It’s hard to believe, but one third of the 2018 college football regular season is now done.
With most teams now four games into their schedules, it’s time to look at who still has a legitimate shot at a national championship.
This will be the fifth season for the new College Football Playoff.
So far the committee that chooses the four teams each season has established a pretty consistent track record for the qualifications that give programs a chance to get in.
As much talk as there has been about resumes and quality wins and game control, the first question still largely boils down to “have you lost zero or one games?”
If the answer to that is “no” then better luck next year.
Here’s a look, in order of likelihood that a team will get in.
Your program is named Alabama
The Crimson Tide have made the Playoff in each of the four seasons. They did it in 2017 despite not winning their division, not winning their conference, and entering the postseason off of a two-score loss in their regular season finale.
The normal rules don’t apply.
Until you see the Tide on the outside of the Playoff looking in, just assume they have an auto-bid every year.
You are an undefeated Power 5 conference champ
No unbeaten Power 5 champion has ever been left out of the field. Major independents like Notre Dame would qualify as well.
You are a one-loss Power 5 conference champ
Oklahoma and Georgia got in this way in 2017, Clemson and Washington did in 2016, Alabama, Michigan State, and Oklahoma in 2015, and Ohio State, Alabama, and Oregon did in 2014.
TCU and Baylor didn’t in 2014, but they were co-champs and didn’t play a conference title game.
No team that has finished 12-1 with a Power 5 Conference Championship Game win has ever been left out.
You are a one-loss Power 5 team
If your regular season resume is strong enough and your loss is early enough in the year, you can overcome not winning your conference. Ohio State got in this way in 2016, thanks to road wins over top-10 Oklahoma and Wisconsin and a home win over top-5 Michigan.
Wisconsin missed out after losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2017.
Alabama got in this way in 2017, despite losing its last game and having zero wins over top-15 teams.
Again, the rules don’t apply if you are coached by Nick Saban. (See “Your Program Is Alabama” above)
You are a two-loss Power 5 conference champ
No two-loss team has ever made the College Football Playoff, but they have gotten close. Penn State was an 11-2 Big Ten champ in 2016 and finished No. 5 in the rankings. Ohio State did the same thing in 2016.
Once you lose your second game, you are all but eliminated from the Playoff discussion.
In a 2007 scenario, where the season devolves into a Thunderdome of massive upsets and everyone has two losses, you’d probably have a decent shot. But that doesn’t happen often.
You are an undefeated Group of 5 conference champ
UCF went 12-0 and was ranked No. 12 in 2017. They were behind a three-loss Auburn team, and one spot ahead of 9-4 Stanford.
Houston went 12-1 in 2015 and was ranked No. 18.
This is ridiculous and unfair to basically half of FBS.
But theoretically, an unbeaten Group of 5 champ could get one of the top four spots.
The season started with all 130 FBS teams having at least some shot at making the final four. Now, only 40 teams are left in one of those groups that has a good chance to make it. Five more from the Group of 5 are at least theoretically in the picture. So who is still alive for the 2018 College Football Playoff race?
Unbeaten Power 5 Teams (15 remaining)
Alabama, Cal, Clemson, Colorado, Duke, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, NC State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Stanford, Syracuse, West Virginia
One-loss Power 5 Teams (25 remaining)
Auburn, Baylor, Boston College, BYU, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Texas Tech, Utah, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Washington, Washington State, Wisconsin
(Ole Miss is not eligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions)
Unbeaten Group of 5 Teams (5 remaining)
Buffalo, Cincinnati, North Texas, UCF, USF
But in reality, they’re probably out already.