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

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2017

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

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    There has been more shuffling in the two weeks of the College Football Playoff poll than in a Las Vegas casino.

    You shouldn't bet on it remaining the same, either.

    After the Miami Hurricanes destroyed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Miami Gardens, Florida, last weekend, the undefeated Hurricanes and their dominant defense are finally are getting a little bit of love. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish find themselves down the list and virtually out of the playoff picture.

    Notre Dame could shock everybody, but it needs too much help with teams losing ahead of them. That, coupled with upcoming games against Navy and Stanford, makes the Irish's remaining resume lacking. With no conference title game, ND looks finished.

    The Auburn Tigers' Week 11 annihilation of the Georgia Bulldogs in the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" gives us our first two-loss team on this list in the past three weeks. It also knocks the Bulldogs from the ranks of the unbeaten and a guaranteed playoff participant to needing to fight to get in.

    Head coach Kirby Smart's Bulldogs now can't afford an SEC Championship Game loss to the winner of the Iron Bowl. If that happens, they'll be watching the national championship game from home.

    Then there's Wisconsin, which finds itself on this list for the third straight week despite remaining unblemished. What do the Badgers have to do to prove they belong in the playoff picture?

    Let's take a look at how the fringe few can get in.

Auburn Tigers

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    Why They're Out

    They've been out. It wasn't so much an early-season loss to Clemson in which quarterback Jarrett Stidham got sacked seemingly every time he dropped back to pass. Instead, it was that bad loss to LSU where Auburn blew a 20-0 lead, thanks to some questionable play-calling.

    With two losses, AU needed a lot of help, and it needed to help itself. That's still the case, but there's a possibility it can play its way back in. The best news for the Tigers is those losses were early in the season, and in the "What have you done lately?" world of college football, the back-heavy schedule could be a benefit.

    Will the hiccups be too much to overcome?


    What Must Be Done

    Auburn is playing its way back in, thanks to a surging effort in recent weeks on both sides of the ball.

    After some frustrating moments as AU's head coach, Gus Malzahn is back in good graces and is hitting a sweet spot calling plays. Coordinator Kevin Steele's defense dominated the line of scrimmage against Georgia, holding the nation's eighth-ranked rushing offense to just 46 yards.

    The Tigers needed a dominant performance against the top-ranked team to get in the conversation, and that happened. Now, AU must beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25 and handle Georgia the second time around. If those two things happen, you can't keep it out of the playoffs.

    Yes, the Tigers will have two losses, but they also will have three of the more impressive wins on their resume than any other team in the country.


    Playoff Chances: 45 Percent

    It may seem absurd to put Auburn's chances this high. That's OK—call it ludicrous. But Alabama looks vulnerable on the second level of its defense right now with all those season-ending linebacker injuries.

    This past weekend, Mississippi State did some damage to the Crimson Tide's offensive line too, as redshirt junior left guard Ross Pierschbacher exited the game with an ankle injury. If Auburn can get some plus plays off play action down the field and its other strengths continue to work, it could win the Iron Bowl.

    Playing at home at Jordan-Hare Stadium is a major bonus too.

    It's going to be a tall order to beat Alabama and Georgia (again), but the formula is simple now for Auburn: Win out, and it'll be real hard to keep you out.

Georgia Bulldogs

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    Why They're Out

    They're not in the Top Four because it looked like the entire team forgot to board the bus to the Loveliest Village on the Plains last weekend.

    After a game-opening touchdown drive by the Bulldogs, Auburn steamrolled them the rest of the way, cruising to a 40-17 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The victory put the Tigers back in the thick of the conversation and knocked UGA down a couple of rungs.

    Though the running game still should be considered stout, the loss to Auburn brought to light some real issues. True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm looked lost, and Georgia's vaunted defense had no answers for Auburn's spread.

    It was a thorough setback.


    What Must Be Done

    Georgia needs to win out. That's not going to be easy considering the Bulldogs face hated rival Georgia Tech in the season's final game, and the Yellow Jackets are sneaky good.

    You can normally toss out the records in that game, anyway.

    Then, UGA must either beat Alabama or Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. To do that, the Bulldogs need to play better defense and get better quarterback play. An X-factor to remember is Jacob Eason is on the sideline, and the talented sophomore could replace Fromm if things keep sliding.

    A two-loss Georgia could get in as long as both losses weren't to Auburn, but given how late in the year those setbacks would be, the only safe way for UGA to get in the playoff is to win out.


