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Forde-Yard Dash: Eight Teams, Four Spots. Who Will Make the Playoff?

With less than two weeks until the bracket is revealed, five control their own destiny and three more will need help.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (tearaway coaching jerseys sold separately at Dixie State):

MORE DASH: SEC Dysfunction | Rivalry Week | Sunshine State Woes

SECOND QUARTER: THE EIGHT TEAMS THAT CAN STILL WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Oregon has hit the trail, taking the rest of the Pac-12 with it and raising the question—can a league still be in the Power 5 if it goes five straight years without making the College Football Playoff? Michigan State was thrown out of the club by Ohio State and landed face-first in the street. The Atlantic Coast Conference is long gone. All that remains is an octet of teams that still harbor dreams of being in the bracket on Selection Sunday.

Five control their own destiny:

Georgia (11). Current standing: No. 1 and undefeated, with dismal Georgia Tech (3–8) the only thing standing between the Bulldogs and locking up a bid. If they beat the Yellow Jackets on Saturday to get to 12–0, they can lose the Southeastern Conference championship game to Alabama and still make the playoff. The coast is pretty clear.

Best wins: over Clemson on a neutral field by seven points, Arkansas by 37, at Tennessee by 24.

Dash prediction: Georgia will be in at 13–0 and the No. 1 seed.

MORE: Oregon’s Loss Opens Up Playoff Chaos Scenarios

Alabama (12). Current standing: No. 2 with the playoff committee last week at 9–1, but another struggle against a lower-echelon SEC team should loosen the Crimson Tide’s grip on that spot. Can the selection committee get past being star-struck and move them down? Arkansas, LSU and Florida have a combined league record of 7–15, and all of them played Alabama to within one score.

Nevertheless, if Alabama wins the Iron Bowl Saturday on The Plains (where it has lost its last two visits and three of the last four), it will meet Georgia in Atlanta with the chance to lock up a bid. Win and it’s in, for the seventh time in eight playoffs. And Bama has won six straight against Georgia.

There also are scenarios where a competitive loss to the Dogs makes the Tide the first two-loss playoff team. For that to happen, Alabama might need one or more of the following to occur: the Big 12 beating itself up over the next two weeks, leaving all top teams with at least two losses; a Cincinnati loss; a shellacking in the Ohio State–Michigan game that eliminates the loser; an upset by the Big Ten West winner in that league title game; Stanford stunning Notre Dame.

Best wins: Mississippi by 21 points, at Mississippi State by 40.

Loss: at Texas A&M by three.

Dash prediction: Alabama will finish 11–2 and be left out.

The eight teams still competing for a College Football Playoff spot

Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are the eight teams who can still dream of a playoff spot.

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Ohio State (13). Current standing: No. 4 in the playoff rankings last week, but the Buckeyes (10–1) will certainly move up one spot and possibly two after obliterating Michigan State. There will not be anything remotely controversial about Ohio State making the playoff if it wins out against Michigan in Ann Arbor and wins the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis (most likely against Wisconsin).

A close loss to the Wolverines could still leave Ohio State in contention at 10–2, although it might need even more help than two-loss Alabama would. If Georgia goes in at 13–0 and Michigan is in at 12–1, the Buckeyes would be hoping for a Cincinnati upset loss, Big 12 carnage, and/or a Notre Dame upset loss in Palo Alto. That, and they might have to win a two-loss résumé contest with Alabama.

Best wins: Michigan State by 49 points, Penn State by nine, Purdue by 28, at Minnesota by 14.

Loss: at home to Oregon by seven.

Dash prediction: Ohio State rolls through the last two games and enters the playoff as the No. 2 seed at 12–1.

Michigan (14). Current standing: The Wolverines (10–1) were No. 6 last week and will move up at least one spot after Oregon is removed from the upper echelon. They also had No. 7 Michigan State removed from the equation. Now all Michigan has to do is beat Ohio State for the first time in 10 years on Saturday, then follow that up with a Big Ten championship game victory.

If the Wolverines had been able to hold that 16-point lead at Michigan State, they’d be No. 2 and all but in the playoff at this point. But that’s football. As it stands, they still could be an entry in the two-loss sweepstakes if they’re competitive against Ohio State and other playoff aspirants collectively stumble in the final two games (see above scenarios).

Best wins: at Wisconsin by 21 points, at Penn State by four

Loss: at Michigan State by four.

Dash prediction: Michigan finishes 10–2 and misses the playoff.

Cincinnati (15). Current standing: Putting the Bearcats on the Control Their Own Destiny List assumes that the committee won’t cook up some extra special sorcery to keep them out—which is an admittedly dangerous assumption. But at 11–0, with a No. 5 ranking and Oregon being blown out to open the path, Tuesday night should mark the first time in playoff history that a Group of 5 team is ranked in the top four.

Unless the committee can find another trap door, all the Bearcats need to do is win at East Carolina on Saturday and beat Houston at home in the American Athletic Conference championship game. But it says here that both those games will be close, so prepare for the inevitable Bearcats bashing as those play out. East Carolina has won four straight to reach 7–4, with two of its losses in the final minute of regulation and one in overtime. Houston is on a 10-game winning streak after losing its opener.

If Cincinnati loses one of the two it will probably be doomed, but consider this scenario: Georgia is 13–0, Ohio State is 12–1, and everyone else except Notre Dame has two losses. You couldn’t put the Fighting Irish in ahead of the Bearcats, right? Would both make the field?

