The regular season came to a close last weekend, which means were one step closer to the second edition of the College Football Playoff. The four-team field will be released on Sunday, but in the meantime the selection committee released another set of rankings. Here are three quick takeaways:
1. We know generally what the playoff is going to look like
We don’t know every team that will be selected and that matchups that will take place, but we do have a decent idea of which squads have a realistic chance to make the final four. No. 3 Oklahoma is a virtual lock after beating Big 12 contenders Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks to claim the conference championship. No. 2 Alabama should be safe, too, as long as it doesn’t stub its toe against Florida in the SEC championship game; the Crimson Tide have won nine straight games since losing to Ole Miss in September. The winner of the Big Ten championship game pitting No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State also should earn a bid, as the Hawkeyes have aced a Power Five conference schedule and the Spartans count wins over top-20 foes Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon. Lastly, Clemson, unbeaten with two top-10 victories, can breathe easy on selection day if it beats North Carolina in the ACC title game.
Is it really that simple? Well, no. The Tar Heels, ranked 12th in the Massey composite, have rolled through the ACC with relative ease and could challenge the Tigers. If North Carolina pulls the upset, the committee will need to pick from a handful of squads with strong résumés, including No. 7 Stanford and No. 6 Ohio State. The Gators knocking off the Tide would open up another spot. Which leads us to …
2. Stanford is in good shape, but it needs help
In the event that Clemson or Alabama lose this weekend, the Cardinal are in position to be slotted into the national semifinals. While three Big Ten teams are ranked ahead of Stanford (No. 4 Iowa, No. 5 Michigan State and No. 6 Ohio State), David Shaw’s club can jump two of them by beating Southern California in the Pac-12 championship game.
That would mark the Cardinals' third top-20 win (No. 20 USC twice and No. 8 Notre Dame), and they would get an extra bump from claiming a league title. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are idle and either the Hawkeyes or Spartans will take a loss in the Big Ten championship game. It’s unlikely the committee would not vault Stanford over Ohio State and the Big Ten title game loser.
Of course, this is all moot unless Clemson or Alabama loses. The former is unlikely, and the latter would be one of the biggest upsets of the season. From Stanford’s point of view, it would be disappointing if two losses to good teams (No. 14 Northwestern and No. 16 Oregon) kept it on the outside looking in. On the other hand, playing in the Rose Bowl isn’t a bad way to spend New Year’s Day.
3. North Carolina may not have a shot
One potential candidate to jump into the top four is the Tar Heels. They need to beat Clemson in the ACC title game and hope their 11-game winning streak and “eye test” appeal outweigh a schedule that features two Football Championship Subdivision opponents (North Carolina A&T, Delaware) and checks in at No. 63 in the Sagarin Ratings as well as a season-opening loss to 3-9 South Carolina. Apparently the committee isn’t convinced. North Carolina is ranked 10th, behind two-loss teams Stanford, Notre Dame and Florida State as well as one-loss squad Ohio State. That order doesn’t bode well for the Tar Heels’ playoff chances.
North Carolina is probably a long shot even if it beats No. 1 Clemson. Should the Tar Heels pass the Buckeyes, Irish, and Seminoles with a win over the Tigers, the Tar Heels likely wouldn't leapfrog the Cardinal, who can boost their résumé with a win over Southern California. (Obviously a Stanford loss to the Trojans would help North Carolina quite a bit.) Winning the ACC also isn't likely to be more impressive to the committee than the Cardinal winning a much more competitive Pac-12.
Committee protocol states that “conference championships won” are used when assessing “otherwise comparable teams.” The problem for North Carolina is that, even though it would own a conference title if it upsets Clemson, it hasn’t done much else to build its case. In fact, the Tigers conceivably could remain ranked ahead of the Tar Heels even with a head-to-head loss.
North Carolina better hope that Florida stuns Alabama.