    Playoff Chances: 45 Percent

    Though Georgia is still firmly in the conversation, it's not a stretch to say the Dawgs are an underdog now. They were exposed against Auburn, and though a rematch favors the loser more often than not, it's hard to envision UGA improving enough to upset Auburn.

    Also, can this team really beat Alabama?

    Kirby Smart has done a good job of managing the game for Fromm this year and letting things come to his quarterback slowly. A strong defense and running game helped. But we're at the point of the season where the Dawgs need a signal-caller they can rely on. 

    Not sure Fromm has the chops just yet to lead his team to the playoff.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Why They're Out

    Left for dead after a bewildering performance against Iowa two weeks ago where the Hawkeyes somehow scored 55 points against a young but talented Buckeyes team, head coach Urban Meyer's team rebounded a week ago.

    A 48-3 annihilation of Michigan State that left OSU as the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten East division gives it a sliver of hope. Still, that disappointing loss to the Hawkeyes and a decisive setback against Oklahoma earlier in the year keeps the Buckeyes a long shot.

    But if they handle business against an improving Michigan team and beat Wisconsin in the conference championship game, they can sit back, watch and hope for help. 


    What Must Be Done

    The biggest point of the equation comes, like with all these teams, in taking care of business. Another loss would be the third for Meyer's team, and there's no way the Buckeyes could recover from that. They should feel privileged to still have an outside chance with two losses.

    But that's the way college football has gone this year.

    Winning out would give the Buckeyes a better resume than Notre Dame, so they'd jump the Irish. Then, they would have to hope that the winner of the ACC Championship Game (between Clemson and Miami) would eliminate the other one, and that the SEC crumbles in just the right way to help OSU.

    The best-case scenario for that happening would be Alabama beating Auburn and then Georgia to knock those two down a rung. If those things happen, the Buckeyes could go.


    Playoff Chances: 35 Percent

    Yes, that's a lot of "ifs." But any team with two losses will have its fair share of those. 

    The bottom line for the Buckeyes is they aren't in great shape. Though Auburn also has two defeats, the Tigers control their own destiny to an extent with an opportunity to play their way into the SEC Championship Game and get an eye-opening win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl. If they beat Georgia again, they'll be in. 

    Ohio State still needs other things to happen. That's why its percentage isn't as high. But quarterback J.T. Barrett and his offense looked stout against the Spartans, and the defense found another gear, too.

    If OSU can sneak in, nobody will want to play the Buckeyes. 

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Why They're Out

    Frankly and succinctly, it's a good question. To an extent, the Wisconsin Badgers can control their out-of-conference schedule, but Florida Atlantic is a decent win that came earlier in the year. Head coach Lane Kiffin's 7-3 Owls are making that victory look better each week.

    But nobody is impressed with the Badgers' Big Ten West slate. It's tough to argue; that division is awful.

    But that doesn't change how good Wisconsin has looked. The Badgers don't play an exciting brand of football, and they aren't always on national television because of conference darlings such as Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.

    They're not in because they aren't getting any respect.


    What Must Be Done

    More wins like last weekend's defensive dominance of a decent Iowa Hawkeyes team will help.

    No matter how much Wisconsin fans want to grumble right now, the ultimate outcome of an undefeated season is that the Badgers won't be snubbed. They just don't have the grace of some of those other teams; there's little chance the Badgers can lose a game and stay in.

    So, just don't lose a game, right?

    Beating Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium this weekend in Madison would be another strong surge toward the playoff, especially with how well the Wolverines are playing right now. If the Badgers handle that and then beat Ohio State in a championship game in which they'll likely be the underdog, they'll be one of the Final Four.


    Playoff Chances: 60 Percent

    Much like Miami, it's getting harder and harder to doubt Wisconsin.

    All the Badgers do is win. But that's going to get tougher over the next three weeks. The Minnesota Golden Gophers won't be a gimme in the regular-season finale Nov. 25, but a spotlight game against Michigan this weekend is huge for perception.

    Then, even though Wisconsin isn't as talented as Ohio State, it's a tough, hard-nosed team that always finds a way to perform well when it gets to a big-stage game. The Badgers will beat Michigan, and they'll handle Minnesota. But that expected game against the Buckeyes is concerning.

    That's why Wisconsin is docked a full 40 percent chance; it's just hard to bet on the Badgers against the Buckeyes right now.