The calendars have been flipped to November. The final third of the college football season is here. As the dust settles and a clearer picture of the state of many teams emerges, it seems apt to look forward to the College Football Playoffs and who will be crowned as the national champion.
There’s a pretty clear consensus on who the number one team in the country is. As it seems to be most seasons, it is the University of Alabama’s to lose. They possess the number one ranked scoring defense in the country and the fifth best scoring offense. They have a young, dynamic quarterback and a defensive front that inspires awe in opponents, in spite of many personnel losses to the NFL in the offseason. But upon taking a closer look, it doesn’t seem all that impressive given their schedule so far. Their season opener was against then #3-ranked Florida State, a game that was billed as a potential national championship preview. Then Florida State lost quarterback Deondre Francois in that game and their season has been an absolute disaster since. Alabama’s only win over a conference opponent with a winning record was against underachieving Texas A&M, and that was a surprisingly close game. The Crimson Tide are about to hit the thick of their schedule, with a game against nationally ranked LSU this weekend and then games on the road at #21 Mississippi State and #16 Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Should they stumble even slightly, there are a number of other teams looking to take their spot in the national conversation.
Georgia is another 8-0 Southeastern Conference team, and they might just have the strength of schedule advantage over Alabama, in spite of playing in the weaker SEC East. They went on the road earlier in the season to beat a now top five ranked Notre Dame squad in an absolute nailbiter, and they beat up on Mississippi State earlier in the season. Many had doubts about the Bulldogs’ ability to succeed after the loss of quarterback Jacob Eason, the number one overall recruit in the class of 2016, to a knee injury, but Jake Fromm, another top-ranked quarterback recruit, has stood tall in his stead. And the Bulldogs have proven they have other ways to win, as Fromm only attempted seven passes in a 42-7 win over Florida, where the defense and run game shone. Auburn still stands in their way of a perfect regular season, but should the Bulldogs win out, they’ll likely be playing Alabama in the SEC Championship game, where both teams will probably make the Playoff regardless of the outcome if both are undefeated going in, but nonetheless, a game that should decide who’s number one.
Ohio State beat Penn State in possibly the best game of the season on Saturday night and vaulted themselves back into the playoff conversation. After an early season loss to Oklahoma combined with a seemingly unstoppable Penn State team, the chances of Ohio State making another appearance in the College Football Playoff seemed slim. But then J.T. Barrett demonstrated why he’s a top quarterback prospect for the NFL, going 13 for 13 in the final quarter before delivering an absolute beauty of a strike to Marcus Baugh in what proved to be the game-winning play. Now the Buckeyes have made it through the heart of the schedule and have only one game left against a nationally-ranked opponent Michigan State, before they have an opportunity to play in the Big 10 Championship game for a berth in the Playoff.
Wisconsin is another one of those few remaining undefeated teams, and also possibly one of the most overlooked ones. They play in the lowly Big 10 West and have no games against nationally-ranked opponents. They’re practically guaranteed to represent the West in the Big 10 Championship game. What they’ll be able to do there is unclear. They’ve played a fairly middling schedule in terms of difficulty, and all their wins have been uncomfortable, though not impressive. Faced with a team of the caliber of Ohio State or Alabama, it’s not clear if they’d be able to hold their own. Their only path to the playoffs is likely an undefeated regular season and a Big 10 Championship game win.
If Ohio State wins out in the regular season, Penn State is almost certainly out of the playoff. But there is still a path to the playoff for Penn State as a non-conference champion. This would have to involve them winning out, and they still have a game against nationally-ranked Michigan State on the schedule. But they lack that signature win this season, a win like Ohio State’s over Oklahoma last year that boosted them into the playoff in spite of their not even playing in the Big 10 Championship. It looks like time has run out for Nittany Lions fans.
The Big 12 is in a very interesting place at the moment. It currently has four 4-1 teams in conference play (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Iowa State), all of which are currently ranked in the top 15. Oklahoma is the only team that possesses a nonconference signature win over then #2-ranked Ohio State, but has yet to play TCU and Oklahoma State. Iowa State has taken down both TCU and Oklahoma but is only 6-2. Oklahoma State still has tough games against both Oklahoma and Iowa State. The odds of the Big 12 champion having two losses is fairly high. Overall, it seems the clearest path to the playoff is Oklahoma’s. Should quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Sooners win out, the committee would be hard-pressed to exclude them. If any of the other teams win out and win the conference championship game, there are decent odds that they will be left out, even if they are only a one-loss team. The hopes of Big 12 fans are being firmly shouldered by Oklahoma right now.
The Pacific 12 Conference is another interesting situation. There is only one loss team in the conference, the Washington Huskies. But the Huskies still have tough matchups against #18 Stanford and #25 Washington State. The Huskies are the only team that has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. But a two-loss conference champion simply will not cut it given the quality of teams this season. Should the Huskies win out, they might make the playoff, and even that is not certain given their relatively easy schedule and lack of signature non-conference wins.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has two legitimate contenders for a spot in the playoff. Miami is currently undefeated but has played one less game than most other teams because of Hurricane Irma. Clemson, the defending national champion, suffered a shocking loss to Syracuse, something the playoff committee will not look too kindly upon. Miami also has some very difficult matchups over the next two weeks, namely against Top 15 teams Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. They have a chance to impress over the next few weeks; the questions is whether they will rise to the occasion. Clemson, on the other hand, should they get past the roadblock of #20 North Carolina State, has a fairly easy finish to the season and will likely play in the ACC Championship game. Should they win out, it would be difficult to keep them out of the playoff.
The final contender is Notre Dame. Notre Dame is in a very unique situation because it is not in a conference and thus cannot play for a conference championship, something the committee values rather highly. Therefore they have scheduled some very tough matchups to pad their resume, and boy, have they risen to the occasion. They have wins over now-ranked Michigan State, USC, and NC State. They have yet to play currently-ranked Miami and Stanford. Their lone loss this season was a one point loss to Georgia. If Notre Dame wins out, they will have one of the most impressive resumes in the history of the College Football Playoff and will more or less be guaranteed to make it in.
At this point in the season, my predictions for playoff teams are Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame.