College Football Playoff 2017: How Top Teams Outside the Top 4 Can Get in

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2017

College Football Playoff 2017: How Top Teams Outside the Top 4 Can Get in

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    College football's version of a Christmas morning that occurs every week began Tuesday night with the release of the College Football Playoff rankings, with Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson sitting atop the initial standings.

    If the season ended today, those four would be in.

    But, as we know, there's plenty of football left to be played, and with the chaos that has taken place, especially in the past couple of weeks, there will almost certainly be a shake-up most weekends.

    So, what other teams have the best chance of usurping one of the Top Four? What must happen for them to sneak in? In some cases, there are teams outside the Top Four that can get in without some of the top teams even losing.

    The only two SEC teams that could get in are already in the Top Four.

    The Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC still have teams on the outside looking in with the opportunity to bulk up their resumes. Then there's the Pac-12, which is probably too weak to put a one-loss team in the final four without a major shake-up at the top. That's why Washington isn't on the list.

    Let's take a look at how some of the top contenders could wiggle into the Top Four.

Miami Hurricanes

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    Why they're out

    Miami hasn't gotten all that much respect all season, despite an undefeated record. While the Hurricanes haven't lost, they've also not been one of the most powerful teams on the field so far.

    The 'Canes struggled to beat Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina—but they did win. Coach Mark Richt's team hasn't played the best schedule yet, but there are plenty of opportunities out there.

    Also, with star running back Mark Walton out for the rest of the season, Miami doesn't have any top-end star power. In other words, the committee doesn't think it will be undefeated for long.

            

    What must be done

    Simply put—as will be the case for all the teams on the list—the Hurricanes must need to continue winning. Unfortunately, any loss suffered this year likely will put Miami behind several of the upper-tier one-loss teams.

    The chance for resume-boosters begins this weekend when Virginia Tech comes to Coral Gables. Then on November 11, the Hurricanes host Notre Dame. If Miami is 2-0 over the next two weeks, it will jump all the way from 10th into the Top Four.

    Then there's still the ACC Championship Game, which should come against Clemson or North Carolina State. If Miami falters in one of the next two weeks, it had better hope to beat a one-loss Tigers team or there's no chance they'll get in with one loss. 

            

    Playoff chances: 35 percent

    All you can ask for is to control your own destiny; Miami does.

    If the Hurricanes run the table, there's no way a team with the name power of the "U" with wins over Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Clemson is left out.

    Win two out of those three and look good in the other, and there's still an outside chance. Like most, I'll need to see a spotless record to believe this team can do it. But with an opportunistic defense and if they continue to find heroes at the right times, the Hurricanes can get in.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Why they're out

    Penn State was all set to make it to the College Football Playoff had it just taken care of business last weekend against Ohio State.

    But the Buckeyes overcame a 35-20 deficit in the fourth quarter and came all the way back for a 39-38 win to knock the Nittany Lions from the ranks of the unbeaten. That caused them to tumble down to seventh in the initial rankings, but there's still an opportunity for them to get back in the playoff.

    They need some help now, though.

           

    What must be done

    The remaining schedule is really going to hurt coach James Franklin's team, with only Michigan State remaining that could give the Lions a notable victory. 

    On one hand, that means there's a good chance they run the table. On the other, Ohio State doesn't look like it's going to lose again, either.

    The best chance PSU has to get back into the playoff is for the Buckeyes to lose to Michigan, putting the Lions in the Big Ten Championship Game. There's also a scenario where if OSU wins out to get in and others ahead of PSU lose, the Lions could get in.

    If you're PSU, you're cheering for somebody on Notre Dame's tough schedule to knock it off and for Georgia to lose to Auburn and in the SEC Championship Game to Alabama. That would be a good start. 

           

    Playoff chances: 25 percent

    A glance ahead at the remaining slate told you last Saturday's Ohio State-Penn State game was virtually an elimination game for the playoff.

    Had the Buckeyes lost, there was no way they could have gotten in. PSU still has a chance, but it needs help from others and it cannot lose again.

    Of course, Penn State needs to produce some style points with big wins. If they do, they've got a Heisman Trophy front-runner in Saquon Barkley and a huge fanbase, so those are things that could help their case with the committee.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Why they're out

    The loss to Oklahoma early in the season continues to haunt the Buckeyes, and even though they've been one of the hottest teams in the country recently, it wasn't enough to get them in the Top Four.

