A quick glance at the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings may show the 4-team bracket to be a foregone conclusion.
The University of Georgia, University of Michigan, Texas Christian University (TCU) and University of Southern California (USC) are ranked 1-4, respectively, and are all favored to win in their conference championship games.
But what if the weekend sees multiple upsets? That’s where things could get exciting. None of the Power Five conference title games feature both teams with one or zero losses, so some chaos could give us the first multi-loss team in CFP History.
Before taking a deeper dive into this, it should be noted that a lot of this hinges on the 12-person committee who decides the playoff field, as well as the bids to other four major bowl games (dubbed the New Year’s Six Bowls). Though it releases rankings every week, it’s hard to predict what it’ll decide after watching the final week of the season.
The committee has been known to be inconsistent with its methodology, but it's generally done a good job picking the four best teams every year since the creation of the CFP in 2014.
Georgia, Michigan (12-0)
Even if they lose, Georgia and Michigan will be comfortably in the playoff. The two programs will strictly be playing for favorable seeding Saturday, barring some unforeseen collapse.
Win and In
TCU (12-0), USC (11-1)
Not much else needs to be said here. TCU and USC need wins against Kansas State and Utah, respectively, to make it into the 4-team bracket.
A 12-1 TCU makes everything murkier. Some might say they should be a lock along with UGA and Michigan. They’ll argue a 1-loss team should always be in over a two-or-more loss team, even if the latter is a conference champion.
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But how will the committee judge a Horned Frogs team whose best win (a 38-28 victory against Kansas State in October) would essentially be negated with a loss this Saturday? An undefeated regular season is impressive, but a quick glance at TCU’s schedule shows a team with a lot of close wins against average teams.
There’s also this: does anyone seriously think TCU would beat Ohio State or Alabama in a head-to-head matchup? A loss by the Horned Frogs this weekend would free the committee from being obligated to pick a team that probably won’t be competitive in the playoffs.
They’ll Need Help
Ohio State (11-1)
This one’s fairly simple. If either of the above teams lose, no. 5 Ohio State is in. The Buckeyes’ 44-31 win over Penn State in Happy Valley on Oct. 29 is better than any TCU or USC victory, and a loss to Michigan, one of college football’s most dominant teams, shouldn’t dissuade the committee from picking OSU against two teams they’d clearly beat in a head-to-head matchup.
It’s not their fault the Big Ten has divisions, which has Michigan facing Purdue in the conference title game instead of a Buckeye team with the second-best conference record.
Remember: a 12-0 Georgia team got embarrassed by Alabama last year in a similar fashion to Ohio State last weekend. That team not only got into the playoffs, but won the whole damn thing. Why shouldn’t Ohio State get the same chance if things work themselves out that way?
Yeah I know. No one wants to see Alabama in this thing with two losses. But the Crimson Tide are 6th in this week’s rankings, and they’ll probably have as good a shot as any to sneak in if USC loses and TCU gets blown out. Alabama still ranks in the top four of ESPN’s SP+ and FPI ratings, which are both designed to judge a team’s performance and predict future contests regardless of single-game results.
Some might say Tennessee’s win over the Crimson Tide in October takes Bama out of the running. But the season-ending leg injury to Vols Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a factor the committee took into consideration when ranking Tennessee behind Alabama.
It might not be fair to “punish” the Horned Frogs for playing an extra game and “reward” Bama for staying home. But the committee’s job isn’t to be fair, it’s to pick the four best teams. If TCU stumbles in a major way this Saturday, they wouldn’t be doing their due diligence if they didn’t put all possible teams on the table.
If a two loss non-conference champ like Alabama doesn’t strike your fancy, how about a potential two loss conference champ? Clemson’s resume includes a road victory over no. 13 Florida State as well as a win against no. 25 NC State.
Here’s the path for Clemson: a win against no. 23 North Carolina, a USC loss and a TCU collapse. The teams in the playoff would be Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and… a battle between the Tigers, TCU and Alabama.
Again, depending on TCU’s result this weekend, what separates a 12-1 Horned Frogs from an 11-2 Clemson, especially with an ACC Title for the latter?
It all comes back to this: what has TCU done to earn them the benefit of the doubt? They’ve shown some heart with come-from-behind wins, but there have been way too many close victories in an average Big 12.
Of course, this could all end with the playoff we all expect. But what makes college football great is the chaos. If you’re a fan, why not root for the unpredictable outcomes?
I’ll say this: as a college football fan (and an OSU fan hoping for his team to get another shot at Michigan), I’ll be on the edge of my seat come Saturday.