The path to the playoff for the top remaining contenders

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Updated: November 7, 2019

8:30 AM ET

College football’s one-loss club is about to get more popular.

Week 11 is highlighted by two games featuring two 8-0 teams: Penn State at Minnesota and LSU at Alabama. A loss won’t eliminate anybody, as 14 of the past 20 teams to reach the College Football Playoff have had a loss, but the picture will change based on who loses, and possibly how they lost.

Now that the CFP rankings have begun, and we have an idea of where the teams and conferences stand in the eyes of the committee members, here’s a look at the playoff paths for the seven remaining undefeated teams, and the top four one-loss Power 5 teams, ranked in order of the first CFP Top 25:

No. 1 Ohio State (8-0)

This week: vs. Maryland

Biggest remaining obstacle: Back-to-back games against Penn State and Michigan to end November

Question for the committee: Can 11-1 Ohio State finish in the top four if it doesn’t win the Big Ten East? Yes, it happened in 2016 when the Buckeyes’ only loss was to … Penn State. That was also the season Clemson beat Ohio State 31-0 in the playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. It was a controversial decision by the committee because Ohio State was chosen instead of Big Ten champ Penn State — not with it. The Nittany Lions had two losses that year, including a devastating 49-10 loss at Michigan (a good example of how much double-digits losses can hurt). This year, Penn State is undefeated, and should remain that way until its Nov. 23 trip to Columbus. Even with a loss to PSU, Ohio State would still have a strong résumé with wins against Wisconsin and Michigan, and Cincinnati can also continue to help the Buckeyes if the Bearcats win the AAC. Whether they would be chosen as a second Big Ten team would depend in large part on who wins the Big 12, if the SEC has a second team to consider, and if the Pac-12 champion has only one loss.

FPI says: Ohio State is projected to win each of its remaining games by at least 80%.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Ohio State currently has the highest chance of any team to make the playoff (84.7%). If it loses to Penn State, Ohio State still has a 53.2% chance to finish in the top four.

No. 2 LSU (8-0)

This week: at Alabama

Biggest remaining obstacle: The trip to Tuscaloosa.

Question for the committee: Can LSU finish in the top four if it’s 11-1 but doesn’t win the SEC West? It’s certainly possible, but it could depend in part on how the Tigers lost to Alabama. It’s one thing to lose a close game on the road to a top-four team, but what if Alabama beats LSU by double digits? We’ve seen in the past that it’s extremely difficult for teams to overcome convincing losses. Only four teams have suffered double-digit losses and rebounded to make the playoff, but two were from the SEC in 2017 (both Georgia and Alabama lost to Auburn that year by at least 12 points). According to the selection committee protocol, if LSU doesn’t win the SEC, it would have to be “unequivocally” one of the four best teams. LSU would have to hope that wins against Texas, Florida and Auburn were enough to prove that — and that those three wins carry more weight in the committee room than what any one-loss or undefeated Power 5 conference champion has done.

FPI says: LSU has a 28.1% chance to win Saturday, but is favored by at least 85% in each of its remaining games against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Texas AM.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: The Tigers currently have a 57% chance to make the playoff, a 29.6% chance to win the SEC West, and a 10.4% chance to win the national title.

No. 3 Alabama (8-0)

This week: vs. LSU

Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 30 at Auburn

Question for the committee: Can Alabama finish in the top four if it’s 11-1 but doesn’t win the SEC West? Yes, the Tide has done it before (2017), and with a similarly dreadful schedule (the nonconference schedule that year included Fresno State, Colorado State and a Florida State team that finished 7-6). If Alabama doesn’t beat LSU on Saturday, its best wins would be at Texas AM and at Auburn. The Tide would be relying heavily on the eye test and convincing wins against lesser opponents. It would again have to hope the committee deemed it “unequivocally” one of the four best teams, leaving no doubt that what it had accomplished to that point was better than any one-loss or undefeated conference champion. Would that be possible to say definitively if Alabama lost at home to the only top-10 team it had faced?

FPI says: Alabama has a 71.9% chance to beat LSU, but only a 68.4% chance to win the Iron Bowl. The Tide is still projected to win each of its remaining games.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Alabama has a 71.4% chance to make the playoff, a 70.1% chance to win its division, and a 21.3% chance to win the national title.

No. 4 Penn State (8-0)

This week: at Minnesota

Biggest remaining obstacle: Avoiding an upset

Question for the committee: Can a one-loss Penn State finish in the top four if it doesn’t win at Ohio State on Nov. 23? You can argue that the trip to Columbus is the Nittany Lions’ biggest remaining obstacle — it’s the only game on the schedule they’re not favored to win by at least 70% — but the narrative surrounding the Big Ten’s chances of getting two teams in will flip instantly if PSU loses on Saturday at Minnesota, or is shocked at home by a surprisingly surging 7-2 Indiana team. Penn State might be able to afford a loss at Ohio State — if that’s its only loss, and the Buckeyes go on to win the Big Ten. PSU’s résumé would still include wins against Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, and beating IU looks good this year. If the SEC can consistently overcome playing an FCS opponent, so can Penn State (Idaho), but the Nittany Lions could use a strong finish from Pitt. Penn State’s final ranking would depend in large part on what happens in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

FPI says: Penn State has a 74.1% chance to win at Minnesota, and a 19.5% chance to win at Ohio State.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Penn State has a 52.2% chance to make the playoff, fifth-best behind Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and LSU.

