The college football season is hitting the dog days right about now. September was full of titanic match-ups, great individual performances, and Baylor. This week there isn’t a single ranked-vs-ranked matchup on the schedule. Guess I’ll do my laundry or something.
Most teams have played at least five or six games to this point, so it’s just about halfway through the regular season. The Playoff Committee won’t hold its first sacred ceremony (also known as the Rankings Release Show) until early November.
In the meantime, the Playoff race is starting to everrrrrr so slowly take shape. Instead of ranking the top 25 teams this week, I’ve decided to break every realistic Playoff hopeful team into tiers. These tiers are based on the likelihood any of these teams actually make the Playoff in January. By my count, there are only 19 teams left with an even remotely plausible hope of finishing in the top four at the end of the season (Sorry, Georgia Tech).
Also, be sure to check out the CFB Country podcast here, where ESPN host Matt Schick and I spent the most recent episode breaking all of these teams’ Playoff hopes down. What better way to spend an hour of your workday than hearing how your favorite team can still win the national championship?? We lay it all out for everyone on this week’s show.
And now…the tiers (with odds to win the national title in parentheses, per Bovada.lv)
THE BARRING CATASTROPHE TIER
- Alabama (+120)
- Clemson (+375)
Alabama and Clemson right now are the only two teams that could afford a regular-season loss and still feel good about their Playoff chances. In Clemson’s case, they’ve already stacked up enough high-quality wins over Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech to feel comfortable with their chances. Even another Pittsburgh-like loss would likely not be enough to keep them from the Playoff mix unless there are four unbeaten conference champions. Seeing as that’s never happened ever, I think the Tigers are in great shape.
Alabama doesn’t have the wins on paper that Clemson can boast to this point, but well, they’re Alabama. The only thing Alabama needs to really worry about is a loss to Auburn that keeps the Tide from the SEC Championship Game. That would be a fascinating test case for the committee, who would have an Alabama team who sat at No. 1 all season long, missed its conference championship game, and has very few wins over high-quality opponents to speak of. Regardless, watch Alabama play. They’re the best team in college football. It’s going to take a modern miracle to keep from running the table.
THE “COULD FEASIBLY WIN OUT” TIER
- Washington (+1800)
- Penn State (+1000)
- Ohio State (+750)
- Wisconsin (+2000)
This group is combination of teams who should rightfully feel like they are among the four or five best teams in the country, and teams who have a schedule that sets them up extremely well for a 12 or 13-0 run.
Washington is the perfect blend of both. The Huskies will without a doubt be favored in every game this season. They’ve won comfortably every week against a pathetic early-season schedule, where their toughest opponent so far was probably Cal, who’s 3-3. The Huskies made the Playoff a year ago, and have the most manageable schedule of any major contender this season. A road trip to Stanford on November 10th, followed by Washington State at home on November 25th will be the Huskies’ biggest tests of the regular season.
Penn State and Ohio State are in similar positions in my mind. I know people turned their backs on the Buckeyes after the Oklahoma loss, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss an Urban Meyer team that’s had a month-plus to cure its ills since then. The winner of the Ohio State-Penn State game at the end of November should be in the driver’s seat to win the Big 10. Penn State has Michigan the week beforehand, but I expect the Nittany Lions to win that game. If Ohio State avenges its only regular season loss from 2016 and beats Penn State, the Buckeyes should feel great about their Playoff chances.
Wisconsin is in a similar boat to Washington. The Badgers have played literally no one who should have challenged them so far this season, only unlike Washington, they haven’t thumped everyone in the process. Florida Atlantic gave them a run for a half. Northwestern only lost by nine. Nebraska hung close for three quarters before the Badgers pulled away. Wisconsin is 2015 Iowa reincarnated. If the Badgers finish the regular season 12-0, they’ll be a very hotly debated team heading into the Big 10 Championship. I think Wisconsin needs to slaughter everyone in its path between now and December to have a chance to make the Playoff. I don’t think an undefeated Wisconsin team is a guarantee to make the Playoff over some other potential one-loss conference champs.
