When it comes to the College Football Playoff, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As the CFP Rankings made their 2020 debut on Tuesday night, the CFP Selection Committee faced a unique challenge.
For the first time, there will be a disparate number of games played by contenders. Ohio State started at No. 4 having played only four games. Meanwhile, BYU has the best record in the country (9-0) but debuted at No. 14.
We’re not necessarily comparing Ohio State and BYU. But at some point, the games that aren’t played have to matter. No. 16 Wisconsin (2-1) was effectively eliminated from the Big Ten Championship Game on Tuesday when it had its third game canceled.
No. 7 Cincinnati will play 11 games. If unranked Colorado (2-0) gets past USC this week, and planets align, would there have to be a discussion about the Buffaloes getting in as the Pac-12 champion at 6-0?
Who would you pick for the playoff?
“A school’s body of work is what it is,” said Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director and a member of the CFP Management Committee. “This year, a school that plays six, seven, eight or nine games would have to be prepared to make the case that those games compared favorably … to some other school’s 11 or 12 games.”
That’s an introduction of sorts into revealing the path to the playoff for each of the contenders. There are 13 of them (plus a summary of the Big 12’s chances).
For reference purposes, you should know that there is always hope. Ohio State at No. 16 in 2014, is still the team that came from furthest down in the initial rankings to make it into the CFP.
No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 1st in SEC West): Win out. No questions asked. Alabama can probably afford to lose once at any point down the stretch and still remain in the top four. Any regular-season loss would still give Bama the tiebreaker over Texas A&M (5-1) in the SEC West. A loss to expected SEC East champ Florida in the SEC Championship Game would give pause to the selection committee. The Gators would be in as SEC champ, but the Crimson Tide would have a compelling case to remain in having been No. 1 for half the season. Twice a one-loss Alabama was allowed into the BCS/CFP without so much as winning its division. In both cases, the Tide won the national title. The Alabama brand resonates with the humans in the room.
No. 2 Notre Dame (7-0, 1st in ACC): Win out. No questions asked. The Fighting Irish probably have to lose twice, playing their way out of the ACC Championship Game, to not have a shot at the playoff. Anything short of that and Notre Dame has a strong case. It already owns the best win of the season (over then-No. 1 Clemson). There would be sturdy case for the Irish to move to No. 1 seed if it gets two wins over Clemson. Even if they lose to the Tigers in Charlotte, credit will be given for going through the ACC undefeated in this truncated season. With that one loss, their competition for the CFP would be a second team from the SEC, an undefeated Cincinnati and perhaps an undefeated Pac-12 champion.
No. 3 Clemson (7-1, T2 in ACC): After the loss to Notre Dame, the path is clear to a sixth consecutive CFP for Clemson. It has to win out. That would guarantee the Tigers a sixth consecutive ACC title. It would be hard to envision the committee keeping Clemson out at 10-1, even if it does play one less game if the Florida State game isn’t made up. All that is another way of saying the Tigers can’t lose again.
No. 4 Ohio State (4-0, 1st in Big Ten East): Win out. No questions asked. Same as the Irish, the Buckeyes have to lose twice to play their way out. Ohio State is halfway through what projects to an eight-game season. That issue is addressed above. Even playing eight, an undefeated Big Ten champion is unlikely to be left out. The Buckeyes would be heavy favorites against whoever they would play in the Big Ten Championship Game. They could even afford to lose one regular-season game since they own the tiebreaker over second-place Indiana. The No. 4 ranking in the first week has to be some reflection of a questionable defense.
No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1, 2nd in SEC West): The Aggies are in one of the best positions for a playoff spot. They likely won’t have to go through the rigors of an SEC Championship Game. Just win and hope to become a second team from the SEC. They are positioned well because one of the best wins of the season (41-38 over Florida) came after a four-touchdown loss at Alabama. If that is the only blemish, the worst the Aggies can do is a New Year’s Six game.
