Analyzing the possible College Football Playoff outcomes prior to the final weekend


In what constitutes a first for the postseason format, as much as three-fourths of the College Football Playoff is already set in advance of Bowl Subdivision conference championship games, wringing almost every ounce of intrigue from the traditionally sweat-inducing final weekend of the regular season.

No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Michigan enter the SEC and Big Ten championship games as heavy favorites against No. 13 LSU and Purdue, respectively. Surprising upsets in one or both games will only impact seeding, not the broader playoff field.

No. 11 Clemson’s loss to No. 20 South Carolina also raised the odds that No. 3 TCU could lose to No. 10 Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game and still reach the playoff. While that scenario isn’t guaranteed, the Horned Frogs’ chances are increased by October’s win against the Wildcats and the dearth of playoff contenders in reserve.

Not once in the format’s eight seasons of existence have two teams been guaranteed playoff berths before conference championship weekend, let alone three.

Southern California defensive end Korey Foreman (0) celebrates after an interception in the fourth quarter against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

Southern California defensive end Korey Foreman (0) celebrates after an interception in the fourth quarter against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

There is even an argument for No. 4 Southern California remaining in the top four with a loss Saturday to No. 12 Utah for the Pac-12 championship. The Trojans’ case rests on wins against No. 16 Oregon State, No. 17 UCLA and No. 19 Notre Dame, but could be undone by adding a second loss – both coming against the Utes.

This uncertainty surrounding USC raises a familiar question in this strangely uncomplex postseason picture: Should the Trojans lose, who will be No. 4?

There are only a handful of scenarios that could unfold following the Power Five championship games. Based on the possibility of losses by one or more from the current top four, here are the ways the playoff could look:

Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC win

This scenario would allow the selection committee to cut and paste Tuesday night’s penultimate rankings for a no-sweat playoff field. There wouldn’t even be any controversy over seeding, since any chance that TCU had of moving up from No. 3 would be removed by the Wolverines’ win against Purdue.

The field: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 TCU, No. 4 USC

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Georgia loses

Where Georgia would rank after losing to LSU would be determined by how the Trojans looked against Utah. After losing to the Utes by a point in October, a convincing victory might push USC ahead of the Bulldogs by virtue of three strong wins to close the regular season and the Power Five championship. Even then, though, that Georgia has spent the bulk of this season as the unquestioned No. 1 will influence the committee’s thinking.

The field: No. 1 Michigan, No. 2 TCU, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 USC

Michigan loses

A loss to the Boilermakers might lead the committee to reevaluate Michigan’s largely underwhelming schedule, with the exception of No. 5 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State. But the Wolverines are protected by that win against the Buckeyes; there’s zero chance the committee promotes a team with the same number of losses, one fewer win and a head-to-head defeat. While dropping the Big Ten championship game wouldn’t knock them out of the top four, that USC would have a deeper collection of wins and the Pac-12 crown might force the Wolverines into a semifinal matchup with Georgia.

The field: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 TCU, No. 3 USC, No. 4 Michigan

Georgia and Michigan lose

This would only lead to a rearrangement of each team’s dance partner. As the only unbeaten team in the FBS, the Horned Frogs would ascend to No. 1.

The field: No. 1 TCU, No. 2 Georgia, No. 3 USC, No. 4 Michigan

TCU loses

The debate in this case would compare TCU to the Buckeyes, and it’s one the Horned Frogs should win. The one catch: Kansas State scoring a blowout win could cause the committee to reassess the Horned Frogs’ unbeaten record, which includes multiple wins by a single possession. Overall, OSU may have stronger top-end wins — Penn State and Notre Dame — but TCU would tout eight victories against bowl teams, including that earlier win against the Wildcats.

The field: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 USC, No. 4 TCU

USC loses

Again, this would bring Ohio State back into the mix. That this would be the Trojans’ second loss makes this a complicated comparison, since both teams would have the same number of wins and a second-place finish in a Power Five conference while the Buckeyes would hold one fewer loss. USC would have stronger overall victories, including a more impressive win against a common opponent in the Fighting Irish. In the end, though, the argument may come down to which team the committee believes in more: OSU, which spent most of this season nipping at Georgia’s heels, or USC, which surged in the second half behind the play of quarterback Caleb Williams?

The field: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 TCU, No. 4 Ohio State

USC and TCU lose

No, not even USC and TCU losing would bring No. 6 Alabama into the playoff. As in the case where only the Trojans lose, this would lift the Buckeyes back into the top four and lead to a conversation over which team is ranked No. 3 and avoids Georgia in the semifinals. Would the committee want to avoid a rematch of Ohio State and Michigan, which would put the Buckeyes at No. 4? That’s probably a moot point. If OSU wouldn’t have the resume to leap into the top four in the case where TCU is the only contender to lose this weekend, this scenario would keep the Horned Frogs at No. 3.

The field: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 TCU, No. 4 Ohio State

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff possibilities entering the final weekend



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