For this week’s College Football Playoff rankings review, let’s take a closer look at the status of each major conference and how things could shake out.
ACC: The Clemson Tigers come in at No. 4 in this week’s rankings, and they still hold the lead in the ACC Atlantic Division. The loss to Pittsburgh hurts, but the Tigers still control their destiny. They play at Wake Forest this week followed by a home game against in-state rival South Carolina. If they win both of these games, a struggling Virginia Tech team looks to be the likely opponent in the ACC title game. The path looks pretty good for the Tigers as of now.
On the other hand, things are complicated for the Louisville Cardinals. While their lone loss of the season came at Clemson 42-36, the Cardinals have a resume short on quality wins. They did blow out a good Florida State team in September, but they struggled in wins over Duke and Virginia. They must beat Houston and Kentucky comfortably in their final two games and then hope that a top team from another conference stumbles down the stretch.
Big 12: There are technically three teams remaining from the Big 12 in the playoff hunt, but that number could be down to one after this upcoming weekend. Oklahoma travels to West Virginia in a game where the loser will be completely eliminated from contention in both the Big 12 and College Football Playoff races. Oklahoma is a slight favorite, and a win at West Virginia would add a marquee win to their schedule. The committee should look highly on the Sooners for playing two non-conference games against Houston and Ohio State.
West Virginia is 14th in the current rankings. The problem for the Mountaineers is that they have no strong wins on their schedule. A win over Oklahoma would be their first and their last. They could finish 11-1, win the Big 12 championship, and still miss out on the playoff. West Virginia’s best hope, like Louisville, is that turmoil occurs in other conferences.
Oklahoma State is still in the mix as well. At 8-2 overall, if the Cowboys win their last two games at TCU and at Oklahoma, then they win the Big 12. They are not favored in either of these games, so it would take a miracle to get to 10-2. Even then, their two losses don’t look very good. The Central Michigan loss was controversial, but it is still a loss. The loss to Baylor wasn’t too painful at the time but the Bears have since fallen apart.
Big Ten: Ohio State is currently the highest ranked team in the Big Ten at No. 2. The Buckeyes have high quality wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Nebraska and are slight favorites over Michigan in the final week of the regular season. The chances are favorable that the Buckeyes finish 11-1 with a 7-1 record in conference play. The problem is that the lone loss came to Penn State. The Nittany Lions, if they win out, would also finish 7-1 in conference play and would represent the Big Ten East in the conference title game. Even without a berth in the conference championship, Ohio State should get in the College Football Playoff.
Michigan was shocked in a loss at Iowa last week, but it should still feel reasonably good about getting into the College Football Playoff. Winning at Ohio State won’t be easy, but the Wolverines know that a win in Columbus combined with a win in the Big Ten title game will secure their spot in the playoff. They have no room for error though. One more loss and the Wolverines will be eliminated.
Penn State is one team that the nation is following very closely. They currently sit at No. 8 in the rankings, and there is a path for them to win a conference championship and move into the top four. If they win out, and if Ohio State beats Michigan, then Penn State wins the Big Ten East. The Nittany Lions absolutely need that 13th game to have a chance to get to the playoff. If Michigan beats Ohio State, then Penn State is denied the divisional crown by losing the tie break to Michigan. That would effectively end any playoff hopes right there.
Wisconsin is sitting pretty in the Big Ten West. While the Badgers do have losses to Ohio State and Michigan, they also have key wins against LSU and Nebraska. The sit at No. 7 in this week’s rankings, and their final two games are very winnable against Purdue and Minnesota. If the Badgers win out, they will advance to the Big Ten title game. A win in this game all but assures them of getting into the top four.
Pac 12: Washington was beaten by a hot USC team last week, and that loss could potentially end any chance of a playoff bid. While the Huskies only have one loss, they have played a very easy schedule with non-conference games against Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State. They do have an opportunity for a quality win in their rivalry game against Washington State and also a potential Pac 12 title game against Colorado, Utah or a rematch against USC. A 12-1 record would give the committee a lot to think about, but strength of schedule may be the downfall for Washington.
Washington State has basically no chance to make the College Football Playoff, but it could play spoiler for multiple teams in the Pac 12. Losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State in the first two weeks of the season will be impossible to overcome, but they are 7-0 in the Pac 12 North. They play at Colorado this week, and a win would eliminate the Buffaloes. A win over Washington in the final week of the season would both eliminate the Huskies from playoff contention and also propel the Cougars into the Pac 12 title game. A win in the title game could get Washington State into the Rose Bowl, but the playoff is too far out of reach.
Colorado is No. 10 in this week’s rankings. The Buffaloes have had an amazing turnaround, but their schedule thus far is void of quality wins. They do, however, finish with home games against Washington State and Utah. Wins in these two games would get them into the Pac 12 title game. A win in the title game would bring them to 11-2. Once again, there would have to be chaos in other conferences, but jumping from No. 10 to the top four in three weeks is not out of the question.
Utah holds a very slim hope with two losses and a No. 12 ranking. The Utes play at Colorado in the final week of the season, but they are not favored to win this game. Winning out would get them in the Pac 12 title game, but their strength of schedule may hold them back even if they win a Pac 12 championship.
SEC: Alabama has been so dominant this season that even a loss in the Iron Bowl or the SEC title game wouldn’t be enough to eliminate them from the playoff. The only way they don’t get in at this point is if they somehow lose two of their final three games. This just won’t happen. Go ahead and pencil the Crimson Tide into the final four.
Florida is ranked No. 23 this week. No one is talking about them as having any chance of a playoff bid, but they could provide some drama down the stretch. They sit at 7-2 with games at LSU and at Florida State looming. A win against LSU would help them clinch the SEC East. The Gators have almost no hope in the SEC title game against Alabama.
Western Michigan: Last but not least is Western Michigan out of the MAC. The Broncos are putting together the best season in program history, but it probably won’t be enough to make the playoff. They are undefeated, but their schedule is too weak to include them in the playoff even with a conference championship. It would take an absolute miracle to jump from No. 21 to the top four. Their only hope is that every team discussed in this list above loses out.
So there is the playoff picture with just three weeks remaining before the final rankings come out and the top four teams are selected for the playoff. It should be exciting, and the suspense will only grow from here.
By Ben Billman
Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.