Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
Seems easy, right? But …
Over the previous four years of the College Football Playoff, only three Power 5 teams have finished the regular season undefeated — Florida State in 2014, Clemson in 2015 and Alabama in 2016 — and none of them won the national title. History tells us more chaos is coming in the second half of the season, as there haven’t been multiple undefeated teams from the Power 5 conferences at the end of the regular season since 2012.
There are only two Saturdays before the 13-member selection committee releases its first ranking of the season on Oct. 30. Here are some scenarios that could still unfold and make choosing their final top four more difficult than it appears today:
Is the Pac-12 done?
It seems far-fetched to think otherwise. Washington, Stanford and USC each have two losses already. If either Colorado, Oregon or Washington State defies the odds and finishes as a one-loss conference champion, the Pac-12 winner would be considered by the selection committee — considered, but probably not chosen, unless there are multiple upsets above them in the rankings. Keep in mind that the Pac-12’s pool of one-loss teams will shrink this weekend, as Oregon (5-1) is at Washington State (5-1). Colorado (5-1) also has a difficult trip to Washington following its loss at Southern California.
The Pac-12’s problems extend beyond the teams’ records. The one-loss teams simply don’t look good enough to finish in the top four, and it’s improbable any of them will run the table because of it. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, there’s a 96 percent chance the Pac-12 champion will have multiple losses. Scheduling also is a concern, as Colorado’s nonconference strength of schedule is No. 117, Washington State’s is No. 126 and Oregon’s is No. 130.
In order for the Pac-12 to be taken seriously again, Notre Dame, most certainly, would have to lose. The Pac-12 also would need some other help, like a two-loss ACC Coastal Division champion, or Boston College, to win the ACC. The same could happen in the Big Ten, if a two-loss Michigan State or Wisconsin wins the league. Another way the Pac-12 could sneak back in the debate is if the Big Ten and/or SEC definitively eliminates the possibility of having two teams in. No matter how you line it up, the Pac-12 is in the worst possible playoff position of the Power 5 conferences, but there’s no way to truly eliminate a champion until you see how the other leagues fare.
What does Notre Dame in the CFP mean to everyone else?
It means trouble for the Big 12 and Pac-12. There are no undefeated teams remaining in either of those conferences, so as long as the Fighting Irish are winning, they’re also blocking the way for both. The best-case scenario for either league is to produce a one-loss conference champion, and that still wouldn’t measure up to an undefeated Notre Dame team. If somehow USC or Stanford wins the Pac-12, Notre Dame could potentially own the head-to-head over both. Don’t rule out the possibility of Notre Dame and Michigan in the playoff. Michigan’s only loss is to the Irish, and if the Wolverines run the table and win the Big Ten, their overall résumé could wind up being better than Notre Dame’s.
If Notre Dame loses, that’s when not having a conference championship to play in will hurt them. Notre Dame has to impress the selection committee with 12 games, while other potential one-loss contenders will have one final chance at a statement win against a ranked opponent in conference championship games. It could mean the difference between No. 4 and No. 5.
Can two Big Ten teams get in?
Yes. If one-loss Michigan wins the Big Ten and Ohio State’s only loss of the season is a close one to the rival Wolverines in the regular-season finale, the committee could still consider the Buckeyes a top-four team, as long as the committee members agree they are “unequivocally” one of the four best.
Here’s another option, though seemingly less realistic: Iowa (5-1) narrowly beats an undefeated Ohio State team in the Big Ten championship game. Yes, Iowa. With Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan last weekend, it opened the door for the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten’s West division. If Iowa finishes 12-1, there’s a 66 percent chance the Hawkeyes will go to the CFP, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor.
Can the SEC still get two teams in?
Yes, but it’s going to be much more difficult now that Georgia has lost. One way it can happen: One-loss Georgia, Florida or Kentucky wins the SEC, and the committee takes that conference champion and the runner-up, Alabama, assuming the resulting loss would be the Crimson Tide’s lone defeat. The other, equally as difficult way, would be for LSU to run the table and the win the SEC — with Alabama’s only loss to LSU. The Tigers only have a 3 percent chance to win out, though, according to FPI.
What happens if Clemson loses a game?
Not much — unless it’s this weekend to NC State.
The biggest risk to Clemson’s playoff chances is finishing 11-1 and missing the ACC title game after losing to either NC State or Boston College during the regular season. (Yes, two-loss Boston College can still win the Atlantic, and Clemson is at BC on Nov. 10.)
Here’s the reality: FPI gives NC State just an 11 percent chance to pull off the upset this weekend and a measly 1.4 chance to win out and finish with a 12-0 record. If it does, though, the committee would more than likely be looking at NC State in its top four instead of Clemson.
How does the Big 12 get into the CFP now?
Oklahoma wins and Notre Dame loses. Let’s start there. The best-case scenario would be for a one-loss Oklahoma to avenge its regular-season loss to rival Texas by beating the Longhorns when it matters most — in the Big 12 title game. Oklahoma has gotten into the playoff before with both (A) a suspect defense and (B) an October loss to Texas (2015). The Sooners can’t afford to lose again, though, and they still need the Irish to stumble, because the odds of the selection committee taking a one-loss Big 12 champ over undefeated Notre Dame is slim.
That’s not all, though. As long as LSU and Michigan are in the picture, the possibility of two teams from the Big Ten or SEC also remains. The good news? The Big 12’s playoff position isn’t as dire as the Pac-12’s right now. Oklahoma still has a 22 percent chance to make the semifinals, compared with Washington’s 4 percent, according to Playoff Predictor.
Is there enough chaos in the world to give UCF a shot with another unbeaten season?
Sure, but you’re looking at a scenario in which the entire sport is turned upside down: Michigan State or Wisconsin wins the Big Ten; a two-loss team wins the ACC; a two-loss team wins the Pac-12; a two-loss team wins the Big 12; Notre Dame loses. All or some combination of that would certainly open the door for debate, but the committee has made it perfectly clear how important strength of schedule is, and UCF still doesn’t have it. The Knights’ opponents are a combined 14-24, with the lone Power 5 win versus Pitt (3-4). The only opponent UCF has played that is over .500 is Memphis (4-3).
In the CFP era, only two Group of 5 teams entered bowl season undefeated: Western Michigan in 2016 (13-0) and UCF in 2017 (12-0). In those final CFP rankings, Western Michigan ranked 15th and UCF ranked 12th.
It helps UCF that Cincinnati and South Florida also are undefeated and could be ranked by the selection committee, but they’re also all in the American Athletic Conference East Division. As of now, UCF has a 0.2 percent chance to reach the playoff, which makes it the only Group of 5 team with more than a 0.1 percent chance, according to the Playoff Predictor.