I know. Being the second-ranked football team this week would make us all feel a lot more comfortable about our chances of making the inaugural edition of the College Football Playoffs. We are one silly offensive pass interference away from “hosting” a first round playoff matchup. Now that we’re all done throwing our remotes, replacing our flat screens, and replenishing our liquor cabinets, it’s time to look at the playoff picture. The whole picture.
We don’t know what exactly the 12-person committee will use as criteria for which teams make the final cut. We don’t know if they’ll take injuries or suspensions into account. We don’t know how they’ll weigh conference championships. We don’t know if they’ll show compassion for a team that lost in the final seconds of an epic top five show down because of a controversial offensive penalty that negated a game-winning score. We don’t know anything, really.
Several committee members have noted that they watch upwards of fifty teams a week. Not just the top teams, but also the teams that the top teams play, specifically the ones that will be considered common denominators. I imagine, and this is just me, that teams that cross conference lines such as Clemson, South Carolina, or Arizona State will be major influences even if they don’t have realistic chances to make the Football Four themselves.
I broke down the top teams into three tiers. The top tier are the current “guarantees” if there are such a thing at this point. The second tier will be the teams fighting for the last one or two spots. The third tier are the teams that need some help outside of their own schedule.
- Mississippi State – The widely-considered top team in the nation has by far the best resume. They have wins against three top ten teams (at the time of kickoff) and they’ve been one of the most consistent and dominant teams in all of their wins (their only single-digit winning margin was on the road against LSU).
- Ole Miss – While they don’t have as many top wins as their magnolia state brethren, they did knock of Alabama, skyrocketing them into the top three. the rest of their wins have been just as dominant as Mississippi State, but not against quite as high of talent thus far.
- Florida State – If the Seminoles were a Friends episode, it would be called “The one that didn’t die”. This team has found ways to eke out wins when it shouldn’t have. If they do fall at some point, the voters will likely make them pay for it.
For now, these teams are in. Unfortunately for the two Mississippi teams, the Egg Bowl could be the first of potentially four straight playoff games for the winner. If both teams win out, the Egg Bowl decides the SEC West winner, who will then have to play in the SEC Championship, then into the NCAA playoffs. Only one of these teams will get in. I feel like any team that gets a loss in the last two weeks of the season will be toast. That’s just how voters remember things.
Florida State will likely win out. The ACC is terrible and FSU has already faced the hardest teams on their schedule. So barring some incredible upset that would likely make the entire nation celebrate, we have to assume the Seminoles are going to be in the playoffs.
I saved this one for last because it is the deepest and in the most flux. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, these are the teams we need to watch closely if we hope to get back into the top four. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the top tier, but likely two out of those three teams are going to be in the playoffs. That leaves just two more spots open. At this point, it’s going to be hard to see an outcome where two SEC teams don’t go. The SEC West is just too incredibly deep, and as we’ll see shortly we can’t count out Georgia out of the East either.
- Alabama – Of all the one-loss teams in the SEC West, Bama has the best shot of stealing the conference. A win over Mississippi State throws the entire nation into a mess, let alone the division.
- Auburn – Similar to Alabama, Auburn has plenty of chances to win out against big teams and still take the division. No matter what, the Iron Bowl likely decides which team gets eliminated.
- Oregon – The Ducks’ big problem was originally that Michigan State looked like not such a big win, but now it’s looking a lot better. Now their problem lies in the schedule. With no big games remaining until the conference championship, it’s hard for Oregon to impress anyone on the committee.
- Notre Dame – Some people are saying Notre Dame’s loss almost helped the Irish as much as a win at least in perception of if they belong with the big boys. Notre Dame cannot win a conference championship, but their schedule allows them not to have to. A couple of “big enough” games are still ahead of them, as well.
- Michigan State – Right now, they’re a little on the outside looking in, but defeating Ohio State in two weeks will put them squarely into the mix. After that, the path smooths out and even the B1G Championship will be very gettable.
