What Every Candidate Needs to Reach the College Football Playoff
Other than the military madness in Massachusetts, all that’s left are the conference championship deciders. Teams with designs on the national title have but one week left to impress the committee, and for some, it will be their toughest test yet.
Eight power-conference teams have made it this far with one loss or fewer. Four are above reproach - at least, through 12 games, which might not matter if the win column stagnates before 13.
A win this weekend de facto guarantees a ticket to the show for some of the hopefuls. Others need a win and a helping hand from a friend or two. Ohio State requires charity. Let’s dive deeper into what it will take for the candidates to reach the next step on the way to the ultimate goal.
Remaining game: vs. Alabama (SEC Championship Game in Atlanta)
It’s a straightforward situation for Kirby Smart’s team. All that Georgia has to do is beat Nick Saban in the SEC Championship Game. How hard could it be?
Judging by Georgia’s luck against the Crimson Tide in the conference’s title tussle, it could be pretty hard. The two programs have met in the game three times - 2012, 2018, and 2021 - and the Bulldogs are yet to hoist the hardware when Alabama is the adversary. Granted, Georgia did take its last, and most important, meeting with Alabama in January 2022, which brought Athens its first national championship since 1980. The Bulldogs repeated again the next season and are hunting down their three-peat. This doesn’t appear to be the same program that failed to outdo the Crimson Tide in seven-straight attempts, but there can be no comfort when Saban walks the opposing sideline.
If the ‘Dawgs lose, they open themselves up to exclusion from the playoff. It is possible that a team in their position as back-to-back national champions out of the SEC would get the benefit of the doubt if outcomes across the country gave the committee an ample opportunity to provide a second chance. In this scenario, we have to assume Alabama would have priority. Whomever wins the Pac-12 crown between Washington or Oregon should also be a safe bet to finish in the top four. That leaves two theoretical spots for a non-SEC champion Georgia.
Those doors could open in a number of ways: Iowa could upset Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game, Louisville could ruin Florida State’s season in ACC Championship Game, and Oklahoma State could brand the Longhorns as losers on their way out of the Big 12. Georgia is the most likely team to back into the College Football Playoff without a conference championship to its name, but without a couple breaks going its way, it needs to beat Alabama this weekend.
Remaining game: vs. Iowa (Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis)
After outlasting Ohio State, Michigan secured its third Big Ten East title in a row and has the opportunity to win the conference for the third-straight season, which is something the program hasn't done dating back to the early ‘90s. A victory over Iowa would also lock the Wolverines into a playoff spot, keeping alive the dream of the team’s first outright national championship since 1948.
If the Hawkeyes achieve their first Big Ten title since 2004, it wouldn’t immediately eliminate the Wolverines from the CFP. Michigan is in a similar boat as Georgia, though with less credit in the bank. A 12-1, non-Big Ten champion Michigan could get into the playoff if some things fell its way. Florida State couldn’t go undefeated, Texas losing would help, and Georgia and Washington would preferably take care of their respective business. The Wolverines wouldn’t need all of that, but none of it would spell doom.
Remaining game: vs. Oregon (Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas)
Washington became the first team to finish a regular season undefeated in the Pac-12 since the league expanded to 12 members in 2011, and it did it in one of the toughest editions of the conference in a long time. That is a feat worth celebrating, but it will mean much less if the Huskies don’t add the cherry on top in their coming rematch with Oregon.
The two Pacific Northwest neighbors played on Oct. 14 in Seattle, and Washington narrowly came out on top, 36-33. The margin between these teams could barely be seen back then - now at a neutral site with even more on the line, who knows what we’ll see, other than fireworks.
If the Huskies can claim their third Pac-12 championship since 2016, then they will be in the College Football Playoff. If not, then they would need a lot of things to fall their way to get there. In that reality, Oregon would get in first. Complications in the SEC could open the conference to putting two teams in the playoff. Florida State and Texas could be obstacles, too. It could be done, but life would be easier for Washington if it did the double over the Ducks.
Florida State (12-0)
Remaining game: vs. Louisville (ACC Championship Game in Charlotte)
Florida State has the least wiggle room of any undefeated outfit, sans Liberty (sorry, Flames, but the playoffs aren’t happening no matter what you do against New Mexico State). Whether the absence of Jordan Travis should impact how the committee treats the Seminoles or not doesn’t matter. This team is not the same without him, and a loss to Louisville in the ACC Championship Game would kill Florida State’s national title dreams.
Some have speculated that an undefeated Florida State could still be left out because of its missing quarterback. I think this is more wishful thinking from Florida and Miami fans than a glimpse into reality. A 13-0 power-conference team will not be left out of the playoff. It’s that simple.
So, Florida State enters this weekend with a straightforward proposition: win and you’re in, lose and you’re out.
Remaining game: vs. Washington (Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas)
Oregon’s ordeal is akin to Florida State’s. If the Ducks don’t get it done in their second chance against the Huskies, then they can forget about the College Football Playoff. A two-loss team has never made the four-team playoff, and that’s not changing this year.
On the flip side, if Oregon does exact revenge from Washington at Allegiant Stadium, then it should expect an invitation to the next step. The Ducks would jump the Huskies in line as the Pac-12 champs, and the committee has shown preference to Oregon over Texas for weeks in its rankings now. Even if the Longhorns cap off their campaign with the Big 12 title, they won’t leapfrog the victor in Vegas.
Oregon would be even safer if Georgia could handle Alabama in Atlanta, eliminating the possibility of two SEC teams grabbing bids. But that’s only an added layer of security that I don’t think will be necessary. The Ducks should be in with a win.
Remaining game: vs. Oklahoma State (Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington)
For Texas to reach the College Football Playoff it must beat Oklahoma State this weekend. There is no alternative. There is no other way there. A victory is mandatory.
Assuming the Longhorns let the door hit the Cowboys on their way out of the league, then they will remain alive, but they don’t control their own destiny. If all of the favorites do as they are supposed to, Texas appears to be the first power-conference champion out. The committee has held the Longhorns behind most others in the race in its rankings, and beating Oklahoma State is probably not the needle-mover needed to pole vault into position. The most realistically helpful thing that could happen is Louisville conquering Florida State in Charlotte, but Iowa beating Michigan could also do the trick.
On Sept. 9, Texas waltzed into Tuscaloosa and set itself apart from the Crimson Tide, 34-24. That fact might mean a whole lot come Selection Day if Alabama and Texas are both champions of their respective conferences. It’s possible that the committee could give the Crimson Tide the nod instead using the rationale that Alabama has better wins and the head-to-head result means less three months later. I can’t guarantee that the committee would take Texas over Alabama in this scenario, but my intuition tells me that the committee has kept the Longhorns ahead of the Tide in the rankings for a reason. Style points could also come into play like they did in 2014. But at a minimum, we know Texas must reach 12 wins to remain eligible.
Remaining game: vs. Georgia (SEC Championship Game in Atlanta)
The Crimson Tide haven’t gone more than three years between winning the ultimate prize since Nick Saban’s first title in Tuscaloosa in 2009. They are at risk of losing that streak this year.
Alabama must remain unbeaten versus Georgia in the SEC Championship Game if it wants a shot to regain its position as national champion. Even with that, it might not be enough - Texas has the head-to-head advantage, so if the Longhorns, Seminoles, and Wolverines all do as expected, then there might not be room for the Crimson Tide in the CFP. But if even just one of those three falls victim this weekend, then the opportunity is right there for the taking.
It could be that a 12-1 Alabama with a fresh win over the back-to-back national champions would be placed in the top four instead of Texas despite the Longhorns’ conquering of the Crimson Tide in September. Rightfully or not it wouldn’t be the first time a member of the SEC experienced favorable treatment. I maintain that the committee would defer to Texas if both teams win this weekend, but unless I receive a surprise, last-minute invitation to sit on the committee myself, this is merely a hunch.
Georgia poses quite the threat. The Bulldogs are yet to get the better of Alabama in an SEC Championship Game, but if it were to ever happen, this feels like the time. To count out Saban would be foolish, and we know Smart won’t overlook his former boss.
Ohio State (11-1)
Remaining games: none
The Buckeyes almost certainly relegated themselves to a New Year’s Six consolation bowl with their defeat in Ann Arbor last Saturday. It would take quite a bit of help and a tremendous amount of luck for Ohio State to repeat its backslide into the College Football Playoff after a failure to Michigan.
Georgia needs to win, Michigan needs to win, Washington needs to win, Florida State needs to lose, Texas needs to lose, and only then would Ohio State have a glimmer of hope of falling backwards into the CFP. Basically, it’s not happening.
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