I have been saying for a month now that the leading contenders in the College Football Playoff race had a huge lead on the field. With losses by Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, and Washington in the last month, that lead has shrunk. However, the fact remains that that gap is still there. And it could create some serious dilemmas for the CFP selection committee.
Let’s start with a basic example. Let’s say Ohio State beats Michigan this week, leaving the Wolverines at 10-2 with wins over Wisconsin, Colorado, and Penn State. It just happens that all three of those teams are in our “second tier” of contenders. If Michigan is sitting at 10-2, it will have a strong argument for the Playoff over any team other than Clemson and Washington (Alabama is basically a lock now, so there’s really not much reason to discuss the Tide). If Ohio State loses to Michigan, the Buckeyes will own a win over Oklahoma, another of those second tier of contenders. And even for those teams without the direct head-to-head comparisons, our “top tier” (Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, and Clemson) will basically have a better resume than any second-tier team, no matter what.
Let’s take Colorado. The Buffaloes could end the season with quality wins over Stanford, Washington, Washington State, and Utah if they win out. Of course, Utah and Washington State will no longer be ranked by the season’s end in that case (because if Washington State upsets Washington, then a second Washington State loss to Colorado would push the Cougars out of, or to the very back of, the rankings). Compare that to, say, Clemson, as long as the Tigers don’t lose their final two games. Clemson would have a ranked win over Auburn, a good (but not great) win over Louisville, and a win over Florida State that could be better than any of Colorado’s wins. Clemson and Colorado are the closest two, especially since Clemson’s resume took a major hit the past few weeks, but Clemson’s is still superior, if only barely. Compare Colorado’s wins to Michigan’s (Penn State, Colorado, and Wisconsin) or Ohio State’s (Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Nebraska) and it’s not even close.
Colorado has the best collection of wins of any of our second tier of contenders. Oklahoma’s and Penn State’s wins just don’t come close. Many think that Wisconsin is a Playoff lock if it can upset Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game, but I’m not so sure. In that scenario, Michigan is looking at having four Top 10 wins. That’s something we’ve never seen close to in the Playoff era. Wisconsin would have three good wins (Michigan, LSU, and Nebraska), but is that really in the same ballpark as wins over Colorado, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State?
For weeks, analysts and pundits have been talking about how difficult this decision could be for the committee. On the one hand, fans and media place an inordinate amount of weight on conference titles. On the other hand, if the goal is actually to find the four best teams, it’s not even close. Of course, some kind of balance has to be struck. There’s a lot of talk about auto-bids for conference champions, but that’s far-off and a separate discussion. What we do know, this season, at least, is that it is very likely that the best four teams will include a team that did not win its conference — especially if Clemson and/or Washington loses again.
The one “second-tier” team that could truly pose a problem, without help from anyone else, is Florida. The Gators have two not-great losses, but could finish the season on a three-game winning streak over LSU, Florida State, and Alabama. Beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game would provide all sorts of problems for the committee. Alabama is in anyway (assuming it doesn’t also lose to Auburn this week), but it would be nearly impossible to keep Florida out. The question is whether Clemson, Washington, or the Big Ten champion would be the one to get bumped in that situation. It would be five teams for four spots (six if Ohio State beats Michigan but doesn’t reach the Big Ten Championship Game) with no good answer at all. Which of those teams gets put on the chopping block would be a decision that the committee really doesn’t want to make. The committee claims they don’t look at future scenarios until they actually happen, but I guarantee that a lot of members will be secretly rooting for Florida State this weekend.
Week 12 CFP Implications: Teams Remaining in College Football Playoff Contention
Last week, there were 11 teams remaining in Playoff contention. With two eliminations this week (Louisville and West Virginia), we should be down to just nine teams remaining with Playoff hopes. However, I have to return two teams to contention. Enough chaos happened that Penn State and Colorado both have at least a small chance at the Playoff now. And I know I haven’t eliminated Western Michigan (and won’t until the Broncos lose), but it doesn’t have a shot at the Playoff this season no matter how much chaos happens, but I refuse to “eliminate” an undefeated team, even if there’s no chance.
Big 12: Oklahoma
Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State
Conference USA: None
MAC: Western Michigan
Mountain West: None
Pac-12: Washington, Colorado
SEC: Florida, Alabama
Sun Belt: None
If you saw my Bubble Watch last week (this week’s will come out on Thursday), you would know why I don’t give Western Michigan a chance. That’s just not a resume for a Playoff contender. Wins over Toledo and Ohio to close the season would boost the SOS numbers a bit, but it won’t come close to the Playoff. No amount of chaos can overcome that.
Also, I don’t give Oklahoma State any chance to make the Playoff. There is no scenario that puts the Cowboys in. They will have, at best, three ranked wins (that is including the tiny chance that Pitt sneaks back into the rankings at 8-4). One of those wins is over a West Virginia team whose best win is over BYU. Even if it shouldn’t have happened, Oklahoma State has an atrocious loss against Central Michigan. Unless the committee is willing to “overturn” the actual result of that game, Oklahoma State just doesn’t have a chance. 10-2 Colorado would have a better resume. 9-3 USC would have a better resume. Oklahoma State’s path to the Playoff includes Washington State winning the Pac 12, Clemson losing the ACC Championship Game (and that might not be enough, since 11-2 Clemson would have a better resume than 10-2 Oklahoma State), and Nebraska winning the Big Ten. It’s just too far-fetched to be seen as even a remote possibility this week. If we see 2007-level chaos — and then some — this week, we can revisit reviving Oklahoma State.
