Forde-Yard Dash: Assessing Each Candidate for the Fourth Playoff Spot

Three College Football Playoff spots seem increasingly certain. But who will get the fourth? Here's where things stand ahead of Week 12.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (axes sold separately for a renewed chopping of wood in New Jersey):

MORE DASH: Everything LSU Won | Trap Games | Preseason Duds


WHO’S NO. 4?

That is now the pressing question in the sport. The first three playoff spots seem very close to cemented: the SEC champion, the Big Ten champion and a 13–0 Clemson winning the Atlantic Coast Conference. The fourth spot? That’s something else entirely. A Dash appraisal of the candidates as they stand today:

Minnesota (11). The Gophers (9-0) get the fourth spot at the moment, however slightly.

Résumé attributes to date: zero losses; a very solid victory over top-10 Penn State, in which Minnesota never trailed; it has now been 281 minutes and 24 seconds since the Gophers trailed anyone, which is nearly five complete games.

Résumé demerits: The non-conference schedule was both underwhelming and dangerous, with Minnesota needing a touchdown with 13 seconds left to beat Georgia Southern, a TD with 46 seconds left to force overtime against Fresno State, and a touchdown with 5:38 left to beat South Dakota State; Sagarin strength of schedule is 70th, lowest of anyone on this list; the Big Ten West remains softer than the Big Ten East.

What’s left: at Iowa Saturday, at Northwestern Nov. 23, home against Wisconsin Nov. 30. With a two-game lead in the Big Ten West, the Gophers will have to lose twice to be kept out of the conference championship game.

Outlook: A 12-0 Minnesota team that loses a competitive game to Ohio State would definitely still be in contention for the fourth spot, pending developments elsewhere. And an 11-1 Minnesota team that beats Ohio State would have an even better chance of getting in the field.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 12-1.

Baylor (12). The Bears (9-0) are the last undefeated team still waiting to be embraced by a skeptical public. Minnesota had its validating victory Saturday; Baylor’s opportunity is upcoming.

Résumé attributes to date: zero losses; three-score victories over a pair of 6-3 teams (Kansas State and Oklahoma State); survival instinct (a 5-0 record in one-score games).

Résumé demerits: Awful non-conference slate (Stephen F. Austin, UT-San Antonio and Rice); consecutive narrow escapes against teams with losing records (17-14 over West Virginia followed by 29-23 in triple OT vs. TCU); smallest average margin of victory for an undefeated team (16.3 points).

What’s left: Oklahoma Saturday; Texas Nov. 23; at Kansas Nov. 30. If the Bears beat Texas, they will clinch a spot in the Big 12 title game. If they lose to Texas but beat the Sooners and Jayhawks, they will clinch a spot as well.

Outlook: Baylor’s playoff candidacy is about to get real, or be exposed as counterfeit. Can a team that has scored a total of 26 points in regulation its last two games trade offensive punches with Oklahoma and Texas on successive Saturdays? Seems like a lot to ask.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 10-2.

Oregon (13). The one-loss conga line may or may not start with the Ducks (8-1), who have won eight straight games but won’t have a true plant-the-flag opportunity until the Pac-12 championship game.

Résumé attributes to date: If Alabama now owns the “best loss” of any playoff contender, Oregon’s defeat in the final 10 seconds against Auburn probably is the second-best; two road victories over six-wins teams (Washington and USC); 10 games against Power 5 opponents, with an 11th coming should the Ducks reach the Pac-12 title game; played the highest-rated FCS opponent of any team on this list (No. 87 Montana); third-best Sagarin strength of schedule of anyone on this list (30th).

Résumé demerits: Ducks haven’t beaten anyone in the Sagarin Top 15, and that won’t change prior to December; missed opportunity against Auburn could leave them behind Georgia and Alabama, if both of those teams defeat the Tigers later this month; needed a final-play field goal (at home) to beat a Washington State team that is 4-5 and last in the Pac-12 North.

What’s left: Arizona Saturday; at Arizona State Nov. 23; Oregon State Nov. 30. With a three-game lead in the division, Oregon just needs to win one of those games to clinch the North.

