The College Football Playoff selection committee released its third set of rankings on Tuesday night, and there may be more controversy than ever. Oregon jumped Florida State despite the fact that the Seminoles are still unbeaten, TCU is in the field of four teams despite fellow contender Baylor having a win over the Horned Frogs, and Alabama still cannot quite get into that elusive top four.
There are 10 power conference teams that are either undefeated or have only one loss on the season, but based on the future schedules, and how the selection committee has viewed these teams thus far, we believe there are only five teams remaining that truly control their own destiny. If these five teams win out, we cannot envision a situation that would keep them out of the official four-team field, which the committee will announce on December 7. It is easier said than done, but if these five programs win out, they will almost surely have a chance to compete for the national championship.
No. 1 Mississippi State:
Key Wins: at No. 17 LSU, vs. 24 Texas A&M. vs. 9 Auburn
Remaining Games: at No. 5 Alabama, vs. Vanderbilt, at No. 10 Ole Miss, SEC Championship Game*
Mississippi State's scenario is quite simple. If the Bulldogs win out, they are in, and will almost definitely be the top seed, with an amazing resume that would include wins over LSU, A&M, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, and whichever SEC East team makes it to Atlanta. Even a loss to Alabama, Ole Miss, or whichever team it goes up against in the conference title game might not totally sink Mississippi State, although the Bulldogs won't want to risk that. Based on the TCU/Baylor situation, there is definitely some value in playing a strong non-conference. It is difficult to blame the Bulldogs for taking it easy before facing off against the SEC West, but Mississippi State's non-SEC opponents were Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, and UTM. The Bulldogs have also had some less-than-stellar performances at times. UAB gave them a real run, eventually falling 47-34, and average Kentucky and Arkansas teams put scares into Mississippi State at times.
Knocking the Bulldogs' schedule and close wins is probably nitpicking, but none of it matters if the team wins out. Even with one loss, MSU would be a strong contender to make the final field of four, depending on how things shake out.
No. 2 Oregon:
Key Wins: vs. No. 12 Michigan State, at No. 11 UCLA, at No. 23 Utah
Losses: vs. No. 14 Arizona
Remaining Games: vs. Colorado, at Oregon State, Pac-12 Championship Game*
Big wins seem to outweigh losses for this selection committee, especially if a loss includes some mitigating circumstances. Yes, Oregon did lose to then-unranked Arizona at home, but left tackle Jake Fisher missed the game, which wound up being a huge factor—quarterback Marcus Mariota was under constant fire, and was sacked five times. Arizona defensive end Scooby Wright's strip-sack on Mariota late in the fourth quarter sealed the huge upset win. It is impossible to say how much of a difference Fisher would have made in that game, but it certainly seems to be something that the committee is considering when discussing a team like Oregon.
The Ducks' jump-ahead of Florida State raised many eyebrows, but it definitely bodes well for them moving forward. Even without that switch in this week's rankings, if the Ducks win out, they will be a lock. With three wins over ranked teams, as well as a conference title in what is often regarded as the second-most difficult league in college football, there should be more than enough to ensure the Ducks a place in the playoff field.
No. 3 Florida State
Key Wins: vs. No. 19 Clemson, vs. No. 18 Notre Dame
Remaining Games: at Miami, vs. Boston College, vs. Florida, ACC Championship Game*
Don't worry too much, 'Noles fans. An argument can be made that Florida State is the safest bet of any team to wind up in the playoff field. While Florida State lacks the resume depth of a Mississippi State, they do have the most realistic path to an undefeated season, and there is virtually no chance that an undefeated power conference team gets left out of the playoff.
FSU has a few challenges remaining this season. Miami may be the most improved ACC team from the beginning of the season, with star running back Duke Johnson looking like a Heisman contender in recent weeks and freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya hitting his stride. Boston College is a team that will be dwarfed on the field by the Seminoles when it comes to talent, but executes its system as well as any team in the country. Florida has shown that it can be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, rather than just bad. The ACC Championship, which we assume FSU will make, looks like it will be against Duke, which can be quite explosive on offense. If FSU continues to turn the ball over and play shaky defense, it can drop a game down the stretch. However, they should be considered a strong favorite to win out and make the playoff. No knock on the Seminoles' schedule can outweigh an undefeated record.
No. 5 Alabama:
Key Wins: vs. No. 24 Texas A&M, at No. 17 LSU
Losses: at No. 10 Ole Miss
Remaining Games:vs. No. 1 Mississippi State, vs. Western Carolina, vs. No. 9 Auburn, SEC Championship Game*
Alabama hasn't cracked the top four through three weeks of rankings by the selection committee, but the main reason for that is the fact that the Crimson Tide have not yet faced the meat of its schedule. A total desecration of Texas A&M is nice, and a win at LSU is always great, but they don't have the resume that Mississippi State does yet, and they have that Ole Miss blemish. However, few teams have more opportunities ahead of them than Alabama. Wins over Mississippi State, Auburn, and the SEC East champion would give Alabama an amazingly-strong resume, and perhaps even a fast-track to the top seed.
