Oregon in, Alabama out in SI's first College Football Playoff Bubble Watch
The College Football Playoff promised its rankings would be different from other weekly polls because, while the selection committee would rank teams each week for seven straight weeks, the formation of the rankings would begin from scratch each week. Teams would not rise up or slide down the rankings; they would simply appear in one place and then -- based on a renewed process of evaluation -- in another.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll find out how truly different the playoff rankings are. Last week’s rankings ensured at least one change: The playoff bracket this week would look different. Someone had to lose between No. 3 Auburn and No. 4 Ole Miss.
Saturday’s 35-31 defeat was a heartbreaker for the Rebels, as the six inches that separated Laquon Treadwell (who fractured his leg on the play) from the end zone all but eliminate Ole Miss from playoff contention. Here’s a look at the cases for and against each of the top teams in playoff contention, ordered by the teams’ likelihood of appearing in the top four when the selection committee releases its second rankings on Tuesday evening.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-0)
Strength of schedule: 11
Best wins: vs. Auburn, at LSU
Case For: The Bulldogs have taken down everyone they’ve played including a fellow playoff frontrunner in Auburn, and an LSU team that might be better than we thought. Mississippi State boasts a Heisman candidate in quarterback Dak Prescott, who has helped the Bulldogs post 6.7 yards per play and 9.1 yards per pass attempt. With a matchup against Tennessee-Martin on Saturday, Mississippi State faces almost no risk to its playoff hopes until it travels to Tuscaloosa to battle Alabama on Nov. 15.
Case Against: Until the Bulldogs lose, it’d be nearly impossible to argue they don’t belong in the playoff. Still, since beating Auburn on Oct. 11, Mississippi State hasn’t looked nearly as dominant in wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. The playoff committee cannot use margin of victory in its discussion of teams, so those past two games are simply wins, but they may illustrate some vulnerability in the Bulldogs that haunt them later this season.
Consensus: In. The Bulldogs may have lost some ground to Florida State, but there's no doubt they're in playoff field for now.
Florida State Seminoles (8-0)
Case For: Similar to Mississippi State, Florida State’s best argument is that zero in the loss column. Sure, the Seminoles haven't looked as dominant as they did last year, but until they lose, those close games won’t hurt them. Jameis Winston continues to amaze and has actually slightly improved his completion percentage this season -- 67.2 percent compared to 66.9 percent in 2013. Voters who rely on the eye test have to like what they saw from Florida State in the second half Thursday against Louisville.
Case Against: It won’t matter unless the Seminoles lose, but their strength of schedule gives them little margin for error. With matchups against Virginia, Miami, Boston College, Florida and the ACC Coastal champion remaining, Florida State won’t likely lose. But if it does, Florida State will be thrown into the group of one-loss teams with its best wins coming against No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 21 Clemson, both at home. It’ll take a lot of chaos in other conferences for a one-loss Seminoles team to make the playoff.
Consensus: In. The imperfect Seminoles still boast that perfect record, so they're definitely in the playoff.
Auburn Tigers (7-1)
Strength of schedule: 1
Best wins: at Kansas State, at Ole Miss, vs. LSU
Losses: at Mississippi State
Case For: This is where the rankings start to get interesting. As long as Mississippi State and Florida State stay undefeated, they play decent enough schedules to remain No. 1 and 2. But how will the selection committee sort our all the one-loss teams? Auburn seems to clearly be the best of the bunch. The Tigers have played the toughest schedule of anyone, they have arguably the best wins of anyone with road wins over Kansas State and Ole Miss along with a dominant home victory over LSU, and their loss at No. 1 Mississippi State is hardly a major red flag.
Case Against: Auburn really only played poorly against Mississippi State for one quarter, but what a bad quarter it was. The Bulldogs built a 21-point lead less than 10 minutes into their Oct. 11 matchup with the Tigers. All it would take now is one similarly dismal quarter to potentially bump Auburn from playoff consideration. Major hurdles still remain at Georgia, at Alabama and possibly in the SEC title game.
