Breaking down the path to the College Football Playoff for the last 10 teams in the hunt

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We have arrived at Championship Week, and it’s going to be a doozy. A whopping 10 teams can still harbor some hope of being in the four-team College Football Playoff field when it is revealed Sunday, and eight of them are playing fellow playoff aspirants this week. The Dash appraises the strengths, weaknesses and scenarios for each of the 10:

Clemson (11)

Selling points: No playoff contender has beaten a higher-ranked opponent than the Tigers, whose September victory over current AP No. 4 Auburn improves with age. Clemson also has beaten six other teams with winning records, four of them on the road. Schedule strength is best of anyone currently in the Sagarin top 10.

Demerits: The loss is a bad one, at 4-8 Syracuse, although starting quarterback Kelly Bryant played less than half that game due to injury.

Path to the playoff: Straight. If the Tigers beat Miami in the ACC title game, they’re in and will likely have the No. 1 seed.

Playoff pedigree: This would be Clemson’s third straight appearance. It could be the new Alabama.

Oklahoma (12)

Selling points: Sooners own the best road win in America, a 15-point victory at current AP No. 8 Ohio State in September. Coupling that with a November win at No. 18 Oklahoma State isn’t bad, either. Nor is an 18-point home win over TCU. Oklahoma has trailed for just 7 minutes and 33 seconds out of 240 game minutes in November.

Demerits: Home loss to Iowa State is arguably the worst loss of any playoff contender – it is inarguably the worst home loss. Sooners played both the worst FBS opponent in America (UTEP) and the worst Power Five opponent in America (Kansas).

Path to the playoff: Seemingly direct. Beat TCU in the Big 12 title game and advance.

Playoff pedigree: It would be Oklahoma’s second appearance in four years.

Wisconsin is the only undefeated team left in College Football Playoff contention, but are they deserving of a berth? (AP)
Wisconsin is the only undefeated team left in College Football Playoff contention, but are they deserving of a berth? (AP)

Wisconsin (13)

Selling points: The only remaining Power Five unbeaten. Badgers have won their last six games by a minimum of 14 points, and have had just a single one-score victory all season (17-9 over Purdue). Victory over AP No. 20 Northwestern adds some credibility to the schedule. Early win over Florida Atlantic has gained some unexpected currency, with Lane Kiffin’s 9-3 Owls playing for the Conference USA championship this week.

Demerits: Sagarin rates Wisconsin’s schedule weakest of all playoff contenders, and weaker than 59 Power Five teams out of a total 64. Road schedule has been pathetic: BYU (4-9), Nebraska (4-8), Illinois (2-10), Indiana (5-7), Minnesota (5-7).

Path to the playoff: If Wisconsin beats the one high-powered opponent it has faced, Ohio State, on Saturday in the Big Ten title game, it will assuredly get an invitation.

Playoff pedigree: It would be Wisconsin’s first playoff appearance.

Auburn (14)

Selling points: Hottest team in America, rolling into the SEC title game with authoritative victories over AP No. 5 Alabama and No. 6 Georgia in the last three games. Eight-point road loss at No. 1 Clemson qualifies as the “best” loss of any playoff contender, and a three-point road loss to LSU isn’t a deal killer either. Sagarin rates Auburn’s schedule second-toughest of any SEC team, and in the top 15 nationally.

Demerits: A two-loss team has never made the playoff, and there will be at least three teams in the mix with fewer losses. All the heavy lifting has come at home, with a 3-2 record on the road. Three games against teams ranked No. 132 or lower by Sagarin (Mercer, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Monroe). If injuries are part of the picture, what if star running back Kerryon Johnson is out?

Path to the playoff: If Auburn beats Georgia again, the Tigers are in. And nobody will want to play them.

Playoff pedigree: It would be Auburn’s first playoff bid.

Alabama (15)

Selling points: A 12-point road loss to rampaging Auburn is no great shame. There are three victories over ranked teams: No. 17 LSU, No. 24 Mississippi State and No. 25 Fresno State, which has improbably become a quality win. The Florida State victory was good at the time, when Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois was healthy. ‘Bama fatigue is not a legitimate reason for excluding the Crimson Tide, nor is a comparison to the great ‘Bama teams of the past two seasons.

Demerits: The only Top 15 team Alabama has faced beat it handily. November has not been pretty – the Tide trailed more than it led against Mississippi State, was outgained by LSU and simply was not the better team against Auburn.

