While the AP and Coaches’ polls have their merits, they won’t ultimately decide which four teams make the College Football Playoff. Last year Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State made the cut. Who will earn a spot this year?
With the first CFP rankings set to be announced on Tuesday, here’s an initial look at the cases for and against eight teams in playoff contention, ordered by the teams’ likelihood of appearing in the top four.
OHIO STATE (8–0)
Strength of Schedule (via TeamRankings.com): 47
Last week: BYE
Next week: vs. Minnesota
Best wins: vs. Penn State
Case for: It’s hard to imagine that a team coming off a national championship the year before could return as even more talented the following season, but that’s what Ohio State has done. The emergence of Cardale Jones (albeit with his recent struggles) and the return of Braxton Miller as an offensive weapon have made a team currently riding a 22-game win streak even stronger. Since J.T. Barrett re-took the reigns at quarterback, the Buckeyes have reestablished their championship-caliber form. And with Urban Meyer at the helm, it’s going to take an awful lot to knock them off it.
Case against: Ohio State’s biggest opponent week-in and week-out is itself. It survived against Northern Illinois and Indiana early in the season in games in which it didn’t decide to start playing hard until the fourth quarter. A habit of winning helps you in tight games, but it can also have the adverse effect—that is, creating a lack of urgency and lethargy that puts teams into those situations in the first place. Barrett’s one-game suspension for his OVI could cause the Buckeyes a little trouble at home against Minnesota this week, but it’s their last two games of the season—home to Michigan State and at Michigan—that pose the biggest threats to a championship repeat.
Consensus: In. An undefeated and Big Ten Conference-winning Ohio State will be an easy call for the committee.
Last week: BYE
Next week: at Kansas State
Best wins: vs. Texas Tech
Case for: Baylor’s offense puts video games to shame. The Bears rank first in the FBS in yards per game (686), points per game (61.1, which is 12 points higher than the FBS’s No. 2), are third in rushing yards per game (338.3) and 10th in passing yards per game (347.9). Granted, Baylor plays in a conference where defense goes to die and is awarded a game against Kansas, but these numbers aren’t an accident. The pace at which Baylor operates is on-par with Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams and it often has scored—sometimes twice—before most fans have even entered the stadium. If there’s a team in the country that can shut down head coach Art Briles’s offense, we haven’t found it.
Case against: Quarterback Seth Russell, who has thrown for 2,104 yards and 29 touchdowns through seven games and leads the country in efficiency, is out for the season following a neck injury he sustained against Iowa State. Tasked to replace him is freshman Jarrett Stidham, and while Briles will do his best to ease the transition, expectations need to be curbed in Waco. It’s also difficult to accurately size up this team considering it has yet to play its three toughest opponents. The Bears have a grueling three-game stretch—vs. No. 14 Oklahoma, at No. 12 Oklahoma State and at No. 5 TCU—later this month that will make or break their season. Win all three and they’re a lock for the playoff. Stumble in any of them and they may find themselves on the outside looking in for the second consecutive year.
Consensus: In. There are still a lot of questions to be answered in the coming weeks, but if the season ended today, the Bears would earn a semifinal spot.
Last week: BYE
Next week: at Alabama
Best wins: vs. Florida, at Mississippi State
Case for: The nation’s best player, an offense that’s scored at least 34 points in each of its last six games and two of the better wins of any of the teams in contention for a playoff spot. That’s what LSU brings to the table. Behind human wrecking-ball Leonard Fournette, who has rushed for 1,352 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns, the Tigers have taken down Mississippi State and Florida en route to their undefeated start. Les Miles has his team firing on all cylinders and it has shown no signs of stopping.
Case against: LSU is just 39th in scoring defense and hasn’t held an opponent under 19 points all season. The rest of the Tigers’ schedule also doesn’t do them any favors, as they finish the season on a four-game stretch that features games at Alabama, home to Arkansas, at Ole Miss and home to Texas A&M. Survive that, and they’d likely still have to face Florida again in the SEC Championship Game.
