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The Paths Ahead for the 17 Teams Still Alive for the College Football Playoff

Alabama, Miami and Wisconsin? Win, and they'll be in. Michigan State, Mississippi State and USC? Keep winning, hope the top four falters and then they can start dreaming. This week's Punt, Pass & Pork examines every scenario for every team still in the national title picture, ranks The Avengers and spotlights a banner weekend for postgame etiquette.

One of the more hilariously stupid arguments against starting a playoff in college football was that it would devalue the regular season. This defied common sense. Having more teams capable of winning the national title would keep more fan bases deeply engaged during the season. 

Want proof? Today, we’re going to examine the case for every team that still has a chance—be it ever so remote—to make the College Football Playoff. Look at all these teams. The playoff has actually heightened the drama of the regular season, and if Saturday was any indication, the next four weeks should be wild.

Win And In

Alabama:The Crimson Tide have better depth than nearly everyone in the country, but a rash of defensive injuries will test that depth. Linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton (knee) and Mack Wilson (foot) were lost to injuries during Alabama’s 24–10 win against LSU. The Tide were already without linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis because of injuries, and it’s a credit to defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt that Alabama has managed to stay dominant on that side of the ball in spite of losing so many linebackers. (To say nothing of defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama’s best player, struggling with injuries against LSU.)

The path gets much tougher for the Tide down the stretch. Alabama faces Mississippi State (7–2) in Starkville on Saturday. On Nov. 25, Alabama faces Auburn (currently 7–2) in Jordan-Hare Stadium. If the Tide win both those games, they’ll face Georgia (currently 9–0) in the SEC title game in Atlanta. If both arrive at 12–0, this may or may not be an elimination game for the College Football Playoff. 

The good news for Alabama? Jalen Hurts has improved as a passer, and the offense can beat teams in more ways than it could during the stretch run last season. If the injuries on defense do become a problem, the offense should be capable of making up the point differential.

Georgia: The Bulldogs never seemed threatened in a 24–10 win against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks’ Jake Bentley might have offered the Georgia defense its best quarterback foe since Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush on Sept. 9. That’s good practice for Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham on Saturday. Georgia has dominated the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry of late. Only the 2010 and ’13 Auburn teams—which each won the SEC and played for the national title—have beaten Georgia since ’06. The Bulldogs have already clinched the SEC East title, but wins against Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia Tech would put them in a great position. If Notre Dame can keep winning, Georgia’s win against the Fighting Irish would act as a buoy to keep the Bulldogs above Notre Dame in the rankings. Since an 11–1 Notre Dame would have a great shot at making the playoff, a 12–1 Georgia—coming off a loss to Alabama in the SEC title game—would still have a great chance to make the playoff. A 13–0 Georgia is a lock for the playoff and probably would be the No. 1 seed playing in the Sugar Bowl.

Miami: After living dangerously for four consecutive weeks against inferior teams, the Hurricanes finally showed what they can do when the offense and the defense click in a 28–10 win against Virginia Tech. Four Power 5 leagues (everyone except the SEC) will be rooting for Miami on Saturday when Notre Dame visits Hard Rock Stadium. A Hurricanes win likely would eliminate Notre Dame from playoff consideration and would destroy Georgia’s buoy. An undefeated ACC champ would make the playoff anyway—but this would open at least one more spot and keep a one-loss ACC champ from having to sweat. Even if Miami loses to Notre Dame, it still likely will play for the ACC title. (Probably against Clemson.) That would be a great second season for coach Mark Richt, but after Saturday, the Hurricanes have every reason to expect more.

Notre Dame: As long as Georgia keeps winning, the Fighting Irish’s one-point loss to the Bulldogs won’t hurt much. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s other opponents are playing well enough to give the Irish a fantastic résumé.

Wisconsin: The Badgers may not look like the other teams on this list. They may play the easiest schedule of the teams on this list. But if Wisconsin wins out, the Badgers are in. Bank on it. (This might be a good place to drop in the fact that the Iowa team that beat Ohio State 55–24 will be at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.)

FELDMAN: Top 10 teams after Week 10 | Projecting all 39 bowl matchups

Could Need Help, But Might Not

Clemson:NC State pushed the Tigers into the fourth quarter, but Clemson pulled out a 38–31 win. Here’s a somewhat dispiriting stat from the win: According to ESPN Stats and Info, Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant was 0 for 10 on pass attempts longer than 15 yards down the field against the Wolfpack. Clemson’s offense is loaded with enough athletes to turn short passes—and handoffs—into long gains, but this could make the Tigers awfully similar to the Ohio State offense they dominated in the Fiesta Bowl last season. The downfield strike will need to be a threat come the ACC title game.