Path to the playoff: Presuming the selection committee has ‘Bama out of the top four Tuesday night, Nick Saban’s team would need a loss by either Oklahoma or Wisconsin Saturday to create an opening. Alabama should win a head-to-head comparison with either TCU or Ohio State.

Playoff pedigree: They’ve never held one without the Tide.

Nick Saban thinks Alabama deserves a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the Crimson Tide will probably need some help to get in. (AP)
Nick Saban thinks Alabama deserves a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the Crimson Tide will probably need some help to get in. (AP)

Georgia (16)

Selling points: One bad Saturday against one really good team, on the road. Otherwise, Georgia has dominated 10 opponents and won a big-time road game at No. 15 Notre Dame. Average winning margin in 11 victories: 26 points. No lucky escapes against inferior opponents.

Demerits: The Notre Dame victory has lost luster as the Fighting Irish have lost two more games. Mississippi State is the only other victory over a ranked team, and the Bulldogs barely stayed in the AP Top 25. The SEC East has four legitimately bad teams dragging down Georgia’s strength of schedule. And that one bad Saturday was really bad, a 23-point loss dressed up by a late Bulldogs touchdown.

Path to the playoff: If Georgia gets revenge on Auburn, the Bulldogs are highly likely to be in the bracket.

Playoff pedigree: It would be Georgia’s first appearance.

Miami (17)

Selling points: Dominated consecutive high-profile games against ranked teams, beating No. 22 Virginia Tech by 18 and No. 15 Notre Dame by 33. Early 22-point victory over 10-win Toledo should count for something as well.

Demerits: The Hurricanes lost by 10 points to a 5-7 Pittsburgh team to end the regular season. They also were life-and-death to beat Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, which are a combined 13-21. Played the only two ACC Atlantic teams that are under .500 for the year.

Path to the playoff: Beat No. 1 Clemson Saturday and the Hurricanes almost certainly will be in – a huge neutral-field win (on a field that won’t really be neutral) can offset the bad loss at Pitt.

Playoff pedigree: It would be Miami’s first appearance.

Ohio State (18)

Selling points: Owns a Top 10 win (No. 9 Penn State) and another Top 20 win (No. 19 Michigan State, in a blowout). Nine victories by double-digit margins, four of them on the road. Beating 8-3 Army is better now than it looked in September.

Demerits: That 31-point loss to 7-5 Iowa isn’t going away before Selection Sunday. Nor is the 15-point home loss to Oklahoma. With a blowout defeat on the résumé, leapfrogging teams with better records seems like a lot to ask.

Path to the playoff: Ohio State’s résumé would improve significantly with a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game – especially a decisive win. But the Buckeyes also need to root for Oklahoma to win the Big 12, because a TCU team with the same record and a neutral-field win over the Sooners would have an argument. As would 11-2 Oklahoma itself. And 11-1 Alabama. In other words, it’s complicated.

Playoff pedigree: Buckeyes have been to two of the first three.

TCU (19)

Selling points: Horned Frogs hanging their 10-gallon hat on winning decisively at Oklahoma State. Only one of TCU’s 10 wins is by fewer than 17 points. No home losses.

Demerits: The non-conference schedule is a bust: FCS Jackson State, an Arkansas team that collapsed and SMU. The only two teams TCU played in the second half of the season that have winning records both beat the Frogs – Iowa State by seven and Oklahoma by 18. Oklahoma State’s slide to 9-3 takes some luster off the win in Stillwater.

Path to the playoff: TCU has to dominate Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, while also rooting for Clemson, Ohio State and a blowout (either way) in the SEC title game. Then the Horned Frogs have to hope their résumé supersedes Alabama’s. In a word, iffy.

Playoff pedigree: TCU has not been before, to the school’s three-year-old chagrin.

USC (20)

Selling points: Trojans have gotten better as they’ve gotten healthier, largely with no one paying attention. Losses have both been to ranked teams on the road, No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 21 Washington State. Blowout of No. 14 Stanford early holds up. Seven victories over teams with at least six wins.

Demerits: Losing at Notre Dame is one thing; losing by 35 is another. Beating Stanford twice isn’t likely to move the needle sufficiently.

Path to the playoff: It would take a Hollywood plot twist to get there, starting with dropping something like 60 on the Cardinal and looking like the team everyone thought USC would be. Then the committee would have to be open to the injury excuse. And it would have to declare 11-2 USC better than 11-1 Alabama and others. Don’t count on it.

Playoff pedigree: It would be USC’s first appearance.

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