The top five teams stayed the same in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, which would seemingly be an indication that the season has stabilized and the four-team field can be predicted with some level of certainty. But that’s not the case. Clemson and Alabama have bids locked down if they win out, but the other two spots are up for grabs, likely to be contested among the Big Ten champ, the Big 12 champ and Notre Dame, with the Pac-12 holding out hope it still has a shot, though the odds are long.
This week will help pare down the contenders in the two conferences that will have the biggest influence on how the playoff race shakes out. The two strongest playoff contenders in the Big Ten East will square off, and the four-team, season-ending Big 12 round robin continues as well. Here are five storylines to watch in Week 12:
1. Playoff positioning on the line in Ohio State-Michigan State
Twelve weeks ago, this was the game we figured would decide the Big Ten, and it’s largely played out that way, though a resurgent Michigan also remains in the East race (and Iowa is an undefeated playoff contender, somewhat shockingly).
Whoever wins will maintain control of its destiny in the East. A loss would eliminate Michigan State, while Ohio State would still be alive with a defeat but would need the Spartans to lose their season finale. A Michigan State loss would also open the door for Michigan to win the East by beating Penn State and Ohio State to finish the year. There are significant playoff implications as well: Ohio State is a lock if it finishes the year undefeated, while a one-loss Michigan State may have a solid shot if Notre Dame takes another loss or no strong candidate emerges from the Big 12.
Neither team has fully played up to its preseason expectations, but the Buckeyes have certainly been more impressive than Michigan State, which needed a miracle play to beat Michigan and lost to Nebraska. Unless the Spartans find another gear—which could be tough with a banged-up Connor Cook—the Buckeyes seem likely to prevail, setting up a huge matchup with the rival Wolverines in The Game.
2. Can reeling TCU keep faint playoff and Big 12 hopes alive?
TCU’s season got derailed rather suddenly after its 8–0 start. The Horned Frogs were blown out by Oklahoma State in a game that saw star receiver Josh Doctson get injured, and then they struggled to beat Kansas—one of the worst teams in the FBS—while also losing quarterback Trevone Boykin to an injury. Now Doctson is out for the regular season and Boykin is questionable for this week’s game at Oklahoma. It’s hard to imagine a more perilous scenario for a team that’s 9–1 and ranked 18th in the country.
Regardless of health, TCU’s playoff and conference hopes are fading fast. The Horned Frogs need to beat Oklahoma and Baylor and have the undefeated Cowboys lose out in order to have any shot at a playoff bid—there’s seemingly no way the committee would choose one-loss TCU over one-loss Oklahoma State given their head-to-head result. Even then, the Horned Frogs could very well be behind the Big Ten champion and a one-loss Notre Dame in the pecking order. This is all assuming, of course, that TCU can beat an Oklahoma team that’s currently looking like one of the most complete squads in the country—with Doctson out and Boykin’s status in question, that might be too much to ask.
3. Can Baylor rebound to topple Oklahoma State?
Things aren’t quite as precarious for Baylor. It did suffer its first loss last week, but it was very much in the game, and though the Bears are still on the fringe of the conference and playoff race, the fact they got beat by a one-loss opponent instead of an undefeated one (as TCU did) makes it easier to pass the team to which it fell. Baylor’s injury issues also aren’t as severe—they’re playing their backup quarterback in Jarrett Stidham, but the drop-off from Seth Russell to Stidham isn’t as significant as the one from Boykin to TCU backups Foster Sawyer and Bram Kohlhausen.
Plus, Baylor has an excellent opportunity this week: toppling undefeated Oklahoma State would vault it right back into the national picture, and then the Bears would need only one Oklahoma loss to finish alone atop the Big 12. In comparisons with other bubble teams, too, the playoff committee might be more willing to forgive Baylor’s loss to the Sooners since it was Stidham’s first game against a quality opponent. This all means nothing if the Bears can’t topple the Cowboys, but winning could be more doable than it might appear—Oklahoma State has looked less than impressive in multiple games this season.
4. UCLA and Utah meet in Pac-12 South elimination game
The national hopes for these teams are essentially shot. With three losses already, UCLA is no longer a playoff candidate, and it will require a lot of chaos for Utah to end up with a bid as a two-loss Pac-12 champ. This is somewhat disappointing considering where each program was earlier this year. Utah looked like a playoff favorite through seven weeks of the season, and we were ready to crown the Bruins the best team in the Pac-12 and a strong national contender following their impressive 4–0 start.
But though they’re national afterthoughts now, winning the Pac-12 would still be a significant achievement, and the two teams remain in the thick of it in the South race, along with USC. That will change after the Utes and Bruins meet this week—either would be eliminated with a loss, no matter what happens in the Trojans’ game against Oregon. The intricacies are complex, but ultimately the loser’s best possible outcome is to end up tied for first in the division and there’s no scenario where Utah or UCLA will have the tiebreaker after taking a loss this week. So while this matchup may lack national stakes, both teams still have plenty to play for Saturday.
5. Three teams are in position to clinch their divisions
The Pac-12 North, Big Ten West and ACC Coastal races could all be over after this weekend, and the leader in each is in very strong position. Here’s a look at the three potential clinching teams:
-Stanford: The Cardinal are in first in the Pac-12 North at 7–1, with Washington State and Oregon following at 5–2. If Stanford beats Cal in the Big Game this Saturday or Oregon loses to USC, Stanford wins the division. Oregon can win the division in the event of a three-team tie or a two-team tie with Stanford.
-Iowa: The Hawkeyes are in first in the Big Ten West at 6–0, with Wisconsin (5–1) in second and Northwestern (4–2) in third. If Iowa beats Purdue or Northwestern beats Wisconsin, Iowa wins the division. Wisconsin can only win the division if it wins out and Iowa loses out.
-North Carolina: The Tar Heels are in first in the ACC Coastal at 6–0, with Pitt second at 5–1. If North Carolina beats Virginia Tech or Pitt loses to Louisville, North Carolina wins the division. Pitt can only win the division if it wins out and North Carolina loses out.