the seven previously listed teams. But when you’re losing to Connecticut – a team you should beat by at least two touchdowns – you have no business being in the playoff discussion. Houston is here mainly because it has only one loss. The good news for the Cougars is that if they win today, they’ll probably get a nice bid to the Fiesta Bowl, which is a huge upgrade from the alternative. (Note: The AAC doesn’t actually have a game designated for their champion. Their top five teams are sprinkled throughout the Military, Birmingham, St. Petersburg, Hawaii and Miami Beach bowls.)
Dropping out: No. 7 Baylor, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 10 Navy, No. 12 Florida, No. 14 Toledo