Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Can you believe it? Week 11 of the college football season is upon us, and the playoff picture is becoming clearer and clearer each week. Clemson, Alabama and LSU have all changed hands in carrying the #1 ranking in the country, Ohio State looks to be the most complete team with blowout after blowout, and Oregon is still very much alive in the playoff race, giving the PAC-12 faithful something to cheer for. But, as the season comes to a close, it's not the chaos in September that makes an impact, it's the chaos in November that tells us who is in and who is out of the playoffs. Sounds simple, right? To borrow from Lee Corso:
“Not so fast, my friend!”
The top four teams are dominated by two conferences, with the Big Ten being the bookends to the two SEC teams in the middle. In order they are: 1. Ohio State (Big Ten) 2. LSU (SEC)
3. Alabama (SEC) 4. Penn State (Big Ten)
Everyone expected the Buckeyes to take the top spot, no surprise there. Really, the top three are exactly what everyone expected. From four on, that's when things get a little confusing. Penn State has looked good this year, but I'm not too sure they deserve a “if the playoffs started today, they make it in” ranking. They have had several close call games against quality opponents, sure, however they don't look that great on offense. The defense is definitely the strength of their team, but they haven’t played an offense as explosive as Ohio State or LSU, and they ceded 21 points to a suddenly resurgent Michigan, almost costing them the game.
What about the fifth ranked team? Checking in at five is Clemson who is definitely being punished for a narrow victory over North Carolina.
Sitting at sixth is one-loss Georgia, who in my opinion has no business sniffing the Top Ten after its embarrassing loss to STILL UNRANKED South Carolina who sits at 4-5. They are being rewarded because it was a loss to an SEC program, and you can’t change my mind on this. Any other non-SEC team loses that game they drop out of the top 15 (but that's another argument for a different day).
I know the committee has to rank the best 4 teams in the country, but there are inherent flaws with the current system, and while they can’t do predictive ranking, I think the ranking system is designed to favor those who play the perceived “tougher schedule.” (Scheduling FCS schools late in the season to earn an extra “bye” should be penalized, but i'm not the one letting these schools make the schedules.)
More than likely either Alabama or LSU will be knocked from the Top Four this week, opening the door to either undefeated Clemson (rough season, but 9-0 is still 9-0, right?), or giving the nod to Georgia, while the loser from the #2-#3 game will at worst drop to 6th or 7th. This prevents an Oregon team - who lost their very first game of the season to a ranked Auburn Tigers squad by one score - a chance at at a playoff bid. A team who had to claw away at a ranking that will probably leave them just outside of the playoffs, pending a blow-out in the PAC-12 championship, a la Ohio State over Wisconsin by a count of 59-0 back in 2014. Utah is right on their heels at #8, and Oklahoma leads the way for the Big 12, with still-undefeated Baylor coming in at 12th. The Group of Five schools are all clumped together at the bottom of the rankings, with Cincinnati at #20, followed by #21 Memphis, #22 Boise St, #24 Navy and #25 SMU.
What does the top four look like after the Conference Championship slate? Glad you asked! Let’s assume you take the favorite in every game from here on out. Who needs help? Who gets in?
The remaining schedule for Ohio State includes two ranked games against #4 Penn State, and #14 Michigan. The Penn State game is critical, not just for Ohio State, but for the Nittany Lions as well. Ohio State wins, they take down another top opponent, further cementing their place as the rightful leader in the CFP Rankings. If Penn State gets the win? Well that just moves them into first place in the division and conference, with a legitimate claim to the playoff ranking. What about LSU-Alabama this weekend? This could very well be like the National Championship game we saw a few years ago or really, like any time we see these two teams square off. The winner will more than likely go to the playoffs, and the loser will still have a shot at the four seed. If Alabama loses to Joe Burrow and Co., there is little reason to think the committee will leave them out of the playoffs, despite not playing in their conference championship game. LSU has a harder road if they lose, simply because their chances at quality wins diminish, having no ranked teams left on their schedule. As mentioned, Oregon would have to win out, and do so convincingly, including blowing out potential conference championship foe Utah during championship weekend.
Georgia probably can’t win out, given that even if they do, there is still the big bad boss of either LSU or Alabama to greet them in the SEC Championship. And while Jake Fromm would love to be the giant killer, I just don't see it happening. Oklahoma needs a lot of help, but if the favorites win out (Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Oregon) they could make an argument to wrestle away the four spot from either the Ducks or Tigers, especially if they can knock off undefeated Baylor. However, a Baylor win over the Sooners may be the critical resume booster they need to launch their name into the discussion. Baylor, who sits at 12th, needs a lot of help from the other conferences to beat each other up. Even undefeated, the committee would more than likely take a one-loss Oregon, purely on current standings.
What about Minnesota? If they win out there is no reason to keep them out of the playoffs. Three of their next four weeks include ranked matchups against the likes of #4 Penn State (suddenly a HIGHLY winnable game, as the Nittany Lions travel to Minnesota and could very well be overlooking the Gophers), at #18 Iowa, Northwestern and ending the regular season with #13 Wisconsin, who hasn’t been playing well on the road this year. Sure, it’s a long shot. But going 12-0 and getting to the Big Ten Championship would definitely turn the committee on to what P.J. Fleck is doing up in Minneapolis. In the off chance that Minnesota ends up at 12-0 before championship week, there is a very real shot that they finish in the top six before they'd hypothetically take on the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship game. What about everyone else? Well, The committee has no reason to select any two loss team unless everything explodes and you have a conference champion who squeezed in by the smallest of fractions. However, probable teams include Florida (most likely, albeit with no ranked games left on their schedule), Auburn, Wisconsin, or even somehow Michigan (least likely, the Buckeyes loom large). Kansas State would need so much help it isn't even worth going into here. Additionally, you can count out the Group of Five for yet another year, as Cincinnati is the best hope and we saw what Ohio State did to them this year. No, the Group of Five has to wait a little longer before cracking the coveted “Top Four” ranking. One day it will happen. Or we will get a playoff expansion (yet another article for another day), but to even crack the top 15 as a G5 school, you have to be undefeated. It's just not gonna happen this year.
I write all of this to say that these rankings mean so very little and so very much depending on who you are. SEC faithful take pride in knowing that five of the top twelve are from their conference, while the Big Ten fans are happy to see that the committee is recognizing the hard work that teams are putting in and rewarding them for it. If you’re Clemson, you are begging the ACC to get better at football, as your one point win over a bad North Carolina team is the ugly stain on your undefeated season. PAC-12 fans have a lot to look forward to, as it's all going to come down to the PAC-12 Championship, with a potential playoff berth on the line. There is plenty to play for, and plenty to lose, and every single week matters from here on out. Statement wins earn the bids. My predictive rankings following championship week for the 2020 College Football Playoff: 1. Ohio State
Agree? Disagree? It's college football, and nothing makes sense especially when it's supposed to. Isn’t that why we love it?