Who's going to make the playoff (and how that could get messed up)
For the first time in recent memory, we enter the home stretch of the season with a relatively clear playoff picture. This year, there’s parity — more or less — between the conferences, and we have fantastic teams in every part of the country and every corner of the Power Five. While past years have been SEC and Big Ten heavy, this year, nary a soul would be surprised if the eventual national champion came from the Pac-12, Big 12, or ACC.
Four of the five conferences, with the exception of the Big 12, have an undefeated leader with a completely plausible path to the finish line, and in a perfect world, we’d have a playoff team from each of the four. Let’s take a look at who’s in the driver’s seat in each conference — and then, with three weeks to go, at who’s in position to mess everything up.
For the third year in a row, we enter the home stretch of the SEC season in the same place. Georgia is great, right up there with the country’s top teams, and is undefeated; Alabama is merely very good. Georgia (9-0) have dominated inferior competition the entire season thus far, including a win this past weekend against #12 Missouri. With Ole Miss coming to town next week and the Bulldogs taking a trip to Tennessee before closing the season with a doozy against Georgia Tech, the remaining schedule isn’t a cakewalk, but it isn’t hard to see the Bulldogs winning out. (Either way, with a two-game lead in the SEC East, they’d have to lose both to get knocked off their pedestal and lose their spot in the conference championship.)
Alabama, meanwhile, stumbled out of the gate, losing 34-24 to Texas and then putting up a measly 17 points in an ugly win against South Florida. But ever since, the Tide have looked like a much more complete football team, sweeping their conference schedule, including recent wins against Tennessee and LSU. With nothing but unranked teams from here on out, the Tide are looking at an 11-1 season.
In all probability, these two behemoths will face off in the SEC Championship Game, a venue to which they are no stranger. The predictable result is that Georgia, the far superior team on paper, wins it, and locks up a playoff spot. The murkier scenarios are many; these will be discussed below.
The Big Ten
Of all the Power Five conferences, the Big Ten has the simplest dynamics, as it has for each of the past several years.
The Big Ten East is a juggernaut, the toughest division in college football, with three of its seven teams being Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan; not since 2015 has a different team won the division. The Big Ten West, by contrast, is an assortment of teams that would not be out of place in the Group of 5. With Iowa leading the race in the West, it seems unlikely that when the divisional champions meet in Indianapolis, the West will prevail. (Not once, in the entire history of the Big Ten Championship Game, has the Western champion actually won.)
So who’s going to win the Big Ten East?
Each year, the division comes down to Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. The typical order of business is that the three teams come into the season with roughly equal levels of hype, before one of the Buckeyes and the Wolverines edges Penn State and the other dismembers them, and the two meet in a matchup billed as “The Game” in the last week of the season. Should that happen again, Ohio State and Michigan will each be 11-0 going into the season’s final week, and the winner of that matchup will win the division, and in all probability, decimate the West’s tribute of choice. Either Ohio State or Michigan will be 13-0 and waltz into the playoff; the other will be out.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that there’s nobody left on Florida State’s schedule who can stop them from ending the regular season undefeated. Indeed, the Seminoles have been largely untested. Ever since beating #13 LSU in the first week of the season, the 'Noles have yet to face a single ranked opponent. With the top two teams in the newly-divisionless conference squaring off in the title game, and no tough games left for either, it appears very likely that the conference championship will feature undefeated Florida State and one-loss Louisville.
Who wins that game is anyone’s guess, as nobody really knows how good either one of these teams are. But we’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the Seminoles. If they can take care of business and knock off ranked Louisville in only the second top-25 game of their season, they’ll be 13-0, and should have no trouble locking down a playoff spot. If they can’t, that’s where it gets interesting; it seems likely that a Louisville win would simply leave the conference without any representation in the playoff at all.
It’s a tragedy, a monumental tragedy, that the Pac-12 will soon die, being consigned to the dustbin of history as its teams flutter across the windswept plains of this fine land, joining conferences like the Big Ten (a Midwestern conference adding four Pacific schools) and the Big 12 (which has long dominated in Tornado Alley). But it’s only fitting that before they die, they’ll give us one final hurrah, one last look at what West Coast football is before it’s killed off forever.
Washington, Oregon, and USC came into the season hyped as potential national championship contenders, and the clash between the three titans has not been a letdown. Burning through the start of the season, USC made it to 6-0, but their flaws were obvious; despite an elite offense led by Heisman Trophy contender Caleb Williams, their defense was, is, and will continue to be a dumpster fire. Their last four games have been downright brutal, with — in succession — a loss to Notre Dame, a loss to Utah, a one-point win against Cal, and a loss to Washington have dropped them to 7-3, with the defense allowing an astounding 46 points per game over that stretch. The Trojans, as a consolation prize, will play an on-fire Oregon team next week. (The atrocious defense was actually evident well before this stretch. Coming into the Notre Dame game, they had allowed, in wins, 41 points to each of Arizona and Colorado.)
Lincoln Riley’s defensive implosion has left Washington and Oregon as the two main contenders for the conference crown, and while Washington beat Oregon in a thriller earlier this year, the conference has no divisions — it simply pits the two top teams in the conference against each other. As a result, if Oregon can take care of business, the two will face off again in Las Vegas; if Washington wins, they punch their ticket, but if Oregon can pull off the upset, the playoff race gets a lot more exciting.
So that’s our four-team playoff. Georgia, Florida State, Washington, and whoever wins the Ohio State-Michigan game. But… how could this get messed up?
What if the Tide roll?
