Ohio State lost this weekend, as you know. There was talk among some this weekend that the loss eliminated the Buckeyes from the national championship picture. This is nonsense. The Buckeyes are fine, for reasons we'll explain below.
Before we jump into parsing through which teams are or are not alive in the College Football Playoff race, let's first take a look at the first two CFP fields and note when each team lost during the regular season and where they debuted in that season's debut committee rankings.
2014 CFP Field
2015 CFP Field
Last year's Michigan State team -- ranked as low as No. 13 after a 39-38 Nov. 7 loss to an average Nebraska team -- taught us that we're still in the safe zone where a team can take a pit stop and still be among the first four teams to cross the finish line.
If anything, the brief history we have to rely upon teaches us that Penn State's upset of Ohio State means the race for the Playoff is just now beginning.
With the first CFP committee rankings dropping next Tuesday, now feels like a good time slot the horse race for college football's four golden tickets.
CAN AFFORD A LOSS AND STILL REACH THE PLAYOFF -- AS LONG AS IT COMES AT THE RIGHT TIME
Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC)
Clemson (7-0, 4-0 ACC)
Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten)
Washington (7-0, 4-0 Pac-12)
Thanks to Auburn's rapid rise, Clemson doesn't even need to beat Florida State to reach the Playoff. Washington's putrid non-conference schedule, the decline of Oregon and Stanford and Washington State's refusal to lose gives the Huskies a smaller margin for error. Alabama is Alabama; if anyone can push the drop-dead loss date beyond Nov. 7, it's them. Michigan is better off losing this week at Michigan State than on Thanksgiving Saturday to Ohio State, for reasons we'll explain below.
LOST A GAME BUT STILL FULLY CONTROLS ITS OWN DESTINY
Ohio State (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten)
Ohio State is the one team that's suffered a loss and doesn't need help. The Buckeyes beat likely Big 12 champion Oklahoma and likely bowl team Tulsa in non-conference play. The Big Ten office also helped Ohio State by slotting Wisconsin and Nebraska on the Bucks' conference schedule. Thanks to Penn State's loss to Pittsburgh, Big Ten tiebreakers would favor Ohio State over the Nittany Lions and Michigan should the Buckeyes win out, which would mean beating Nebraska, Michigan and either Nebraska or Wisconsin again in the Big Ten title game.
UNDEFEATED -- BUT CAN THEY STAY THAT WAY?
Baylor (6-0, 3-0 Big 12)
Nebraska (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten)
West Virginia (6-0, 3-0 Big 12)
AP voters don't know what to make of these clubs; Nebraska and Baylor are at Nos. 7 and 8 behind a pair of 1-loss teams, and West Virginia sits behind another at No. 10. Baylor has played the easiest Power 5 schedule possible to this point. West Virginia is feisty and more battle-tested, but the Mountaineers still have to make three long-distance road trips and host an Oklahoma team they're 0-fer against since joining the Big 12 four seasons ago. (Also, no Big 12 team has ever gone 9-0 in league play since the creation of the 9-game, round-robin schedule in 2011.) Nebraska still has road trips to Madison and Columbus waiting, and the Big Ten title game.
Also, it's possible this group will combine for two non-conference victories over bowl-eligible teams: West Virginia over BYU and Nebraska over Wyoming.
HOPING TO BECOME THIS YEAR'S OHIO STATE OR OKLAHOMA
Florida (5-1, 3-1 SEC)
Utah (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12)
The Utes and Gators control their respective destinies in the Pac-12 South and SEC East. Each has two Top 25 opponents still left on their schedule, with a chance for a third such victory in a conference championship game. The opportunity is there. I'll admit I don't like either's chances to actually fulfill the potential that sits before them but, hey, what did all of us think about 2014 Ohio State or 2015 Oklahoma's Playoff chances in late October?
ROOTING FOR CHAOS, SOMEWHERE, ANYWHERE
Louisville (6-1, 4-1 ACC)
Texas A&M (6-1, 4-1 SEC)
Charged by college football's best player on his side of the ball -- Lamar Jackson, Myles Garrett -- the Cardinals and Aggies have the teams to compete with anyone. But will they have the opportunity to prove it?
The traditional route, the only route that has claimed one of the eight slots awarded so far, means winning out and claiming the ACC or SEC title. That means Clemson or Alabama has to lose twice. Not impossible, but not likely. The other option -- detonating some well-timed TNT blows up conference championship races elsewhere -- is a path that we all agree exists in theory but has never actually been completed in practice.
Would, say, an 11-1 Louisville get in over a 12-1, Big Ten champion Nebraska? It's simply impossible to say at this point, but it'd sure be interesting to find out. Remember, the 13th "data point" pushed Ohio State in over Baylor in 2014 and nudged Michigan State past Oklahoma in 2015 -- and the Bears and Sooners had conference championship badges pinned to their resumes.
TWO-LOSS TEST CASES TO MONITOR
Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC)
LSU (5-2, 3-1 SEC)
Oklahoma (5-2, 4-0 Big 12)
Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC)
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten)
How would the committee treat an LSU team with wins over 11-1 Alabama, 10-2 Texas A&M, 9-3 Florida, 7-5 Arkansas, 7-5 Ole Miss and then 10-3 Tennessee in the SEC championship? Couldn't the Tigers, they of the "undefeated in regulation" 2-loss 2007 national champions, use the "we're a different team now" theory that benefitted 2014 Ohio State to say Ed Orgeron's hiring and the Tigers' subsequent undefeated run invalidated their two September setbacks? What of Auburn, a team that would be riding a 10-game winning streak by that point, the last two over, say, 11-0 Alabama and 11-1 Florida?
Or what about Wisconsin, which beat LSU to open the year, lost close games to Michigan and Ohio State, knocked off an 11-1 Nebraska and then avenged their loss to Michigan in the Big Ten title game?
No one has ever run through the Big 12 with a 9-0 record, so could the committee really pick a non-conference champion over Oklahoma? Or what about Tennessee? The Vols could have wins over 11-win Florida, 11-win Virginia Tech and avenge one of their two losses by stunning 12-0 Alabama in the SEC championship. If push meets shove, is the committee really taking a division runner-up over them when "championships won" is literally the No. 1 bullet point in the committee's stated criteria?
The committee has only been asked to rank one 2-loss conference champion and, unfortunately for this group, the precedent doesn't help them. 2015 Pac-12 champion Stanford put together an argument as strong as any in this group could hope to muster: they dropped their opener in a fashion that proved to be uncharacteristic -- falling 16-6 at Northwestern before ripping off an FBS-best 12 straight games scoring 30-plus points -- they lost one more close game to a respected opponent (38-36 to Oregon on, perhaps crucially, Nov. 14), and they owned a non-conference win over 10-2 Notre Dame.
And still the committee slotted Stanford at No. 6, one spot behind a non-champion Iowa team whose only claim to fame was almost beating Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.
So, there you have it: 12 teams in the thick of the hunt, with five more chaos candidates lurking on the edge, praying for mayhem. If the four eventual Playoff participants come from outside this group, present this article at the FootballScoop customer service desk and I'll personally give you the option of a full refund or the ability to trade it in for another item at the Scoop Store.