THE “GOOD ENOUGH…BUT THAT SCHEDULE THOUGH…” TIER
- Georgia (+1800)
- TCU (+4000)
- Oklahoma State (+2500)
- USC (+1600)
- Notre Dame (+5000)
- Oklahoma (+2500)
First of all, let’s make one thing clear: Georgia is better than the 7th-best team in college football. I think the Bulldogs are at worst the third-best team, maybe even second. They have the running game, the playmakers, and most importantly, the defense to win a championship. The problem for Georgia is having to get through Auburn and Alabama to make the Playoff. A loss to Auburn wouldn’t keep them from the SEC Championship Game, assuming they win the rest of their games…but they’d have to beat Alabama (or Auburn) in Atlanta to make it to the Playoff. If Georgia beats Auburn and finishes the regular season 12-0…I think it’s in play they can lose a tight SEC title game to Alabama and still make the Playoff. The biggest concern there? Where they’d be seeded. You’d have to imagine a 12-1 Georgia team would only sneak into the Playoff if it was as a four-seed. Would the committee really do that, and likely pit Georgia in a rematch with top-seeded Alabama? It’s possible, but I highly doubt it.
The three Big 12 schools in this group all run together in my mind. Yes, TCU already knocked off Oklahoma State, but I’m not sold Kenny Hill is about to lead an unbeaten run through a major conference. The Big 12 is a league full of good teams but devoid of any great ones. I’ve already gone on record saying the conference champ will finish with at least two losses. I would worry about any of the trio of top teams from the Big 12 winning out and making the Playoff.
USC and Notre Dame are two vastly different stories, funny enough. The Trojans entered the season with boatloads of hype, and have already managed to let us down (again). Notre Dame came from off the radar in the preseason after a 4-8 record in 2016, and suddenly looks like a top-10 team (I have them ranked sixth in my JP Top 25). The Trojans are battling too many injuries for me to think they survive the season without another loss. Thankfully, the Pac-12 South is watered down this season, but I have a hard time seeing USC navigate their way to a 12-1 record.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, has USC coming up in two weeks in South Bend. If the Irish can get past that one (I think they do), they then have to face NC State a week later, then travel to Miami two weeks after that, then host Navy and Stanford. The Fighting Irish’s schedule didn’t look all that daunting before the season, but suddenly every team they face in the second half of the year is better than expected. NC State, Wake Forest, Miami, Navy and Stanford (okay, Stanford’s a stretch) have all exceeded early-season expectations. I love this Irish team, and I think that with an 11-1 record they’d be a serious threat to make the Playoff. I just don’t think they’ll survive that schedule without at least one more loss.
THE “CINDERELLA STORY” TIER
- Auburn (+3300)
- Washington State (+5000)
- Miami (+3300)
- Michigan (+3300)
- Virginia Tech (+20000)
- Michigan State (+15000)
- NC State (+7500)
Each and every one of these teams would make the Playoff if they won out. Unlike the tier below them, I don’t think it’s absolutely bonkers to think that any of these runs the table. Auburn would need to get through Georgia (likely twice), and Alabama (okay, maybe this is bonkers). Washington State must get through a brutal three-game stretch at the end including Utah, Stanford and Washington, plus the Pac-12 Championship. Miami still has Notre Dame and Virginia Tech left, plus a potential bout with Clemson in the ACC title game. Michigan still has Penn State, Ohio State and possibly Wisconsin. Michigan State’s in the same boat. NC State has Clemson and Notre Dame, plus the ACC Championship Game. It’s asking a LOT for any of these teams to make a run…but they have all shown they are good enough that if they catch fire at just the right time…crazier things have happened.
THE “MORE TEARS THAN TIERS” TIER.
- Texas Tech
- Georgia Tech
These guys are all one-loss teams from Power Five leagues who have a better chance of finishing with seven wins than 11 or 12. Do not pay them any mind. It’s not happening.