Road to the College Football Playoff: Nine teams with realistic CFP hopes

The College Football Playoff possibilities are dwindling. No. 1 Georgia keeps cruising. The Ohio State-Michigan winner (No. 2 vs. No. 3) a week from Saturday will have a clear path. No. 4 TCU avoided a slip-up in Austin. So the top four remained the same.

ExploreAJC coverage of the Georgia Bulldogs

No. 7 USC, No. 9 Clemson and No. 13 North Carolina are potential one-loss conference champions. No. 5 Tennessee is just on the periphery, while No. 6 LSU could still qualify as a two-loss SEC champion. That makes nine teams fighting for four spots (assuming there isn’t total madness).

The biggest surprise remaining among those CFP-hopeful programs is North Carolina. The Tar Heels, who escaped Wake Forest on Saturday, have entered the discussion as they continue to stack wins. They have two games remaining, home contests against Georgia Tech and No. 24 N.C. State, before facing No. 9 Clemson in the ACC title game.

“They have some upside with playing a ranked N.C. State team and Clemson,” said Gary Stokan, who’s president of Peach Bowl Inc. and knowledgeable about the playoff selection process.

Quarterback Drake Maye ranks among the big breakout stories in college football. A redshirt freshman, Maye has become a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and has NFL evaluators salivating for the 2024 draft. He’s thrown for 3,412 yards with 34 touchdowns. Maye and his offense are why North Carolina is relevant here.

“He certainly should be up for the Heisman; there’s no doubt about it,” Stokan said. “The numbers he’s throwing up. And you look at their offensive production compared to their defense, it’s probably not as complementary as some other teams.”

Meanwhile, the Trojans face their toughest stretch of the season. They face rival No. 16 UCLA this weekend, and with the Bruins’ own CFP aspirations having come to an end, they would love to spoil USC’s bid. The Trojans end the regular season against rejuvenated No. 18 Notre Dame before playing for the Pac-12 championship.

ExploreLatest win further separates No. 1 Georgia from other unbeatens, CFP committee says

Oregon’s loss to Washington on Saturday helped Tennessee immensely. Volunteers fans have two clear rooting interests: TCU losing and USC losing. Just one of those results would put Tennessee in a solid position. Stokan also noted Vols fans should root for Georgia in the SEC Championship game, given how an LSU victory would muddy the field.

Georgia, barring a stunning meltdown, will be in the CFP. If it wins out (Kentucky, Georgia Tech, LSU), it will be the top seed. That would mean Georgia will play its semifinal game in the Peach Bowl, giving it a tremendous home-field advantage.

That scenario also would mean Georgia played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium three times during the season, which would be a first: Defeating Oregon in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, facing LSU in the SEC Championship game and battling the No. 4 seed in a CFP semifinal. Atlanta, as it turns out, is playing a key role in the Bulldogs’ title-defense campaign.

POTENTIAL PLAYOFF MOVERS:

This week’s games that could affect the playoff race (all Saturday games):

Illinois (7-3) at No. 3 Michigan (10-0), noon, ABC: The Illini’s once sterling season has fallen apart with consecutive losses, so this game isn’t as appealing as it appeared two weeks ago. The Wolverines face the Buckeyes in Columbus the following Saturday.

No. 4 TCU (10-0) at Baylor (6-4), noon, Fox: The Horned Frogs won as underdogs in Austin. It hasn’t always been pretty, and it hasn’t been against the toughest opponents, but TCU remains on track for the CFP. It finishes the season with Baylor and Iowa State.

No. 1 Georgia (10-0) at Kentucky (6-4), 3:30 p.m., CBS: This game lost more luster after Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt. Georgia, with the Wildcats and Yellow Jackets remaining, shouldn’t face much adversity before the SEC Championship game.

No. 2 Ohio State (10-0) at Maryland (6-4), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The Buckeyes haven’t always fired on all cylinders, but they’ve won every game by double digits. As for the Buckeyes staying above the Wolverines throughout the season, CFP Chair Boo Corrigan: “Ohio State does have the win over Notre Dame, which I believe at this point as a committee, as we talk about it, that stands out a little bit to us as we’re going through this.”

Miami (5-5) at No. 9 Clemson (9-1), 3:30 p.m., ESPN: The Tigers still are alive for a CFP berth, even if it doesn’t feel like it after they were crushed in South Bend. They’ll need to win out, which would include defeating surging North Carolina in the ACC Championship game.

Georgia Tech (4-6) at No. 13 North Carolina (9-1), 5:30 p.m., ESPN2: The Tar Heels are a hot subject, as covered above. Their national relevance felt improbable earlier in the season when they surrendered a whopping 40 points to Appalachian State in the fourth quarter during a narrow 63-61 win.

No. 5 Tennessee (9-1) at South Carolina (6-4), 7 p.m., ESPN: The Volunteers overcame a slow start and dropped 66 on Missouri last week. They need to defeat South Carolina and Vanderbilt – and look great doing it – then hope for help. The committee values dominance, which Tennessee has shown, and “good wins.” Tennessee has two of those: Alabama and LSU.

No. 7 USC (9-1) at No. 16 UCLA (8-2), 8 p.m., Fox: The Bruins’ CFP bid ended with a brutal upset loss to Arizona. They can spoil their greatest rival’s season this weekend. USC is the only one-loss Pac-12 team, therefore they’re the conference’s only shot at a CFP berth.

Alabama-Birmingham (5-5) at No. 6 LSU (8-2), 9 p.m., ESPN2: The Tigers have UAB and Texas A&M before facing Georgia in the SEC Championship game. Their only path to the CFP, as a two-loss team, is winning out.

On No. 8 Alabama’s supposed fall:

There are some opining that Alabama is dropping off, maybe even that coach Nick Saban is losing his fastball. They won’t qualify for the CFP, and that’ll mean only one title in five years. There’s no question the gap has closed, especially with what Kirby Smart has achieved in Athens, but bet against Alabama on your own volition.

The Crimson Tide are accumulating the top-rated class of 2023 thus far. They’ve secured commitments from six of the top 50 players ranked by 247Sports. A reminder: Alabama has lost three games across the past two seasons. Both their losses this season were by the slimmest margins (they’ve also won a couple games similarly).

If the CFP included 12 teams this year, Alabama would be viewed as a real candidate to win the whole thing. All of this to say: Saban will figure it out.