Teams & Conferences

Path To The College Football Playoff: What Each Team Has To Do

What does each top team have to do to get into the College Football Playoff? What needs to happen? Here are the 20 teams realistically still alive, and what has to happen for each one.

Path To The Playoff: Handicapping the race for the 2016-2017 College Football Playoff

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Let’s cut through the false hopes, the dreams, and as much dealing in hypotheticals as possible when it comes to who’s still in the race for the College Football Playoff, and let’s do it by raising hopes, dreams, and dealing in hypotheticals.

Following Week 7 of the college football season there are, realistically, 20 teams still left in the hunt for the four coveted spots. At the very least, a reasonable path to the playoff is there for these 20.

Some might need a ton of help, and some might need a minor miracle, but these are the ones who can go into this week thinking that there’s still a chance.

So who’s out?

Yeah, an Oklahoma, or a Virginia Tech, or a Washington State could possibly still be alive by winning out and hoping for the rest of the conference championship world to blow up, but with losses to Houston, Syracuse, and Eastern Washington, respectively, and with all of them losing two games already, it’s almost certainly not going to happen, even with a conference championship.

If you’re in a Group of Five conference and you have one loss or more, you’re out unless there’s a wild and crazy case to potentially be made. If you’re in a Power 5 conference and you have more than one loss, those defeats had better be against the best of the best of the best.

Remember, there’s no rule that says the College Football Playoff has to take conference champions. The call is already going out that it’s about the four best teams – period. The CFP Committee can take any four teams it wants to, but remember, the rankings coming out at the end of the rainbow are based on merit, stats, and schedules.

So taking all that into account, here are the 20 teams still alive, ranked in the order of who has the toughest path to the playoff, who has the most realistic opportunity if something goes wrong, and who has the best chance of getting in.

What’s each team’s story? How’s it going to happen?

20. South Florida (6-1)

– The lone loss is to Florida State. The Seminoles have to keep winning.
– Keep blowing everyone out. All six USF wins this year are by double-digits.
– Hope the rest of the American Athletic Conference is better. At the moment, USF doesn’t have a win over a team that’s certain to get a bowl bid, and Navy and Memphis are the only regular season games left against teams that’ll absolutely go bowling.
– Houston has to keep winning, and it has to beat Louisville. Beat Louisville in the American Athletic Conference champion to go 12-1.
– At least two Power 5 champions need to have two losses or more – preferably more.

19. Western Michigan (7-0)

– Go 13-0 and annihilate everything in the way. No offense to Eastern Michigan or Toledo, but the back half is a breeze. Every game has to be 41-0 like it was last week at Akron.
– Northwestern and Illinois – the two key early wins – have to be okay, and it wouldn’t be bad if Georgia Southern starts to get hotter.
– WMU has to be the only unbeaten team, and there can’t be a whole slew of other easy options. At least three of the Power 5 champions need to have two losses or more.
– There has to be a groundswell of national support. The CFP Committee doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks, but there at least needs to be a Let The Little Guy Have A Shot wave of enthusiasm.

18. Houston (6-1)

– Stop being mediocre. Houston can’t come so close to losing to a Tulsa. Navy has to be fantastic the rest of the way, but the Cougars need to get to the American Athletic Conference championship first – that means the Midshipmen have to lose twice in conference play.
– South Florida has to rock. There has to be a titanic feel to the AAC title game.
– The offense has to be unstoppable again. Start looking the part.
– Oklahoma has to win the Big 12 championship finishing 10-2.
– Louisville has to have just the one loss when the two play on Thursday, November 17th with everyone watching. Houston has to win really, really big.
– Hope for at least two Power 5 champions to have two losses or more.

17. Auburn (4-2)

– Win out. The Tigers still get Arkansas, at Ole Miss, at Georgia, and at Alabama on the slate. If Texas A&M loses twice, and Auburn wins its last six games, it’s in the SEC title game.
– Alabama has to be 11-0 and the no-doubter No. 1 team in the country when the Iron Bowl comes around on November 26th.
– Beat a good-looking and hot Tennessee or Florida team in the SEC title game.
– Clemson needs to win the ACC title, or at least come close.
– Again, just win the SEC title. The losses to Clemson and Texas A&M were acceptable, and beating Alabama and winning the SEC would get it done, even at 11-2.

16. Utah (6-1)

– Win out. The California loss won’t matter – it came on late on the road – if the Utes go 12-1 with a Pac-12 championship.
– Washington has to be great all year, outside of the date in Salt Lake City on October 29th. It’s not as hard a path as it might appear to be – at UCLA, Washington, at Arizona State, Oregon, at Colorado.
– Do it again against Washington in the Pac-12 title game, or beat a Washington State team that comes in on a roll.

15. Baylor (6-0)

– Win out. Yeah, everyone has to do that, but the Baylor non-conference schedule is so miserable that even 11-1 with a Big 12 championship probably won’t get it done.
– Hope West Virginia is 11-0 when the two teams meet on December 3rd. It wouldn’t matter as long as Baylor finishes 12-0, but it wouldn’t hurt.
– There can’t be four other unbeaten Power 5 champs. It won’t happen, but if Clemson, Alabama/Texas A&M, Michigan/Ohio State, and Washington all go 13-0, Baylor is out no matter what.
– With road games at Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia, and home dates with TCU and Kansas State, it’s not going to happen. But Baylor will get its chance at the spotlight.

