Breaking down the 19 remaining playoff contenders (and their priority) on Michigan football’s bye week

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For the second season in a row, Michigan has won its first seven games and finds itself squarely in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

The Wolverines will spend the bye week preparing for in-state rival Michigan State. It’s an opportunity for Jim Harbaugh to avenge last year’s only regular-season loss and finally get the better of Mel Tucker.

But for the rest of us, the off week is a chance to take a step outside the Maize and Blue bubble and assess what’s going on around the country.

The first CFP rankings of the season won’t be revealed until Nov. 1, but already the field of contenders has dwindled below 20. Some familiar programs (Oklahoma, LSU) have played themselves out of contention, while a few newcomers (TCU, Tennessee) are in great position.

Here’s a look at every team that’s still in contention for one of the four coveted spots.

ACC

  • Clemson (7-0)

  • Syracuse (6-0)

  • North Carolina (6-1)

  • Wake Forest (5-1)

The ACC technically still has four teams that could make the playoff, but let’s be real: We all know how this is probably going to play out.

Wake Forest, with a loss to Clemson already on its resume, would need the Tigers to lose twice to even win the Atlantic Division. The Demon Deacons’ resume probably isn’t strong enough to make the playoff as an 11-1 team, so they’re simply hoping for a miracle.

North Carolina looks like the early favorite in the Coastal Division, and if the Tar Heels somehow won the ACC and finished 12-1, they would have an outside chance to get into the playoff. That home loss to Notre Dame isn’t aging well, though, and the resume lacks a standout win (for now).

This year, the ACC’s playoff hopes likely rest on the shoulders of whoever wins this week’s Syracuse-Clemson matchup. Syracuse managed to survive a pair of home scares against Purdue and Virginia to remain unbeaten, but that magic will probably run out this weekend at Clemson.

There’s still a month of football to be played, but it sure looks like Clemson will be back in the playoff this season. The Tigers avoided an upset at Wake Forest, and now, the path to an ACC title is perfectly paved.

As long as it gets through Syracuse this weekend, the only teams standing in Clemson’s way of an Atlantic Division title are Louisville and Miami – both at home.

Big 12

  • TCU (6-0)

  • Oklahoma State (5-1)

  • Kansas State (5-1)

  • Texas (5-2)

Don’t get mad at me for including Texas! If you’ve watched college football long enough, you know how this works: Losing a close game to Alabama basically counts as a win in the committee’s eyes.

The Longhorns obviously would have to win out and take the Big 12 crown to make this a discussion, but an 11-2 team that only lost to Alabama because of a quarterback injury might become a darling.

Oklahoma State and Kansas State also have to be perfect from here on out, and the latter might even need some help around the country thanks to that pesky loss against Tulane (an admittedly strong team, but still, Tulane).

TCU is positioned beautifully to make a run at the playoff after firing the first shot among these four teams with a head-to-head win over Oklahoma State.

The next four weeks are going to be incredible, with Kansas State-TCU, Texas-Oklahoma State, Oklahoma State-Kansas State, Texas-Kansas State, and TCU-Texas all on the schedule.

Since this conference takes the top two teams without divisions (therefore guaranteeing an extra loss for one of them), it would be hard for more than one Big 12 team to make the playoff. But someone has a chance to earn a ticket in the next few weeks.

Big Ten

  • Michigan (7-0)

  • Ohio State (6-0)

  • Illinois (6-1)

  • Penn State (5-1)

Last season, the Michigan-Ohio State game acted as a de facto play-in for the College Football Playoff, and it’s trending in that direction again this year.

The one team who might have something to say about that is Illinois, who could still make a couple of huge statements with wins at Michigan and in the conference title game. A 12-1 Illinois team would absolutely have to be in.

The elephant in the room: Could an 11-0 Michigan or Ohio State theoretically get into the playoff after a loss in The Game?

First of all, the game would have to be competitive – more like the double overtime battle in 2016 than some of the recent blowouts. Also, since the winner of The Game would get in alongside Clemson and the SEC champ, the Big 12 and Pac-12 would have to get left out, and the loser would have to get in over a second SEC team.

In reality, it’s probably not going to happen. Oh yeah, and based on what we saw from Penn State this weekend, the Big Ten’s playoff ticket is likely going to be punched by one of Michigan, Ohio State, or Illinois.

