By this point in the season, no one needs any help identifying which teams do and do not have a chance to earn one of the four golden tickets to the inaugural College Football Playoff. With one Power Five undefeated team, a glut of six one-loss teams and four two-loss lurkers, it’s obvious who is alive and who is not.
Now it’s time to handicap whose chances rose and whose fell with three Saturdays remaining before Selection Sunday.
Alabama (9-1, No. 5 in latest College Football Playoff poll)
Key wins: vs. Mississippi State, at LSU
Loss: at Ole Miss
Key upcoming games: vs. Auburn, SEC Championship
The Crimson Tide will be the top-ranked team on a number of ballots both Sunday for the AP and Coaches polls and Tuesday for the one poll that actually matters. The Tide cleared an important hurdle by passing Mississippi State in the SEC West standings, meaning the only thing standing between Alabama and a likely Sugar Bowl berth is Western Carolina, Auburn and either Georgia or Missouri. Speaking of Georgia…
Georgia (8-2, No. 15)
Key wins: vs. Auburn, at Missouri, vs. Clemson
Losses: at South Carolina, vs. Florida
Key upcoming games: vs. Georgia Tech, SEC Championship
The Bulldogs are coming on to your favorite one-loss team like a freight train. A decisive win over No. 9 Auburn and Georgia Tech’s blowout of Clemson made for a great Saturday for Mark Richt’s team. The major roadblock (other than the two losses) is that Georgia has to win the SEC championship to have any hope of reliving 2007 LSU’s rise, but Missouri has to lose to Tennessee or Arkansas for that to happen. The Bulldogs will be big Tennessee fans this week.
Ohio State (9-1, No. 8)
Key wins: vs. Michigan State, at Minnesota
Loss: vs. Virginia Tech
Key upcoming games: Big Ten Championship
Ohio State matched TCU with a win over Minnesota, and Wisconsin’s decisive victory over Nebraska (its fifth straight win) gives Ohio State a marketable opponent to showcase itself against in the Big Ten title game. And, hey, Virginia Tech won a game, lining the Hokies up for a likely 6-6 finish.
UCLA (8-2, No. 11)
Key win: at Arizona State, vs. Utah
Losses: vs. Utah, vs. Oregon
Key upcoming game: vs. USC, Pac-12 Championship
USC’s win over Cal helped, as it will likely push the Trojans back into the Top 25 and set up a showcase game in primetime next week, but Arizona State’s loss to Oregon State opened the door fully for UCLA to climb back in contention. Wins over USC and Stanford clinch a rematch with Oregon for the Pac-12 title. Strong finishes by Texas (pun!) and Memphis certainly don’t hurt.
Mississippi State (9-1, No. 1)
Key wins: Auburn, LSU
Loss: at Alabama
Key upcoming game: at Ole Miss
Outside of a total blowout, Saturday could not have gone worse for Mississippi State. With a Baylor-esque non-conference schedule (UAB, Southern Miss, South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin) and the SEC East’s sixth and seventh-best teams as cross-over opponents (Kentucky and Vanderbilt), Mississippi State’s entire case is structured around the strength of the SEC West. Which means losses by Auburn, Texas A&M (both to East team) and LSU really hurt. If Alabama beats Auburn, the Bulldogs’ entire case will be its wins over 9-3 Ole Miss (assuming a loss in the Egg Bowl), 8-4 Auburn, and 8-4 0r 7-5 LSU and Texas A&M squads (they play on Thanksgiving night), plus a close loss to Alabama. Essentially, they’re what Notre Dame was two weeks ago. In my opinion, Mississippi State needs to win the SEC to make the Playoff, and the only way that can happen is if Auburn wins the Iron Bowl.
TCU (9-1, No. 4)
Key wins: Kansas State, Minnesota
Loss: at Baylor
Key upcoming game: None
TCU will be docked much more for its four-point road win at Kansas than Alabama was for its one-point win at Alabama. Coupled with Minnesota’s loss, and the Horned Frogs will likely be out of the top four and praying for chaos beginning Tuesday night.
Arizona State (8-2, No. 6)
Key wins: at USC, vs. Utah
Losses: vs. UCLA, at Oregon State
Key upcoming game: at Arizona
Given the respect the committee has shown to the Pac-12, I’m not ruling out a possible two-loss Pac-12 Champion. But Arizona State ceases to exist on this list if UCLA beats USC and Stanford, clinching an Oregon vs. UCLA rematch in Santa Clara.
STAYING IN NEUTRAL
Florida State (10-0, No. 3)
Key wins: vs. Notre Dame, vs. Clemson
Key upcoming game: ACC Championship
The ‘Noles won, but their strength of schedule took an early-era Mike Tyson pummeling on Saturday. Notre Dame and Clemson lost, meaning Florida State will likely have as many CFP Top 25 wins by Tuesday night as Florida A&M. Florida also lost, and Oklahoma State, 5-1 and ranked No. 15 on Oct. 18, is headed toward a likely 5-7 finish. Florida State won and moved a step closer to 13-0, but Saturday’s events reinforced that it will likely take going 13-0 for Florida State to make the Playoff.
Oregon (9-1, No. 2)
Key wins: vs. Michigan State, at UCLA, at Utah
Loss: vs. Arizona
Key upcoming game: Pac-12 Championship
Mississippi State’s loss means that if Alabama isn’t the consensus No. 1, Oregon will be. Either way, if the season ended today Oregon would be headed for the Rose Bowl, which is all the Ducks could have hoped for back in August.
Baylor (8-1, No. 7)
Key win: vs. TCU
Loss: at West Virginia
Key upcoming game: vs. Kansas State
It’s funny, but it seemed like the moment TCU was revealed as the selection committee’s No. 4 team on Tuesday night, public opinion swayed in favor of Baylor. Tough days by TCU and Mississippi State only furthered the Bears’ cause, although I would be rooting hard against Mississippi State and Ohio State if I wore green and gold.
Arizona (8-2, No. 14)
Key win: at Oregon
Losses: vs. USC, at UCLA
Key upcoming games: at Utah, vs. Arizona State
As long as the possibility for Arizona to go 2-0 against Oregon (both games potentially being away from Tucson) remains, but they need a lot of help. UCLA would have to beat USC and then turn around and lose to Stanford, while Arizona would have to win out.
Auburn (7-3, No. 9), Nebraska (8-2, No. 16) and Duke (8-2, No. 21).