14. West Virginia (5-0)

– This isn’t looking as crazy as it once appeared. Obviously, win out. 12-0 gets the Mountaineers in, unless the other four Power 5 champs are unbeaten.
– 11-1 might make it close as long as the loss is acceptable and WVU is the Big 12’s “One True Champion.” Unlike Baylor, the Mountaineers played a non-conference schedule with wins over Missouri and BYU.
– TCU, at Oklahoma State, Kansas, at Texas, Oklahoma, at Iowa State, Baylor. The OU and Baylor games are in Morgantown. Being this year’s Iowa – but better – is a possibility.

13. Nebraska (6-0)

– Go 12-0, win the Big Ten championship, and it’s a done deal. Or …
– Get to the Big Ten championship 11-1, beat Michigan or Ohio State, and it’s a done deal.
– Here’s the problem: at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Iowa. Nebraska can lose one of those, but not two.
– Lose to Ohio State, and it’s no big deal. Lose to Wisconsin – who has two Big Ten losses – and it’s no big deal. Again, though, it can’t lose two of the three. Even if they get to the Big Ten title game at 10-2 and beat an undefeated Michigan or Ohio State, that might get them up to No. 5, but not into the fun.

12. Boise State (6-0)

– Enough dinking around. Boise State was rolling by Colorado State before giving up a few late scores to win 28-23. Don’t make this easy for the naysayers – drop bombshell scores against a mediocre Mountain West slate.
– Obliterate BYU on Thursday night national TV. This is the one decent non-conference game left before the Mountain West title game.
– Washington State needs to win the Pac-12 title. It’s not as insane as you might think considering the remaining schedule. The Broncos beat the Cougars 31-28.
– San Diego State has to be 11-1 going into the MW championship.
– At least two of the Power 5 conference champs need to have two losses or more. It would help if Boise State is the only unbeaten team left, or one of two.
– Again, be impressive. The schedule isn’t good enough to squeak by in wins.

11. Florida (5-1)

– It’s all right there for the taking. Go 12-1 with a SEC championship, and the Gators are in the College Football Playoff no matter what.
– Just win. Florida has to ramp up the offense and be sharper to get by Georgia, Arkansas, LSU and Florida State all away from Gainesville, but looks don’t matter. 12-1, again, gets it done.
– If there is a loss to FSU along the way, even at 11-2, Florida might be in with a win over unbeaten and No. 1 Alabama or Texas A&M for the SEC title. However, lose to Georgia, Arkansas or LSU, and Tennessee will almost certainly take the East. This can’t happen without an SEC championship.

10. LSU (4-2)

– Make the Ed Orgeron argument. Different coach, different team, different attitude. Yeah, there are two losses under the old head coach, but on a Four Best Teams theory, win out, and even at 11-2 LSU would be a no-brainer top four team.
– Auburn winning more would be nice. That wasn’t a bad loss to the other Tigers, and there was no shame in the Wisconsin loss. Both games came down to one key play. LSU right now is a bad pass and a flickering nanosecond away from being unbeaten.
– Leonard Fournette has to be healthy. Getting by Missouri and Southern Miss without him was fine, but No. 7 needs to be ready to roll for the killers down the stretch.
– Ole Miss, Alabama, at Arkansas, Florida, at Texas A&M – and then the SEC championship if the Tigers get through all of that unscathed. Good luck with that, but again, Orgeron has to spin this as a positive. No way, no how the Tigers aren’t in the CFP if they run the table against this remaining slate.

9. Tennessee (5-2)

– Enough with the goofiness. Come out and drop a full sixty-minute hammer on all five bad teams the rest of the way. At South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri, at Vanderbilt. With the possible exception of Mizzou, none of those teams will go bowling. Tennessee has to beat each of them by three touchdowns, minimum.
– Florida has to lose one more SEC game along the way. Having to go to LSU, as well as Arkansas, should help that cause.
– Even at 10-2, beat Alabama in a revenge date in the SEC championship, or the same with an unbeaten Texas A&M, and at 11-2, the SEC Champion Tennessee Volunteers would get in.
– There can’t be four other unbeaten Power 5 conference champs. Tennessee has to seem obvious after beating the No. 1 Crimson Tide or Aggies.

8. Wisconsin (4-2)

– Win out, and be awesome doing it. The chances will be there with trips to Iowa and Northwestern around a home game against Nebraska to keep the Badgers in the spotlight.
– Make the case that the two losses are more than fine. Losing by 14-7 in a dogfight in Ann Arbor, and losing to Ohio State in overtime are totally acceptable defeats.
– It wouldn’t be a bad thing if LSU rocked the rest of the way and Michigan State found its groove again.
– Get to 10-2, get to the Big Ten championship, avenge the loss to either Ohio State or Michigan – hoping that the East champ is unbeaten – and the Badgers are in the CFP at 11-2 over a one-loss Big 12, Pac-12 champ, and maybe a one-loss ACC champion.
– At least two Power 5 conference champions need to have two losses or more, but 11-2 Wisconsin might get in over a one-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champion.