Group of 5 NY6 bid could have all sorts of twists
This race has kind of fallen to the back burner this season, however, at this point it’s actually a fascinating race. Let’s start by saying that Conference USA and the Sun Belt are basically out of it. Conference USA has some pretty good teams, but all of the contenders have at least three losses (though Western Kentucky’s two non-Alabama losses have come by a combined four points). Also, it would take a miracle for Arkansas State to not win the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves would have to lose their last two games –including against Texas State, one of the worst teams in all of FBS — to not take the Sun Belt title. Arkansas State went 0-4 in non-conference play, including losses against Utah State and FCS Central Arkansas. Troy could have had a chance at 11-1, but the Sun Belt isn’t placing a team in an NY6 bowl this year.
That leaves us three conferences. Boise State is probably the best Group of 5 team this season, but a loss to Wyoming in Laramie might mean that the Broncos can’t win the Mountain West Mountain Division. Their only shot at the division is if Wyoming loses at New Mexico this week (a definite possibility, but very far from guaranteed). San Diego State ran away with the West Division, but a bad non-conference loss to South Alabama along with a surprising loss this to Wyoming (also in Laramie) has probably killed the Aztecs’ chances without some serious mayhem.
The AAC is, by far, the best Group of 5 conference this season. In fact, according to some of the major computer rankings, it’s better than the Big 12 this year. Houston is by far the best team (probably better than Boise State, too), but a bad midseason slump fueled by defensive injuries cost the Cougars two games and a chance at an NY6 Bowl. Navy has a good resume with a surprising — but not awful — loss to Air Force. South Florida also has a solid resume, but is stuck behind Temple in the East Division and needs a Temple loss to ECU this weekend to have a chance. If Navy wins its last two games, it will have a decent shot at getting that bid, but it also needs to hope that Boise State doesn’t win the Mountain West.
The team in the most fascinating, and most precarious, position is Western Michigan. As mentioned above, the Broncos are undefeated against an awful schedule. Convincing wins over Toledo and Ohio would go a long way towards alleviating concerns the committee might have, but it’s far from guaranteed that that would be enough. Any WMU loss would knock the MAC out of the NY6 picture. If WMU does manage to win out, though, it will probably (but it’s far from guaranteed) stay ahead of Navy, but probably wouldn’t jump Boise State. The country’s biggest Wyoming fans this weekend won’t be in Laramie — they’ll be in Kalamazoo.
What to look for in Week 13
Week 12 is chock full of rivalry games and division-deciders. So many games have so many implications this week, so we’ll just quickly run down to which games will really affect conference races (plus one other, which I’ll get to).
The MAC East will be decided Tuesday night. if Ohio wins, the Bobcats take the Division. If Ohio loses to Akron, then Miami (Oh) can take the division with a win over Ball State. Those two games are simultaneous, so there will be lots of scoreboard-watching at both of those games. Western Michigan would much rather face Ohio in the MAC Championship Game, as the Bobcats would be another team with a winning record on the schedule — of which WMU just has three so far (including Toledo this weekend). Speaking of which, Western Michigan will host Toledo on Friday evening, with the winner winning the MAC West.
Also on Friday, North Carolina hosts NC State. North Carolina needs a win and a Virginia Tech loss to Virginia (on Saturday) to win the ACC Coastal Division. If North Carolina loses, Virginia Tech clinches the division. There can actually be up to a four-way tie for the division between North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, and Miami (Fl), but Virginia Tech has beaten all three of the others, so it wins every tiebreaker.
On Friday afternoon, Washington and Washington State will play in the Apple Cup for the Pac-12 North title. Meanwhile, Colorado hosts Utah on Saturday night. Colorado wins the Pac-12 South with a win in that game. If Colorado loses, then USC is the Pac-12 South champion.
The Big Ten has the most scenarios, so I’ll lay them out quickly. In the West, Nebraska needs a win against Iowa and for Minnesota to upset Wisconsin to win the West Division. If Wisconsin wins or Nebraska loses, the Badgers win the division. The division can also have up to a four-way at at 6-3 between Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, in which case Wisconsin would win the division (Wisconsin and Iowa would tie with a 2-1 record against the other two, after which head-to-head would kick in in Wisconsin’s favor). The Big Ten East is simpler. If Michigan beats Ohio State (noon Eastern, Saturday), the Wolverines win the division. If Ohio State wins, it depends on Penn State vs Michigan State (3:30 Eastern, Saturday). If the Nittany Lions win that game, they take the division. If they lose, the Buckeyes are division champs.
One final game that has no conference implications can seriously affect the CFP. West Virginia visits Iowa State on Saturday afternoon. The Cyclones are coming off a huge win while the Mountaineers suffered a disheartening loss last week. An Iowa State win would remove the potential of any second ranked win from both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Sooners’ Playoff hopes would take a serious hit if West Virginia loses this game, even though the Sooners are on a bye preparing for Bedlam.