Coming into the 2022 season – or any season, for that matter – it was easy to say of Ohio State’s team, if they win all of their games, including the Big Ten Championship game, they’re in the playoffs. Sure. The Bucks are in a power conference, play a decently strong schedule, and carry a big reputation. After nine games, that mandate of winning every game still holds. Beat Indiana, beat Maryland, beat TTUN, beat whatever the Big Ten West sends to Indianapolis, and they’re in.
We’re now well into November, and we have a much clearer look at the playoffs — who’s likely to participate and who’s not. The four unbeaten teams occupy the top four positions in the CFP rankings released Tuesday night. That seems right, but what else can we say about the playoff picture?
We can laugh at Oklahoma and Texas A&M, preseason contenders who fell by the wayside long ago. We can at least smile at the recent misfortunes of perennial playoff participants Alabama and Clemson. And when it comes to the Buckeyes, we can certainly smile at the season so far. But we’d better also cross our fingers, because there’s football left to play. Let’s look at how the playoffs stack up.
Any non-Power Five conference teams this year?
The short answer is “no.” In 2021 Cincinnati became the first such team to participate in the CFP, which has been in place since the 2014 season. Cincinnati had a multi-season history of success, they were undefeated, and they had the big win at Notre Dame. There’s nobody this year who meets those criteria, and, let’s face it, an independent (not named Notre Dame) or a team from the Sun Belt, All-American Conference, Conference USA, MAC, or Mountain West would have to be unbeaten with a jaw-dropping win against somebody.
There are currently three one-loss teams: independent Liberty, Coastal Carolina from the Sun Belt, and surprising Tulane, leading the AAC. Although the Green Wave are the only team in this week’s CFP rankings (at No. 17), all three of these teams are engaged in great seasons. For me, Liberty is the most intriguing because of its schedule and because it’s one point away from being undefeated, having lost to a ranked Wake Forest team, 37-36. Liberty has wins over BYU and Arkansas and will face Virginia Tech in a couple of weeks. Not giants, you say? True, but a legitimate schedule that makes Liberty the best of the rest.
What about a two-loss team in this year’s playoffs?
It’s never happened and I’m counting on precedent to keep the Crimson Tide out. But there is a scenario, and one that’s not really unlikely, that would place two-loss LSU in the playoffs. Let’s say that Georgia and LSU win out over their final three games (although LSU must play at Texas A&M, a team desperate, I would think, to have something redeeming to point to). The Dawgs and Tigers would meet in the SEC Championship. While we all might expect Kirby Smart’s guys to keep rolling, what if LSU beat Georgia? Surely, the SEC champs (with wins over Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss) are in and, I would think, Georgia too.
I don’t see any other two-loss team with any chance of making the playoffs. Unless, of course, something really weird happens to all of the frontrunners.
So, who’s likely to get in?
The SEC champ, and, if that is LSU, then Georgia as well. If Georgia wins, a one-loss Tennessee, with wins over LSU and Alabama, would also get a berth, I think. The Vols have a pretty easy final three games, with only a trip to Columbia, SC posing any threat. Without unforeseen upsets, I predict two SEC teams from among Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU. Sorry, Bama.
Oops, did I overlook Ole Miss? No. The Rebels are 8-1 (4-1 in the SEC) and play Alabama this weekend. The game is in Oxford, but I think that the Tide will win pretty big. Even if Ole Miss wins – a very big win, no question – they would lose the SEC West tiebreaker to LSU, who beat them by 25, and be shut out of the championship game. The Rebels’ only chance is to win out and have LSU stumble. Then, of course, beat Georgia for the title. As the Brits are so fond of saying, “not bloody likely.”
The winner of the Ohio State vs. Michigan game. We assume that the winner will also win the Big Ten Championship, but what if they lose to, say, Illinois or Wisconsin? I think that OSU or Michigan, with one loss, still gets into the playoffs unless they somehow get blown out in Indianapolis.
That leaves only one spot available for the other three Power Five conferences (and maybe the loser of the Ohio State-Michigan game). TCU is the only unbeaten in this group, and if they win out, they’re in the playoffs. An undefeated conference champ is in. The Frogs have a tough stretch, however, playing at Texas (a team clearly on the rise) and then at home against Baylor and Iowa State. I think that they’ll lose to Texas and maybe one of the others. A one-loss TCU isn’t that appealing. While their strength of schedule is a very respectable No. 42, their wins over then-ranked Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State don’t look as impressive as they once did.
Ah, Clemson. Can Dabo sneak in once again? Although they looked bad against Notre Dame and barely beat Syracuse, Florida State, and Wake Forest, I fear that Clemson with one loss and an ACC Championship trophy would get into the playoffs. But it won’t be easy for this not particularly strong team. While their final three games are all at home, Louisville, Miami (FL), and South Carolina won’t be cakewalks. Clemson could also lose to North Carolina in the ACC Championship game.
What about the Tar Heels? Well, they’re sitting at 8-1, 5-0 in the conference. Their one loss was to Notre Dame, 45-32, but they haven’t really got a top-quality win. UNC, too, has a pretty tough finish to their season: at Wake Forest, Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill, and NC State also at home. Winning those three and then beating Clemson for the title would put them in probably. In short, they still have a shot.
The PAC-12 is, as usual, a bit of a mess. No one is undefeated. Oregon, USC, and UCLA are all 8-1; Utah is 7-2. All are good teams. And they’ve all got tough games to go. UCLA has the best chance, with the easiest schedule. If they beat USC, they could claim that fourth playoff slot. The Trojans, on the other hand, would have to beat UCLA and Notre Dame. USC’s one loss was to Utah, by one point. Oregon closes out the regular season against two ranked teams, No. 13 Utah and No. 25 Washington, both at home, and then at rival Oregon State. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when the dust clears out west, there aren’t any PAC-12 teams remaining with a single loss. Oregon is the best of the teams, with its 45-30 win over the Bruins.
Here’s my take, with current CFP rankings in parentheses.
1. Georgia (1)
2. Ohio State (2)
3. Tennessee (5)
4. Oregon (6)
But nobody wants to see a replay of the Georgia-Oregon game (49-3, if you don’t remember), so I going to change it.
Second playoff prediction
1. Georgia (1)
2. Ohio State (2)
3. Tennessee (5)
4. Clemson (10), with Oregon (6), Michigan (3), USC (8), in that order, as the next likely teams in