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CFP scenarios

CFP Scenarios for the Contenders: Who Needs What?

There’s just one week of play to go – what are the CFP scenarios for each team in the hunt?

The penultimate College Football Playoff Rankings have been released, and we know who has a direct path to the playoff now more than ever before. Some have better shots than others, and the road is more obvious for some, but there are more teams than usual that have at least a slightly realistic chance of finding themselves in the top four come next week.

Let’s go down the list, in order of the CFP Rankings released yesterday, and break down what scenario each contender needs to have a hope of landing in the playoff.

CFP Scenarios: Who Needs What?

1: Georgia (12-0)

Game: vs. No. 3 Alabama (11-1) in the SEC Championship Game

Outlook: Georgia feels like a lock no matter what. A win over Alabama would secure the top spot for the Bulldogs, and a close loss doesn’t feel like it would take them out of the top four. Perhaps a blowout loss would be enough to knock Georgia out, but even that doesn’t feel certain.

It’s been a weird year at the top of college football, and Georgia has far and away been the most consistent team in the nation. If there’s a lock for the playoff, it’s the Dawgs.

2: Michigan (11-1)

Game: vs. No. 13 Iowa (10-2) in the Big Ten Championship Game

Outlook: There is no scenario in which a 12-1 record and Big Ten title don’t do enough to put the Wolverines in the CFP – a win over Iowa would lock Michigan up.

A loss would make things much more dicey, though. If there were enough chaos, then maybe, possibly, perhaps an 11-2 Michigan with a over a top-10 Ohio State could sneak in, but that would require so much help for it to even be slightly feasible. You’re talking losses for Alabama, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, and Oregon, and even then it might not be enough. So, it’s pretty simple: beat Iowa and dance, or lose and go home.

3: Alabama (11-1)

Game: vs. No. 1 Georgia (12-0) in the SEC Championship Game

Outlook: If Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, there is no way it’s not in the playoff. It would be the best win any team could claim in the country, and the Crimson Tide are already ranked in the top four. A victory would make the top four reveal a formality in Tuscaloosa.

A loss would almost definitely eliminate Alabama. It feels hard to completely and entirely write off Alabama’s chances to sneak in regardless of anything, but the amount of back bending the committee would have to do to justify that makes it impossible in reality, right? RIGHT?!?

4: Cincinnati (12-0)

Game: No. 21 Houston (11-1) in the AAC Championship Game

Outlook: I want to believe that a win in the AAC Championship Game secures a spot in the CFP for Cincinnati, but there are believable scenarios where that isn’t the case.

If the Bearcats squeak one out against the Cougars, Michigan and Alabama win, and Oklahoma State demolishes Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game, would it surprise anyone to see Georgia remain in the top four, the Cowboys jump the Bearcats, and for Cincinnati to be left out in the cold? Even if Cincinnati beats Houston by a reasonable amount but not a total annihilation, say 14, would that save it from a leapfrog?

I don’t think there’s a way Cincinnati can lock itself into a top four spot. The best thing to do would be to mop the floor with Houston – that would give the Bearcats the best chance of being bulletproof. But it is possible that even that wouldn’t be enough.

What we do know, though, is that the Bearcats have to bring home the AAC title. A loss to Houston would ensure no CFP invite comes.

Again, this isn’t to say Cincinnati won’t be in. Michigan and Alabama could eliminate themselves, and Oklahoma State is only a threat if it beats Baylor. But it’s a loss murkier for the Bearcats than the three teams in front of them.

5: Oklahoma State (11-1)

Game: vs. No. 9 Baylor (10-2) in the Big 12 Championship Game

Outlook: A win over Baylor is a must. This all falls apart without that.

Assuming Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 championship, style points could be a factor. If the Cowboys were to run the Bears out of the building, it would give them a significantly better shot at securing a top-four spot next week. That’s not to say that’s necessary; any win would have Oklahoma State unquestionably jump Michigan, Alabama, and/or Cincinnati if any of them were to lose their games.

But what if Michigan, Alabama, and Cincinnati all win? Then Oklahoma State would need to check the blueprint used by 2014 Ohio State: punish your conference title opponent so severely and relentlessly that the committee feels physically compelled to put you in the top four. Granted, it helps when your OSU acronym stands for “Ohio State” and not “Oklahoma State,” but if it’s between the Cowboys and Bearcats, I think we know where the committee would prefer to lean.

All Oklahoma State can control is its own game, and winning in general is more important than winning with a gaudy score line, but it sure would be nice.

6: Notre Dame (11-1)

Game: Idle

Outlook: So, uh, wow.