No. 5 Clemson (9-0)

This week: at NC State

Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 30 at South Carolina

Question for the committee: Can Clemson survive a loss? Wake Forest is currently a 7-1 team, while South Carolina is an in-state rival Clemson has to beat on the road, making its 4-5 record irrelevant. Should either one of those teams pull off an upset of epic proportions, Clemson is no longer a lock for a top-four spot. It would further open the door for a second SEC team, a second Big Ten team, or both. It also would increase the chances for a one-loss Pac-12 team, and the Big 12 champion. It also would put more scrutiny on the value of beating the Coastal Division winner, which is guaranteed to have at least three losses, in the ACC title game. A win against Utah or Oregon in the Pac-12 championship, or a win against an undefeated Baylor or one-loss Oklahoma in the Big 12, would be far more impressive. Clemson can clinch the Atlantic Division this week with a win and a Wake Forest loss, but if the Tigers don’t run the table, it might not matter in the end.

FPI says: Clemson has at least a 90% chance to win in each of its three remaining games.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Clemson has a 73.7% chance to reach the playoff, second only to Ohio State. If Clemson wins the ACC, but loses at South Carolina, that sinks to 15.4%.

No. 6 Georgia (7-1)

This week: vs. Missouri

Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 16 at Auburn

Question for the committee: If Georgia loses at Auburn but still wins the SEC, would the two-loss SEC champ still finish in the top four? If Georgia loses to Auburn, but beats Missouri and Texas AM, the Bulldogs will still win the East — which means they’d still have a chance to win it all. And what if they do? Would a two-loss Georgia get in ahead of a one-loss Pac-12 champ, undefeated Baylor, or one-loss Oklahoma, or a second Big Ten team? Many are quick to assume that the SEC champion would never get left out of the playoff — but this is how it could. Without beating Auburn, Georgia would be dependent on wins against Notre Dame, Florida and either LSU or Alabama to impress the committee. It might be enough for the CFP to see its first two-loss team in the top four. Might not. In this particular scenario, though, it’s also possible the committee would instead select the loser of Saturday’s LSU-Alabama game. It would make it more difficult to justify, though, considering Saturday’s winner then would have lost in the SEC title game.

FPI says: The only game Georgia isn’t projected to win is at Auburn (45.3%).

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Georgia has a 14.4% chance to make the playoff — currently seventh-best behind Oregon. If Georgia loses to Auburn, but wins the SEC, its chances of finishing in the top four are still only 19.9%.

No. 7 Oregon (8-1)

This week: Off

Biggest remaining obstacle: The SEC and Big Ten

Question for the committee: If Oregon finishes as a one-loss Pac-12 champ, would it be better than the Big 12 champ and a second SEC or Big Ten team? That’s what the debate for the fourth spot could boil down to, assuming undefeated Clemson is in along with the SEC and Big Ten champs. How Auburn finishes will be a fraction of the equation. Auburn should finish with at least eight wins, hardly making Oregon’s loss in the season opener look damaging. The bigger question is how the rest of the Pac-12 stacks up heading into the conference championship game and Selection Day. Strength of schedule, head-to-head results and championships won “must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar.” Would Oregon “look similar” to the loser of LSU-Alabama, or Penn State-Ohio State, forcing the committee to resort to the tiebreakers?

FPI says: Oregon is projected to win each of its three remaining games by at least 84%.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Oregon has a 24.7% chance to make the playoff — sixth-best this week — but that would increase to 49% if the Ducks finish as one-loss Pac-12 champs.

No. 8 Utah (8-1)

This week: Off

Biggest remaining obstacle: The 30-23 loss to what’s now a four-loss USC team.

Question for committee: What will it take for Utah to finish in the top four if it beats Oregon to finish as a one-loss Pac-12 champ? Utah would have to beat Oregon convincingly in the Pac-12 title game, and it would need upsets elsewhere. In addition to the loss to USC, Utah also has to overcome a weak nonconference schedule that included BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State. Penn State (Pitt), LSU (Texas), Ohio State (Cincinnati) — even Alabama’s win over Duke — all look better. In order for the selection committee to resort to its tiebreakers (conference championships won, strength of schedule, and head-to-head competition), it has to first deem teams comparable. Utah would be in the same debate as Oregon would, but with less of an argument because of its loss and nonconference schedule.

FPI says: Utah has at least an 80% chance to win each of its three remaining games.

Playoff Predictor says: Utah currently has a 5.4% chance to reach the playoff — well below Oregon’s 24.7% — and it would increase to only 19.1% if the Utes run the table and win the Pac-12.

No. 9 Oklahoma (7-1)

This week: vs. Iowa State

Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 16 at Baylor

Question for the committee: What do the one-loss Sooners need to happen to finish in the top four? In addition to winning the Big 12 in convincing fashion and looking like a top-four team, Oklahoma also needs the selection committee to hold the rest of the conference in high regard in its weekly rankings. Nonconference wins against Houston, South Dakota and UCLA aren’t going to help separate the Sooners’ résumé from other contenders, so they need to hope Texas, K-State and Baylor can finish the season in the committee’s top 25. If Clemson lost a game, it would really help Oklahoma get back in the conversation because it would be much more impressive for the committee to watch OU beat a highly-ranked Baylor team in its conference title game than whomever Clemson might face from the ACC’s mediocre Coastal Division. Oklahoma also has to worry about being snubbed in favor of a second Big Ten or SEC team, so it would benefit from an upset in those conferences as well.

FPI says: OU has at least a 70% chance to win each of its four remaining games, including a 74.6% chance at Baylor.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: The Sooners currently have a 9.1% chance to make the playoff, but that will increase to 26.3% if they finish as one-loss Big 12 champs.

No. 12 Baylor (8-0)

This week: at TCU

Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 16 vs. Oklahoma