Consensus: In. LSU has been playing like one of the country’s best teams because it is. The Tigers are rolling and they’ll likely roll right into the final four.
Last week: Won 56-41 at NC State
Next week: vs. Florida State
Best wins: vs. Notre Dame, at Miami (Fl.)
Case for: The Tigers may have put their “Clemsoning” days behind them. Dabo Swinney’s squad is one of the most complete teams in the country. It’s in the top 20 offensively in yards per game and points per game, and is in the top 20 defensively in yards allowed per game and points allowed per game. Clemson boasts a Heisman candidate in quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, and a statement win over a top-10 team in Notre Dame. Few teams in the FBS are playing better football of late than the Tigers.
Case against: The Atlantic Coast Conference is not exactly helping Clemson. The weakest of the Power Five leagues, the ACC is not the gantlet that other contending schools have to play on a weekly basis. Out of conference, the Notre Dame win was massive, but two cupcake games to start the year in Wofford and Appalachian State leave much to be desired. Clemson probably needs to run the table to make the playoff, as a one-loss team from the ACC could be in serious jeopardy of watching from home. The Tigers’ biggest, and final, chance to impress the committee is coming this Saturday at home against Florida State.
Consensus: In. Until someone knocks Clemson off, it’s on track to make the semifinals.
Last week: Won 40-10 vs. West Virginia
Next week: at Oklahoma State
Best wins: at Texas Tech
Case for: The committee avoided picking between Baylor or TCU for a playoff spot last year by excluding both teams. Statistically, the Horned Frogs are nearly on-par with the Bears, as they rank second nationally in yards per game and points per game. Trevone Boykin is a Heisman candidate and has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns with a 67% completion rate. If he keeps producing like this, Gary Patterson’s side is going to be awfully difficult to keep out of the field.
Case against: Defense has never been a staple in the Big 12, but allowing 52, 45 and 37 points to Texas Tech, Kansas State and 1–7 SMU, respectively, is not going to do TCU any favors. One incredible tipped touchdown catch against the Red Raiders has kept its undefeated season alive, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Horned Frogs’ defensive woes are going to catch up with them, especially with games at Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and a home date with Baylor looming.
Consensus: Out. One saving grace for TCU: it can take matters into its own hands against Baylor on Nov. 27, a game that may very well end up serving as a de-facto playoff play-in game.
Last week: BYE
Next week: vs. LSU
Best wins: vs. Wisconsin, at Georgia, at Texas A&M
Losses: vs. Ole Miss
Case for: Position by position, pound for pound, Alabama could very well have the deepest, most talented roster in the country. It features a running back in Derrick Henry whose productivity has been severely underappreciated because of the preposterous numbers that Fournette has posted. It has a wide receiver in Calvin Ridley who at times has looked like the second coming of former Crimson Tide standouts Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, and yet is only a freshman. And not to mention the trademark Nick Saban defense, which ranks fourth in the country in yards allowed per game. Is this Saban’s best Alabama team since he’s taken over in Tuscaloosa? Not likely. But does this team have what it takes to wrap up the SEC title and compete for a national championship? You better believe it.
Case against: It is nothing new, but life in the SEC is relentless and allows for little to no errors. If not for a wild six-point loss at home to Ole Miss in September, the Tide would be so much of a lock their “Case against” would simply say, “N/A.” But Alabama didn’t beat the Rebels, which makes things a little tricky. The upside for the Tide is that their next game is against LSU, which gives them a chance to redeem themselves against one of the nation’s elite teams. The downside? Their next game is against LSU.
Consensus: Out. For now. If Alabama runs the table and reaches the SEC title game, it’ll be a different story. But until then, that loss to Ole Miss keeps it out.