Consensus: In. The best one-loss team kept its spot in the field with its tight win over Ole Miss. The Tigers control their playoff destiny.
Oregon Ducks (7-1)
Case For: The No. 4 spot in the selection committee’s rankings will likely be the most hotly contested this week. Oregon has a strong claim after surviving Stanford on Saturday, the same Cardinal who tripped up the Ducks and denied them chances at the Pac-12 title the past two years. Oregon boasts a bevy of quality wins, highlighted by its Week 2 victory over Michigan State and road win over UCLA.
Case Against: While the Ducks have played a decent schedule with a strong nonconference matchup against the Spartans and a difficult Pac-12 slate, they still don’t face the week-in, week-out challenge Auburn and Alabama confront. And of course, there’s no hiding that home loss to Arizona. However, Oregon proponents can make the case that the Ducks were playing with a horribly banged-up line and returned to winning form once left tackle Jake Fisher got healthy. A more consistently upright Marcus Mariota in that game against the Wildcats would have made a big difference. As the committee put Oregon ahead of Alabama last week, it seems to agree.
Consensus: In. The fourth spot in the playoff field could change a lot even without teams losing, but Oregon deserves to be in the playoff field for now.
Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1)
Strength of schedule: 3
Best wins: vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta)
Losses: at Ole Miss
Case for: The SEC West is unquestionably the toughest division in college football, and thus far, the Crimson Tide have survived the bloodbath with only one blemish. Put it this way, if Oregon and Alabama run the table the rest of the season and finish 12-1, which would you rank higher?
Case against: Bama ain’t beat nobody, PAWWWWWL!! As ridiculous as it sounds, look at the Crimson Tide’s schedule and try to find their unquestionably good wins. There isn’t a single team that will likely be ranked in the committee’s rankings Tuesday. Sure, opportunities for big wins remain, beginning with this week’s trip to LSU, but shouldn’t we wait until the Tide actually win those games before we give them credit. Plus, Alabama’s loss at Ole Miss doesn’t look quite as excusable after the Rebels’ back-to-back losses.
Consensus: Out. Although the Crimson Tide sit just outside the top four, they still control their own path to the playoff. That's more important than rankings for now.
TCU Horned Frogs (7-1)
Case for: After Auburn and Alabama, no one-loss team has played a more difficult schedule than the Horned Frogs. The Big 12 has proven to be deeper than most expected, and TCU has already run through most of it and come out relatively unscathed. The Horned Frogs added to their quality wins total with a road defeat of West Virginia, and they beat Oklahoma at home on Oct. 4. All those strengths make TCU the rare team to thwart head-to-head logic and earn a higher ranking than its vanquisher Baylor despite the teams’ matching 7-1 records.
Case against: TCU heads into this weekend’s showdown with Kansas State on thin ice due to its Oct. 11 loss to the Bears. Still, it’s hard to fault the Horned Frogs too much for losing on the road to Baylor when the Bears took their already ridiculous offense to a new level in the fourth quarter. That doesn’t change the fact that the blown 21-point fourth quarter lead has to be killing the Horned Frogs.
Consensus: Out. After Kansas State on Saturday, there's not a lot left to disrupt TCU's season. This Saturday could be the make-or-break game for the Horned Frogs' playoff dreams.
Kansas State Wildcats (7-1)
Strength of schedule: 18
Best wins: at Oklahoma
Losses: vs. Auburn
Case for: Among the one-loss teams, Kansas State is almost perfectly middle of the road. The Wildcats have played a tough but not eye-popping schedule, their loss came against a playoff foe (Auburn) but at home and they have a quality, if not exceptional win at Oklahoma. It’s hard to really criticize Kansas State’s body of work.