No. 6 Florida (6-1, 1st in SEC East): Win out. No questions asked. The Gators path is clear, though it’s not easy as they are set to face Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Because of that Texas A&M result, Florida cannot endure a second loss. The Gators are also best positioned in the SEC to beat Alabama with an offense that can go head-to-head and win a shootout.
No. 7 Cincinnati (8-0, 1st in AAC): The Bearcats need help assuming an 11-0 season and AAC title. The best road to the playoff includes wins by Alabama and Notre Dame, theoretically eliminating Florida and Clemson. That only starts the discussion. It heats up with at least one more loss by Texas A&M. It gets serious if the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions each have at least one loss. At that point, there may be no other choice than to put Cincinnati in the top four. This is the closest any Group of Five team has ever come. The Bearcats are legit. They have a chance to have six wins this season over teams that spent at least two weeks ranked.
No. 8 Northwestern (5-0, 1st in Big Ten West): On paper, the Wildcats are in solid position. Having beaten Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue, they already own any tiebreakers from the three teams immediately below them. The task in getting to the playoff, though, is daunting. Ohio State probably stands in the way in the Big Ten Championship Game. If it feels like we’ve seen that before, we have — two years ago when the Buckeyes prevailed 45-24.
No. 10 Miami (7-1, T2 in ACC): The discussion for the Hurricanes doesn’t start until Clemson loses again before the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers hold the tiebreaker. An additional Clemson loss puts Miami into the title game if it can win out. From there, it would likely have to defeat Notre Dame. Miami-Notre Dame for a playoff spot? Yes, please.
No. 12 Indiana (4-1, 2nd in Big Ten East): The Hoosiers are still ranked high enough to dream after the loss to Ohio State. Indiana still needs to win out and have the Buckeyes lose twice to have a chance. If that happens, the Hoosiers would have a shot considered how well they showed last week.
No. 14 BYU (9-0, independent): This is the Cougars’ best team since Steve Sarkisian quarterbacked BYU to a 14-1 record in 1996. Still, it would take a near-miracle for the Cougars to make the playoff. The Cougars have not played a Power Five opponent. A New Year’s Six bowl remains a possibility. Based on their initial ranking, AD Tom Holmoe might want to grab that game against Washington if he can. But if you want to dream, here goes: For BYU to have a chance to get in the CFP …
Cincinnati would have to lose twice.Texas A&M would have to lose again. Three of the four champions in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 would have to each lose twice. (The Big 12 champion is already assured of having at least two losses.) Even then, there would have to be a discussion about a two-loss Power Five teams from one of those leagues getting in. The lowest-rated of that group would be an 8-2 Oklahoma. The No. 11 Sooners might even beat out an undefeated BYU.
No. 15 Oregon (3-0, 1st in Pac-12 North): Win out and hope. It would help immensely if the Ducks play all seven of their games. Anything to get them close to some of the other contenders who have played more games. In other words, no cancellations at all, finish 7-0 and hope. This is another example of the games played disparity. A 5-0 or 6-0 Oregon as a Pac-12 champ matched up against a second team from the SEC or ACC would be a robust discussion in the room.
No. 18 USC (3-0, 1st in Pac-12 South): Win out and hope. Just like Oregon, the Trojans have to go undefeated to have a chance. They’ve already beaten half of the their division, and their toughest regular-season game may be looming Saturday against Colorado. We’ll remind you again of the coaching backdrop to this season: Clay Helton may have to win the Pac-12 (and get to the playoff) to save this job.
Big 12 teams: With each team having at least two losses, history tells us the Big 12 has virtually no chance. Four two-loss teams are at the top. Oklahoma (6-2, 2nd in Big 12) has the best resume having beaten both Texas and Oklahoma State. But its losses are crippling as the Sooners allowed second-half comebacks by Kansas State and Iowa State. Remember, a Big 12 candidate just has to finish fourth in the final rankings. Their road starts with three of four Power Five champions each having two losses. There would still be the issue of an undefeated Cincinnati or a one-loss Texas A&M getting in over a two-loss Big 12 champion.