Alabama in, TCU out in SI's College Football Playoff Bubble Watch
No week is likely to shape the College Football Playoff race as much as Week 11, which featured three elimination games in addition to the likely end of Auburn’s playoff hopes. Sure, critical games for teams’ playoff hopes remain, but there are relatively few that will definitively alter the postseason picture.
No one-loss teams in the playoff hunt are scheduled to play each other, though Oregon and Arizona State could meet in the Pac-12 championship game. In the absence of playoff contender vs. playoff contender matchups, the final seeding will be shaped primarily by which teams can handle the pressure and beat the teams they're supposed to in the regular season’s final weeks. For almost every team in the playoff hunt, one mistake would crush its chances, a lesson Auburn learned painfully against Texas A&M.
After the drama of Week 11, the playoff picture looks very different than it did a week ago, with several new squads aiming to break through the pack of one-loss teams for a top-four spot. Here’s a look at the cases for and against each of the top teams in playoff contention, ordered by the teams’ likelihood of appearing in the top four when the selection committee releases its third rankings Tuesday evening.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (9-0)
Strength of schedule: 20
Best wins: vs. Auburn, at LSU
Case For: Mississippi State’s case remains relatively the same after the Bulldogs’ blowout win over Tennessee-Martin. However, after Mississippi State’s closer-than-expected victories over Kentucky and Arkansas in the two weeks before, it was reassuring to see the Bulldogs win comfortably, even if it was against a clearly outclassed opponent.
Case Against: Mississippi State’s body of work took a hit this week as both of its marquee wins suffered losses. The Bulldogs’ win over Auburn carried a lot of weight before the Tigers fumbled away the game against Texas A&M. At least Mississippi State’s win over the Aggies now looks slightly more valuable. None of this matters for now, but it could get renewed attention if the Bulldogs fall to Alabama or Ole Miss.
Consensus: In. The Bulldogs’ playoff path is pretty simple: If they keep winning, they’ll be the No. 1 seed.
Florida State Seminoles (9-0)
Case For: The Seminoles continue to pile on the wins to keep the pressure on Mississippi State. Although Florida State is no longer the only team to beat Notre Dame, its win over Clemson looks better and better as the Tigers down the rest of the ACC.
Case Against: While some thought Florida State deserved to leapfrog Mississippi State last week after the Seminoles raced past Louisville, the playoff committee disagreed. Committee chair Jeff Long said last week’s vote wasn’t that close between the two, so don’t expect Florida State to jump to No. 1 without a Mississippi State loss. The committee’s assessment also indicates the Seminoles could be on the outside looking in if they lose.
Consensus: In. Barring a loss, Florida State will be no worse than the No. 2 seed. With tough games ahead for Mississippi State, the Seminoles could finish the season with the top seed.
Oregon Ducks (9-1)
Case For: With Auburn’s loss, Oregon now attains the title of top one-loss team. Although the overall quality of the Ducks’ schedule may not be as robust as Alabama’s or TCU’s, no one-loss team has a better collection of quality wins. Even with Michigan State’s loss to Ohio State, the Ducks’ victory over the Spartans is still one of the best nonconference results. Oregon’s easy win at UCLA looks strong as the Bruins begin to show some of the qualities that made them a preseason playoff contender. The Ducks added a third quality win Saturday, beating Utah in Salt Lake City. Although much of the focus of that game has been on Kaelin Clay’s imprudent fumble, Marcus Mariota and the Ducks’ offensive looked ruthlessly efficient against a stout Utes defense.
Case Against: That home loss to Arizona will continue to haunt Oregon, as it’s one of the worst defeats among the one-loss playoff contenders. However, there’s no reason to knock the Ducks any more for their setback this week than last week. The committee has seemed to cut Oregon some slack because the loss came amid a rash of injuries to the Ducks’ offensive line.
Consensus: In. Oregon’s only real challenge remaining is the Pac-12 title game. A win there, and the Ducks will be playoff-bound.
Alabama Crimson Tide (8-1)
Strength of schedule: 1
Best wins: at LSU
Losses: at Ole Miss
Case for: Alabama’s strength of schedule is unmatched, so it, more than anyone else, should be afforded one slip-up. The Crimson Tide also addressed their lack of a quality win by beating No. 16 LSU in Death Valley on Saturday. Fans may wonder how Alabama’s strength of schedule can be so high when it only has one marquee win. The Tide have knocked off a bounty of decent albeit not sensational opponents like West Virginia, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
Case against: Long explained last week that part of the reason Alabama was ranked ahead of TCU was that when examining the film, the playoff committee believed the Tide to be the better team. Fans might think the committee would reevaluate its eye test-based assessment after Alabama pulled out a grueling 20-13 overtime win over the Tigers while the Horned Frogs exploded for a 41-20 pasting of No. 7 Kansas State. But perhaps not. As SI.com's Andy Staples pointed out, most of the committee members grew up on the smashmouth style of football the Crimson Tide play. There’s no guarantee TCU’s up-tempo dynamism will curry favor with the committee, even if television audiences might prefer it.
Consensus: In. For the first time this season, Alabama will enter the playoff committee’s top four. It’ll need wins over Mississippi State and Auburn to stay there, though.
TCU Horned Frogs (8-1)
Case for: The Horned Frogs picked up their biggest win of the season with a dominant showing against Kansas State. With both teams facing a most-win situation to keep their playoff hopes alive, TCU proved its superiority on Saturday. The Horned Frogs have now faced all the toughest challenges the Big 12 has to offer and escaped with only loss. Only Kansas, Texas and Iowa State stand between TCU and an 11-1 record. The Horned Frogs’ 30-7 nonconference win over Minnesota also gives them a significant scheduling edge over Baylor.