Alabama isn’t an elite program this year, but they’re still very good, and Georgia shouldn’t take anything for granted in the SEC Championship. If Alabama pulls off the win, they’ll be one-loss SEC champions — a recipe that has put teams in the playoff in the past. Georgia, by contrast, will be one-loss (or two-loss, if they can’t sweep the regular season) conference runners-up. In that case, if only one playoff invitation is sealed and mailed down to Dixie, it’s going to Tuscaloosa, and the Bulldogs are out of luck.
And this year, there won’t be any shortage of deserving teams. So in other words: Georgia might be able to drop a game between now and the championship, but they’d damn well better beat the Crimson Tide.
A Three-Way In The Midwestern Cornfields?
As we discussed earlier, the Big Ten will, in all likelihood, go to whoever wins when Ohio State visits Ann Arbor in the last week of the season. But that’s contingent on one massive “if” — Michigan taking care of business against Penn State on Nov. 11.
However, if Penn State wins, they can throw the entire division into chaos. Going into the last week of the season, Ohio State will be 11-0, and Michigan and Penn State will each be 10-1. Ohio State could, with a win, take care of business — Ohio State will be 12-0, leaving 11-1 Penn State and 10-2 Michigan in their dust, and they’ll nab a playoff spot. But if Michigan topples the Buckeyes at home, there will be three Big Ten teams, all having lost to each other, all at 11-1.
There can only be one Big Ten East champion, so to break the tie, the conference will resort to a series of tiebreakers; the first one that could be decisive is the fifth, which ranks teams by — get this — the conference records of the teams they played in the other division. So OSU will be judged on Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Michigan will be counting on Minnesota, Purdue, and Nebraska. And Penn State will be reliant on Iowa, Northwestern, and Illinois.
Right now, PSU’s western opponents have a combined record of 8-10, while Michigan’s and Ohio State’s are both at 7-11. The Nittany Lions would hold the edge in that tiebreaker, but it’s anyone’s guess how the catastrophically bad Big Ten West teams shake themselves out over the last few weeks of the season. Of course, this isn’t a very likely outcome. But if it happened, a complete and total nightmare would befall the Big Ten.
There’s one other complication: Notre Dame. Let’s say that Penn State, for instance, wins the tiebreaker and goes to the conference championship, winning the conference with a 12-1 record. Ohio State, who they would’ve beaten head-to-head, would have been 11-1, but they have something that neither Michigan nor Penn State has - a win over Notre Dame. Would the committee really put a 12-1 conference champion, Penn State, in the playoff… at the expense of an Ohio State team who also lost just once among a tougher schedule, and, oh yeah, won head to head?
I dunno. Not my problem. But it could be quite the show.
The Trojan Horse
It’s easy to see the Pac-12 the way we see the SEC, assigning Oregon to Alabama’s position, and Washington to Georgia. But there’s one wild card that the SEC doesn’t have, and that’s the University of Southern California.
USC, despite being a defensive disaster, is still a very good football team, and visits Oregon this coming Saturday. Thus far, while discussing the Pac-12, we’ve assumed that three-loss Southern Cal will be no match for Oregon. But… what if they win?
If they win, Oregon will be 8-2, and 5-2 in conference play; USC will be 8-3, with a 6-2 mark in conference play. That would set the two up to finish the season tied for second place in the conference, with two conference losses each. If they’re the only two-loss teams in the conference, USC would win the tiebreaker, and qualify for the conference championship against a Washington team that they just almost beat — despite having three losses. And if they found a way to topple Washington in the conference championship rematch, they wouldn’t make the playoff — but they might, just might, keep Washington out too, joining the masses of one-loss conference losers that seem to be piling up in our hypothetical.
Of course, Oregon and USC might not be alone in having two losses, either. As of now, six teams, half the conference, has two or fewer conference losses. The other three — Oregon State, Utah, and Arizona — are all good teams in their own right, and only Arizona won’t play Washington in the next few weeks, with a chance to knock the conference leaders down a peg. With so many meaningful games left in the Pac-12, it’s impossible to predict who might snag that second spot if Oregon is toppled by USC.
In conclusion… Washington and Oregon are the only Pac-12 teams that can make the playoffs. But there are plenty of teams, with USC atop the list, who could keep the playoffs an all-East affair and prevent the conference from going out in a blaze of glory.
Texas, Waiting In The Wings
As you might have noticed, we haven’t talked much about the Big 12, and this is because if the other four conferences do what they’re supposed to and find undefeated champions, the Big 12, as the only team without one of those, will probably be left out. But that would be a real shame. Texas, the class of the Big 12 this year, has been fantastic — save for an exhilarating loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, they’ve taken care of business, and are now one of just two one-loss teams in the conference. The other? Oklahoma State, who came out of nowhere last weekend to beat Oklahoma and cement themselves as the heirs apparent to the second spot in the Big 12 championship game. If Oklahoma State wins, it’s safe to say the Big 12 won’t get a team in the playoffs — both Oklahoma State (who lost, badly, to South Alabama out of the blue earlier this season), and Texas would have two losses. But if Texas wins, it’s easy to see how the Longhorns — one-loss conference champions — would be next in line for a spot, should the Pac-12 or the ACC cannibalize themselves out of contention.
In Case You Have No Life: Our Recommended Fourteen Hours of Football
2 Michigan @ #9 Penn State (12:00pm)
13 Utah @ #5 Washington (3:30pm)
10 Ole Miss @ #1 Georgia (7:00pm)
USC @ #6 Oregon (10:30pm)