Best wins: at Notre Dame by 11, over SMU by 34.

Dash prediction: Cincinnati removes (most of) the doubt by winning out.

The three teams that need some help:

Notre Dame (16). Current standing: The Fighting Irish (10–1) were eighth last week and are positioned for a two-spot improvement, unless they are leapfrogged by Oklahoma State. As coach Brian Kelly prophesied early in the season in assessing his young team, Notre Dame has played very well in November, outscoring opponents 117–9. The decision by Kelly to hire Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator—and for Freeman to turn down LSU—has played out perfectly.

The only remaining game is at Stanford, which has collapsed, so reaching the clubhouse 11–1 seems a near-certainty. (Though Oregon can tell a cautionary tale about the potential for mayhem in Palo Alto.) Then we get to listen to the endless argument loop about “13th data points” and “conference championships” that come with every Notre Dame playoff discussion. In truth, being a loaner to the ACC last year helped the Irish get in the playoff and being in that conference this year could have done the trick as well.

But even if Notre Dame is theoretically roadblocked behind 13–0 Georgia, 12–1 Ohio State and Cincinnati at either 13–0 or 12–1, it still could have a path to be the fourth team. It would be a fascinating debate between the Irish, 12–1 Oklahoma State, 12–1 Oklahoma, 11–2 Alabama and/or 10–2 Michigan. The question then would be whether Notre Dame’s history of being walloped in past playoff appearances would work against it.

Best wins: over Wisconsin by 28 on a neutral field, Purdue by 14.

Loss: at home to Cincinnati by 11. Arguably the best loss of anyone in contention, although it was in South Bend and rather convincing.

Dash prediction: Notre Dame at 11–1 wins a close and contentious résumé contest for the fourth spot. More to come on that.

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Oklahoma State (17). Current standing: The Cowboys (10–1) should move up two spots from No. 9 last week, possibly three if they surpass Notre Dame. They now hit a crucial two-game stretch that could make them the big, late-season mover of the year.

Oklahoma State hosts Oklahoma on Saturday and is a 3 1/2–point favorite and seemingly has the defense to thwart the weakest of Lincoln Riley’s offenses to date in Norman. But this is a series rife with heartache for the Pokes; the Sooners have won six straight and 16 of the last 18, beating Mike Gundy with regularity.

If Oklahoma State wins, it would advance to a rematch with Baylor in the Big 12 championship game, provided the Bears beat Texas Tech on Saturday. If the Cowboys lose they could still win the conference championship but would be out of the national title picture. Beyond rooting for their own team, Pokes fans should be pulling for Georgia, Ohio State, Stanford and all Cincinnati opponents from here on out.

Best wins: over Baylor by 10, Kansas State by 11, Boise State by one.

Loss: at Iowa State by three.

Dash prediction: Oklahoma State reaches 12–1 and is shut out. If you thought Cowboys administrators, coaches and fans were mad at the NCAA for upholding their postseason men’s basketball ban, wait until they react to this.

Oklahoma (18). Current standing: The Sooners are 10–1 after adding to their oeuvre of unimpressive victories by holding off Iowa State, 28–21. They plummeted to No. 13 in the CFP rankings last week after being beaten handily by Baylor, and their upward mobility (or lack thereof) will be of great interest Tuesday night. Do they remain behind two-loss Baylor and Mississippi?

Oklahoma still has the possibility of two more wins that could shoot it up the rankings—just beat Oklahoma State twice in a row. If that happens to get to 12–1, we’ll see whether it adds enough meat to a bony playoff résumé. The committee hasn’t liked the Sooners very much up until now, with good reason.

Best win: at Kansas State by six.

Loss: at Baylor by 13.

Dash prediction: Oklahoma loses in Stillwater on Saturday and removes itself from the race.

NOW, THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Climb up on a grassy knoll with The Dash to ponder a couple of scenarios down the stretch. Selection committee members are expected to uphold neutrality, a central theme of their guiding principles. They probably do that admirably, although it’s impossible to know for sure since the voting and deliberations are secretive.

But if things get weird in a couple of specific areas down the stretch, here are your tinfoil-hat considerations:

The Notre Dame ties on the committee (19). Eleven of the 13 committee members have a public recusal from voting on one school. Rod West, a former Notre Dame player and current member of the school’s board of trustees, is recused from voting on the Irish. But two others with ties to the school are not recused: North Carolina State athletic director Boo Corrigan, who went to school at Notre Dame and later worked there as an assistant AD, and whose father was the school’s AD in the 1980s; and Tyrone Willingham, who was the football coach there from 2002–04 before being fired.

Corrigan is in his first year on the committee. After previously serving from 2014 to ’17, Willingham was reappointed in the summer to fill a spot vacated by R.C. Slocum. Does either man have especially strong feelings for Notre Dame, positively or negatively?

The realignment dynamic (20). Would 12–1 Oklahoma face any antipathy from, say, selection committee member and Kansas State AD Gene Taylor for leaving the Big 12 in the lurch? Similarly, would 12–1 Oklahoma State be championed with greater gusto as a needed boost for a conference facing the loss of both the Sooners and Texas? Or could incoming Big 12 school Cincinnati receive similar consideration?

If the powers that be choose to mess with the dynamics of the sport as fundamentally as they have with the latest realignment spasm, they have to live with speculation about how that might affect decisions made behind closed doors in a Texas boardroom.

MORE DASH: SEC Dysfunction | Rivalry Week | Sunshine State Woes

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