College Football Playoff Update: Goodbye, Louisville (and Making Sense of Everything)

In last week’s college football playoff update, I explained that while I believed the selection committee would rank Clemson above Louisville due to head-to-head results, I would give the edge to the Cardinals because of their more dominant play over the course of the season coupled with the close nature of their loss to Clemson.  However, I also stated that I believed both teams would make the playoffs if they finished with one loss apiece.  Unfortunately for Lamar Jackson and Co., that scenario no longer exists, nor does any featuring Louisville finishing in the top four and competing for a national championship.

The committee confirmed my suspicions by slotting the Cardinals behind Clemson in the latest rankings, but also showed a preference to the Big Ten over the ACC in putting Michigan at #3, ahead of both ACC squads, instead of the #5 position I had anticipated.  If things weren’t going poorly enough so far for Louisville, they trailed 31-0 at halftime and fell 36-10 to Houston on Thursday in a game that, while not the blockbuster we once thought it might be, was still likely their last chance to make a statement to the committee that they deserved to be ranked in the top four.  Safe to say, blowout losses are a quick and easy way to eliminate yourself from all playoff contention.

Where does Louisville’s loss leave the playoff race?  Interestingly, it both solidifies the current top four and opens the back door for a number of interesting possibilities down the line.  It’s a ridiculous idea, considering all teams under consideration will play just one or two more games before the committee makes their final decision, but that’s the situation we currently find ourselves in.  There are a number of different circumstances that could result in many permutations of the top four teams in the rankings, but for each team remaining, the mindset is the same- just win, by any means possible.  I’ll give a rundown of all the Power Five conferences before trying to sum things up as best as possible.

The SEC:

The only team that really has nothing to worry about is Alabama.  The Crimson Tide played one of their worst games of the season and came 21 points short of covering the spread, but still managed to beat Chattanooga 31-3 to improve their record to 11-0.  Simply put, Alabama’s resume is so strong, and so many other teams either have lost games or will be forced to lose games, that even if Nick Saban’s team lost both their matchup against Auburn and the SEC Championship against Florida, I can’t imagine them missing the playoffs.  Roll Tide.

The Big Ten:

Things are about to get very difficult.  The most important matchup of the entire season takes place next week when #2 Ohio State hosts #3 Michigan.  The winner of this game should advance to the playoffs, but who specifically wins has huge implications on the Big Ten’s quest for two teams in the national semifinals.  There are enough possibilities here to make your head hurt, so I’ll try to make things as simple as possible.

If Ohio State wins- I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but it depends on a lot.  If Ohio State wins, then there are actually four different combinations of teams that could play in the Big Ten Championship.  FOUR!  To start things off, in all likelihood, this would result in NEITHER Ohio State nor Michigan even playing in the Championship.  Instead, Penn State, with an 8-1 conference record and victory over Ohio State, represents the Big Ten East as long as they beat Michigan State.  Assuming a Penn State victory, they would play Wisconsin, as long as the Badgers beat Minnesota.  If Wisconsin loses, it would be Nebraska, as long as the Cornhuskers defeat Iowa.  If they also lose, it’s still Wisconsin.  To simplify things, we’ll just assume Penn State and Wisconsin take care of business this week.

If Michigan wins- they play Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, and Penn State is eliminated from playoff contention.  Again, if we stick by our assumptions, this leaves three ways the Big Ten season ends.  Here are those possibilities, and what each would mean for the Big Ten’s playoff hopes.

1) Penn State plays Wisconsin for the Big Ten title: Ohio State, at 11-1, makes the playoffs.  At 11-2, the winner of this game has a very strong case to make the playoffs, and definitely will if either Clemson or Washington lose.  Michigan ends up somewhere behind the victor of this game and misses the playoffs.

2) Michigan beats Wisconsin for the Big Ten Title: Michigan makes the playoffs.  Ohio State, the best two-loss team in the field, still holds a decent chance of finishing in the top four (especially with their win over Oklahoma), but it’s a less than desirable position that likely requires Clemson or Washington to slip up somewhere.

