College Football Playoff bubble watch: Will league title games bring chaos?
Many of the seemingly countless College Football Playoff scenarios have worked themselves out. Teams will have one more chance to prove to the selection committee that they deserve a shot at the national championship in conference championship games this week. Before the rankings are released on Tuesday, here’s a look at the cases for and against the seven remaining teams in playoff contention, ordered by their likelihood of appearing in the top four.
Last week: Won 37–32 at South Carolina
Next week: ACC Championship Game vs. No. 14 North Carolina
Best wins: vs. No. 6 Notre Dame, vs. No. 13 Florida State
Case for: Clemson earned its No. 1 ranking by avoiding a loss. Quarterback Deshaun Watson will likely be in New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist, and head coach Dabo Swinney is in the running for national coach of the year. It’s possible that should the Tigers lose a close one in the title game, depending on how the other games play out, they could still clinch a playoff berth.
Case against: The Tigers struggled last week against rival South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been abysmal all year, so it’s worth wondering whether Clemson simply was challenged by a hungry in-state opponent, or if lingering concerns will manifest themselves in the ACC title game.
Consensus: In. Clemson will be No. 1 again in this week’s rankings.
Last week: Won 29–13 at Auburn
Next week: SEC Championship Game vs. No. 12 Florida
Best wins: at No. 21 Mississippi State
Losses: vs. No. 18 Ole Miss
Case for: Alabama romped past Auburn in the Iron Bowl and won the SEC West again. The Crimson Tide have looked unstoppable since losing to Ole Miss in September, and running back Derrick Henry, who set Alabama’s record for most rushing yards and touchdowns in a single season last week, has been the best player in college football over the past month.
Case against: The Tide have been sitting comfortably in the top four over the past month. Alabama’s biggest obstacle now is the Gators, who were embarrassed by Florida State last week.
Consensus: In. Alabama has nothing to worry about if it wins.
Last week: Won 58–23 at No. 11 Oklahoma State
Next week: N/A
Best wins: at No. 7 Baylor, at No. 11 Oklahoma State, vs. No. 19 TCU
Losses: at Texas
Case for: Oklahoma has thoroughly solidified its spot in the top four by knocking off Big 12 powerhouses Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor and winning the conference. Bob Stoops’s team is arguably the most dangerous in college football and should have a chance to prove it in the national semifinals.
Case against: Oklahoma will be idle this week while other programs make their final statements to the committee in conference championship games. While they can’t lose again, the possibility exists that the Sooners drop in favor of other programs fresher in the committee’s mind.
Consensus: In. Oklahoma won’t have to sweat out selection day.
THE BIG TEN
With No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State squaring off in the Big Ten Championship Game next week, their order in this week’s poll is essentially moot, as the winner all but locks up a spot in the final four. It will either be an undefeated Hawkeyes team, which would prove doubters of its weak conference schedule wrong, or it will be a one-loss Spartans squad, which will have beaten two top-10 teams in Ohio State and Iowa in two of the last three weeks.
This year’s Big Ten title game is a de facto national quarterfinal. Winner makes the playoff, loser winds up on the outside looking in.
Last week: Won 38–36 vs. No. 6 Notre Dame
Next week: Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC
Best wins: vs. No. 6 Notre Dame, vs. No. 22 UCLA
Losses: at No. 16 Northwestern, vs. No. 17 Oregon
Case for: The highest-ranked two-loss team, Stanford came back in improbable fashion last week to take down No. 6 Notre Dame, effectively ending the Irish’s playoff chances and putting the Cardinal in position to earn a bid if there’s chaos elsewhere. Stanford can impress the committee this week against USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Case against: It will be awfully difficult for any two-loss team to make the playoff. If this weekend’s games play out as expected, Stanford fans shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a trip to the semifinals.
Consensus: Out. Stanford is going to need to take care of business this weekend and hope for some help.
OHIO STATE (11–1)
Last week: Won 43–13 at No. 10 Michigan
Next week: N/A
Best wins: at No. 10 Michigan
Losses: vs. No. 5 Michigan State
Case for: Ohio State is arguably the most talented team in the country and has the firepower to repeat last year’s championship run. The Buckeyes routed rival Michigan last week in Ann Arbor and have only suffered one loss to a team ranked in the top five (Michigan State).
Case against: The committee will be hard-pressed to put a team into the playoff that didn’t even win its division. The Buckeyes are out of ways to impress the committee and can only hope that they’ve done enough. Ezekiel Elliott certainly believes his team deserves a spot in the final four. It also seems unlikely that the committee would choose two Big Ten teams at the expense of Stanford if it wins the Pac-12.
Consensus: Out. The Buckeyes will need a major shake-up to enter the top four.
On outside looking in
NORTH CAROLINA (11–1)
The Tar Heels have a legitimate chance at reaching the playoff if they take down No. 1 Clemson in the ACC title game. Even if that happens, though, they will still likely need some help.
FLORIDA STATE (10–2)
An impressive win over Florida gives the Seminoles 10 wins on the year and will likely earn them a top-10 spot this week. Like Ohio State, however, Florida State is idle this week after not having won its division and would need a bunch of other teams ranked above it to lose.
The road ahead
SEC championship game: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 12 Florida
Alabama can secure a spot in the playoff with a win, while Florida can cap an impressive first season under coach Jim McElwain with an SEC title.
Pac-12 championship game: No. 9 Stanford vs. USC
Stanford gets one last chance to make its case for a playoff spot, while USC can win a conference championship under Clay Helton days after he was named the Trojans’ head coach on a permanent basis.
Big Ten championship game: No. 4 Iowa vs. No. 5 Michigan State
Winner goes to the playoff. It’s that simple.
ACC championship game: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 14 North Carolina
Clemson can lock up a spot in playoff with a win. North Carolina, meanwhile, can keep itself in the discussion if it pulls the upset.