Case against: Head-to-head results are supposed to matter, so how can TCU be ranked ahead of a Baylor team that beat the Horned Frogs? Well, not all head-to-head results hold the same significance. The Bears’ impressive 21-point fourth quarter comeback gave them a three-point win at home. Is that really indicative that Baylor is better or would beat TCU on a neutral field? So far, the committee has said no.
Consensus: Out -- for now. TCU’s simple remaining schedule gives it the easiest path to finishing the season with one loss. The odds are high that at least one team ahead of the Horned Frogs will drop a game against its tougher remaining slate, so if TCU can win out, it will likely make the playoff.
Baylor Bears (8-1)
Strength of schedule: 9
Best wins: vs. TCU, at Oklahoma
Losses: at West Virginia
Case for: Although Oregon may have the best set of quality wins among the one-loss teams, Baylor’s victory over TCU is the best individual win. The Bears added to their resume this week with a surprisingly easy 48-14 win over Oklahoma, which is why they should shoot up the playoff committee’s rankings from their No. 12 spot. If it comes to mano-a-mano campaigning against TCU, Baylor can now favorably compare its 34-point win over the Sooners in Norman to the Horned Frogs’ tight 37-34 win at home.
Case against: The Bears’ 14-point defeat to West Virginia really stings, especially after the Mountaineers lost their fourth game of the season, falling 33-16 to Texas on Saturday. Any comparison of "quality losses" among one-loss teams won't favor Baylor. Plus their weak nonconference schedule means the Bears can’t catch TCU or Alabama in overall strength of schedule.
Consensus: Out. That West Virginia loss is too much to overcome for now. If Baylor wins out, including a victory over Kansas State in Week 15, it could present the committee with a very interesting task of sorting between the 11-1 Bears and Horned Frogs.
Arizona State Sun Devils (8-1)
Strength of schedule: 21
Best wins: vs. Notre Dame, vs. Utah
Losses: vs. UCLA
Case for: Arizona State survived its playoff elimination game with Notre Dame, taking advantage of five Everett Golson turnovers to beat the Fighting Irish 55-31. Now the Sun Devils are rewarded with a clear path to the playoff. If they can win out, including beating Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, they can likely play their way into the top four. The Notre Dame victory gives Arizona State a nice pair of quality wins to go with its overtime defeat of Utah. The Sun Devils’ loss to UCLA, though ugly -- 62-27 – at least doesn’t look quite as bad now that UCLA has won its last four. Arizona State can also point out that starting quarter Taylor Kelly was out against the Bruins.
Case against: Compared to the other one-loss teams, Arizona State’s resume looks pretty pedestrian for now. Its strength of schedule is the second-worst; its wins, while respectable, aren’t as strong as Oregon’s, Baylor’s or TCU’s; and its loss isn’t as understandable as TCU’s or Alabama’s. Basically every team except for Ohio State can point to one factor why it’s more deserving of a playoff spot that the Sun Devils.
Consensus: Out. Arizona State’s case right now isn’t that convincing, but second only to Alabama, the Sun Devils have the best chance to play their way into better playoff position. Arizona State travels to Arizona in Week 15 and could face Oregon the week after. The opportunity for upward mobility is definitely there.
Ohio State Buckeyes (8-1)
Strength of schedule: 30
Best wins: at Michigan State
Losses: vs. Virginia Tech
Case for: The Buckeyes looked lost after falling to Virginia Tech in Week 2. J.T. Barrett appeared to be a poor fill-in for Braxton Miller, and a season that began with hopes of a Big Ten title and a playoff bid seemed over before conference play. However, now those goals may be well within reach. Ohio State has rattled off seven wins, including its biggest victory of the season -- a 49-37 win over Michigan State -- on Saturday. The Buckeyes are the favorites to win the Big Ten and by season’s end could present the committee with an 11-game winning streak. That loss to the Hokies with a backup quarterback suddenly thrust into the starting role and making his second start may seem like a full season ago.
Case against: The old logic of the BCS era was that it was better to lose early. Surely the new system should be better than that. Virginia Tech will have to fight to get to bowl eligibility, making the Buckeyes’ defeat the worst of the one-loss teams. While Barrett was making just his second start, the players -- including the quarterback -- were the same ones then as now. Ohio State wasn’t the only team breaking in a new quarterback this season. And while the Buckeyes may be riding a lengthy winning streak, which opponent other than Michigan State was truly talented in the streak? Beating Michigan State can only fill up so much room on a resume.
Consensus: Out. Ohio State will need a lot of help to make the playoff. There’s a reason the Big Ten really wanted Michigan State to beat the Buckeyes. Even if Ohio State wins out, there’s no guarantee a two-loss Alabama, Mississippi State or Auburn wouldn’t leapfrog the Buckeyes.
The Road Ahead
No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 5 Alabama, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
In a week without many marquee matchups, all eyes will be on Tuscaloosa. An Alabama loss would likely end the Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes and ensure the SEC would get no more than one team in the playoff. The more interesting scenario is if Mississippi State loses. The Bulldogs would likely be right on the bubble for the playoff in that case.
No. 2 Florida State at Miami, Saturday at 8 p.m.
The Seminoles have proved they don’t need Jameis Winston to be perfect for their record to be, but they may need him to be better than he has been recently to get past Miami. Winston has thrown six interceptions in his past three games. After losing three times in their first six games, the Hurricanes have looked much improved in wins over Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Florida State is only favored by 2.5 points, so Vegas seems to expect this to be the stiffest regular season test remaining for the ‘Noles.
Strength of schedule rankings come from TeamRankings.com's schedule analysis.