Oklahoma:Ohio State’s loss and its subsequent effect on the Big Ten’s playoff chances will help the Sooners should they emerge as a 12–1 Big 12 champ, but Oklahoma, which beat Ohio State in Columbus on Sept. 9, would prefer the Buckeyes don’t lose again. In fact, the Sooners would like the Buckeyes to go ahead and win the Big Ten, thank you very much. Meanwhile, Oklahoma is far from out of the woods even after a thrilling 62–52 Bedlam win. The Sooners now must turn around and face TCU (8–1) in what could be the first of two meetings. If Oklahoma can somehow emerge from the meat grinder that is the next four weeks at 12–1, it probably still would need a Notre Dame loss or some chaos in the ACC or SEC to earn a spot. Given what has happened in recent years in November, that’s probably not a stretch.

TCU: The Horned Frogs clamped down on an ineffective Texas offense Saturday, but they’ll get a much bigger test on Saturday in Norman. TCU limited Oklahoma State’s offense in Stillwater earlier this year by forcing turnovers and by milking clock with the ground game when it had the ball. The longer Kenny Hill and company can keep the ball out of Baker Mayfield’s hands, the better. The nightmare scenario for the Big 12 is that TCU loses this game, wins out and then beats Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. (The same would be true if Oklahoma State wound up in the title game and got revenge on either Oklahoma or TCU.) That could shut the Big 12 out of the playoff for the third time in four years.

Washington: The Pac-12 still looks like the Power 5 league most likely to miss the playoff. The Huskies are the league’s best hope, and they just so happen to hit the toughest part of their schedule in the next four weeks. They boast the nation’s top defense in yards per play allowed (3.7), and somehow opponents are still dumb enough to punt to Dante Pettis. But the offensive collapse in Washington’s loss—a 13–7 defeat at Arizona State on Oct. 14—remains troubling. The Huskies will be a road favorite on a weeknight at Stanford on Friday. That’s always dangerous. Then they face Utah and Washington State. If they win those, they’ll probably see USC in the Pac-12 title game. The Trojans beat the Huskies in Seattle last year, and from a styles-make-fights standpoint, they’re the worst matchup for Washington in the Pac-12. Still, if Washington wins out, just the usual amount of chaos should be enough to get the Huskies in the playoff.

Needs Massive Chaos

Michigan State: A 20-point loss to Notre Dame makes the Spartans a long shot, plus they’d have to win in Columbus this week. But if this season went full 2007, an 11–2 Big Ten champ with wins against Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin would have a shot at the playoff.

Mississippi State: Yes, the Bulldogs got crushed by Georgia and Auburn. But if they beat Alabama and then avenged the Georgia loss in the SEC title game, they might have a shot depending on how the other leagues shake out. Of course, they’d have to beat the Crimson Tide on Saturday. Mississippi State hasn’t done that since 2007, so don’t bet on it.

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Ohio State: The loss to Oklahoma hurts a lot, and so does the way Ohio State lost to Iowa. For Ohio State to make the playoff at 11–2, at least three other Power 5 champs would need two losses. But given the way the Buckeyes played this past weekend, they need to be much more worried about Michigan State than the big picture. (Hint: Don’t forget your best back is on the team. That plagued the Buckeyes in a loss to the Spartans in 2015, and J.K. Dobbins only got one second-half carry against Iowa on Saturday.)

Oklahoma State: If the Cowboys can survive a trip to Ames on Saturday—and there is no guarantee they will—they should be able to reach 10–2. The question is whether Oklahoma and/or TCU will incur the conference losses they need to fall behind the Cowboys so Oklahoma State can reach the Big 12 title game. The best hope is likely Oklahoma losing to TCU and West Virginia. That would grant the Cowboys a rematch with the Horned Frogs, who won 44–31 in Stillwater on Sept. 23. If they won that, they’d still need massive help from the other Power 5 leagues and the teams playing Notre Dame.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions might have had a chance to get back into the Big Ten title race had they taken care of business against Michigan State, but now they need serious help. One of the following scenarios would need to take place:

• Michigan State loses to Ohio State. The Spartans then lose to Maryland or Rutgers, and the Buckeyes then lose to Illinois and Michigan.

• Ohio State loses to Michigan State and then loses to Michigan. Then the Spartans lose to Maryland and Rutgers.

Come to think of it, there is no chance either of these scenarios takes place. Enjoy Orlando, Nittany Lions.

