Road to the College Football Playoff: Rivalry games loom large

Georgia running back James Cook breaks off a 40-yard run against Charleston Southern during the first quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia running back James Cook breaks off a 40-yard run against Charleston Southern during the first quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The AJC’s weekly update on the playoff race

The journey to the College Football Playoff will go through Ann Arbor, Mich., and Stillwater, Okla., among other places, this weekend. It also will make the first of two stops in Atlanta.

The final weekend of the regular season brings high-stakes games for teams still in contention for playoff berths, with rivalry implications further fueling some of the key matchups.

No. 1 Georgia can all but clinch a playoff spot by completing an undefeated regular season with a win over 35-1/2-point underdog Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The winner of No. 2 Ohio State at No. 5 Michigan will enter the Big Ten Championship game in the CFP’s top four. No. 3 Alabama needs a win at Auburn to preserve a shot at a playoff berth even if it loses to Georgia in the SEC title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 4.

No. 4 Cincinnati needs a win at East Carolina to stay on track toward becoming the first team from a “Group of Five″ conference to reach the CFP. No. 6 Notre Dame will remain within striking range if it wins at Stanford. No. 7 Oklahoma State will cling to playoff hopes if it wins at home against No. 10 Oklahoma.

“There’s only one team you can say is pretty much a lock for the playoff: Georgia (if it beats Tech),” said Gary Stokan, president of Peach Bowl Inc. and a close observer of the playoff selection process. “I don’t see any scenario where a No. 1 Georgia, even if they were to lose to No. 3 Alabama, would fall lower than No. 4.”

The Ohio State-Michigan winner is securely in the four-team playoff -- unless, Stokan noted, it is upset by Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota in the Big Ten title game. Stokan likes Cincinnati’s chances of making the playoff if it remains undefeated by beating East Carolina and then Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game, but he thinks the Bearcats’ biggest threat could be Oklahoma State if the Cowboys defeat Oklahoma and then No. 8 Baylor in the Big 12 title game to reach “Selection Sunday” as a one-loss conference champion.

Then there are the interesting cases of Alabama and Notre Dame.

Wins over Auburn and Georgia clearly would put Alabama in the playoff, but it’s debatable whether the Crimson Tide would get in with a win over Auburn and a close loss to Georgia. In that scenario, it’d help Alabama’s case, Stokan said, if No. 9 Ole Miss and No. 25 Arkansas – two teams the Tide defeated – close their regular seasons with wins over Mississippi State and Missouri, respectively.

Notre Dame will need some help to make the playoff even if it finishes the regular season 11-1 by beating Stanford. “Notre Dame needs some combination of Alabama to lose, Cincinnati to lose and for the Big 12 or Big Ten champion to have more than one loss,” Stokan said.

No two-loss team has reached the playoff in the event’s seven years, a history that Alabama also would face if it loses to Georgia (or Auburn).

The CFP selection committee will update its rankings twice more: on Tuesday and Dec. 5. The top four teams in the Dec. 5 rankings will comprise the playoff. For whatever it’s worth, if the current rankings remain unchanged, the semifinal matchups would be Georgia vs. Cincinnati (in a rematch of last year’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, won by UGA 24-21) and Ohio State vs. Alabama.

POTENTIAL PLAYOFF MOVERS

This week’s games that could affect the playoff race:

No. 1 Georgia (11-0) at Georgia Tech (3-8), noon Saturday, ABC: Playoff selection committee chairman Gary Barta this week said Georgia has “the best defense in the country” and a “top-10 type offense.”

No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) at No. 5 Michigan (10-1), noon Saturday, Fox: Barta said the Buckeyes’ 49-0 halftime lead over Michigan State last week “certainly gets your attention,” but he called the Wolverines a complete and well-balanced team as well. The committee is “looking forward to watching” these rivals play, he said.

No. 3 Alabama (10-1) at Auburn (6-5), 3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS: Auburn enters the “Iron Bowl” with losses in its past three games against Texas A&M, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

No. 4 Cincinnati (11-0) at East Carolina (7-4), 3:30 p.m. Friday, ABC: The Bearcats finally made the playoff committee’s top four this week and must avoid an upset loss to stay there. “The strength of schedule is always a conversation with Cincinnati,” Barta said. “It still was a conversation this week, but they played an 8-2 SMU team (last week) and … controlled both offensively and defensively.”

No. 6 Notre Dame (10-1) at Stanford (3-8), 8 p.m. Saturday, Fox: At this point, Notre Dame’s Oct. 2 home loss to Cincinnati looms large for both teams’ playoff chances.

No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1) at No. 7 Oklahoma State (10-1), 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: The in-state rivalry known as “Bedlam” is heightened by both teams’ top-10 rankings and the possible playoff implications. According to ESPN’s “Allstate Playoff Predictor,” Oklahoma State has a 37% chance of reaching the playoff if it wins this game and Oklahoma a 26% chance if it wins.

BEYOND THE PLAYOFF

The CFP committee also will set the matchups for two bowl games that aren’t part of this season’s playoff: the Fiesta and Peach. Teams likely in play for the Peach, on Dec. 30 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, include the winner of the ACC Championship game (which will match No. 17 Pittsburgh against No. 18 Wake Forest, No. 20 N.C. State or No. 23 Clemson); No. 6 Notre Dame; No. 9 Ole Miss; and No. 12 Michigan State.

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