There was little question which team would lead the initial College Football Playoff poll. No. 1 Alabama stood apart, as expected, and remains the SEC’s most obvious playoff hope. Clemson followed at No. 2, Michigan at No. 3, and Texas A&M surprisingly broke into the initial ranking at No. 4.
But despite the early returns, several other SEC teams remain alive in the playoff hunt. Texas A&M is the most obvious, but Auburn is right there at No. 9. No. 11 Florida and No. 13 LSU round out teams that could still get into the championship grouping.
Auburn has a game against No. 1 Alabama left the final week of the regular season that could launch it to the SEC title game, and LSU has the Crimson Tide and Aggies left on its schedule. Florida might even have a shot if it can make through the rest of its schedule undefeated and earn a spot in the SEC championship game.
It’s clear at this point that the committee does not as have much respect for Washington, which is No. 5 despite being undefeated. Thanks to the relative weakness of the Pac-12, the Huskies have zero margin for error. College Football Playoff committee chairman Kirby Hocutt specifically pointed to strength of schedule and wins over .500 teams.
“The margins are razor-thin, especially when looking at the two that were just compared,” Hocutt said during the ESPN broadcast. “We do a deeper dive – that’s our job as a committee.”
But while Washington is on the outside, a conference championship could be the difference maker – we saw this happen in 2014, when Baylor moved to No. 5 and TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 after conference championships were taken into account. Leading a conference plays no part at this point of the rankings.
“Conference champion is very important, but that won’t be discussed for several more weeks,” Hocutt said.
However, this seems like a prime opportunity to push for a pair of SEC teams. Washington is far from infallible and the Big 12 is all but eliminated. This potentially opens a second spot for the SEC. With five teams in the top 13, the conference is poised to capitalize.
Let’s say Auburn beats Alabama. The Tigers would get the spot in the SEC championship game and likely get a shot at the playoff at 12-1. Alabama could still more than likely make the game anyway, perhaps even over undefeated Washington. LSU could do the same thing, though it would need wins over both Alabama and Texas A&M to make it happen. Texas A&M needs Washington to lose, but that’s obviously possible.
The College Football Playoff has never featured a pair of teams from the same conference – much less the same division – but it has also never seen a conference eliminate itself this early. With plenty of mayhem left on the schedule, this could be a first.
Five teams control their destiny – probably
Despite the four teams at the top, five teams still very much control their own destiny. Alabama, Michigan and Clemson simply need to win its games and all can stick right where they are in the rankings. Washington also just needs to win the remainder of its games, and it should be able to jump the second SEC team and make the playoff by the conference champion tiebreaker. If Ohio State wins the matchup against Michigan and finishes 12-1 and conference champions, it would make the playoff. Every other team likely needs some level of help.
Washington will determine Texas A&M’s chances
The Aggies were ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff ranking, but they might still have a tougher road to the playoff than many. Texas A&M needs an incredible amount of help to win the conference, and it’s hard to imagine a one-loss non-conference champion to get in over an undefeated Pac-12 champion. If Washington finishes undefeated, it might be nearly impossible for Texas A&M to get into the playoff.
Wins matter more than losses
Several one- and two-loss teams pushed their way into the conversation despite losses. Ohio State sits at No. 6, ahead of Louisville, even though the Buckeyes have a loss to Penn State. Ohio State is powered by wins over No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 14 Oklahoma. Likewise, Penn State pushed its way into the top 12 of the rankings thanks to its win over Ohio State. That will likely penalize Washington, which had a suspect non-conference schedule and is playing in a down Pac-12.
The Big 12 is in trouble
It was expected after Baylor’s and West Virginia’s collapses on Saturday, but the Big 12 looks to be out of luck. Oklahoma was the top team in the playoff ranking at No. 14, and Baylor, Oklahoma State and West Virginia all finished between No. 17 and 20. Granted, Oklahoma was No. 15 in last season’s initial poll. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have games left against No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 TCU to catapult itself up the charts. Good night, Big 12.