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Top 10: True Playoff Contenders Separate From the Pack in Week 12


Nov. 16, 2019 will from this point forward be known as Separation Saturday. Minnesota and Baylor took their first losses, Georgia survived a trip to Auburn to stay in the playoff hunt and Alabama, despite a horrible injury to its starting quarterback, is still in this thing.

Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium proved too much for the Gophers, and Oklahoma became the first team since at least 1937 to overcome a 21-point halftime deficit against a team that entered the game 9–0 or better, beating Baylor 34–31. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs survived a scare from Auburn, winning 21–14, and Bama QB Tua Tagovailoa’s season is done after dislocating his hip while the Tide moved to 9–1.

OK, let’s get to the Top 10, which you’ll notice is a more expanded version than previous weeks. The playoff-oriented additions hopefully give you key résumé notes for each of our ranked teams.

Before taking a gander below, you should know a few things. First off, a Quality Win is a home victory over a top 30 team or a road victory over a top 50 team (using Sagarin ratings). Strength of schedule is the Sagarin SOS rank entering this weekend. A team’s best characteristic is highlighted in the “hang your hat” item, and a team’s worst is the “forget about.”


1. LSU
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Ole Miss 58–37
Next game: Saturday vs. Arkansas
Record: 10–0
Average margin of victory: 24
Quality wins: 5
Strength of schedule: 13
Hang your hat on… holding a 20-point halftime lead at Alabama and winning 46–41.
Forget about… allowing 33 points to Vanderbilt.
They’ll make the playoff if… they win out in any form and potentially even if they drop a game. LSU has the best résumé in college football and could possibly afford a loss and still advance to the playoff at 12–1. They get Arkansas and Texas A&M at home before tangling with Georgia in the SEC championship game. The only real issue of worry is a defense that gave up 614 yards at Ole Miss.

2. Ohio State
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Rutgers 56–21
Next game: Saturday vs. Penn State
Record: 10–0
Average margin of victory: 41.7
Quality wins: 4
Strength of schedule: 34
Hang your hat on… beating the stew out of virtually everyone including Wisconsin.
Forget about… nothing. Remember all of it, because it’s all really good. There appears to be little if any chinks in the armor.
They’ll make the playoff if… they win the Big Ten. That means beating Penn State next week to advance to the championship game. Of the top three teams, OSU has the toughest stretch left, getting the Lions, Michigan and potentially Minnesota. By the end of it, the Buckeyes could have a nation-leading seven quality wins.

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3. Clemson
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat Wake Forest 52–3
Next game: Nov. 30 at South Carolina
Record: 11–0
Average margin of it: 31.3
Quality wins: 1
Strength of schedule: 71
Hang your hat on… winning 26 games in a row, even if the committee isn’t supposed to factor that in.
Forget about… that one-point win at a North Carolina team that has lost six games.
They’ll make the playoff if… they finish 13–0. There is little room for error for the Tigers because of their strength of schedule. The ACC is the weakest conference in America, a detriment to the Tigers’ chances if they are to drop a game, however unlikely. They get a bye next week before playing at South Carolina and facing a potential four-loss team in the ACC championship game.

4. Georgia
Last week: 6
Last game: Beat Auburn 21–14
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas A&M
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 21.9
Quality wins: 4
Strength of schedule: 52
Hang your hat on… three real, real good wins against Florida, Notre Dame and Auburn.
Forget about… that egg the Bulldogs laid at home against South Carolina, a 20–17 defeat.
They’ll make the playoff if… they are 12–1. That means they’d have beaten LSU in the SEC championship game, adding to their résumé a fifth quality win. This would likely mean two SEC teams, Georgia and LSU, getting into the playoff (someone check on Barry Alvarez). There would be complete and utter hysteria from those conferences again left out—the Big 12 and Pac-12—and an expanded playoff might come the next day.