Outlook: All three remaining opponents are either 5-4 or 4-5, which means Oregon cannot tangibly boost its stock until potentially facing 11-1 Utah in the Pac-12 title game. The Ducks should be rooting hard for the Utes to win the rest of their games to add impact to their theoretical meeting in December.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 12-1.

Utah (14). The Utes (8-1) have risen above the huddled mass of mediocrity in their league, but haven’t yet done much to distinguish themselves as a bona fide playoff team.

Résumé attributes to date: On a five-game Pac-12 winning streak, with an average margin of victory of 25.6 points; lone loss is by seven points on the road at 6-4 USC, which isn’t terrible; showed mettle with a comeback win at 6-4 Washington, Utah’s only victory by fewer than three scores.

Résumé demerits: Utah hasn’t beaten anyone with fewer than four losses to date; it lost to a USC team that Oregon beat by 32; the Pac-12 South ranks behind all other Power 5 divisions except the two from the ACC, per Sagarin.

What’s left: A somewhat revived UCLA Saturday; at Arizona Nov. 23; Colorado Nov. 30. That’s a pretty smooth path to the divisional title and the game Utah really needs, against Oregon Dec. 6.

Outlook: Just like the Ducks, Utah should be rooting for its likely conference title opponent to win out until then. If the Utes get to 12-1 and look good doing it, they might have an argument. They should also be pulling for USC, Washington and BYU to win all remaining games.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 11-2.

Oklahoma (15). The Sooners (8-1) have screwed up a good thing the last couple games, but there are opportunities to rebuild some credibility down the stretch.

Résumé attributes to date: Prior to Oct. 26, Oklahoma had been dominant—the Sooners trailed for a total of 2:09 in their first seven games; road blowout of UCLA looking better as the Bruins improve; neutral-site win over Texas wasn’t as close as seven-point margin indicates; road loss to Kansas State (6-3) may not look awful by the time the season is over; 10 games against Power 5 opponents.

Résumé demerits: Non-conference schedule provided no rigor; giving up 48 points to Kansas State and 41 to Iowa State in consecutive games illustrates Oklahoma’s defensive issues; lucky to escape blowing a 21-point lead to the Cyclones thanks to a dropped two-point pass for the win.

What’s left: at Baylor Saturday in a large one; TCU Nov. 23; at Oklahoma State Nov. 30. If the Sooners win two out of three they are assured of a Big 12 title game berth.

Outlook: Oklahoma is just 1-1 against the other Big 12 teams with six or more wins, with Baylor and Oklahoma State still to come. If it gets down to a nitty-gritty comparison with other one-loss teams, that fortuitous escape over Iowa State could be used against the Sooners. They could use an improbable UCLA rally to win the Pac-12 South.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 11-2.

Penn State (16). Upset loss to Minnesota all but kills the Nittany Lions’ hopes of getting into the playoff without winning the Big Ten East. Now their path goes directly through Columbus.

Résumé attributes to date: Penn State (8-1) has a Sagarin SOS of 23, second-best of the teams on this list; wins over Michigan, Iowa and Pittsburgh look pretty good right now; ten Power 5 opponents, and membership in a stacked Big Ten East; average margin of victory of 25.1 is better than Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah; one-score loss to a current unbeaten, in which Penn State was in the Red Zone at the end, is not terrible.

Résumé demerits: Those wins over Michigan, Iowa and Pitt were all one-score games, and like Oklahoma, the Nittany Lions are benefactors of a dropped pass in the end zone (this one by the Wolverines); close loss to Minnesota, but Penn State never led in the game; strength of division doesn’t really count until playing Ohio State.

What’s left: Dangerous Indiana Saturday; at Ohio State Nov. 23; Rutgers Nov. 30.

Outlook: Provided the Nittany Lions beat the Hoosiers, it all comes down to the game in the Horseshoe—and it’s hard to see Penn State being able to keep pace with the Buckeyes. Lose that game and it will need widespread chaos to have a shot at back-dooring the playoff.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 10-2.

