Forde-Yard Dash: 10 paths to the College Football Playoff

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After a weekend that saw Ohio State and Penn State shuffled out of realistic contention, there are 10 teams that can harbor dreams of being included in the College Football Playoff. That could change in the next three weeks, but it would take some remarkable upsets — and plenty of them — to widen the pool beyond the following 10 teams. The Dash takes a look at their roads to Bracketville the rest of the way.

Hardest: Auburn (1). The Tigers have two losses (at Clemson and LSU, by a total of 11 points), which puts them behind the other nine playoff aspirants. But what if they win out? That would include two victories over Georgia (Saturday at home and Dec. 2 in Atlanta in the Southeastern Conference championship game) and one over Alabama. Would any other team have anything even remotely resembling the quality of those skins on the wall? Likely not. Of course, the difficult part is actually winning those games. And a 12-2 Auburn team would have to wonder if it might still be left behind a 12-1 Alabama that didn’t play in the SEC title game (see: Ohio State-Penn State scenario last year).

Easiest: Clemson (2). The 8-1 Tigers’ remaining regular-season games are hugely disappointing: Florida State at home, Citadel at home and at rival South Carolina. Then there is a likely Atlantic Coast Conference title game matchup with Miami in Charlotte, which would be a de facto Clemson home game. While that last game could be a tussle, Clemson is the only member of the 10 who does not have at least one regular-season game left against a team currently in the Sagarin top 30.

Most in need of assistance: Washington (3). Even more than Auburn, the 8-1 Huskies figure to be the team most dependent upon carnage elsewhere to improve their upward mobility. They played nobody in non-conference play currently in Sagarin’s top 60, and their Pac-12 opponents to date have a combined league record of 12-27. The remaining slate is appreciably tougher: Stanford, Utah, Washington State and a potential league title game against USC. But even at 12-1, Washington would likely need multiple two-loss league champions and/or a Notre Dame collapse.

Capable of taking a loss and still making it: Georgia (4) and Alabama (5). They’re the top two teams in the CFP rankings by what should be a wide margin — perhaps wide enough to afford them some fallibility down the stretch. Losing and still making the bracket seems like an incredibly realistic scenario — especially if both enter the Southeastern Conference title game undefeated and play a competitive game against one another. It’s also conceivable that either could lose to Auburn and still win the SEC at 12-1, which could well be good enough.

Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide could even lose a game and probably still make the College Football Playoff. (Reuters)
Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide could even lose a game and probably still make the College Football Playoff. (Reuters)

(The idea of two SEC teams in the playoff is objectionable to many people, even though it shouldn’t be. And the idea of an SEC team backing into the playoff after a loss would be objectionable as well. So the SEC backlash will build this month — and it will include the annual complaining about the league’s penultimate weekend schedule, specifically Alabama playing Mercer and Auburn playing Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 18. But keep this in mind: Both those opponents are better than Oklahoma’s Nov. 18 opponent, Kansas. Sagarin Ratings: UL-M is No. 133, Mercer 148, Kansas 157.)

Lacking a 13th “data point”: Notre Dame (6) and Miami (7). The 8-1 Fighting Irish only play 12 games because they are an independent, to the jealous anger of the rest of the nation. The 8-0 Hurricanes will play a maximum of 12 games because of a real hurricane, Irma, which forced cancellation of Miami’s game at Arkansas State. That was a beneficial cancellation, because playing the Red Wolves would not have enhanced Miami’s strength of schedule and could only have been a damaging loss, not a quality win. For Notre Dame, its strength of schedule and overall performance against said schedule should be impressive enough to make the playoff field if it finishes 11-1. But rest assured, we will hear from other leagues raising the “13th data point” issue if both these teams remain in the hunt.

One too many data points? Oklahoma (8) and TCU (9). The Big 12, in its infinite wisdom, reinstated its league championship game this season — even though there are no divisions, which means that title game is a guaranteed rematch. But here’s the rub: It’s quite possible that an 11-1 Big 12 team that wins the regular-season championship would be good enough to make the playoff without the 13th game — especially if that team is Oklahoma, which has the big win at Ohio State in its back pocket. Instead, the title game could serve as little more than double jeopardy, in which a loss by an 11-1 team boots the conference out of the playoff for the third time in four years. Be careful what you wish for, Big 12.

Undefeated and uninvited? Wisconsin (10). Here is where the debate could really escalate. The Big Ten is down to one realistic CFP candidate — and that candidate has beaten nobody through the first nine games of the season. That’s why the selection committee ranked the unbeaten Badgers ninth last week, behind six one-loss teams, and Wisconsin likely will be no higher than eighth this week. (Miami should leapfrog Wisconsin, if the committee is of sound collective mind.) The Badgers’ remaining schedule gains some legitimacy, starting with Iowa (6-3) on Saturday and then Michigan (7-2) the following weekend. Then there is Minnesota and a likely Big Ten title game. But the Wisconsin road schedule is simply pathetic: BYU (2-8), Nebraska (4-5), Illinois (2-7), Indiana (3-6) and then the Gophers (4-5). And the opponent in the league title game will have at least two losses and might not be a Top 10 team. Could the Badgers go 13-0 and still be left out? It’s possible, especially if the teams currently ahead of them in the CFP rankings keep winning. Prepare for the potential Midwest meltdown.

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