How Teams Outside the Top 4 Can Get into the College Football Playoff

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist INovember 4, 2021

How Teams Outside the Top 4 Can Get into the College Football Playoff

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    The College Football Playoff's first rankings of the 2021 season were revealed Tuesday evening, and there were some surprises.

    Undefeated Michigan State checked in at the No. 3 spot, coming off a big win over Michigan last Saturday. And 7-1 Oregon—not undefeated Cincinnati or Oklahoma—checked in at the No. 4 spot of the committee's initial rankings. Undefeated Wake Forest, which looks undoubtedly like the ACC's best team, checked in at No. 9.

    Here's a look at the Top 10 teams the playoff selection committee revealed Tuesday evening:

    1. Georgia 

    2. Alabama 

    3. Michigan State 

    4.  Oregon 

    5. Ohio State 

    6. Cincinnati 

    7. Michigan 

    8. Oklahoma 

    9. Wake Forest

    10. Notre Dame

    While it's not unusual for these initial rankings to look drastically different after Championship Saturday since there are still so many games left, the committee's placement of undefeated teams was quite interesting. Per usual, the committee looks at things like strength of schedule, quality wins and the overall eye test when evaluating teams.

    Let's take a look at what teams outside of the Top Four would have to do to make it into the playoff come December. We'll stick with Ohio State, Cincinnati, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wake Forest, since it looks they all still have realistic playoff hopes. 

No. 5 Ohio State: Win Out and Win the Big Ten and the Buckeyes Are In

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The path for OSU making its third straight playoff appearance this season is pretty cut and dried. The Buckeyes have a pair of games remaining on their schedule that would count as "signature wins" for the committee.

    On Nov. 20, the Buckeyes will face No. 3 Michigan State at home. Defeating the No. 3 team in the country would be enough to knock the Spartans out of the Top Four, most likely. Ohio State then finishes its season per usual with The Game against No. 7 Michigan, and it's on the road. 

    If Ohio State can beat both Michigan State and Michigan, that would clinch the Big Ten East and send the Buckeyes to the Big Ten Championship Game in December. As far as that game is concerned, the Big Ten West obviously doesn't look as strong as it did when Iowa was ranked No. 2 in early October. But it looks like the Big Ten East winner will face a quality Minnesota team. If Ohio State can beat the Gophers (or whoever comes out of the West) by at least two scores, that will put an exclamation point on OSU's case to make it in. 

    Ohio State lost to Oregon at home in Week 2, but that shouldn't affect the Buckeyes' playoff chances too much. The committee clearly thinks highly of Oregon, giving the Ducks the No. 4 spot despite them losing on the road to an unranked Stanford team in overtime on Oct. 2.

    The committee knows that Ohio State still has a chance to make it into the playoff by putting it at No. 5. It just needs to see if OSU can beat Michigan State and Michigan before ranking it inside the Top Four.  

No. 6 Cincinnati: Be Perfect, I Guess? And Hope a Lot of Teams Lose

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    I am so sorry, Cincinnati.

    The Bearcats have gone 17-1 dating back to the 2020 season. And despite being undefeated with a huge road win against No. 9 Notre Dame, the committee still, apparently, doesn't have a lot of respect for Cincinnati.

    The Bearcats are ranked sixth in the country, and it looks highly unlikely that Cincy will become the playoff's first Group of Five team to crack the Top Four. It's incredibly disappointing, watching how good Cincy has been all season. As far as a reasoning for putting the Bearcats at No. 6, CFP chairman Gary Barta told reporters it's directly because of something Cincy has no control over—it being a Group of Five team playing a non-Power Five schedule.

    "The committee has great respect for Cincinnati," he said on ESPN. "The win at Notre Dame is really impressive. When you look at their schedule after that, who else did they beat? That was the question."

    It seems pretty unfair to punish Cincy for not being able to play a Power Five schedule. It looks like Cincy will continue to win out, too. The Bearcats' last four remaining games are against Tulsa, South Florida, SMU and East Carolina. SMU is the best remaining opponent on Cincinnati's regular-season schedule—the Mustangs are 7-1 and third in the AAC standings.

    The Bearcats look on track to face their fellow undefeated team in the conference, Houston, in the AAC Championship. Even if Cincy wins that game big, the Bearcats will need a lot of help to crack the Top Four.

    For starters, it would be ideal for Cincy to have at least a couple of conference champions with two losses. A two-loss team has never made it into the playoff, so having a two-loss Ohio State Big Ten champion or a two-loss Oregon win the Pac-12 would be a good start for the Bearcats. Outside of that, Auburn upsetting Alabama and going to the SEC Championship Game over the Tide would be another shot for Cincy.

    For now, it appears as though the committee hasn't learned its lesson from 2017. That year, undefeated UCF finished its regular season 12-0 but was only ranked as high as 12th. The Knights then upset No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl. At least the committee ranked Cincy inside the top 10 this time, but it looks like the Bearcats will need a lot more help from other teams if they want a shot at the playoff.

