Road to the College Football Playoff: Nine teams that still have a shot

The AJC’s weekly update on the playoff race

There was rare stability in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, the top seven teams remaining the same as the week before, but such uneventfulness belies the turmoil that could be in store.

With three weekends of games to go before the four-team playoff field is set Dec. 5, plausible arguments can be made that nine teams are still in contention to varying degrees. Of those nine, two are undefeated (Georgia and Cincinnati), and the other seven have one loss apiece.

“There are going to be a lot of ‘play-in’ games (before Dec. 5): If you lose, you’re out; if you win, you survive,” said Gary Stokan, CEO of Peach Bowl Inc. and a close observer of the playoff selection process. “Several of those type games are happening this weekend.”

The remaining contenders:

-- Georgia, ranked No. 1 again this week, obviously will be in the playoff if it wins its next three games – Charleston Southern, Georgia Tech and the SEC Championship game – and likely will be in even if it loses the last of those three to Alabama by a close score.

-- Alabama, ranked No. 2, will make the playoff field if it closes the regular season with wins over Arkansas and Auburn and then beats Georgia for the SEC championship. But wins in its final two regular-season games, followed by a close loss to Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, would spark great debate about whether the Crimson Tide should be the first two-loss team to make the playoff. “This could be the year you see that happen,” Stokan said. It could help Alabama’s case, he said, that four of its six SEC West opponents are ranked in the CFP selection committee’s top 25 this week.

-- Oregon, No. 3, can seal a playoff berth by beating No 23 Utah on the road this week, rival Oregon State next week and probably Utah again in the Pac-12 title game. Anything less than all of that, however, and the Ducks won’t make the playoff. “If they lose to Utah once, that opens the door for Cincinnati,” Stokan said.

-- Ohio State, No. 4, can count on a playoff berth if it arrives at Selection Sunday as a one-loss Big Ten champion. But that requires wins in remaining regular-season games against Michigan State and Michigan and in the Big Ten title game.

-- Cincinnati, No. 5, has a path to the playoff if it beats SMU and East Carolina in remaining regular-season games and No. 24 Houston in the American Athletic Conference title game. But even with all of that, the Bearcats would need at least one of the four teams above them to lose and also would need to avoid being surpassed by one or more teams currently ranked behind them.

-- Michigan and Michigan State, ranked Nos. 6 and 7, respectively, are still in playoff contention as long as they’re still in the Big Ten East race alongside Ohio State.

-- Notre Dame, No. 8, can’t be completely ruled out if it wins its final two regular-season games against Georgia Tech and Stanford, which are a combined 6-14. But the Fighting Irish, whose only defeat was to Cincinnati, still would need a lot of help from other teams, such as two-loss champions to emerge from the Pac-12 and Big 12 and losses by Alabama and Cincinnati.

-- Oklahoma State, No. 9, could get consideration as a one-loss conference champion if it closes the regular season with wins over Texas Tech and No. 13 Oklahoma and wins the Big 12 title game. But for a team to ascend from ninth to the top four at this point would require chaos.


Some of Saturday’s key games that could affect the playoff race:

No. 21 Arkansas (7-3) at No. 2 Alabama (9-1): An Alabama win would clinch an SEC Championship game berth against Georgia. The Crimson Tide has won its past 14 meetings with Arkansas.

No. 3 Oregon (9-1) at No. 23 Utah (7-3): Despite the disparity in rankings, the Utes are favored by oddsmakers to win this game at home. If that happens, the CFP’s top four won’t look the same next week.

No. 7 Michigan State (9-1) at No. 4 Ohio State (9-1): An Ohio State win could set up a showdown at Michigan next week for the Big Ten East title.

SMU (8-2) at No. 5 Cincinnati (10-0): A Cincinnati win would keep the Bearcats in position to move into the top four next week if Oregon loses to Utah.