For the second straight week, college football was dominated by chaos. If Week 10 was the appetizer, Week 11 was the main course. Over the weekend, no. 1 Georgia, no. 3 Notre Dame, no. 6 TCU, no. 9 Washington, and no. 12 Michigan State all fell, while no. 2 Alabama came back from a fourth-quarter deficit to beat no. 16 Mississippi State. Had the Crimson Tide lost, it would have been the first time since January 1, 1966, that the top three teams in the nation all lost on the same day. On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff selection committee responded to the bedlam with its new rankings.
Third Rankings: Top 2️⃣5️⃣ pic.twitter.com/hRECD5Ninw— College Football Playoff (@CFBPlayoff) November 15, 2017
Alabama ascended to the top spot, with defending champion Clemson; Miami, which thrashed Notre Dame, 41-8; and Oklahoma, who beat Big 12 stalwarts TCU, rounding out the top four. Wisconsin and Auburn are the first two teams to miss the cut, and for the third consecutive week, no. 15 UCF is the highest-ranked Group of Five team. Georgia and Notre Dame, the two teams in last week’s top four that fell, checked in at nos. 7 and 8, followed by Ohio State and Penn State. While it’s hard to argue with the composition of the top four, the committee’s rankings made it clear that under the right circumstances, there are up to a dozen teams with a shot to make the playoff.
It’s been said that chaos is a ladder. Each time a titan of the sport falls, a team lower down the ranking benefits. A two-loss team has never made the playoff (Penn State came close last season), but with this season getting wilder each passing week, the prospect becomes more probable. Ohio State, Auburn, USC, and Michigan all still have potential paths to the playoffs. Washington State does, too, if you think it has the national reputation to push it past more historically relevant teams.
Auburn has the easiest road to glory. The Tigers already checked the first box on their to-do list by walloping Georgia. Assuming they beat Louisiana-Monroe this week, they’ll go into the Iron Bowl against top-ranked Alabama with the SEC West on the line. With a win, they’ll earn a rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship game, and a two-loss SEC champion—no matter if it’s Auburn or Georgia—is a lock to make the playoff. Hell, a one-loss Alabama might sneak in with them.
For Ohio State, the path is simple: Win the rest of your games (and maybe rack up some style points in the process), hope Wisconsin stays undefeated going into the Big Ten championship, and then run the Badgers off the field. That alone would likely leave the Buckeyes just outside the top four, but with a little help (say, Oklahoma losing the Big 12 championship, or some shenanigans ruining the ACC’s bid) it could make the field. USC’s road to the playoff is similar. The Trojans would need to win the rest of their games, and hope Washington State beats Washington to make the Pac-12 title game. USC would need a little more help than Ohio State and would benefit from Wisconsin losing to Michigan and the Buckeyes to deflate OSU’s strength of schedule. Washington State would need to win its final two games and then hope the committee thinks it’s a different team with a wider fan base and more commercial appeal.
The path to the playoff for Michigan is a little trickier. The Wolverines would have to win their final two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, and Michigan State and Penn State would each have to lose one of their final games against the Big Ten’s basement dwellers. That would give them the edge in the Big Ten East. Then Michigan would have to hope the committee still thought highly enough of the Badgers that a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game would negate bad losses to Penn State and Michigan State, and send them through to the final four. Not the likeliest scenario, but still not impossible.
Last weekend was meant to give us more clarity on which teams are genuine contenders, and which are just pretending. This weekend will struggle to match the same level of excitement. On Saturday, five of the top six teams played ranked matches. This week, Wisconsin vs. Michigan is the only game in the country that pairs two top-25 squads. It may seem like the mayhem has subsided, but don’t get too comfortable. This is just the calm before the storm, and rivalry week is just around the corner.