With the college football season at the halfway mark (or just beyond, in some cases) and the first College Football Playoff (CPF) rankings to be released in less than two weeks, I figured that it was time to weigh in with my thoughts about who would, and who should, be among the four teams to make the playoffs come season’s end. After all, everyone else is making predictions.
Warning: Yes, I’ll have an Ohio State bias. I want the Buckeyes in the playoffs. But there’s a worst-case scenario looming. Let’s suppose that the Bucks run the table from here on out, beating four ranked teams along the way and sporting a nice 12-1 record. In for sure. Right? Maybe not. If Georgia and Alabama win the rest of their games and meet in the SEC championship game and Bama wins (don’t they always beat UGa?), then I see them both making the playoffs. Undefeated Cincinnati and Oklahoma would round out the quartet in this possibility.
I don’t really see that outcome playing out, however. So, let’s take a look at the all of the contenders, conference by conference.
Group of Five conferences
Certainly, there’s sentiment to include (finally) a representative from the “Group of Five” conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt). Just as certain, there’s little sentimentality in the selection of playoff participants. The problem for these teams, of course, is competition, strength of schedule.
Take 22nd-ranked San Diego State, for instance. The Aztecs have wins over Power-five opponents Arizona and Utah (three overtimes!) but have played fairly close games against weak opponents and still have Air Force (6-1) and Fresno State (5-2) left on the schedule. Even if they should go undefeated, there aren’t any quality wins, and I don’t see them making the playoffs.
The same can be said for 13th-ranked Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have been good for several years now, but the only Power-five team on their schedule is Kansas, whom they beat 49-22. But the Jayhawks are sitting at 1-5. UTSA is in a similar boat. Undefeated, but playing a very weak Conference USA schedule. With UTEP and UAB left to play, they may not finish without a loss.
That brings us to the AAC, the strongest of the Group of Five. Cincinnati, a powerhouse for a while now, is in the #2 spot in the current AP rankings – and deservedly so. While the 38-24 victory over Indiana looks less impressive now than it did earlier, the 11-point win over Notre Dame in South Bend is the kind of quality win that no other Group of Five school has. If the Irish continue to win, the victory gains in importance. UC still has undefeated SMU to play, at home, on November 20. I don’t see the Bearcats having trouble with the remainder of their schedule, so, with no AAC championship game this year, beat SMU and they’re in. I give this scenario a fairly high probability and, therefore, include the Bearcats among my four picks for the playoffs.
The ACC. I don’t see the selection committee breaking precedent and including a team with two losses. Clemson, seemingly for the first time ever, is out. At the moment, there are three ACC teams in the AP top 25: Wake Forest (#16, 6-0), NC State (#18, 5-1) and Pitt (#23, 5-1). All of these teams are long-shots, at best; in fact, I can’t see any of them making the playoffs, no matter what happens in the other conferences. These teams will play each one another and other pretty good ACC teams – Clemson, Virginia, UNC, Boston College – and end up 9-3 or 8-4. The ACC will have no teams in the playoffs.
Big Ten. The B1G is the most interesting of the conference competitions and not just because of the Buckeyes. There are six ranked teams from the Big Ten; the four from the eastern division are all ranked in the AP top ten. But, of course Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State have to play each other. In the west, Iowa, Minnesota, and Purdue each has only one loss. Any of them could win the division and play in the Big Ten championship game. And lose to the eastern champ.
I’ve seen all of these teams play multiple times, and here’s how I see things turning out. I still think that Iowa will win the west, though no doubt, that Purdue loss was ugly. Very ugly. They have trouble on offense, and the vaunted defense sure looked vulnerable against a decent passing attack. Minnesota is getting better, and we’ll have to see what Purdue does. Really, the Boilermakers were completely off the radar until last weekend.
The east is much more complicated because the teams are better. As I said preseason, Ohio State and Penn State are the best teams in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions should have beaten Iowa and probably would have beaten them with Sean Clifford in the game. The Spartans haven’t really impressed me, and I haven’t yet bought in to Michigan.
Michigan should handle Northwestern (in a close game) this week but struggle, and maybe lose, against Michigan State on October 30. I think that they will also lose to both Penn State and Ohio State. 9-3, 6-3 in the conference. Michigan State will also lose to both the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes. And maybe at Purdue.
The east title will come down to the night of October 30, in Columbus. It will be a close game, a real test for the Bucks, but I see them winning by 10 and then beating Iowa (or whatever) in Indianapolis. Ohio State will be 12-1, with a ton of quality wins against ranked foes. They make the playoffs unless that worst-case scenario that I described above transpires.
Big 12. If Oklahoma wins out and goes undefeated, I’m guessing that they make the playoffs. But I don’t think that they will. While the quarterback change from Spencer Rattler (whom I had pegged to win the Heisman) to Caleb Williams seems to have boosted the offense, the Sooner defense is still suspect. With a bunch of close wins on their record, Oklahoma still must play Iowa State at home and Baylor and Oklahoma State on the road. I don’t think that they’ll win all of these games, and, if they don’t, they don’t make the playoffs. Undefeated and 8th-ranked Oklahoma State has a shot at a playoff berth, but plays Iowa State and TCU, as well as Oklahoma. A decisive win over the Sooners might put them in, but I don’t see that happening. Bottom line: no Big 12 teams in the playoffs.
Pacific 12. Frankly, this conference is a mess. Washington State doesn’t have a coaching staff. USC has collapsed and fired its coach, UCLA is up and down, and Oregon (victor at Ohio State) has suffered some key injuries and a loss to Stanford. But as the sole Pac-12 team with only one loss, the Ducks are the league’s only hope. Any chance? Sure, but there are a lot of “ifs.” Oregon has only two challenging games remaining: this Saturday at the Rose Bowl against UCLA and the season-ender against Oregon State. Win those, and the Ducks would play Arizona State, Utah, or a UCLA rematch for the Pac-12 crown. If they finish 12-1, and Ohio State keeps blitzing everyone and looks like the team to beat, then the win at OSU is enormous, and maybe Oregon gets in.
The SEC. In my preseason predictions, I said (boldly) that Bama would lose to Texas A&M and to Auburn and not qualify for the SEC championship. Half way there. The Tide goes to the Plains to play the Tigers on November 27, and I still like an Auburn team that has lost only to Penn State and Georgia. With two conference losses, Alabama would need for Ole Miss and Auburn to lose another conference match up in order to play in the SEC championship game.
In the east, it’s all Georgia Bulldogs, the best team in the country. They have Florida left to play, but I see that contest to be pretty one-sided. Georgia then wins the SEC by beating Auburn, Bama, or Ole Miss in the championship game and earns a spot in the CFP.
Notre Dame? The Irish are the only possibility here. Currently, they’re ranked 13th, between Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina. At 5-1, the Irish have plenty of opportunities for another loss (or two). I predict that they’ll beat a struggling Southern Cal this week but then have trouble with several teams down the road. Georgia Tech will give Notre Dame a tough game. Virginia will beat them in Charlottesville, and Stanford might do the same in Palo Alto.
The Playoffs: Georgia. Cincinnati. Ohio State. Oregon.