Apparently, Brian Kelly is gone, and CFP Chairman Gary Barta said his exit could impact how the Irish finish in the final rankings.

First, I have to say how absolutely ridiculous this is. You’re telling me that a team can be ranked differently at this point in the season because its coach bolted with no warning? The players who play on the field won the games, even if the coaches called the plays. Does Kelly dipping out invalidate what Notre Dame’s players did on the field in 2021? Not for me.


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Second, this doesn’t bode well for the Irish sneaking into the playoff, though it certainly does feel possible. At a minimum, it would require at least two of Michigan, Alabama, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma State to lose, which isn’t outlandish, and Oregon taking a dive would also be helpful. But when you take into account what Barta said, it feels like it would take more than the minimum for Notre Dame to get the benefit of the doubt.

Still, it’s absolutely possible. If three of Michigan, Alabama, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma State lose, the Irish would have to jump some of them at least, and they’ve only two spots away from the top four. If all four lost, the outlook here looks quite different.

Gotta love a system that punishes teams for winning enough during the season to earn a 13th game, often against quality competition, while others get to sit back and let the chaos allow them to fall forward, huh?

7-8: Ohio State (10-2) / Ole Miss (10-2)

Game: Idle

Outlook: The CFP scenarios for Ohio State and Ole Miss are both the same – sit at home and hope a lot of teams in front of you lose, then hope the committee forgets that you didn’t play this week because you’re loser bums who didn’t win your division and lets you jump teams who weren’t loser bums during the regular season and were therefore forced to play an extra game. But we’ve seen the committee not care about that at all before, so I wouldn’t expect it to start now.

Therefore, there is actually a chance that one or both of these teams could be in the playoff, Ohio State in particular. It would require mass chaos – at a minimum, at least three of Michigan, Alabama, Cincinnati, and/or Oklahoma State would have to lose for Ohio State to have a prayer, and Ole Miss would need all four to fail to have hope, and Oregon could and Baylor would cause other issues in that scenario. An 11-2 Iowa fresh off a win over No. 2 Michigan and a Big Ten Championship would also be a threat.

Look, I don’t see it happening for Ohio State or Ole Miss, but with how ridiculous this season has been, their slim chances still have to be mentioned.

9: Baylor (10-2)

Game: vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (11-1) in the Big 12 Championship Game

Outlook: It’s not super likely that Baylor will be in the CFP, but there are scenarios that make it possible. But they all require a win in the Big 12 Championship Game. Without that, nothing else matters.

Assuming the Bears overcome the Cowboys, they will need at least one of Michigan, Alabama, or Cincinnati to lose at the absolute minimum to have a prayer. Still, Notre Dame could be a problem, as could Oregon if the Ducks win the Pac-12.

It’s a bit of a long shot, but not as much as it might seem. Baylor would need help, but that feels possible with how this year has gone. But none of it matters if the Bears don’t take care of business in Arlington.

10: Oregon (10-2)

Game: vs. No. 17 Utah (9-3) in the Pac-12 Championship Game

Outlook: Oregon is in a similar position as Baylor, but probably weaker. A win over Utah wouldn’t move the needle in the same way that one over Oklahoma State would, and the Ducks are already ranked one spot behind the Bears heading into conference championship week.

Still, a playoff invitation is possible. If Michigan, Alabama, and Cincinnati all lose, there will be some serious chaos, and an 11-2 Oregon team with the Pac-12 title and a revenge victory over a ranked Utah under its belt would certainly have a case to catapult up into the top four.

Oregon needs plenty of help and has to win itself, but it’s not entirely out of the running just yet.

13: Iowa (10-2)

Game: vs. No. 2 Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game

Outlook: This isn’t happening. This can’t happen. There’s no way.

But maybe if Iowa wins, Alabama loses, Cincinnati loses, and Oregon loses, the Hawkeyes have a prayer? The four would be Georgia, the Big 12 winner, and then two wide open spots. Would the committee pick a Michigan team Iowa just beat? An Ohio State team that didn’t win the Big Ten and also has two losses? A Notre Dame team that didn’t play a championship game, lost its hardest game, and is now coach-less? An Alabama team that didn’t win the SEC? A Cincinnati team that didn’t win the American?

If all of those things happen, maybe the Hawkeyes really do have a chance. That’s a whole lot to ask for, though. Right now, Iowa should probably just set its aims at a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl trip, but there are scenarios in which it could be in the CFP.

And in reality, I’m merely winding Iowa fans up. It isn’t happening. OR IS IT?

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