USC:The Trojans actually have a good shot to win the Pac-12. They can clinch the South Division by beating Colorado on Saturday. They’ll probably beat UCLA as well. Then USC would finally have a bye week. This extra week would be spent preparing for the North champ (Washington, Washington State or Stanford). USC is capable of beating all three—even though one of its losses did come to Washington State in Pullman. But the Trojans badly need Notre Dame (which beat USC 49–14) to have three losses. That means the Irish would have to drop at least two against Miami, Navy and Stanford. If that happened, USC still would need two-loss champions in the other Power 5 leagues.

Washington State: The Cougars still control their path to the Pac-12 title game, but they’ll need to win at Utah and at Washington to get there. Then they’d have to beat USC a second time. If that happened, they’d still need Notre Dame to take a second loss and two-loss champs in at least three other Power 5 leagues.

Needs To Create Massive Chaos

Auburn: The Tigers get their own category because their schedule gives them the most control of any of the two-loss teams. If they beat Georgia on Saturday, beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl and beat Georgia again in the SEC title game, they would be the SEC champs and the nation’s best two-loss team. If Notre Dame took another loss or two and two other Power 5 leagues had two-loss champs, Auburn would be a near-lock to make the playoff in this scenario. Of course, this is Auburn, where the head coach is only truly safe when holding the national title trophy as confetti falls on his head. If the Tigers lose badly to Georgia and Alabama, coach Gus Malzahn could be in trouble.

A Random Ranking

Thor: Ragnarok came out Friday to mostly glowing reviews. As the parent of elementary schoolers, I look forward to when it’s available for rent several months from now so I can rent it, fall asleep halfway through and then try to finish it the next night before the rental period expires and I have to pay again. On that note, let’s rank The Avengers who have appeared in the movies so far.

1. Iron Man
2. Thor
3. Hulk
4. Captain America
5. Black Panther
6. Vision
7. Spider-Man
8. Black Widow
9. Falcon
10. Quicksilver
11. Winter Soldier
12. Ant Man
13. War Machine
14. Scarlet Witch
15. Hawkeye

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

I understand the selection committee’s reasoning for placing Georgia No. 1. The Bulldogs have better wins than the Crimson Tide. But I still think Alabama would win if the teams played. We’ll likely get a chance to find out if I’m correct or incorrect on Dec. 2 in Atlanta.

2. Georgia

The Bulldogs haven’t seen a relatively equal collection of athletes since their win at Notre Dame on Sept. 9. They’ll see one Saturday in Auburn. So this one may come down to whether Kirby Smart and his staff can outcoach Gus Malzahn and his staff.

3. Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish rolled Saturday even without tailback Josh Adams playing in the second half. They’ll face their toughest remaining test on Saturday in Miami.

4. Miami

I needed to see Miami dominate a good team instead of eking out a win, and the Hurricanes dominated Virginia Tech on Saturday. If they can beat Notre Dame, they’ll vault even higher. But if they can’t, it might only mean Clemson returns to this spot. This one feels reserved for the ACC champ at the moment.

Big Ugly of the Week

This week’s award goes to 293-pound Miami defensive tackle R.J. McIntosh, who probably needs no further accolades after getting to wear the turnover chain following his 35-yard fumble return against Virginia Tech. 

Three and Out

1. USC kept Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate from having a fifth consecutive superhuman game in Saturday’s 49–35 Trojans win, but the best moment may have come after as USC coach Clay Helton consoled a distraught Tate.

2. In other after-the-game news, Penn State coach James Franklin chased down his own players following the loss at Michigan State to make sure they shook hands with the Spartans.

3. Army beat Air Force 21–0 on Saturday without attempting a single pass. The Black Knights already had played three games (a win against Fordham, a loss to Tulane and a win against Eastern Michigan) in which they didn’t complete a pass, but this was their first game all season without a single attempt. Behold the beauty of a box score that Army’s entire offensive line should frame.

For Your Ears

The newest edition of the Place At The Table podcast will drop on Monday, so don’t forget to subscribe and tell a friend about it.

What’s Eating Andy?

Sometimes, when a deadline looms, things get missed. But in the case of this photo, there still may be plenty of use for it.

What’s Andy Eating?

I had pastrami hash and banana pancakes at Megg’s Cafe in Temple, Texas, while reporting this SI Eats story on Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione’s road game tradition, but Castiglione may have one-upped me on Saturday. Before they headed to Stillwater for Bedlam, Castiglione and his crew hit Ozzie’s Diner in Norman. For $5.99, Ozzie’s offers all-you-can-eat eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, biscuits, grits, oatmeal, pancakes, toast, hashbrowns, home fries and gravy.

That’s right. There really is a place where Ron Swanson could sit down, say “Give me all the bacon and eggs you have” and get exactly that.