With just three weeks remaining in the best regular season in all of sports—a regular season whose greatness largely results from the smallness of the playoff field to follow—various teams’ prospects for making the 4-team College Football Playoff are starting to take shape. Here’s a rundown of which teams control their own destiny, which need a little bit of help, and which need a lot of help but are still in the running for one of the four coveted slots.
Teams controlling their own destiny:
Six teams control their own destiny. If they win out, they will make the playoff field. Not even the vagaries of the entirely subjective 13-member selection committee could keep them out. (Well, they could, but they won’t.) These six teams are (10-0) Iowa (#1 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings), (10-0) Clemson (#2), (10-0) Oklahoma State (#3), (9-1) Alabama (#4), (10-0) Ohio State (#6), and (9-1) Michigan State (#10).
Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State are all vying to become the Big Ten champion. Only one of them (at most) can win out, and if one does, that team will make the playoff field. (Iowa and Ohio State would be undefeated conference champions, and Michigan State would be 12-1 with wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa.) Likewise, if they were to win out, Alabama would get a bid as the 1-loss SEC champion, Clemson would get one as the undefeated ACC champion, and Oklahoma State would get one as the undefeated Big 12 champion.
But don’t bet your house on the Big Ten champ, Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma State all winning out.
Teams mostly controlling their own destiny:
Perhaps surprisingly, the (9-1) Florida Gators (#7 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings) might actually control their own destiny, but to be on the safe side, they need Alabama to beat archrival (5-5) Auburn (#43). Assuming the Gators win out (the assumption for each of the teams under discussion), that would pit Florida and Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, with the general expectation being that the 1-loss Crimson Tide would win and advance to the playoff. If the Gators instead knock off the Tide, they will be the SEC champions and will go to the playoff in Alabama’s place. There is no way a 1-loss SEC champ that just upset 1-loss Alabama would be denied a bid. Even beating 2-loss Alabama might be good enough (but beating 3-loss Mississippi, in the unlikely scenario that Ole Miss gets into that game, probably wouldn’t be).
(9-1) Notre Dame (#6 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings) needs either Oklahoma State (which still has to play 1-loss Baylor and 1-loss Oklahoma) or Clemson to lose. If both of those teams win out, then the Irish need for either the SEC or Big Ten champ to have two losses. If Oklahoma State loses (and Clemson wins out and neither the SEC nor Big Ten champ has two losses), the Irish would still have to look out for a 1-loss Oklahoma (currently #9 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings). But the guess here is that an 11-1 Notre Dame, with (in that scenario) wins over Stanford and USC—one or both of which will likely be playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game—and with its only loss having been on the road against Clemson by 2 points, wouldn’t get passed over in favor of a Sooners team that was defeated by 6-loss (and counting) Texas.
Teams needing some help:
In addition to the eight teams discussed above, each of which needs either no help or not much, there are eight other teams that would seem to have a feasible shot at a playoff berth if they were to win out and things were to break their way. Aside from winning its remaining games (versus 1-loss TCU and undefeated Oklahoma State), (9-1) Oklahoma (#9) simply needs Stanford to win at home against Notre Dame, two days after Thanksgiving. In that case, the Sooners should join (most likely) the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC champions in the playoff.