College Football Playoff CHAOS Is Likelier Than You Think

In which I break down every single possible College Football Playoff selection scenario for you.

I love college football. There’s no other sport quite like it. But this season, the surprises in terms of College Football Playoff rankings have been kinda lacking.

Alabama is MORE dominant than usual, if that’s possible. Clemson has taken advantage of a supremely weak ACC to stay undefeated. And Notre Dame is somehow consistently beating teams they should and not making mistakes, which is a bit abnormal, but here we are.

With Michigan’s gigantic loss to Ohio State this past Saturday, the real drama revolves around the fourth playoff spot – so the pundits say. But I think there’s quite a few ways these last two weeks of college football could go that would make the Playoff Committee’s selection process hair-splittingly difficult. Amazing, hilarious, ESPN-fueled drama would undoubtably ensue. I’ll walk you through them – but first, some background.

How The Playoff Committee Usually Picks

Historically speaking, over its four storied years of existence the College Football Playoff usually selects the four undefeated or one-loss Power 5 conference champions it thinks are best, then seeds them based on strength of schedule. In fact, they’ve only failed to follow this concise formula one time: last year, when the Playoff Committee picked a one-loss non-champion Alabama. Bama proceeded to win everything, as they do.

Because the Playoff Committee picked Alabama over all other conference champions with two or more losses, we can actually predict with pretty good accuracy the order in which the Committee will select teams going forward. In order, the College Football Playoff teams will be selected like this:

  1. Undefeated Power-5 conference champions.
  2. Undefeated Notre Dame (probably).
  3. One-loss Power-5 conference champions.
  4. One-loss Power-5 teams.
  5. Undefeated non-Power-5 teams.

Yes, Notre Dame is the weird wrinkle in all this, but the Committee hasn’t really turned up their noses at them this year like they have at two-loss squads and anyone not from a Power-5 conference in years past. I can’t really make a prediction about a one-loss Notre Dame because that hasn’t happened during the Playoff years.

Based on this model, then, there are only seven teams that can still make the College Football Playoff this year. Here they are as I would rank them:

  1. Alabama
  2. Clemson
  3. Notre Dame
  4. Georgia
  5. Oklahoma
  6. Ohio State
  7. UCF

And here are the relevant, Playoff-impacting championship games next week:

  • SEC CHAMPIONSHIP: Alabama vs. Georgia
  • ACC CHAMPIONSHIP: Clemson vs. Pitt
  • BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP: Oklahoma vs. Texas
  • BIG 10 CHAMPIONSHIP: Ohio State vs. Northwestern

Now let me take you through three different ways this could play out.

SCENARIO ONE: Taking Care of Business

Let’s say the teams that are favored win their games next week: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and sure, UCF. The Playoff Committee likes it when everything just falls into place, but even if this semi-boring outcome occurs, there will be drama.

Undefeated Notre Dame is already a lock for the Playoff. The Committee absolutely will not leave an undefeated Irish team out in the cold. With their wins, Bama and Clemson are also undefeated conference champs and thus in. But what about spot number four?

Well, if we remember our little formula from before, we should next look for one-loss Power 5 conference champions, and…huh. There’s two of them.

The Committee will have to pick between Oklahoma, a squad that’s all offense and no defense with some of the best skill players and offensive line talent in the game, and Ohio State, an inconsistent team that at their best obliterated Michigan and at their worst flopped against Purdue.

Personally, don’t know if you can tell, but I’d give that final slot to the Sooners. I have no faith the Committee will actually do so. Remember the first year of the Playoff? Baylor and TCU were BOTH turned down in favor of the Buckeyes, who went on to validate this choice by winning the title.

SCENARIO TWO: Ooh, An Upset!

Here’s where things start getting really interesting. What if Oklahoma’s already-mentioned lack of defense comes back to bite them against Texas? Or maybe Georgia bests Bama, or Memphis beats a Milton-less UCF? Or, even worse, the Buckeyes get caught napping against the Wildcats?

What if (horror of horrors) PITT BEATS CLEMSON?!?

When an unexpected upset roils the waters of college football, it can be tough to find something solid to hang onto. Yet even in such troubled times, you can cling to these truths:

  • If Georgia beats Alabama, both teams probably make the Playoff. I see the Ohio State and Oklahoma fans unsheathing their long knives, so hear me out. Ohio State and Oklahoma, if they win out, will be one-loss conference champs. Their losses are to Purdue and Oklahoma State, respectively. But Alabama is widely perceived as the best team in the country. The stats do not lie. Their loss would be to a Playoff team, because SEC Champion Georgia makes the Playoff – especially if they beat Alabama. A one-loss Alabama is still better than any other one-loss team, conference championship or no. The Committee knows this, and I think they pick accordingly.
  • If Clemson somehow loses to Pitt, Ohio State and Oklahoma both get in with a win unless Georgia beats Alabama. The ACC is the weakest conference in college football this year. Clemson will not overcome the embarrassment of a loss to the mediocre Panthers, and the dreaded word “Clemsoning” will make a comeback. Barring a Dawgs victory in the SEC Championship, in this situation the Sooners and Buckeyes can clear their New Years calendars.
  • If the Buckeyes lose and the Sooners win, or vice versa, the winning team gets in – again, provided Bama wins the SEC. This is pretty self-explanatory. If I had to pick a likelier loss, the smart money’s on Texas beating OU, but you never know.
  • If UCF loses, they’re out of the Playoff. Again, duh.