Outside of a disaster-scenario for the SEC where the West teams all beat each other up to the point that every team has two losses, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the conference gets left out of the playoff. If Alabama runs the table, it will be a cinch for the playoff. The loss at a full-strength Ole Miss during one of the craziest football weekends ever in Oxford is easier to forgive than many that the other one-loss teams have at this point.
The committee hasn't selected Alabama yet, but if the Tide takes care of business, don't worry, Alabama fans. There is no way they can leave out an 12-1 SEC Championship Alabama team when it counts on December 7. That, we are certain of.
No. 6 Arizona State:
Key Wins: vs. No. 23 Utah, vs. No. 17 Notre Dame
Losses: vs. No. 11 UCLA
Remaining Games:at Oregon State, vs. Washington State, at No. 14 Arizona, Pac-12 Championship Game*
Shocked about Arizona State's jump to No. 6 this week? So are we, a bit. However, this isn't about what we think about each team, it is about what the committee has shown, and what lies ahead for these programs. Arizona State doesn't have a crazy number of top wins, but it has two major opportunities in its back pocket. A road win at Arizona in a heated rivalry game looks good, and a win over Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, giving Arizona State the conference title, would likely trump a Big 12 championship for TCU or Baylor, and a Big Ten championship for Ohio State or Nebraska.
Arizona State has a major question mark on its resume with September 25's 62-27 home loss to UCLA. However, with the Sun Devils sitting at No. 6 this week, it is pretty clear that, rightly or wrongly, the committee doesn't thing that loss is a referendum on ASU's season. Instead, Arizona State is already much higher in this ranking than we would have expected, and while the committee is looking at the entirety of a team's work every week, if Arizona State keeps winning, it is unlikely that they fall.
A Sun Devil Pac-12 championship would knock Oregon out of the picture. Alabama-Mississippi State may very well be an elimination game. Florida State is probably entrenched without a loss, but the TCU/Baylor conundrum still looms. Arizona State with wins over Utah, Notre Dame, USC, Arizona, and Oregon probably jumps both Big 12 contenders, and rightfully so. If we were betting on the four team field today, we don't think Arizona State would be included, but if they make a run to 12-1 and a conference title, that may be too much to ignore.
Remaining One-Loss Contenders:
No. 4 TCU: The Horned Frogs are an incredibly fun, balanced team, but if it comes down to 11-1 TCU and 11-1 Baylor at the end of the year, it seems like it would be very difficult to keep the Bears, who own a head-to-head win and would be the Big 12 champions, out. TCU also has a relatively weak final three games which might not wind up mattering, but it is difficult to tell because this is the first year we've had the playoff system in place.
No. 7 Baylor: It sure seems like that paper-thin non-conference slate has come back to bite the Bears. Despite an impressive blowout of Oklahoma over the weekend, Baylor was still left out of the top six, while TCU, a team that the Bears beat, moved into the top four. As we said above, that win seems like it should count for something, but time will tell. The lack of a Big 12 Championship Game may also wind up hurting both contenders. While Oregon, Arizona State, and Alabama will all have chances for another huge win, Baylor and TCU will still be playing less meaningful regular season games.
No. 8 Ohio State: The win over Michigan State might be too little, too late for the Buckeyes. The Big Ten is perceived as one of the weaker power conferences this season, and the early season loss to Virginia Tech looks more confusing by the week. The Hokies may finish last in the ACC Coastal Division.
No. 16 Nebraska: The Huskers took umbrage with the fact that they moved down three spots during a bye week, and we don't blame them. However, the things that count against Ohio State go double for Nebraska. The Big Ten isn't quite a gauntlet, Nebraska's best non-conference win was against a Miami team that hadn't yet peaked, the team had a near-disaster against McNeese State, and the West Division probably doesn't even get the recognition that the East does. The loss to Michigan State, which in turn lost badly to Ohio State at home, probably keeps Nebraska out, unless it beats the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game and gets a ton of help.
No. 21 Duke: The Blue Devils have been completely off the committee's radar this season, which is probably the biggest issue here. Duke faced a Baylor-esque non-conference slate, and plays in the ACC Coastal Division, which might be the least impressive division in the power conferences. While a championship game win over Florida State would certainly count for something, it probably wouldn't be enough to jump the Blue Devils all the way into the top four, unless absolute chaos reigns elsewhere in college football.