    In that game against the Sooners, a normally dynamic defense couldn't get to Baker Mayfield enough, and an inexperienced secondary got torched. Since then, the Buckeyes have improved on both sides of the ball.

    The committee will take notice if OSU runs the table and keeps throwing up huge numbers. It looks like quarterback J.T. Barrett's name is in the Heisman Trophy race to stay, and if they win out and beat an undefeated Wisconsin team in the conference championship game, it'll be tough to keep them out.

           

    What must be done

    The way the committee values head-to-head matchups, with evidence abound in the initial release of the College Football Playoff rankings, the Buckeyes need two things to happen.

    First of all, they must win out. Of course, that's the case with any one-loss team on this list.

    They've already been winning with style points, they're one of the biggest name teams in the entire country and it's never a bad thing to have a massive fanbase with a legendary coach like Urban Meyer in the final four to make things more interesting.

    Finally, the Buckeyes need the Sooners to lose. All things considered, if both teams run the table, OU can (and should) go by virtue of the head-to-head win. 

          

    Playoff chances: 50 percent

    It doesn't look like Ohio State will lose to anybody else on its schedule, barring a hiccup. 

    Any game against Michigan State could go either way, considering how good the Spartans defense is, but OSU will be heavily favored. Yes, the game against Michigan is normally a grudge match, but the Buckeyes have superior talent and should win that one, too.

    So, if they get past what looks like it will be Wisconsin in the conference championship game, OSU will have a good chance. It just needs Oklahoma to lose to give the Buckeyes a little boost in the committee's eyes.

    They look like the best one-loss team in the nation on the field. Will that ultimately matter?

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Why they're out

    Oklahoma was the first Top Five team to fall victim to the Cinderella Cyclones in Ames, Iowa, as coach Matt Campbell's upstart Iowa State team got the Sooners.

    To put it bluntly, OU's defense has been atrocious this year. If the Sooners are going to get back into the mix, it's got to be because of quarterback Baker Mayfield and the high-flying offense. If you want reasons why the one-loss Sooners aren't in, look to the defensive side of the ball.

    But there's plenty of football left to be played.

           

    What must be done

    Beginning with Bedlam this week against Oklahoma State, the Sooners need to win—and win impressively. Considering they're fifth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, they don't have to go too far up to make it into the Top Four.

    Also, they've got a convincing win over Ohio State to boast as well. That victory is going to age well, and considering the Sooners still have Oklahoma State and TCU on the schedule, they'll have some major high-profile opportunities.

    That's not even mentioning a quality West Virginia team lurking at the end of the year. If the Sooners win out, they'll be in the Top Four. Any loss, and they're toast.

            

    Playoff chances: 60 percent

    This weekend is huge because the Cowboys are playing such good football lately, but the Sooners have a good chance of winning. 

    If they go 2-0 over the next couple of weeks, the Sooners will leapfrog some teams into that Top Four. OU's ranking is healthy, and that's good news for a team with some impressions left to make. 

    As SI.com writer Lorenzo Arguello wrote regarding OU and Ohio State: "If both schools win out, including their respective conference championship games, Oklahoma will definitely be ahead of Ohio State and in position to reach the playoff if one or more of the current Top Four falter."

TCU Horned Frogs

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    Why they're out

    The season started so well for TCU, but the Horned Frogs squandered so many opportunities and suffered a loss to Iowa State in a penalty-riddled setback this past weekend in Ames.

    As the crowd rushed the field, the Horned Frogs watched their College Football Playoff hopes dashed. The offense let them down, as quarterback Kenny Hill looked like the inconsistent signal-caller he was a year ago, and the Frogs looked like they never quite woke up.

    The defense was strong yet again, but it wasn't enough. Now, they've got a hole out of which to climb.

            

    What must be done

    It's good news TCU gets to come back home this weekend to face a better-than-its-record-indicates Texas team in what could set up to be a major letdown spot. It's hard to envision coach Gary Patterson letting that happen, though.

