We are now six weeks into the college football season. Some teams have played six games. Yep, we’ve already reached the halfway point for some teams, including some of the main Playoff contenders. The back half of the schedule will be where we can really separate who the top teams are from those who will fall behind. It starts this week with three matchups between teams in or around the Top Ten. Florida-LSU, Alabama-Texas A&M, and Michigan-Michigan State are just three of the games that will start to bring us some separation at the top of college football. It’s been a wild ride to the halfway point so far, with no teams really stepping up that we can point to. It might be even crazier as we head towards the finish, but someone will step up eventually. Or, at the very least, some teams will do just enough to earn that Playoff spot.
So, what teams have done enough so far to put them in prime position? First of all, let’s be clear that the main challenge of college football is not losing. Every team in a Power Five conference who has reached this point with either zero or one loss is in the Playoff picture. Some might be in more of the spotlight than others, but if you reach the end of the season at 12-1, you’re in solid shape. 13-0 and you’re basically a lock. While no one may have spoken about the Pitt Panthers yet this year, they’re just eight wins away from being seriously in the conversation. That’s not something that most teams can say at this point.
Week 6 CFP Implications: Teams Still in Playoff Contention
To this point, we have been slowly eliminating teams that lost their chance at the Playoff for this year. Now, though, it’s a lot easier to list those remaining in contention than those out of it. So without further adieu, here are the teams that still have a shot, no matter how slim. It’s not that many.
AAC: Houston, Memphis, Temple
ACC: Florida State, Clemson, Syracuse, Duke, Pitt, North Carolina
Big Ten: Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Big XII: TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
Mountain West: None
Pac 12: Utah, Stanford, California, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona, USC, Washington
SEC: Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Auburn
Sun Belt: None
Independents: Notre Dame
As we can see, just six weeks into the season and we’re already down to just 38 remaining contenders. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Toledo doesn’t really have a chance. Those teams in the American Conference do, though, and they need to be taken seriously. Temple has a dominant win over Penn State, who has not yet lost another game, and the Owls get a shot at Notre Dame in a few weeks. Houston has the weakest potential Playoff resume of these three, but still has a road win over Louisville and a game against another P5 opponent (Vanderbilt) coming up. Memphis has a decent road win over Bowling Green and gets to take on Ole Miss at home this week. I will give the AAC’s Playoff potential full treatment in an extended article later in the week, but let’s suffice for now to say that we have real potential to see our first Playoff-buster in year two of the Playoff, especially if the power conference favorites continue to disappoint.
As we promised last week, we will discuss the Michigan Wolverines’ Playoff outlook after they beat Northwestern. We were going to discuss Michigan as long as they won, even if the game was close and unimpressive. Well, that Michigan win was anything but. Michigan’s defense is one of the best in the country and that offense was scary good against a strong Northwestern defense. Jim Harbaugh has arrived. And he has announced that we need to take Michigan seriously.
The Wolverines have a luxury that (almost) no other one-loss team in the country really has. Michigan basically controls their own Playoff destiny. This doesn’t mean that they are likely to get in if they win out. This doesn’t mean they will have a favorable resume. If Michigan ends this year at 12-1 with wins over Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State, and BYU, with their sole loss being a season-opener by one score on the road against Utah, they will be in the Playoff.
How can I say that with such certainty? There are several reasons. First of all, the committee has shown us that they don’t punish teams too much for playing big nonconference games. They want to encourage those games, so a loss in one of them can’t be crippling. Second of all, that loss is to a team that, at absolute worst, will finish at 8-4 and probably ranked (because they’re not losing to Oregon State or Colorado). Third of all, their nonconference strength of schedule is really good, with the aforementioned Utah game as well as games against another Power 5 team (Oregon State) and a strong independent (BYU), who will most likely end the season in or near the Top 25.
More importantly, though, the selection committee values quality wins. Michigan will have those in abundance, with wins over ranked Michigan State and Ohio State teams, as well as dominant victories over Northwestern and BYU. Northwestern has a favorable schedule ahead of them and should finish at 8-4 or 9-3 at worst. If they get to nine wins, that will be a third ranked victory for the Wolverines. Add in the Big Ten Championship Game, which should add another ranked opponent, and we could easily be looking at a Michigan team that goes 5-1 against ranked teams this season. At worst, the Wolverines would be 3-1 against ranked teams, which should place them solidly in the Playoff.
The final reason that Michigan controls their own destiny is that they are Michigan. They are a brand unlike any other in college football, on that elite upper echelon that so few teams share. The college football world wants to see them successful again. That is why, along with Alabama, Michigan is in a unique position of having a loss but knowing that their Playoff destiny is in their own hands. Of course, there are plenty of undefeateds still in play and Michigan State is a very talented–and angry–team that wants to end all this talk about Michigan. And they very well may. But until the Spartans can take out Michigan, the talk will be all about the maize and blue this week.
So why did I say that Michigan “basically” controls its own destiny? What can keep Michigan out of the Playoff even they end up at 12-1? The only thing I can really see keeping them out would be if the other four power conferences have undefeated champions. Pop quiz: in college football history, how many times have four power conferences had undefeated champions? Answer: