Playing At Playoff Scenarios
By Simon Carroll
With the end of the college football season in sight, Simon Carroll looks at some scenarios – probable or improbable – for how the playoffs could shake out:
The College Football Playoff Committee will publish their third set of rankings tomorrow evening. As a man of the working class, a champion of the underdog, I haven’t been shy in previous years in showing my disdain for the committee’s penchant for manipulating the rankings to justify their narratives. Whilst we have seen some similar shady tactics in 2021 – the backloading of Big Ten teams at the bottom of the rankings to boost the resumes of their conference neighbours further up for example – this weekend’s results somewhat validates the teams currently sitting in the top four.
But there’s still plenty of football to be played, and with any luck we will see some twists and turns unfold before all is said and done. With that in mind, what are the different scripts that are yet to be written? And just like those that end up in Hollywood, just how realistic – or otherwise – are they?
1: The Status Quo Prevails
Did you know that in the seven seasons that the College Football Playoffs have existed, Alabama have been invited to the dance six times? Ohio State have four appearances, whilst Georgia and Oregon have made it once each. The current top four in the CFP rankings are amongst the biggest programs in college football, with each of them landing in the top twenty richest schools; Oregon being the poorest with a meagre $72.1m in revenue following the 2019 season.
It’s hard to argue with the current rankings, despite the committee’s penchant for finding any excuse to keep smaller programs out of the playoffs – they do have money to make themselves after all. Georgia are clearly the best team in college football this season. Alabama, despite the loss to Texas A&M, are as intimidating as ever. Ohio State are in as good a run of form as any team out there, and Oregon were the ones who gave the Buckeyes their one defeat.
If The Ducks and Buckeyes win out and take the PAC-12 and Big Ten respectively, they’re in; Ohio State will have knocked off both Michigan schools and maybe a ranked Wisconsin, whilst Oregon will have just one loss and still have that win in Columbus in their back pocket. Georgia are already in the SEC Championship Game, and even if they lose it they’ll still be ranked in the top four. That just leaves Alabama…
Maybe The Tide can afford another loss, maybe not – it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Regardless, if they go unbeaten the rest of the way in the SEC, they book their ticket. A defeat to Georgia in the title game however, leaves things a little more uncertain…
2: The Case For Cincinnati
The Committee have made it very clear what they think of The Bearcats. Whilst not disrespectful of their undefeated record, being ranked fifth – behind three teams with a loss – is indicative that strength of schedule will be as critical a factor as a program’s record or the classic unquantifiable ‘eye test’.
There’s nothing left on Cincy’s schedule to change that perception, and as a result they’ll need help from elsewhere. As alluded to, a second loss for Alabama would at least make the committee have a conversation about dropping them out of the top four in favour of The Bearcats. They won’t want to, but if they don’t, what really is the point of Group of Five teams even trying?
Ohio State losing another game would put their own position in peril, but that’s not necessarily good news for Cincinnati; if they are defeated by Michigan or Michigan State who then win out, then the Wolverines or Spartans will expect to replace them in the top four. And they’d have a reasonable case – both have just one loss and would have some big wins on their resume.
Another Oregon loss will definitely see them fall out of the top four. The Ducks have had a great season, particularly that statement win over Ohio State. But the PAC-12 hasn’t given them a robust schedule to hang their hat on, and they have a very poor loss to Stanford that will be further analysed should they be beat again. They play Utah next week and likely again in the Championship Game, with a tricky game against Oregon State inbetween. This team has a bad day in them, and offer Cincinnati the best shot of an unprecedented place in the College Football Playoffs.
3: The Battle In The Big Ten
Ohio State are the gold standard of the Big Ten, and have been for some time. But that isn’t to say they are infallible; Ryan Day’s team have that loss to Oregon on their resume, and have a rather tough end to their conference schedule. A defeat to either Michigan or Michigan State puts their spot in the Big Ten title game in serious jeopardy, and with two losses will see them drop out of the playoff spots.
As mentioned earlier, they will likely be replaced by the Spartans or Wolverines should the team that defeats them go unbeaten the rest of the way; Mel Tucker already has the win over Jim Harbaugh as collateral, and adding the Buckeyes’ scalp will be too impressive to keep out. But should they lose, and Michigan beat Ohio State in the Big House the following Saturday, then things get complicated; you’ll have three teams in the East, all potentially with an 8-1 record, and one win and one loss against each other. Time to break out the tiebreakers…
So Michigan’s route to the title game might be a little trickier than the other two’s, but if they get there they’ll feel good about their chances for a playoff spot. That’s if they win of course – let’s not forget that the winner of the West will have a big part to play in the destiny of these playoff challengers. Likely Wisconsin or Iowa, the Badgers beat the Hawkeyes earlier this year and as such hold the inside track. Currently ranked 18th by the committee, a three-loss Wisconsin likely is too far removed to make a case for themselves, but they can certainly act as spoiler should they upset the odds and lift the Stagg Championship Trophy.
4: Any Breadcrumbs For The Big 12?
Even before Oklahoma’s loss on Saturday, the committee were far from sold on the Sooners in 2021. An undefeated record failed to disguise some fortunate wins and sloppy performances, against mediocre teams, and they were ranked eighth in the last two polls. Being beaten by Baylor likely puts the final nail in their coffin, but is there an opportunity for another team to stake a claim?
The Bears pretty much ceded any opportunity the week before this win when they lost to TCU. But the OTHER team that beat Baylor could still have a shot… Long considered the noisy neighbours of the Sooners, Oklahoma State have been a consistent menace to the big boys in the Big 12 since Mike Gundy has been at the helm. The Cowboys’ only blemish on their record this year is a close loss to Iowa State, an inconsistent team that can cause issues to anyone on their day.
The committee showed the respect with which they hold The Pokes by ranking them 10th last week. They have three wins over ranked opponents so far – including an impressive 24-14 victory over Baylor in early October – and will likely have two more if they go undefeated; they play their rivals Oklahoma in the Bedlam Game to round out the regular season, and will then be in the title game against them or Baylor.
Would a 12-1 Oklahoma State have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs? If things fall their way they might. They would likely need Oregon and Cincinnati to lose, and Ohio State winning out and removing Michigan and Michigan State as alternatives would also be useful. IF all that happens, all Gundy and his team need to do is win out. Easy peasy right?
5: On The Outside Looking In...
The only Power 5 conference not to have a team mentioned so far is the ACC. And for good reason; the teams considered contenders prior to the season – Miami, North Carolina and Clemson – have all had underwhelming years. As seen in years past, the stock a program is held in prior to the season is a big factor in their positioning come the first round of playoff rankings, whether subconsciously or not.
Wake Forest had a big win against #16 ranked NC State on Saturday, to take their record on the year to a remarkable 9-1 for the year. Unfortunately the week before saw them lose a shootout to The Tar Heels, leaving the committee to drop them from 9 to 12 in the rankings. An undefeated final three contests against Clemson, Boston College and maybe a ranked Pitt in the championship game would probably not be impressive enough for them to sneak in. Regardless, what Dave Clawsen has achieved in Winston-Salem this season is nothing short of impressive.
And what of Notre Dame? Outside of Ohio State, The Fighting Irish have maybe the best loss of all the ranked teams after being beaten by Cincinnati. The problem is that they have just one win against ranked opponents (Wisconsin), and a cupcake end to their schedule (Georgia Tech, Stanford). They have upped their game, conceding just nine points in their last two tilts, and are ranked one spot ahead of Oklahoma State at 9. It would take an almighty amount of chaos, but all hope is not lost in South Bend of a third playoff appearance in four seasons.
We look forward to tonight’s rankings show with earnest.
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.