Building the best playoff: What are the most exciting possible matchups in the College Football Playoff?
Hello from the other side. Yes, I'll admit it: When I woke up Saturday morning, I was fairly convinced that the top five teams in the College Football Playoff rankings—Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Washington and Ohio State, in that order—were likely the only candidates for the four playoff spots the committee will decide in less than a month. I thought they were secure, that their schedules seemed easy enough and their talent and coaching were too good to fail. And then, well… then Saturday happened.
It was the kind of Saturday that keeps people addicted to college football, that kept me glued to my phone during any spare moment I could steal at a friend's wedding. For the first time since 1985, the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams all lost on the same day—and 31 years ago, that apocalyptic Saturday took place on Oct. 19, a full three weeks earlier than this year's day of mayhem.
Chaos has arrived at close to the 11th hour, and I hope it's here to stay. As we wait for the playoff selection committee to release its rankings later Tuesday, there are so many questions. Which of the six one-loss teams in the AP top 10 will fill the three remaining playoff spots after Alabama? Could a two-loss Wisconsin snag the No. 5 spot? Will three-loss Texas A&M be in the mix? (Kidding on that last one, I think.)
We're finally entering the home stretch of the college football season, with impact games each of the next two Saturdays ahead of the conference championship games, two of which—the Big Ten and ACC—may figure massively in terms of playoff implications. In the meantime, though, after last weekend upended most of our clear-cut playoff predictions, let's speculate. Apart from Alabama's vice grip on the No. 1 spot, nothing is certain anymore. And so in a world where the Cubs have won the World Series and Donald Trump the presidency, please indulge my ideas for the most fun playoff scenarios that still remain within the realm of reasonable possibility.
The rankings: 1. Alabama, 2. Michigan, 3. Louisville, 4. Clemson
How we get there: Alabama wins out and wins the SEC title game. Michigan wins out, including beating Ohio State on Nov. 26, and then also comes out on top in the Big Ten title game. Wilton Speight is healthy on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. Ohio State looks terrible against Michigan State and Michigan. Maybe it suffers a key injury. Louisville wins out—over Houston and Kentucky—as does Clemson, which gets the ACC title game nod due to its head-to-head win over the Cardinals. Clemson wins the conference title game, but maybe in less than inspiring fashion, or maybe the committee just decides Louisville is better, which it really might be.
Why it would be great: I want Lamar Jackson in the playoff. I want it so badly. And Lamar Jackson vs. Michigan's defense would be an unreal semifinal. I repeat: Lamar Jackson vs. Jabrill Peppers! Having the other semifinal as a rematch of last year's championship game wouldn't suck, either.
The rankings: 1. Ohio State, 2. Alabama, 3. Louisville, 4. Washington
How we get there: Ohio State wins out, beating Michigan in spectacular fashion and winning the Big Ten championship game handily. Wilton Speight remains hurt, and his backup, John O'Korn, is lackluster. Alabama loses to Auburn, but it still wins the SEC Championship Game. Then the committee leans heavily on Ohio State's strength of schedule in order to put it ahead of a one-loss Alabama. Louisville wins out and wins out big. Clemson loses the ACC championship game—or loses to Wake Forest or South Carolina, however unlikely that seems. Washington wins out.
Why it would be great: This is, by far, my favorite potential outcome, which combines my love of chaos with my belief that Alabama and Ohio State are far and away the best teams in the country, coached by the best coaches in the country. You know you love to hate the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes, and that burning jealousy/inferiority complex/anger you feel toward them only makes the playoff better. Plus, look at those semifinals: Washington vs. Ohio State and Louisville vs. Alabama, which again would pit Jackson against an unreal defense. Even if the outcome became an Alabama-Ohio State final, would you really complain that much?
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The rankings: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Wisconsin, 4. Ohio State
How we get there: Alabama wins out—or even loses a close one to Auburn but still wins the SEC Championship Game. Ohio State beats Michigan, but Penn State wins out, as does Wisconsin. That leaves us with a Nittany Lions-Badgers Big Ten title game, which Wisconsin wins. Clemson wins out and wins the ACC championship game. Louisville might also have to lose to Houston in this scenario, but maybe not.
Why it would be great: As far as parity among the semifinals goes, this scenario has got it. I can't tell you which team I'd pick to win Clemson-Wisconsin or Alabama-Ohio State, but I can promise both would be compelling. Plus, I love Wisconsin forcing its way into the picture after going into the season underrated and then proving it exists in the same realm of talent and execution as Ohio State and Michigan. Really, the only downside to this scenario is that the title game might be a letdown after the two semifinals.
The rankings: 1. Alabama, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Western Michigan
How we get there: Alabama wins out and wins the SEC title game. Michigan beats Ohio State and wins the Big Ten title game. Ohio State plays well in its loss to Michigan. Everyone else—the ACC, the Pac-12, the Big 12—cannibalizes itself. Oh, and Western Michigan beats Buffalo and Toledo by a combined gazillion points and then wins the MAC championship game 87–0. (Please win out, Western Michigan, for all that is holy and chaotic.)
Why it would be great: I have a feeling Michigan-Ohio State on Nov. 26 is going to be a hell of a game, and I'd wager no one would be upset with a rematch. And I had to include at least one completely harebrained situation in which Western Michigan makes it because, well, chaos. As for the Broncos matching up against Alabama, hear me out: It'd be near impossible for Western Michigan to win a playoff game, period if it somehow makes it in. So why not pin the Broncos against the best of the best and see what they can do? Plus, it would be quite a shakeup to keep the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 out of the playoff, which might (knock on wood) spur some further conversation about making this whole deal an eight-team affair. I know, this may be a pipe dream. But it's a fun one at least.
Whatever happens Tuesday night, and this weekend, and next, one thing is for certain: This season's playoff fight is going to come down to the bitter end. Apart from Alabama, there's no sure thing, and as the NFL reaches its nadir of excitement, college football anarchy couldn't have come at a better time.