3) Wisconsin beats Michigan for the Big Ten Title: Otherwise known as the “what the hell?!” scenario, this is just about the worst thing for the Big Ten short of Nebraska miraculously winning the conference.   Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.  In this outcome, the Big Ten has no one-loss teams, and likely four two-loss teams (although Penn State still isn’t under consideration).  It’s plainly a nightmare, and while Wisconsin makes the playoffs, Michigan has a slim chance of joining them.  Ohio State ends up as possibly the best team ever to finish third in a conference.  This is the scenario all other conferences are cheering for.  It’s also very unlikely.

For the record, things in the Big Ten were this complicated even with making two assumptions.  Honestly, though, a Penn State or Wisconsin loss just knocks them out of contention, and likely guarantees a spot to the winner of Ohio State-Michigan.  Including Nebraska, the Big Ten has a good shot at having five 10-win teams, something I wasn’t even sure was possible.  Has the Big Ten overtaken the SEC as the football powerhouse?  At least this year.

The ACC: 

Thankfully, there’s a lot less to talk about in the ACC.  I think it’s pretty simple.  If Clemson wins against South Carolina and in the ACC Championship Game, they’ll make the playoffs.  If the Tigers falter, they’ll be done unless something crazy happens, such as scenario #3 above coupled with a Washington or Oklahoma loss.

The Pac-12:

Washington is in a very similar position to Clemson, albeit slightly worse.  If they lose one of their remaining games, they’re done.  Should they win the Pac-12 Championship, you’d like to think they make it, but there’s the possibility they fall behind a second team from the Big Ten, especially if Ohio State beats Michigan and Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship.

I guess I’m obligated to mention Colorado, as they’ll move up to #9 this week.  Colorado having any sort of a chance involves them beating Utah to clinch the Pac-12 South, Washington beating Washington State for the Pac-12 North (I don’t think a second win over Washington State will be enough), and the Buffaloes taking down Washington for the Pac-12.  However, even in this case, I think it’s far likelier the Pac-12 gets shut out of the playoffs than Colorado’s miracle season ending in a top-four spot.

The Big 12:

With so many possibilities, Oklahoma can’t be counted out yet.  This was a fantastic week for the Sooners, with a blowout win over the third-highest ranked Big 12 team in West Virginia, and a Houston win over Louisville making OU’s loss to the Cougars look better.  On paper, Oklahoma should be considered, and there are far worse losses than to Houston and Oklahoma.  However, the lack of a Big 12 title game leaves the Sooners with one less opportunity to pick up a signature win, meaning they likely end up behind a two-loss Big Ten team, and a potential two-loss Clemson.


The Summary:

A ton of things could happen over the next couple weeks.  All I can guarantee is Alabama and at least one Big Ten team making the playoff field.  In the most likely scenario, Ohio State beats Michigan, and Wisconsin or Penn State wins the Big Ten.  Clemson and Washington win out, leaving the committee to decide whether or not Wisconsin/Penn State has enough wins to surpass Washington.  However, Michigan could easily throw themselves in a great position and shake some things up with a win over the Buckeyes.  Don’t forget about Oklahoma, either.  While there’s technically no championship game, the Sooners will play Oklahoma State next week for the Big 12 title, as the Sooners and Cowboys enter the game 8-0 and 7-1 in conference play, respectively.  If Oklahoma finishes undefeated in the Big 12, they’ll have an argument to make.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve realized writing this article is that, should Ohio State beat Michigan, it’s actually in their best interests to root for Penn State.  While a loss by the Nittany Lions would give Ohio State a spot in the Big Ten Championship, it also gives the Buckeyes a chance for a second loss.  A potential loss in that game, however unlikely the scenario, might bring about the most interesting set of circumstances of all.  Of course, the Buckeyes should focus on taking down Michigan first.

It’s incredible how much is still up in the air this late in the season.  Only time will tell which teams’ hopes will remain alive next week.

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