This is not a democracy. The four teams that are deemed College Football Playoff-worthy will be celebrated after an elaborate, public groupthink come early December.
The selection committee has the utmost power in this regard. It controls the vote. It decides the teams. It shares its collaborative thoughts each Tuesday night, as it did this week with its latest Top 25.
For the most part, there were few surprises. There was a change within the Top Four, although this was an anticipated change. There was movement within and outside the Top 10, although not necessarily a seismic shift.
Still, while the picture is clear to date, the paths for various teams outside the Top Four, Top 10 and even the Top 25 are still there. Some will require only wins moving forward. Some will require a great deal of assistance. Others would need something wild and spectacular.
And some, well, begin making emergency preparations now.
With the official playoff decision now less than a month out, here are the teams still in consideration and their potential paths to the playoff.
The First Four
There exists a plausible timeline in which all four current College Football Playoff teams defeat their remaining opponents and kill off all playoff suspense.
No madness. No anarchy. Just four undefeated football teams from major conferences with conference championships. The end.
If the remaining season plays out as such, this is precisely what will transpire. There might be some shakeups in seeding, but that’s the extent of it if all hold serve.
Possible? Certainly. Likely? It feels like the college football gods will have something to say about this before time is up, although this is an unpredictable group.
Alabama (No. 1): If Nick Saban’s team wins out, it will be the top seed headed into the playoff. Mississippi State is on deck next, and Auburn will follow suit in a few weeks. (More on the Tigers momentarily.) A loss in the Iron Bowl could provide the ultimate playoff shakeup. At the moment, however, Alabama has a stranglehold at the top.
Clemson (No. 2): This is a tremendous stat, courtesy of ESPN.com’s David Hale. Through nine games this season, Clemson has scored 347 points and accounted for 4,396 yards. Through nine games last season, the Tigers posted 348 points and 4,393 yards. It hasn’t always looked perfect, but Clemson has somehow become an underrated No. 2.
Michigan (No. 3): The biggest game is still to come against Ohio State, and the fact it’s being played in Columbus is significant. A victory there would almost certainly give Michigan a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and perhaps a rematch with Wisconsin. Still difficult moments to come.
Washington (No. 4): After a week outside the Top Four, Washington is in. And with USC on deck, a road game at rival Washington State to come and a potential fascinating matchup against a formidable foe in the Pac-12 Championship Game, there are many more quality impressions to be made and also games of great stress.
The 'Control Your Own Fate' Crowd
The first four aren’t the only teams eyeing a vacancy in the top four like a succulent hunk of red meat.
Scheduling will have some say in all of this, and teams outside those already mentioned will have a place in the playoff if they win out.
The "if" is important and necessary, but the possibility is real for at least two teams.
Ohio State (No. 5): The shocking defeat to Penn State, now a Top 10 team in the eyes of the committee, is no longer a shock. It’s a quality loss. If the Buckeyes beat Maryland (very likely), Michigan State (likely), Michigan (tough) and whatever team they play in the Big Ten Championship Game (stay tuned), they’re likely in, assuming Michigan takes care of business moving forward. There are some odd scenarios when it comes to B1G tiebreakers, but Ohio State winning out would almost certainly do the trick.
Auburn (No. 9): Don’t let the ranking fool you. Auburn will crash the Top Four if it beats Alabama and wins the SEC. Injuries and Alabama may have a dramatic say in all this, of course, but Auburn has a uniquely favorable situation, albeit under difficult circumstances. Win out and it is in.
The 'Most Likely Control Your Own Fate' Team
At the moment, this is a group of one. This team is teetering toward the likelihood of controlling its own fate with wins the rest of the way, and one can make the argument it is already at that point.
Whether it’s to that place or not, it’s awfully close at worst.
Wisconsin (No. 7): It’s almost shocking how little Wisconsin is being discussed as a potential playoff cog. The Badgers still play Illinois, Purdue and then Minnesota, which could decide the Big Ten West. From there, it’s a likely rematch against Michigan or Ohio State—two teams Wisconsin fell to in tough, well-played games.