Georgia (17). Can you lose to a 4-6 team that lost to a Sun Belt opponent and still make the playoff? Seems like a stretch. But the Bulldogs have a couple of big opportunities still ahead of them.

Résumé attributes to date: Nobody vying for the fourth spot has two better victories than the Bulldogs (8-1), who beat Florida on a neutral field and Notre Dame between the hedges; six wins by 21 points or more, and an average victory margin of 23.6; 10 Power 5 opponents.

Résumé demerits: The home loss to South Carolina is probably the worst loss of anyone in playoff contention; only SEC victory over a team with more than five wins is Florida.

What’s left: at Auburn Saturday; Texas A&M Nov. 23; at Georgia Tech Nov. 30. Georgia would have to lose both remaining SEC games to not win the East.

Outlook: Beating Auburn on the road would be a major résumé enhancement, and beating A&M wouldn’t be bad, either. Still may come down to beating LSU in Atlanta, though.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 11-2.

Alabama (18). This will be the most polarizing team the rest of the way—if the Crimson Tide can win out.

Résumé attributes to date: The Tide (8-1) have beaten the snot out of eight teams, with an average winning margin of 29.1; nobody has a better loss than by five to LSU; the SEC West is still the highest-rated division in college football, per Sagarin; Tua Mulligan in play with ankle injury.

Résumé demerits: Zero quality wins, unless you’re feeling generous about Texas A&M; the loss to LSU wasn’t terrible, but Alabama never led the game and never had the ball in the second half within one score; chance for conference championship and “13th data point” all but gone; the presence of both New Mexico State and Western Carolina on the schedule.

What’s left: At Mississippi State Saturday; Western Carolina Nov. 23; at Auburn Nov. 30. Then watch the SEC championship game on TV.

Outlook: Alabama could greatly benefit from Auburn beating Georgia this weekend and ratcheting up the importance of the Iron Bowl. Tide must not only beat Auburn convincingly but probably get help elsewhere.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 11-1.

Cincinnati (19). Unlikely? Extremely. But if chaos prevails over the next four Saturdays … hey, you never know.

Résumé attributes to date: The Bearcats (8-1) have only lost to mighty Ohio State; they have a Power 5 win over UCLA in which they never trailed; they were the first AAC team since 2016 to beat Central Florida in the regular season.

Résumé demerits: That loss to Ohio State was by 42 points; beating UCLA is a win of questionable value, and the score was much closer than Oklahoma’s win over the Bruins; the AAC is a good league, but there are just two Power 5 opponents on the schedule; average winning margin of just 11.7.

What’s left: At South Florida Saturday; Temple Nov. 23; at Memphis Nov. 30. That could be followed by a rematch with Memphis in the AAC title game. If the Bearcats beat Temple they will clinch the AAC East.

Outlook: Cincy can improve its No. 64 SOS with one or more games against Memphis. If the Bearcats get to 12-1 in dominant fashion and everything collapses elsewhere, maybe they have a case. But the committee wouldn’t sign off on an Ohio State-Cincinnati rematch of a 42-0 game.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 11-2.

Auburn (20). If there is a two-loss team with a puncher’s chance, it’s the Tigers (7-2).

Résumé attributes to date: By far the highest SOS of any team on this list; neutral-site win over Oregon has aged well; only losses are on the road to top-10 opponents, Florida and LSU; have come closer to beating LSU than anyone else, losing by three after leading for significant portions of the game; five of first eight games away from home.

Résumé demerits: The committee has never selected a two-loss team; no quality wins since the first month of the season; big backlog of SEC teams currently ahead of the Tigers.

What’s left: Georgia Saturday; Samford Nov. 23; Alabama Nov. 30. A whopper finish.

Outlook: The closing stretch could give Auburn the megaboost it needs. Beating Georgia and Alabama would put Auburn ahead of both of them in the pecking order, and it would give them three big-time wins (those two plus Oregon) with no bad losses. The committee has talked a lot about strength of schedule; this would be the chance to reward it—if Auburn wins out.

Projected record on Selection Sunday: 8-4.

MORE DASH: Everything LSU Won | Trap Games | Preseason Duds