    If the Frogs take care of business, they will travel to Norman in two weeks for what is setting up to be a massive game against the Sooners. If OU takes care of business this weekend in Bedlam and TCU knocks off the Sooners, it'll be a victory the committee will take notice of.

    The Big 12 is so good this year that there's a concern of the "cannibalization."

    But as analyst Jerry Palm told the Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton"A 12-1 Big 12 champion has got a shot at the playoffs, but with so many games left among the Top Four teams that may not actually happen." 

    The Frogs must make sure that's them.

           

    Playoff chances: 50 percent

    Since Oklahoma gets the slight nod from here in a head-to-head battle, the Horned Frogs have a little lower percentage. But it's still tied with the Buckeyes as the best on this list among the one-loss teams.

    If the Frogs get past a gauntlet game this weekend against Texas, that's going to be a fun game to watch when they travel to Oklahoma. That will essentially be a playoff game, with the loser being eliminated from contention and the winner having an excellent shot to get in.

    Considering the loss to Iowa State last weekend, having a chance this high is as much as TCU can ask for.

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Why they're out

    Virginia Tech's two-touchdown home loss to Clemson this season is going to loom large until the Hokies prove they're better than they played in that Sept. 30 game.

    They were doomed by a freshman quarterback in Josh Jackson playing like an inexperienced freshman for the first (and only) time all season. They also couldn't stop Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant, who cemented his reputation in that game.

    This is the biggest sleeper team on this list, but it's going to have a couple of opportunities to make a big impression.

             

    What must be done

    You may think it's crazy to have Virginia Tech on this list. After all, the Hokies were ranked 13th in the initial College Football Playoff standings, and that seems so far out of the running that we shouldn't be thinking about them, right?

    Don't count them out.

    All that needs to happen for Virginia Tech to be on the cusp of the conversation is for them to go to Coral Gables this weekend and beat Miami convincingly. Then they'll need the Hurricanes to beat Notre Dame to boost that victory.

    Tech needs to hope Clemson beats North Carolina State this weekend, gets in the ACC Championship Game and then to deliver payback to the Tigers with a convincing win. If that happens, the 12-1 Hokies must be considered as one of the four best teams.

             

    Playoff chances: 30 percent

    Is it a long shot? Yes. But the winner of this weekend's game between Tech and Miami will hold a major upper hand in representing the Coastal Division in the conference championship game.

    The first meeting between Clemson and Tech looked lopsided, but a payback win could prove to the committee just how much the Hokies improved over the season, and that only loss could be written off as a young team finding its sea legs.

    It also wouldn't hurt for two or three of the one-loss teams ahead of them to fall off the map, but that's bound to happen. In a way, the Hokies control their destiny.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Why they're out

    Wisconsin plays in the weak Big Ten West Division, where the Badgers should (and normally do) dominate most seasons. 

    Yes, the Badgers are undefeated, but a look at their schedules proves they haven't truly beaten anybody of consequence. An early-season 31-14 win over Florida Atlantic looks somewhat better, and the ones against Northwestern and Maryland are OK, but that's really it.

    There's a lot of work left to do to move up from ninth in the initial rankings.

             

    What must be done

    It's a must that the Badgers win out. If that happens, it means they close the regular season with wins over Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. That's not exactly a murderer's row, but it's better than what they've faced so far.

    A trip to the Big Ten Championship Game likely would mean a date against a powerhouse program like Ohio State or Penn State. Win, and there's virtually no chance the committee would leave an undefeated team from the Big Ten out of the Top Four.

    If that happened, there would be a major uproar. So, even though the Badgers can't have an impressive resume, they've actually got a legit chance of getting in with one great game against a great opponent.

           

    Playoff chances: 60 percent

    Yes, that's high. But the Badgers are going to go undefeated in the regular season. The only real hurdles are Iowa and Michigan, and neither of those teams can score points. Wisconsin is too fundamentally sound and good on both sides of the ball that, if it's healthy, it'll win.

    It would take a collapse for it not to happen.

    They'll be a heavy underdog against either Ohio State or Penn State in the championship game, but neither of those teams is unbeatable. If coach Paul Chryst gets his players up for that game, and they win, the committee will just see that "zero" in the loss column, and it won't matter.

    The Badgers will be in the playoffs.

            

    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com, and recruiting data is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.   

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.