Forde-Yard Dash: Breaking Down the Current Playoff Picture

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Washington TED Talk on how to turn a punt into a nuclear meltdown sold separately):

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The first College Football Playoff rankings arrive Nov. 24. While the increasing percentage of postponed and canceled games makes it hard to know what even that will look like, much less the ones that matter on Dec. 20, the roadmap is coming into sharper focus. There are some important games this week that will add more clarity, but before we get to those let’s examine what are basically nine avenues leading to four playoff spots.

Here they are, in order of most likely to least likely playoff paths:

Southeastern Conference champion (11). Prime candidates: Alabama and Florida, both of which lead their divisions by a game and have a head-to-head victory over the second-place team. In other words, they would have to lose twice not to make the title game—and losing twice is extremely unlikely given their remaining schedules. For purposes of this exercise, let’s tab the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide as the eventual undefeated SEC champ, which would leave the Gators with two losses and likely on the outside looking in.

Atlantic Coast Conference champion (12). Prime candidates: Notre Dame and Clemson. The Fighting Irish are undefeated and the Tigers’ only loss is to Notre Dame, in double overtime, without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The other team with just one loss is Miami, which Clemson routed in early October. Clemson has the easiest route to the ACC title game, going through Florida State, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Notre Dame will play North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest. Miami will play Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina. Let’s slot in Clemson as the eventual ACC winner with both the Fighting Irish and Hurricanes finishing with one loss apiece.

Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams runs against Clemson

Big Ten champion (13). There are four remaining undefeated teams in the league—and they play each other this week. The showdown in the East: Indiana at Ohio State, with the Buckeyes favored by three touchdowns. The showdown in the West: Wisconsin at Northwestern, with the Badgers favored by a touchdown. We will have a much better idea where this stands a week from now. The presumptive champion here is Ohio State, but the conference has hardly followed script to get to this point.

The No. 2 team from the ACC (14). We’ll see how the CFP selection committee rankings look, but for now the league with two teams in the AP top four is sitting prettiest. If Notre Dame gets to Charlotte for the ACC title game undefeated and Clemson gets there with one loss, the league has its ideal scenario for two teams in the playoff—unless, of course, the Irish sweep the Tigers on the season.

The No. 2 team from the SEC (15). The best way for the SEC to get two teams in the playoff is for one-loss Florida to beat undefeated Alabama in Atlanta. If the Crimson Tide win out, the SEC’s best second option would be one-loss Texas A&M, which was blown out by Bama but defeated the Gators. The Aggies have a very manageable remaining schedule—but we don’t know how much of it they will play. Their Saturday game against Tennessee was postponed, and it’s quite possible that this week’s game against Mississippi will meet the same fate. We don’t yet know how the committee will appraise teams playing two or more fewer games than others.

Undefeated Cincinnati (16). The 7–0 Bearcats are the prime contender from the Group of Five, ranked seventh in both polls and increasingly dominant as the season progresses. They also have a couple of high-profile opportunities coming up, at UCF Saturday and at No. 25 Tulsa Dec. 4. If Cincinnati gets through the season 11–0 while other contenders are playing seven or eight games—and have a loss—the Bearcats will be able to present a compelling argument for inclusion.

Undefeated BYU (17). Among teams that have played more than two games, nobody has a higher per-game scoring margin than the Cougars at 31.4 points. And nobody has a greater yards-per-play differential than BYU at plus-3.05. But the schedule strength is nothing to brag about, and it will decrease after playing FCS North Alabama on Saturday. The Cougars have a No. 8 poll ranking, but if they aren’t in the CFP top four next week, they aren’t likely to get there without some upsets knocking out contenders listed above them here.

The No. 2 team from the Big Ten (18). Chances of a second Big Ten team go up appreciably if we get an unbeaten showdown in the league title game. But if the second team is 6–1 Wisconsin, the sample-size question comes into play again. Lacking an undefeated matchup in Indianapolis, an Indiana team that loses in the regular season to Ohio State but beats Wisconsin while going 7–1 also would have a fighting chance. There are some options.

The Pac-12 champion (19). Could 7–0 Oregon or USC earn a bid? It’s possible. They’re the only two undefeated Pac-12 teams that will even be able to play seven games, and that’s assuming they don’t lose one (or more) between now and the end of the season. (Colorado is 2–0 but already had its game this week canceled; Washington is 1–0 after its opener was called off.) Right or wrong, the smaller sample size and diminished league profile in recent seasons could both work against its champion. Lacking a team on the AP or USA Today Top 10 at the moment indicates that it will be an uphill climb.


After talking to several stakeholders in recent days, I learned there are competing ideas about the best way to finish this struggling season. Some want to push everything back and allow more time for the regular season to play out, while others believe that lengthening the timeline and going deeper into winter only invites more virus-related disruption.

“All the talk about moving dates, you think we’re going to be doing better in January?” Asked one industry source. “We’ve just got to keep moving forward with the schedule we’ve got.”

Best guess: The playoff will remain a four-team affair with semifinals on New Year’s Day.

But here’s another guess: There will be a push from some interested parties to relocate at least one of those semifinals, with the Rose Bowl (20) being the game several schools would most like to avoid. (The other semifinal is the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.) Ask the highly ranked teams whether they want to go to Pasadena, and for once the answer is no.

It would be a humbling rebuke of the Granddaddy of Them All, but the reasoning is geography: The top seven teams, and nine of the top 10, are all east of the Mississippi. With virus numbers soaring nationwide, why travel across the country to California to play a game in an empty stadium with none of the trappings of a traditional bowl?

All of these issues are tied up contractually, of course, and it’s unclear what it would take to undo those. Perhaps the rotation is altered to go with the 2021–22 semis this year, the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl.

There are other options to consider. A Clemson-Alabama semifinal would be a far more natural fit for Atlanta. (The Peach is next in the CFP semifinal rotation in 2022–23.) Notre Dame and/or Ohio State assuredly would be more comfortable going to Indianapolis.

College football is as flexible as a piece of petrified wood. This season it has learned to bend a bit, because there has been no other option. We’ll see whether that bending includes walking away from the game’s greatest and most traditional bowl showcases and locations in order to finish this troubled season.

MORE DASH: COVID Mulligans | Separation Saturday | Coach of Year