I think that’s all my bases covered in the one-underdog-wins category. But there’s yet one more, even funnier situation to consider.


Prepare yourself. Things are about to get weird.

In this possible timeline, the majority of the favored teams lose their games. To recap, I think upsets are likelier in the SEC and Big 12 championships than in the ACC and Big 10, so let’s say Georgia and Texas both win their respective games. We already saw this picture: Alabama and Georgia are both in, problem solved. Same goes for every SEC-plus-another-upset scenario.

This tells us we should stop trying to make an SEC Championship upset happen – for now. With a Bama win, Georgia is eliminated from Playoff contention given their two losses. This leaves us with two clear “locks” for the Playoff: Alabama and Notre Dame.

Now things start getting strange. Bama takes care of business and makes the Playoff, but what if Texas upsets OU and then either Clemson or Ohio State lay an egg against massively inferior competition? In either situation, the non-egg-layer gets the third Playoff spot, and guess who gets the fourth?

That’s right, folks. In this situation, UCF wanted Bama, and now they’ve got ‘em if they win the American. If they don’t, well – quite honestly, I don’t know how that would play out. My money’s on a one-loss Clemson, or if they win, a two-loss Georgia.

Only one more two-upset scenario to cover. If Clemson AND Ohio State both take losses but the Sooners and Tide win, UCF and OU get the last two spots if UCF wins – and if they don’t, see above.

But we can get even more wacky. What if there are three Power 5 upsets? Let’s break it down:

  • Only Bama wins: Your playoff teams are Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, and UCF if they win (if not, two-loss Georgia). I think the Committee still takes Clemson if there’s two open spots. They’ll say something about “body of work” and ease on down the road. Same deal with Georgia.
  • Only Clemson wins: Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia, Alabama. Remember our rule about an SEC Championship game upset? And if that applies, I bet you know where I’m going with these next two possibilities...
  • Only Ohio State wins: Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama.
  • Only Oklahoma wins: Notre Dame, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama.

And now for our ultimate hypothetical dumpster fire: FOUR WHOLE POWER 5 UPSETS.

As we’ve covered, Notre Dame and Alabama are both locks, regardless of what they do. SEC champion Georgia’s probably also in. That leaves one final spot, and we already know who gets it.

Remember all the way back at the beginning of this unfortunately long diatribe? Who comes after one-loss Power 5 champions? That’s right, one-loss Power 5 teams, and there’s only one of them in this scenario: Clemson.

WHEW. We’re done. I hope you’re as pumped as I am for this coming Saturday, but especially for the Sunday after. As we’ve just exhaustively proved, no matter what happens in the championship games, the College Football Playoff selection process will have all the craziness we need next weekend.

No. 1-3

I agree. That egg Ohio State laid at Purdue last month has hatched, and it ate the Buckeyes' chances of making the Playoff!


Assume Alabama and Clemson win, so that looks down 3 spots with Notre Dame. Texas beats Oklahoma. Northwestern beats Ohio State. Memphis beats UCF. That leaves a 2 loss, non-champ Georgia who just lost to Alabama. Unless it was a last second thriller, the committee will be reluctant to set up an immediate rematch between Alabama and Georgia.

Then you have a two loss, non-champ Ohio State, Michigan, Washington State, Oklahoma and one loss non-champ UCF. You also have three loss champs Texas and Washington (assuming they beat Utah).

I would assume Georgia gets the nod even though it would set up an immediate rematch. They would have a much stronger case than anyone else and are ranked higher and losing to the best team. However, what if Bama beats them by 3 touchdowns or more like they have everyone else. Do we give Alabama a bye and call it a day? I don't think the committee rematches a 21 point loser 11-2 against Alabama again. How can you send a 2 loss Michigan over a 2 loss Ohio State that just embarrassed them? You can't send a 2 loss Oklahoma over a 3 loss conference champion Texas that beat them twice. Ohio State just lost to Northwestern after looking terrible most of the year, back to the old Ohio State. A 2 loss Washington State shouldn't get the nod over a 3 loss conference champion Washington that just beat them handily. A 1 loss, non champ, Milton-less UCF? Nope.

I think Texas gets the nod, as weird as it seems saying there is a path for a 3 loss team. I think with that many two loss teams, it goes back to conference championships. Since there would be no two loss conference champions, the choice goes back to Texas or Washington, assuming Georgia was beaten handily by Alabama.

Thomas Swander
Thomas Swander

Go to 6 teams and most of the arguments stop.