There’s a new top four in the College Football Playoff rankings with weeks left in the regular season. Three undefeated teams — Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame — likely control their own destiny for reaching the playoff, potentially leaving just one spot open for the rest of the playoff contenders.
Welcome back to the top four, Michigan
Michigan has been ranked in the top four before, so this isn’t uncharted territory for the Wolverines. They debuted at No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings in 2016 and they held that spot for four weeks until a 30-27 loss at Ohio State dropped them to No. 5. They ultimately finished at No. 6 in the final rankings.
This is a similar spot for Michigan, where it arguably controls its own destiny if it wins out. But that requires winning in Columbus, where it hasn’t emerged victorious since 2000.
You could make the case that Michigan and its national standing would benefit from a playoff appearance as much as any college football program, given the combination of its history, rabid fan base, high-profile coach, national championship drought and rival’s success.
The Wolverines might be four wins away from their first playoff appearance. Can they finish the job?
West Virginia’s win over Texas gave it credibility
The Mountaineers debuted at No. 13 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season, behind seven other one-loss teams from power conferences and even two-loss Florida. But that decision was defensible given that West Virginia’s best win as of a week ago was on the road against Texas Tech.
Now, West Virginia is in the thick of the playoff race after its thrilling 42-41 win at Texas on Saturday. The Mountaineers jumped four spots to No. 9, the biggest jump among teams ranked in the top 15 last week.
They can continue to make a push for the top four if they can run the table, beating TCU, Oklahoma State and No. 6 Oklahoma to reach the Big 12 Championship with a 10-1 record.
The two biggest questions regarding West Virginia’s playoff candidacy are how would a one-loss Big 12 champion compare to a one-loss Big Ten or Pac-12 champion, and could the Mountaineers’ canceled game against NC State come back to bite them since they missed out on a potential top-25 win?
Washington State can (barely) pick up another top-25 win
We’re referring to Washington sneaking into the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 25 as the only other Pac-12 team joining No. 8 Washington State in the Week 11 rankings.
As we’ve written previously, the lack of Pac-12 teams in the playoff rankings could seriously hinder the Cougars (even if they win out) if the committee potentially devalues their resume based on the relative weakness of their schedule compared to other power conferences. The one-loss teams ranked around Washington State still have at least one more chance apiece to pick up a top-10 win, based on the latest rankings, while the Huskies represent the best potential win still available for the Cougars.
Respect for LSU, even more for Alabama
The Tigers only dropped four spots to No. 7 in the rankings after their 29-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama. LSU is the highest-ranked two-loss team by four spots, and it’s still ranked ahead of Washington State, West Virginia and Ohio State, which each have just one loss.
LSU’s latest ranking showed the respect the committee has for its wins (most notably Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn), but even more so how much it respects Alabama, given that a blowout loss at home didn’t send the Tigers into a free fall in the rankings.
What is the margin between the one-loss teams?
Of course, the playoff selection committee won’t give us the answer, and there’s a chance the committee won’t even have to decide between multiple one-loss teams for the four-team field in the final week of the rankings.
But with six one-loss teams from power conferences ranked in the top 10 in Week 11, it’s a fair question. The committee currently believes Michigan is the No. 4 team in the country, but how far behind are No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 8 Washington State, No. 9 West Virginia and No. 10 Ohio State?
The Bulldogs still have a shot to beat No. 1 Alabama. The Sooners and Mountaineers will play each other in the final week of the season with a chance for a rematch in the Big 12 Championship. Ohio State could beat Michigan (and potentially take the Wolverines’ spot in the top four) in the final week of the regular season.
There are too many “What if?” questions to try to predict the top four based upon every possible combination of outcomes, but knowing the committee’s perceived differences in the quality of resumes among the one-loss teams could help us handicap that group of teams and their playoff chances.
Can Boston College throw a wrench in the playoff picture?
It feels silly to question undefeated Clemson after its 77-16 win over Louisville, but the Tigers haven’t clinched the ACC Atlantic just yet, so let’s at least mention the possibility of chaos striking this weekend. They travel to Boston College this week and the Eagles could win the division if they win their next three games, which would leave Clemson out of the ACC Championship.
Clemson has looked as dominant as any team not named Alabama in the last month, so it’d be interesting to see where an 11-1 Clemson team would fall in the rankings if it didn’t play in its conference’s championship game. There’s precedent for a one-loss team making the playoff despite not playing for a conference title.
Alabama made the playoff as the No. 4 seed last season after it went 11-1 and finished second in the SEC West, and Ohio State earned the No. 3 seed in the 2016 College Football Playoff after it finished second in the Big Ten East after only losing to Penn State.
With three undefeated teams in the top four, there’s a chance that every remaining one-loss team is playing for the final playoff spot, but if Alabama, Clemson or Notre Dame lost, then that could reconfigure how the committee views the top of the rankings.