Would a Big Ten Championship Game win mean a spot in the playoff?
Maybeprobablyyesnotsureyet. That’s a word, right?
In Need of Help
Nothing is a given with this group. Losses are not just preferred to those ahead of them, but also quite necessary.
For the following three teams to make the playoff—all of which have different paths to arrive there—something will have to give.
Louisville (No. 6): One would assume the No. 5 team might just slide up in the event that a team in the Top Four lost, although that is not the case here. Because the Cardinals will almost certainly be out of the ACC Championship Game, they would need to jump a conference champion. It’s going to happen at some point in the playoff’s existence, although it likely won’t come easy given the current landscape.
Oklahoma (No. 11): Remember when the Sooners were dead seven days ago? Assistance will still be necessary, but Oklahoma is moving upward with meaningful games still remaining and a strong out-of-conference schedule to stand on. The lack of a conference championship game (coming next year) could play a role in this as well.
Oklahoma State (No. 13): It’s worth emphasizing that two-loss Oklahoma State should only have one loss, thanks to officials' botched call on a Hail Mary that shouldn’t have happened. That said, the Pokes are playing well and have Oklahoma on the schedule. It’s a lot to ask, but not impossible.
The Conference Championship Chaos Contenders
This is the part of playoff madness that has yet to be realized. For the most part over the past few years, conference championship games have played to form. The favorites and playoff hopefuls that were expected to win, won.
At some point, that won’t happen. And the selection committee will then show us just how valuable these conference championships are. Wisconsin was already mentioned above, although the Badgers are not alone.
Colorado (No. 12) and Utah (No. 15): These two teams play one another to close out the year, which could serve as an enormous game in the Pac-12 South. If both can avoid a loss up until that point, the winner could be vaulted into the Pac-12 Championship Game with perhaps even more to play for, especially if Washington is still unbeaten.
Virginia Tech (No. 14 and North Carolina (No. 17): Virginia Tech holds the tiebreaker between the two after a dominating 34-3 victory early in the season, although one of these two teams seems destined to get a crack at Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Again, because it’s hard to know what the reaction might be, it’s hard to estimate what a win for either might mean.
Could Clemson still get in? What about Louisville? What about Virginia Tech or North Carolina? What about a team from another conference entirely?
In Need of Chaos
Help won't cut it. This group needs madness to have any shot at a berth. Not just one loss, or two losses, but the kind of domino effect that would ultimate reshape the entire season.
Hey, why not? Never say never.
Texas A&M (No. 9): Don’t let the ranking fool you. After the loss against Mississippi State and an injury to Trevor Knight, the Aggies’ playoff hopes were drastically hurt. But still, the committee seems to love it some A&M.
Penn State (No. 10): James Franklin has this team playing exceptional ball, and clearly the committee loves the victory over Ohio State. Unless Michigan and Ohio State stumble, however, it likely won’t be enough. But if those losses do come, look out.
Right now, Penn State looks like it could play with anybody.
In Need of Major Chaos
No longer a matter of chaos, these teams require a special kind of college football destruction.
West Virginia (No. 16): Despite having just one loss, the Mountaineers are not a committee favorite. It seems reasonable that West Virginia would continue to climb with more wins against quality teams, starting this week at Texas. Ultimately, even if it wins out, others will need to be removed.
USC (No. 20): The Trojans are rising fast, have a game against the No. 4 team this weekend and look completely different with their new starting quarterback—Sam Darnold. Three losses seem like a deathblow, but this could change some after Saturday. Intriguing and unlikely all at once.
In Need of MASS Chaos
Take shelter. Stock up on canned goods and bottled water. Run as far away as you possibly can and hide.
Florida (NR): A loss to Arkansas dropped the Gators out of the Top 25 entirely, which seems a bit harsh. Still, someone has to win the SEC East and play Alabama. That’s about the extent of it, really.
Minnesota (NR): Hear me out. Minnesota beats Wisconsin, wins the Big Ten West and beats undefeated Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game. Who says no?
(Many of you, but just go with it.)