    That, and blowing out their remaining opponents would be a start.

For No. 7 Michigan, a Lot Rides on What Ohio State (and Michigan State) Does

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    Michigan's 37-33 road loss to Michigan State last Saturday hurts the Wolverines' playoff chances, but they aren't completely dead. With the loss, Michigan is currently third in the Big Ten East, behind MSU and Ohio State, respectively.

    Essentially, Michigan's playoff hopes depend on the Wolverines winning out. That means Michigan has to defeat Indiana at home on Nov. 6, and beat Penn State on the road the following week. UM then goes on the road to play Maryland on Nov. 20 before finishing the season against Ohio State at home. Michigan has lost the last eight games against the Buckeyes, but if the Wolverines upset OSU, there is a shot for UM.

    That would also depend on what Michigan State does against its remaining Big Ten East opponents. Sparty still has to face Ohio State and Penn State the last two weeks of the season. If OSU defeats Michigan State but loses to Michigan, that opens the door for the Wolverines. Michigan State dropping a game to Penn State with a Michigan win over the Nittany Lions and Ohio State would make Michigan going to Indianapolis a sure bet. If Michigan makes it to the Big Ten Championship representing the Big Ten East, the Wolverines would likely need a big win in the championship game to convince the committee.

    Michigan needs a lot of help to make it into the playoff come December, but it's not impossible. If the Wolverines lose another game, that would effectively ruin their playoff chances.

No. 8 Oklahoma Might Be Able to Crack the Top 4 If It Wins Out Big

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    The Sooners' No. 8 ranking may appear to put OU's playoff hopes out of reach, but Oklahoma has a couple of marquee games remaining on its schedule. The 4-4 Texas Longhorns are unranked in the committee's initial Top 25, so the Sooners' checking in so low isn't too surprising. Oklahoma doesn't have a win over a ranked opponent on the season. The Sooners have also struggled against teams at or below .500, like West Virginia and Kansas, this season.

    But the good news for Oklahoma is that its remaining schedule features a pair of Top 12 opponents. The Sooners go on the road to face No. 12 Baylor on Nov. 13. Oklahoma then finishes its season on the road against No. 11 Oklahoma State. Getting two road wins against Top 12 opponents to finish the regular season 12-0 would set the Sooners up nicely heading into the Big 12 Championship Game.

    Oklahoma will likely play Baylor or Oklahoma State again in that game, and two wins over seemingly quality opponents on the season might be good enough to make it into the playoff. But just like Cincinnati, having at least a couple of two-loss conference champions would help the Sooners even more.

    It's important to note that Oklahoma has missed the CFP just three times in school history, so the Sooners being left out would be a pretty big deal. The real controversy would be if an undefeated Oklahoma makes it in over an undefeated Cincinnati team—but there's still a lot that has to happen for that to come true.

Wake Forest Is Undefeated, but the Committee Appears to Be Ignoring It for Now

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    The most surprising thing about the committee's initial rankings has to be how low—No. 9—undefeated Wake Forest is ranked, despite being 8-0. The Demon Deacons are fifth in the nation in scoring offense, as well, averaging 43.4 points per game. Wake is the clear favorite to win the ACC, and it looks like it's on track to face No. 25 Pitt in the championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    The biggest games remaining for Wake include a road trip to UNC this weekend—Wake lost 59-53 in a thriller against UNC last season. The Deacs then have a home game against NC State on Nov. 13, followed by back-to-back road trips to Clemson and Boston College to finish out the regular season. Here's what CFP chairman Gary Barta said about Wake Forest on Tuesday evening, as transcribed by Deacons Illustrated

    "It's a really solid team, impressive, powerful offense that are putting up points. Obviously last week against Duke. But 8-0—they're undefeated, so any time you go undefeated I don't care what sport you're in or what conference you're in or what level you're playing at, that's hard."

    And then comes the detractor about Wake Forest, which sheds light on why four one-loss teams are ahead of the Deacons.

    "I think the committee would say that their best win was at Virginia. Their strength of schedule, it's not real strong. It's very similar to Oklahoma's," Barta said. "But when you compare it to some other programs above them, it's not real strong.

    "They don't have a signature win. They have some nice wins, but they don't have a signature win."

    An undefeated ACC champion being left out of the playoff would be shocking, but it doesn't appear to be that unlikely. As ESPN's Heather Dinich points out, just two Power Five teams on Wake's schedule are over .500 in 6-3 Virginia and 5-4 Syracuse. Not to mention ESPN's FPI gives Wake less than a 50 percent chance to win its next three games. If Wake finishes its season undefeated with an impressive ACC Championship Game performance, it would be quite shocking to leave both Cincy and Wake Forest out of the playoff.

    If Pitt can win out in its remaining games against Duke, UNC, Virginia and Syracuse, the Panthers would be 10-2 in the ACC Championship. A big win for Wake might help make a lasting impression on the committee.