Pac-12

  • UCLA (6-0)

  • USC (6-1)

  • Oregon (5-1)

The USC loss at Utah the playoff picture for the Pac-12, because like the Big 12, the top two teams will play in the conference title game without divisional considerations.

That means even if UCLA manages to run the table during the regular season, it would have to beat one of the above teams or Utah for a second time to get into the playoff.

Oregon and USC are very much in the mix if they finish 12-1, but they still have a few tough battles in front of them to get to that point.

The Pac-12 is much improved this season, but the path to the playoff might still be on a bit of an incline.

SEC

  • Georgia (7-0)

  • Ole Miss (7-0)

  • Tennessee (6-0)

  • Alabama (6-1)

Before this weekend, everyone assumed Georgia and Alabama would be undefeated heading into the SEC Championship Game, meaning both would get playoff bids no matter the outcome.

Alabama’s loss at Tennessee has muddied the waters. Now it’s the Volunteers and Bulldogs who could both end up in the top four.

Let’s say the winner of the Tennessee-Georgia game goes on to win the SEC title and the loser finishes 11-1. If that one-loss team is Georgia, we all know the committee will put both teams in the playoff. If the one-loss team is Tennessee, how do you deny a team that won 11 games, beat Alabama, and only lost to the SEC champs?

I still think the SEC will be a two-bid league no matter how the final weeks shake out. There’s just no reason to believe (based on past actions) that the committee would leave out a one-loss Georgia or Tennessee, and it certainly doesn’t look like either will lose twice down the stretch.

Additional thoughts

After Texas, the best two-loss resume is probably Utah’s, but there isn’t a path for a two-loss Pac-12 team to make the playoff, especially since that Florida loss looks worse and worse with each passing week.

There won’t be another Group of Five participant in the playoff this year. Last year’s Cincinnati team was an outlier because it won at Notre Dame and went undefeated. The last two unbeaten teams in the Group of Five – Coastal Carolina and James Madison – both went down this weekend, ending any hope of another Cinderella story.

Here’s how I think the College Football Playoff will ultimately end up:

  1. SEC champion: either the winner of Tennessee vs. Georgia or the winner of Alabama vs. Ole Miss

  2. Winner of Michigan vs. Ohio State

  3. ACC champion Clemson

  4. Winner of Tennessee vs. Georgia (if that team loses in the SEC title game) or loser of Tennessee vs. Georgia (assuming that team finishes 11-1).

Here’s how I think the priority list currently stands, including all possible outcomes:

Here’s how to read this list: If the listed outcome happens, then that team is in the playoff. If it doesn’t, then you cross it off and move down to the next item on the list. The top four outcomes that actually come to fruition will give you the four teams that make the playoff (in my opinion).

  1. Undefeated SEC champion (Tennessee, Georgia or Ole Miss)

  2. Undefeated Big Ten champion (Michigan or Ohio State)

  3. One-loss SEC champion (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, or Ole Miss)

  4. Undefeated Big 12 champion (TCU)

  5. Undefeated ACC champion (Clemson or Syracuse)

  6. Undefeated Pac-12 champion (UCLA)

  7. One-loss Big Ten champion (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State or Illinois)

  8. One-loss loser of SEC title game (12-1 Georgia, Tennessee, or Ole Miss)

  9. 11-1 Tennessee or Georgia

  10. One-loss Big 12 champion (TCU, Oklahoma State, or Kansas State)

  11. Clemson as a one-loss ACC champion

  12. One-loss Pac-12 champion (UCLA, USC, or Oregon)

  13. One-loss loser of Big Ten title game (12-1 Michigan or Ohio State)

  14. 11-1 Michigan or Ohio State

  15. 11-2 Big 12 champion Texas

  16. Non-Clemson one-loss ACC champion (North Carolina, Syracuse, or Wake Forest)

  17. 12-1 TCU with a loss in the Big 12 title game

  18. 12-1 Clemson or Syracuse with a loss in the ACC title game

  19. 12-1 UCLA with a loss in the Pac-12 title game

  20. 11-1 Ole Miss

  21. 11-1 Penn State

  22. 11-1 TCU, Oklahoma State, or Kansas State

  23. 11-1 Clemson, Wake Forest, or Syracuse

  24. 11-1 UCLA

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