5. Oregon
Last week: 7
Last game: Beat Arizona 34–6
Next game: Saturday vs. Arizona State
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 23
Quality wins: 2
Strength of schedule: 30
Hang your hat on… a nine-game winning streak and one of the better losses in the nation, 27–21 to Auburn in Arlington.
Forget about… blowing that game against Auburn, one which Oregon didn’t trail until the Tigers’ game-winner with nine seconds left.
They’ll make the playoff if… they win out, maybe. With its strength of schedule and its good loss, the Ducks are in position to advance to the playoff as the 4-seed barring two SEC teams, LSU and Georgia, advancing to the CFP. Oregon should be rooting for 1.) Alabama to look bad the rest of the way and maybe lose, 2.) LSU to run the table and 3.) Oklahoma’s defense to continue getting gashed.

6. Oklahoma
Last week: 10
Last game: Beat Baylor 34–31
Next game: Saturday vs. TCU
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 21.4
Quality wins: 4
Strength of schedule: 41
Hang your hat on… an offense that leads the nation in yards per game—by more than 30 yards.
Forget about… loss at Kansas State. The Wildcats are a good football team, and the Sooners had two critical turnovers in that one.
They’ll make the playoff if… several other teams drop games. Oklahoma needs some help, and the Sooners must not only keep winning, but also be impressive doing it. Their résumé could be stacked against a one-loss Pac-12 champion and an 11–1 Alabama, and like everybody else, they’ve got to hope two SEC teams don’t squeak into the field.

7. Alabama
Last week: 5
Last game: Beat Mississippi State 38–7
Next game: Saturday vs. Western Carolina
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 29.3
Quality wins: 3
Strength of schedule: 54
Hang your hat on… you’re Alabama and you normally get the benefit of the doubt (also that your only loss is to the No. 1 team).
Forget about… those defensive struggles. The Tide has allowed at least 28 points in three games. Gasp!
They’ll make the playoff if… the Pac-12 and Big 12 champions each have two losses. That would be a sure way into the playoff if the Tide wins its final two games. That would mean Baylor, Oklahoma, Utah and Oregon would have to each drop at least one game. Any stumble by Clemson would also help. It’s hard to see a one-loss non-conference champion leaping a one-loss Power 5 champ, especially with Tagovailoa’s absence for the rest of the season.

8. Utah
Last week: 9
Last game: Beat UCLA 49–3
Next game: Saturday at Arizona
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 23.4
Quality wins: 1
Strength of schedule: 47
Hang your hat on… that defense. The Utes are third nationally in yards per game.
Forget about… the 30–23 loss at USC. Hey, it was on a Friday night and Utah had 16 penalties!
They’ll make the playoff if… they find a way to beat Oregon in the Pac-12 championship to reach 12–1. The Utes have no margin for error, and their résumé isn’t quite as strong as Oregon’s. An 11–1 Alabama is a threat to stay above them even if they run the table, and the Big 12 champion could jump them, too. They don’t necessarily control their own destiny.

9. Minnesota
Last week: 4
Last game: Lost at Iowa 23–19
Next game: Saturday at Northwestern
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 14.8
Quality wins: 1
Strength of schedule: 70
Hang your hat on… winning the first nine games of the season.
Forget about… beating South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern by a combined 13 points.
They’ll make the playoff if… they beat Ohio State. OK, the Gophers have to do more than that, especially after the loss to Iowa, but what if they were to upset the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game? Do the 12–1 Gophers get in? It’s a question worth pondering. A win over OSU would arguably be the best victory by any team in the nation this year. There is still hope.

10. Baylor
Last week: 8
Last game: Lost to Oklahoma 34–31
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas
Record: 9–1
Average margin of victory: 14.4
Quality wins: 4
Strength of schedule: 58
Hang your hat on… those quality wins, which out-number all other teams in the top 10 aside from LSU.
Forget about… needing overtimes to beat TCU and Texas Tech and fourth-quarter field goals to beat West Virginia and Iowa State.
They’ll make the playoff if… if they go 12–1 with a Big 12 title win over OU and some other stuff happens. The Bears’ strength of schedule and their tight victories over middling or bad teams might come back to bite them. Will they leap an 11–1 Alabama or a potential one-loss Pac-12 champion? Probably not. They need other teams to take some losses.