The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released this week. However, when they do, don’t read too much into them.
Last year was one of the chalkiest years in the past 25 seasons of college football, and a team ranked No. 7 in the first poll made the Playoff field.
In more turbulent seasons like 2014, only one of the top-four from the initial rankings actually made it into the field.
It’s November now which means the return of rivalry games, Alabama actually having to play someone with a pulse, and likely a boatload of upsets.
We entered this past weekend with nine unbeaten teams remaining in FBS. Five of them had the weekend off, and another (Clemson) played an FCS tomato can.
Of the three unbeatens who played FBS opponents, two lost and one (Baylor) had to kick a late field goal to escape against a lousy West Virginia team.
This weekend, two sets of unbeatens go head-to-head, so we’re guaranteed to go from nine to at most five in the span of two weeks.
Below we’ll take a look at which teams still have a realistic shot to get in to the College Football Playoff, based on the criteria the committee has used before. Basically, we’ll assume a team is still alive until they cross a threshold which has definitively eliminated teams in the past.
As a quick reminder, here are the criteria that it normally takes to get one of those top four spots.
Your program is named Alabama
The Crimson Tide have made the Playoff in each of the five seasons. They did it in 2017 despite not winning their division, not winning their conference, having zero wins over top-15 teams, 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 or BYU would either possibly or likely qualify as well.
You are a one-loss Power 5 conference champ
Oklahoma got in this way in 2018 and 2017, Georgia did it 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.
Last year, Ohio State was the first team to finish 12-1 with a Power 5 Conference Championship Game win to be left out. And that required three unbeaten teams, plus another 12-1 major conference champion.
It’s worth noting that the 2018 Buckeyes were also ranked behind an 11-2 Georgia team that didn’t win its conference. So if you’re a team in this category hoping to get in, try not to lose to Purdue by 29 points.
You are a one-loss non-champion 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. (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. Again, we’ll mention that a two-loss Georgia was ranked No. 5 last season without even winning the conference. But as far as the Playoff field is concerned, No. 5 and No. 25 in the final rankings are functionally the same thing.
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.
Right now, two-loss teams aren’t listed below. If things start to get crazy later this year, that category could get added.
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, that list is down to 10 percent of that number.
So who is still alive for the 2019 College Football Playoff race?
Unbeaten Power 5 Teams (7 remaining)
Clemson, Baylor, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, LSU.
No changes here for now. Clemson beat Wofford, Baylor escaped against West Virginia, and everyone else had the week off. Alabama and LSU play this Saturday, as do Penn State and Minnesota. This group will be down to a maximum of five next week.
With OSU, PSU, and Minnesota potentially playing a round-robin (if Minnesota makes the B1G Championship Game) there is no way there will be more than four unbeaten FBS teams left by Selection Sunday.
One-loss Power 5 Teams (6 remaining)
Wake Forest, Utah, Oregon, Georgia, Oklahoma.
Florida suffered its second loss of the season and fell out of this group. Utah and Oregon survived what were expected to be stiff tests to stay alive. Wake crushed N.C. State.
Unbeaten Group of 5 Teams (0 remaining)
SMU and App State both lost over the weekend. SMU had been living on borrowed time for a while following a triple-OT win over Tulsa and a narrow escape against Houston.
App State is a much bigger surprise. The Mountaineers had been rolling through a weak Sun Belt schedule before getting upset at home by Georgia Southern.