MICHIGAN STATE (8–0)
Last week: BYE
Next week: At Nebraska
Best wins: at Michigan, vs. Oregon
Case for: If Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten, then consider Michigan State 1A. Led by arguably the nation’s purest passer, Connor Cook, the Spartans have no visible flaws. Cook is incredibly efficient throwing the football and sports a 146.5 QB rating to go along with a 58% completion percentage. L.J. Scott and Madre London have combined for over 900 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing, while Aaron Burbridge has staked his claim as one of the country’s most dependable receivers, compiling 830 yards and five touchdowns on 52 receptions. MSU also takes care of the football and is tied for sixth nationally in turnover margin at +10. Add in one of the most unsung coaches in Mark Dantonio, and the Spartans have bona fide contender written all over them.
Case against: Like Ohio State, Michigan State has a tendency to come out aloof in low-profile games and play like it expects to win. If not for one of the most unbelievable endings in college football history in their win on the road at Michigan, the Spartans wouldn’t even be on this list. Their win over Oregon in early September doesn’t look as strong as it did when it happened, and they required serious efforts to escape from Purdue, Rutgers and Indiana. A one-loss Michigan State team isn’t going to cut it, so any slip-ups moving forward will be fatal for its playoff hopes.
Consensus: Out. A win on Nov. 21 at Ohio State might be enough to push the Spartans in, but for now, they remain on the fringe.
NOTRE DAME (7–1)
Last week: Won, 24–20 at Temple
Next week: at Pittsburgh
Best wins: vs. USC, at Temple
Losses: at Clemson
Case for: One of the biggest signs of winning teams is their ability to adjust. When Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Malik Zaire, went down with a season-ending injury, many wrote the Irish off, perhaps understandably, with backup DeShone Kizer taking the reins of the offense. All Kizer, who did not see game action last year as the third-stringer, has done is pick up where Zaire left off by throwing for over 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns with a 65.1% completion percentage. It was Kizer who nearly led an improbable fourth-quarter comeback in Notre Dame’s two-point loss at Clemson, the only blemish on the Irish’s résumé. And it was Kizer who orchestrated a six-play, 75-yard drive to find Will Fuller in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 2:09 left against Temple on Saturday. Kizer has all the tools to lead Notre Dame to the playoff, and the rest of the Irish’s schedule—outside of a road game at No. 9 Stanford to end the season—bodes well for coach Brian Kelly & Co.
Case against: It’s not easy to prove you belong in the playoff when competing as an Independent, as Notre Dame does. There is very little wiggle room. The Irish's win over Texas to start the season looks less and less impressive as the Longhorns continue to stumble, they beat a mercurial USC side at home and lost their only real challenge at Clemson. A win at Stanford on the final day of the season would help, but while games against Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College in between are great chances to win, there’s very little opportunity to make another case to the committee that Notre Dame belongs.
Consensus: Out. An 11–1 Notre Dame team would certainly make a compelling case, but it also might need some help. As it stands, the Irish are on their way to a great season, but a semifinal bid doesn’t look like it’s in the cards.
The Road Ahead
No. 17 Florida State at No. 3 Clemson, Saturday 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
If the ACC has any shot of getting in the playoff, the winner of this game is going to be its only hope. A Clemson win would set the Tigers up to run the table and separate themselves as true national title contenders. A win by the Seminoles would run their record to 8–1, with their only blemish at Georgia Tech where a blocked field goal and subsequent return for a touchdown as time expired sent Florida State home with a loss. A win on Saturday as well as over No. 11 Florida at the end of the season would give the committee plenty to think about.
No. 5 TCU at No. 12 Oklahoma State, Saturday 3:30 p.m. (Fox)
Buckle up for this one. Two of the country’s best, most high-octane offenses are set to go at it in Stillwater. Not only is first place in the Big 12 on the line for each of these two undefeated teams, a loss would likely knock the loser out of playoff contention, while the winner would improve to 9–0 and have one of the best wins in college football on its résumé.
No. 4 LSU at No. 7 Alabama, Saturday 8 p.m. (CBS)
You want a heavy-hitting showdown? You got one. Miles vs. Saban. Fournette vs. Henry. It’s arguably the best matchup all season so far, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Two SEC West teams won’t be punching their ticket to the playoff, but the winner of this one very well could be.