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Drawing the Map: Every Team’s Path to the College Football Playoff

With Rivalry Week capping off the regular season, all that stands between now and the official College Football Playoff rankings are the conference championship games. Rivalry week saw LSU and Washington State effectively eliminated from playoff contention, along with a severe blow to outsiders UCF with the loss of their Heisman candidate QB McKenzie Milton.

Going into the final week, there are 8 teams fighting for 4 spots. As it stands right now, the rankings are as follows:

  1. Alabama (12-0)
  2. Clemson (12-0)
  3. Notre Dame (12-0)
  4. Georgia (11-1)
  5. Oklahoma (11-1)
  6. Ohio State (11-1)
  7. Michigan (10-2)
  8. UCF (11-0)

So what scenarios do teams like UCF and Michigan need to get in? Is it as simple as “win or go home” for Alabama and Clemson? These are questions that will dominate the week’s college football conversation until the final rankings are revealed on Sunday.

Bama is ranked #1 for a reason, and nothing will change that if they take care of business in the SEC Championship Game against #4 Georgia. If the Tide lose in Atlanta, their playoff hopes aren’t done. As long as it’s close, the committee will still consider a 12-1 Alabama as the best 1-loss team not named Georgia. As such, Alabama would be ahead of #5 Oklahoma and #6 Ohio State despite losing their conference championship game. The Crimson Tide are all but a lock.
Clearest Path: Win
Path with Loss: Game is close or Loss by Ohio State/Oklahoma

Clemson doesn’t have the luxury of being able to lose. Their marquee wins are a 28-26 road win over #19 Texas A&M and a 27-23 home win over #20 Syracuse. That’s it. Facing an unranked Pitt in the ACC Championship Game, Clemson would need losses by #4 Georgia, #5 Oklahoma, and #6 Ohio State to even have a chance at remaining in the Playoff. It really is as simple as “win or go home.”
Clearest Path: Win
Path with Loss: Loss by Georgia, Losses by Oklahoma/Ohio State/UCF

The Fighting Irish locked up a Playoff spot with their win over USC Saturday in the Coliseum.

The path for the Bulldogs is even more straightforward than Clemson’s. A win over #1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game puts Georgia in the College Football Playoff. A loss means they’re out. Simple as that.
Clearest Path: Win
Path with Loss: Losses by Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and UCF

The Sooners have put themselves in a good position to get in. With #1 Alabama playing #4 Georgia, all Oklahoma has to do is win their rematch against hated rivals #14 Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game to get another chance at the Playoff. They’ll need to win big if Alabama loses to Georgia, but other than that it’s win or go home.
Clearest Path: Win, Loss by Georgia
Path with Loss: None

The win over #7 Michigan was huge. Not only did it keep the Buckeyes hopes alive, but it propelled Ohio State right into the middle of the Playoff hunt. A win in their matchup with #21 Northwestern is the first thing that they need. After that, Ohio State needs #1 Alabama to win against #4 Georgia. If Georgia wins, then Ohio State NEEDS a loss from #2 Clemson. In both scenarios, they’ll go head to head with #5 Oklahoma and #8 UCF (head to head win over Michigan eliminates them) for the final Playoff berth, so losses by either the Sooners or Knights would also be helpful.
Clearest Path: Win, Losses by Georgia and Oklahoma
Path with Loss: None

Their blowout loss to #6 Ohio State has put the Wolverines well out of reach of the Playoff without nearly ALL possible chaos scenarios going in their favor. With 2 losses that came against 2 of the only 3 highly ranked opponents they’ve faced (which screams “overrated” to analysts and the committee) and no conference championship, Michigan is way on the outside.
Clearest Path: Loss by Georgia, 3 Losses by Clemson/Ohio State/Oklahoma/UCF

The Knights needed a lot of dominoes to fall last weekend, and a lot of them did. Losses by then #4 Michigan, #7 LSU, and #8 Washington State mean that UCF will move up a step closer to the College Football Playoff. Still, they need a lot of help. With the loss of QB McKenzie Milton, who the entire country has rallied around since his gruesome knee injury against USF, the American Conference championship game against Memphis is a lot less of a given than it was Friday morning.

To make things worse, as the committee showed by only bumping UCF up to #8, they don’t view the Knights as the same team without Milton at the helm. If UCF can still manage a blowout win without Milton, the Knights will need a loss from #4 Georgia to be in the conversation. In a 4-way race between themselves, #5 Oklahoma, #6 Ohio State, and #7 Michigan, UCF would probably still fall short. As a result, the Knights will also need at least 2 extra loss from Oklahoma, Ohio State, or Clemson to have a shot.

The New Year’s Six is a lock if they win, but the ultimate goal for the last 2 years is still a bit too far out of reach.
Clearest Path: Blowout Win vs. Memphis, Loss by Georgia, and 2 losses by Clemson/Ohio State/Oklahoma
Path with Loss: None

What happens if absolute chaos is on the menu for championship weekend. What if Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and UCF ALL lose? If this happens, then A) Hell has officially frozen over, and B) 9-3 Florida, 9-3 LSU, and a possible 10-3 Pac-12 champion Washington could enter the conversation. Washington would have the most legitimate claims of these 3 outsiders since they’d actually have won their conference championship, something the CFP committee cares deeply about, but LSU has been a committee favorite all year and could sneak their way back into the conversation.

Still, this is incredibly unlikely. Even if every team in the top 8 loses their championship games, the final 2 spots would almost certainly still go to two of those losers. It would become an argument over which losses were better than others, most likely going to #4 Georgia as described in their path with a loss. Such is the system we’ve created with the College Football Playoff.


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