The top four or five teams seem fairly set for now. In the only poll that matters, The TCB Poll, Oregon, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Florida State (and throw in Texas A&M as the surefire next-team-in) have solidified their positions, but seemingly by default.
For the first time in recent seasons, there seems to be a complete lack of dominance at the top of the rankings. In years past, there have always been one or two teams that went out and completely demolished their opponents week after week. If they lost, it was a confluence of causes and events that led to the upset. Fluke losses that flipped the college football landscape upside down. This season, however, there is nothing at the top. Sure, there are a few pretty good teams up there, but no one has the talent or consistency (thus far) to lock themselves in as favorites to win it all.
Oregon had a massive scare against a terrible Washington State team last week, that probably should have gotten worse had it not been for an incredibly bad missed call by the refs near the end of the game. Oklahoma might be the most consistent, but they’ve had a couple of big injuries and needed everything they could get their hands on to pull away from West Virginia. Alabama looked extremely mortal defensively against Florida, but their superior talent allowed them to pull away. And don’t get me started on how awful Florida State looked against Clemson, and only was able to pull out a victory after Clemson Clemsoned three times in the last few minutes. Texas A&M has a very nice victory over South Carolina, one that got a big boost after the Gamecocks brought down Georgia, but their last three games were against dreadful opponents.
Aside from those five teams, no other team has had an impressive enough schedule to squeeze into the conversation. Auburn has a nice win over a mediocre Arkansas team, but struggled against a mediocre Kansas State team. Baylor’s best win is over a team that needed five overtime periods to beat Stony Brook last season. And Notre Dame’s biggest victory is over a team that might be in the bottom half of a very bad B1G Conference.
That’s not to say that those three teams aren’t good, or can’t move up. In fact I think they all can. But for now, no matter how many holes the top five teams have, there’s no one with a strong enough resume to push anyone out. But they will all have very good chances to make some noise in the future.
As with 2012, Notre Dame may see themselves as the outside team looking in if they don’t get some help. But help came in 2012 and I think it will come again this year. Let’s look ahead (while reading the next few paragraphs, I will be assuming Notre Dame goes undefeated):
First, let’s get the SEC West out of the way. Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M all play each other, as well as LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Not only does that mean that only one of those teams could even possibly go undefeated, but only one of them will be able to win the conference, which we know is a major plus in the selection committee’s decision-making process. So there is a guarantee that two of the teams ahead of Notre Dame MUST lose because of conference scheduling; that bumps Notre Dame up to sixth.
There is also the possibility that all three of those teams beat each other, leaving no SEC team undefeated at the end of the season, and this could be intensified if none of them are able to even make the SEC championship game. Wouldn’t it be nice if a 9-3 LSU team faces a 10-2 Georgia team?
Oklahoma and Baylor are set up with the same issue as the SEC West schedule: head to head match-up. Only one of those two teams can be undefeated at the end of the year. That means at WORST, Notre Dame can finish fifth. I also don’t believe that either team will end up undefeated. There is just enough talent in the Big Twelve to challenge each team a couple of times on their schedule.
Now for Oregon, they might have the best chance to go undefeated out of all the teams on this list, save perhaps Florida State. They still have games against Stanford and UCLA, as well as a potentially dangerous one against Utah. That leaves a likely matchup against USC or Arizona State in the Pac 12 championship game. There are good teams here, but nothing Oregon isn’t well-equipped to handle. Then again, they do have a history of stumbling through their season.
As for the defending champion Seminoles, Notre Dame gets to take matters into their own hands. A road victory against the number one ranked team in the nation would jump Notre Dame into the top four almost without question regardless of the SEC schedule. Even if the Irish are able to pull this victory off, there is virtually no other strong opponent on FSU’s schedule. They will likely go 11-1 and add an ACC championship to their trophy case, and that should be enough to make the playoffs anyway.
Without taking Notre Dame’s results into account, there is actually a large likely-hood that the Irish will be on the fringe of a playoff birth based solely on every team’s schedule. If Notre Dame is able to defeat Florida State next month and take care of business elsewhere on their schedule, they will be an absolute LOCK to join the final four teams in January.
A one-loss Irish squad faces a much more brutal outlook. USC, Stanford, and Arizona State will not be able to push the schedule style points high enough to get in without help, and this is probably only possible if their one loss is to Florida State and no one else. FSU would remain in the top four, along with one SEC team and likely Oregon. Assuming one of the two Big 12 teams stays undefeated, they’ll get the last spot, but it could also fall to one of the SEC teams that manages to survive with only one loss.
Notre Dame would likely also fall behind other one loss teams such as Ohio State, Michigan State, Georgia or others. And don’t count out the chance of a team like BYU making an undefeated run.
When all is said and done, there is one thing clear from looking ahead: Notre Dame controls its own destiny. Win, and they’re in. If the Irish are able to go undefeated, there is zero chance they would be left out of the playoff format.