Best- and Worst-Case College Football Playoff Scenarios

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterNovember 18, 2016

Alabama head coach Nick Saban (left) and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney (right)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban (left) and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney (right)Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

When your head hit the pillow last Saturday night, you were probably exhausted from a day that saw three of the Top Four and five of the Top 10 teams in the nation fall.

You thought the College Football Playoff picture would be blurry, messy and impossible for the selection committee to sort through. 

In the end, the three upsets to those Top Four teams—No. 2 Clemson (to Pitt), No. 3 Michigan (to Iowa) and No. 4 Washington (to USC)—didn't do much to the rankings. Clemson and Michigan maintained their spots in the Top Four this week, and Washington held on to the sixth spot as a one-loss Power Five team that controls its conference-championship destiny.

Current College Football Playoff Rankings
RankTeamRecent Result
1Alabamavs. Mississippi State (W)
2Ohio Stateat Maryland (W)
3Michiganat Iowa (L)
4Clemsonvs. Pitt (L)
5Louisvilleat Houston (L)
6Washingtonvs. USC (L)

What if more chaos ensues between now and Selection Sunday? After what happened last week, it's irresponsible to think that it's impossible.

What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the CFP based on marketability, overall team talent and diversity of styles?


Best Case

  1. SEC champion Alabama
  2. Big Ten champion Michigan
  3. ACC champion Clemson
  4. Pac-12 champion Washington

Four conference champions. All worthy of their spots. All with stars who add more sizzle to the playoff hype machine.

This bracket would give us a full month of buildup, and Alabama head coach Nick Saban would get a month to prepare for Washington quarterback Jake Browning and his explosive wide receivers in a national semifinal. It would also create a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup between Michigan and Clemson—two programs with differing styles and dynamic coaching personalities who will provide plenty of buzz.

What's more, the national title-game possibilities would be super spicy.

Jim Harbaugh vs. Saban? A rematch of last year's national title game between Alabama and Clemson? Browning and Co. vs. Michigan's defense? An old-school, throwback title matchup between championship-starved Clemson and Washington?

Every one of these potential national title games would be tremendous.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
Michigan head coach Jim HarbaughLeon Halip/Getty Images

It's already clear the selection committee is on board with the Wolverines and Tigers.

"We evaluate the complete resume," selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. "You know, in Michigan's case, although they lost to an unranked team, they do have three wins against current CFP Top 10 teams. As you look at Clemson, they have three wins against current CFP Top 25 teams as well as the head-to-head over Louisville."

So how do we get this exact bracket? It's simple. 

Michigan needs to take the rest of its games, win big over Ohio State on rivalry weekend and do the same over Wisconsin or Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game. That would solidify the Wolverines in the No. 2 spot, since they would beat what likely will be two CFP Top 10 teams in the final two weeks of the season.

If Clemson defeats Wake Forest and South Carolina and wins the ACC Championship Game (likely over Virginia Tech), there's no way to keep the Tigers out. Without the signature victories during the final three weeks, though, they'd fit in behind Michigan.

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Clemson QB Deshaun WatsonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

Washington would have to win out in the Pac-12, which would include a victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup and a solid opponent from the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game to solidify the fourth seed.


Somewhat Realistic Worst Case

  1. One-loss non-SEC champion Alabama
  2. One-loss ACC champion Clemson
  3. Two-loss Big Ten champion Wisconsin
  4. One-loss Big 12 champion West Virginia

If you thought last year's national semifinals were blowouts, get ready for these two to put you to sleep long before the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.

To allow West Virginia in, the Big Ten East has to knock itself out first. That would mean a Michigan win over Ohio State, with Wisconsin then working over the Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship Game. That'd give everybody in the conference two losses, which means Wisconsin's win in Indianapolis would give it the conference's only bid.

The Badgers would then lose to Clemson thanks to a Tigers offense that will thrive with a month to prepare. Wisconsin isn't capable of lighting up the Clemson secondary like Pitt did last week when it stunned Dabo Swinney's crew. 

On the other side of the bracket, West Virginia will have to run the table to earn the honor of getting shut down by Alabama's ultra-athletic defense in what likely would be the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl due to the Crimson Tide's proximity to Atlanta. It wouldn't be as attractive of an Alabama team, though, because it will be coming off an SEC Championship Game loss to either Tennessee or Florida in that same building.

Yeah, you could get Alabama vs. Clemson again in the national title game. That'd be fun. But the semifinals would be dreadful, and the title game would be worse if one of the potential underdogs managed to spring an upset. 


Absolute Worst Case

Oh yeah; let's get weird!

  1. Two-loss SEC champion Florida
  2. Two-loss Big 12 champion Oklahoma State
  3. Two-loss Big Ten champion Nebraska
  4. Three-loss Pac-12 champion Washington State

Is that scary enough?

Here's how this goes down: Florida would have to beat LSU and Florida State and take the SEC Championship Game over Alabama—which would be fresh off an Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. Alabama, with back-to-back losses, would be on the outside looking in due to the absence of an SEC title and a complete meltdown during the final two weeks of the season.

That would give the Gators a conference championship and three straight wins over ranked opponents, and make them impossible to ignore in the playoff picture. How they'd get the No. 1 seed would be the result of mass chaos around the country.

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Head coach Jim McElwain leads the Florida Gators onto the field before the game against the North Texas Mean Green at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

No. 11 Oklahoma State would slip into the No. 2 seed thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker over West Virginia and by beating an Oklahoma team in "Bedlam" that will have lost to those same Mountaineers (they play this weekend). Oklahoma State's loss to Baylor won't look that bad, and the loss to Central Michigan on a play that should never have been allowed will be addressed.

"The selection committee is aware of what transpired in that football game," Hocutt said. "Oklahoma State's record is 8-2 (right now). At the same time, the selection committee is aware of what transpired in that football game."

LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 12: Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers leads the team on the field before the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Memorial Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Bran
Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Then comes Nebraska.

For the Cornhuskers to sneak in, Michigan and Ohio State must lose this weekend to Indiana and Michigan State, respectively. At that point, Penn State can win out and play in the Big Ten Championship Game with two losses without the threat of the Wolverines or Buckeyes making the playoff as team without a conference title. Two-loss Nebraska, now ranked No. 18, will beat the Nittany Lions. By virtue of winning the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers would slide into the third seed in the worst-case playoff scenario.

Washington State will win a Pac-12 title game over Colorado but will do so after being topped by those same Buffaloes this weekend in Boulder and beating Washington in the Apple Cup on rivalry weekend. 

The ACC would be left out after Clemson falls to Wake Forest on Saturday, South Carolina next week and then to three-loss North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. Those Tar Heels would be playing in that contest after Virginia Tech throws away its Coastal hopes on rivalry weekend to Virginia.


With Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Michigan and Washington at the forefront, the playoff possibilities look solid. But if more chaos ensues, things could get ugly in the third edition of the College Football Playoff. 


Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.


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