Case against: It’s also hard to get too excited about the Wildcats’ resume. They’ve gone 1-1 in their only two challenging games so far, and while there’s little shame in losing to Auburn, that loss at home really hurt Kansas State’s playoff hopes. Unless the Tigers crash and burn down the stretch, there’s almost no chance the Wildcats can pass them. At the very least, that means 25 percent of the playoff field is inaccessible to Kansas State.
Consensus: Out. The Wildcats haven't earned a top four ranking yet, but they still have the meat of their schedule ahead. Kansas State will deserve some serious reconsideration if it gets through the Horned Frogs, Mountaineers and Bears.
Michigan State Spartans (7-1)
Strength of schedule: 27
Best wins: vs. Nebraska
Losses: at Oregon
Case for: If we want to reward tough nonconference scheduling, it should start with Michigan State. When West Virginia opted out of a series with the Spartans, they could have replaced the Mountaineers with another MAC opponent or even a lesser Power Five foe. Instead, Michigan State commendably agreed to play Oregon. If the Spartans had played Akron or Ball State, they’d likely be 8-0 and ranked much higher, so should they really be punished for scheduling tough?
Case against: The problem with the above line of thinking is that had the Spartans beaten up on Akron and gone 8-0, we wouldn’t know how they’d fare against Oregon. Now we know, even if Michigan State did hold a second half lead in a brutal road environment. An 8-0 team that might be capable of beating another conference’s best team is different than a 7-1 squad that tried and failed to do so. The Spartans have to be ranked accordingly.
Consensus: Out. The loss to Oregon and the weak Big Ten cost Michigan State control of its playoff fate. But if the Spartans can beat Ohio State on Saturday and finish the regular season at 12-1, they'll just need a little chaos in the other Power Five conferences to earn a playoff bid.
The Road Ahead
Notre Dame at Arizona State, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Both of these one-loss teams are looking up at a lot of teams with the same record but better rankings. For Notre Dame, Saturday’s matchup with the Sun Devils is its first chance to score a quality win after the Fighting Irish’s narrow loss to Florida State. For Arizona State, the marquee matchup is a golden opportunity to further distance itself from the thrashing it endured at the hands of UCLA on Sept. 25. For both teams, a loss would kill all hopes of making the playoff.
Kansas State at TCU, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Not only is this game critical to the Big 12 title race, the winner could also become the conference’s lone hope for a playoff bid if Baylor loses at Oklahoma earlier in the day. Kansas State is TCU’s final major obstacle to a one-loss season as the Horned Frogs finish the year at Kansas, at Texas and versus Iowa State. The Wildcats must take down TCU and beat West Virginia and Baylor on the road to finish the season with only one defeat.
Alabama at LSU, Saturday at 8 p.m.
It would take nationwide chaos for two-loss LSU to jump back into the playoff picture, but the Tigers can still play spoiler. They already did so against Ole Miss, and Alabama lost its only real challenge so far this year against the Rebels. The Crimson Tide must find more success in their second road test to keep their playoff dreams intact. A young Tigers squad that has appeared to improve significantly with half a season of experience stands in their way.
Ohio State at Michigan State, Saturday at 8 p.m.
Ohio State and Michigan State suffered damaging nonconference losses in Week 2, but the Buckeyes’ has proved to be far worse as Virginia Tech took on its fifth loss of the season Saturday. In a thin Big Ten, even a perfect conference record might not be enough to get Ohio State into the playoff. The Spartans have the far better playoff shot if Oregon continues to pile up wins, but Michigan State must be careful not to let up early against the Buckeyes like it did against Nebraska.
Oregon at Utah, Saturday at 10 p.m.
The Pac-12’s biggest game will be the nightcap to an active Week 11 slate. Beating Utah in Salt Lake City would be a nice quality win for Oregon. Unfortunately for the Ducks, their already beaten up offensive line suffered another injury in their win over Stanford, so Oregon will likely be without right tackle Matt Pierson against the Utes. Utah leads the Pac-12 with 39 sacks in eight games and could feast on the Ducks’ protection woes.
Strength of schedule rankings come from TeamRankings.com's schedule analysis.