- Georgia – If there’s any team that has been overlooked this year, it might be Georgia. With one more big game against Auburn coming up and a potential trip to the SEC Championship game, the Bulldogs are far from dead this season.
The biggest question out of this tier will be what happens in the SEC West. There’s a scenario where Ole Miss beats Alabama who beats Mississippi State who beats Ole Miss. I don’t even know who wins the division at that point, let alone gets into the playoffs. Or how about Auburn beats Ole Miss who beats Mississippi State who already beat Auburn? Could there be a four-way tie? Only time will tell and it’ll be huge for the outside one-loss teams hoping to get a chance at the championship.
- TCU/Kansas State/Baylor – These teams must win out. The Big 12 just isn’t strong enough right now to guarantee a one-loss champion getting into the playoffs. Kansas State may have the best chance as they close the season with games against not only TCU and Baylor but also West Virginia. Running that table would go a long way to bumping their resume.
- Nebraska/Ohio State – Both of these teams will need to win the B1G championship to have a shot. That chance is greater for OSU as they have a huge game against Michigan State looming.
- Arizona State/Arizona – The loss to UCLA is killing them right now as the Bruins have dropped in the rankings. Still, with wins over USC, Stanford and a game against Notre Dame later on, it could give them a chance to steal the PAC 12 South and play Oregon as a play-in game. Arizona has a huge win against Oregon, but will have to beat ASU to get a rematch against the Ducks. It’ll be hard to beat that team twice.
It’s going to be hard for any of these teams to make the playoffs, there’s just too much up in the air at this point on their schedules. The Big 12 teams have beaten each other up just enough to knock them all out. The B1G teams need Michigan State to drop out. The Arizona teams have mediocre losses on their record already, have to play each other still, and THEN still have to likely play Oregon. Are these teams out of it? Not even close. But it’s a steep hill in front of them.
My gut tells me that if the remaining season is on short supply of surprises, the last spot will come down to Notre Dame and Michigan State. We’re going to see exactly what the committee weighs heavily and which things aren’t as important. Of all the seasons these two teams could have picked to not play each other, it looks like it happened when both teams needed the game the most. One could be a conference champion whose only loss is on the road to a top five team. One could be a cross-country conqueror whose only loss is on the road to a top five team.
It’s hard to compare Notre Dame to other teams around the country. There’s no conference championship to play for, which could end up being the death blow to a 2014 championship run. While Notre Dame sits at 11-1 after a win on the road to USC, the other teams will all be playing nationally televised all-or-nothing games. Will it be Georgia versus Mississippi State? Whoever is in this game, the winner is in. Florida State will likely win the ACC with an unblemished record. They’re in.
That leaves two spots. There is a strong chance that two SEC teams finishes the season at 11-1 and DOESN’T make the championship game, despite having defeated at least one of the teams in that game. How can you punish a team from the SEC West with an 11-1 record? You can’t. They’re in, too.
That leaves one final spot.
Notre Dame. Michigan State. Oregon.
Who gets in? Does the head-to-head victory for Oregon over Michigan State knock out the Spartans? Oregon and Michigan State will likely both win conferences, does that end the season for the Irish? Notre Dame will have played the hardest schedule. Does that cook the Ducks?
Even more importantly, will any of that even matter?
If college football has taught us anything, it’s that there will always be more surprises. We know there will be teams in the top ten that will receive their first or second loss this season. That’s a guarantee. But we also know that a couple more will likely be upset. Who takes that fall? Will Notre Dame lose to Arizona State? Does Oregon stumble against Stanford? Does Kentucky surprise a big name? Does LSU? Can Michigan ruin the Spartans season?
Anything can and will happen in the NCAA. We’ve already had a week where five top ten teams lost. If only one top ten team loses a week from now until December, we will have a drastically different idea of what a playoff team might look like. The key? Don’t be one of those teams that lose. If Notre Dame can avoid that fate, they’ll be getting good news about January.
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