7. Louisville (5-1)

– Crank it back up. The sluggish win over Duke wasn’t okay, even if it was by double-digits. The Cardinals have to be so amazing the rest of the way that they look like they have to be involved. They have to look like one of the four best teams.
– It would help if Clemson wins out and goes 13-0. It would’ve been the Notre Dame argument at the end of last year, if the Irish had beaten Stanford – the one loss is to the No. 1 unbeaten team on the road in a close game.
– Blow out Houston. There’s not another move-the-needle game left on the schedule other than the road trip to face the Cougars. Just getting a win would be nice, but a dominant performance would do wonders for the debate.
– There’s one big problem – Louisville might quickly fall to the behind in the pack of one-loss teams that don’t win a conference title, meaning they need a second loss from …

6. Texas A&M (6-0)

– Win out, and in as the No. 1 overall seed, no matter what.
– Go 11-1 but lose to Alabama this week on the road in a close, solid game. Louisville losing at Clemson would be fine, but A&M losing in Tuscaloosa would look better – as long as Alabama goes on to win the SEC championship. With wins over UCLA, Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee already on the resume, and with wins over Ole Miss and LSU if the Aggies close out with 11 wins, that would be more than enough to be close to the head of the one-loss non-champion line.
– If 11-1, there can’t be three obvious options from the other Power 5 conference champions. It would help if the Michigan-Ohio State loser has another loss, too.
– Win the SEC title at 12-1. If A&M beats Alabama, but loses to LSU or Ole Miss, it’ll be fine if it wins the SEC title.
– Go 12-1 but lose the SEC championship – and hope for chaos among the other conference title games.

5. Michigan (6-0)

– Win out, and in as no worse than the No. 2 seed.
– Go 11-1, with the loss coming to Ohio State in the regular-season finale in a good game – as long as the Buckeyes go on to win the Big Ten title. It’ll be a tough sell if the Wolverines lose to OSU, but OSU isn’t the Big Ten champ.
– If 11-1, there can’t be three obvious options from the other Power 5 conference champions. It would also help if the Texas A&M-Alabama loser has another loss, too.
– Win the Big Ten title at 12-1. If Michigan loses before the Ohio State game, but beats the Buckeyes, it’ll still get in at 12-1 with a Big Ten championship unless the other four Power 5 champs are unbeaten – that won’t happen.
– Go 12-1 but lose the Big Ten championship – and hope for chaos among the other conference title games.

4. Clemson (7-0)

– Win out, and get in at no worse than the No. 3 seed.
– Here’s the difference between Clemson, Michigan/Ohio State loser and Texas A&M/Alabama loser – the Tigers can lose its biggest remaining game and still get in their conference title game. Losing to Florida State doesn’t matter. 11-1 Clemson gets to the ACC title game, and 12-1 ACC champion Clemson gets in as long there aren’t four other unbeaten Power 5 conference champs.
– Go 12-1 but lose the ACC championship – and hope for chaos among the other conference title games.

3. Washington (6-0)

– Win out, and get in. An unbeaten 13-0 Pac-12 champion would get in over a 12-0 Big 12 champ, but would be fourth in the pecking order behind unbeaten ACC, Big Ten and SEC champions.
– Go 12-1 but win the Pac-12 championship – and hope for the best. Realistically, 12-1 gets Washington in, but it’s not a 100% lock. At least one of the other Power 5 conference champs has to have two losses.
– Going 12-1 but losing the Pac-12 championship would be more of a problem than it would be for a 12-1 ACC, Big Ten or SEC team that loses its title game. It’s possible for Washington, but the South champ might be too weak.

2. Ohio State (6-0)

– Win out, and get in at no worse than the No. 2 seed.
– 12-1 with a Big Ten championship still almost certainly gets Ohio State in – as long as there aren’t four other unbeaten Power 5 champions, or three other unbeaten champs and a one-loss SEC champion.
– Lose to Michigan in a war, finish 11-1, and Michigan needs to be 13-0 Big Ten champion. Unlike last year, in a “four best team” sort of way, Ohio State would still be very, very close to getting in as long as there are more than two Power 5 champions with two losses or more.
– Go 12-1 but lose the Big Ten championship – and hope for chaos among the other conference title games.

1. Alabama (7-0)

– Win out, and get in as the College Football Playoff No. 1 seed.
– Beat Texas A&M but lose to LSU on the road, but get to the SEC championship at 11-1. 12-1 with an SEC championship gets Alabama in as long as there aren’t four other unbeaten Power 5 conference champions.
– 11-1 with a loss to Texas A&M. The Aggies have to go on to win the SEC championship, and Alabama has to destroy LSU and Auburn in a dominant November.
– Go 12-1 but lose the SEC championship – and hope for chaos among the other conference title games.

College Football Playoff Rankings If Done After Week 7