Now five weeks into the season, we have a decent sample size to begin determining which teams are really a cut above the rest. Thus, it’s time for the first edition of our playoff outlook. The way I see it, the current field of potential playoff teams is split into 5 different tiers.
These teams are a step above the rest. All undefeated, all highly ranked, and all with a good enough schedule to get some quality wins. (If they haven’t already) If any of these teams run the table, they’ll be in.
In perhaps the easiest placement on this entire list, the Buckeyes are clear and away the top team in the country right now. With both the top offense and the top defense in the the country, as well as an extremely impressive win over Oregon, Ohio State look to be the real deal. The only question was: Do they belong in a tier of their own? For now the answer is no. Big games against Iowa and Penn State in the coming weeks have the potential to change that.
The main reason Ohio State doesn’t get their own tier on top is that Alabama has been nearly as impressive. With big wins over USC and Georgia already, Bama are one of only two teams in the country with two wins over ranked opponents at this early juncture. The Crimson Tide are right about where we normally find them, which is firmly in contention for an SEC title and a spot in the playoff.
The Tigers have looked just as impressive as usual, but they have avoided any real test thus far. An undefeated Florida State provides perhaps a tricky test this week, but the rest of the ACC is once again a bit disappointing. The Tigers will have November 7th circled on their calendar. That’s when they get their season’s biggest test on a road trip to Notre Dame.
The other Tigers provide a bit of the same story as their counterparts to the north. It isn’t their fault that Texas has been a huge disappointment, but that doesn’t change the fact that LSU has yet to be tested. This week provides a major barometer with a trip to Gainesville on the cards.
Oklahoma have plenty of tests ahead of them in the Big 12, but a big win over Baylor is enough to show me that these Sooners mean business. I certainly don’t expect the defensive prowess to continue, but Oklahoma always has enough offense to compete with anyone. Even just a respectable defense will be enough to keep the Sooners in serious playoff contention.
The Nittany Lions had perhaps the most impressive win of week 5, embarrassing the Wolverines in the big house. However to keep their favorite status, Penn State will have to get through both Iowa and Ohio State following their bye week in the midst of what is one of the toughest stretches on a schedule for any team in the country.
These teams are all serious contenders for a playoff spot. Highly ranked, and either undefeated or with one loss to a playoff favorite. If any of these teams manage to win out, they will have a great chance to get in.
The Gators have rolled thus far, led by their defense. They have allowed just 38 points in 5 games. However, all of Florida’s major challenges still lie ahead of them. A huge showdown with LSU this week will determine which of these two teams is really a favorite in the playoff race.
Like Florida, Auburn have mostly coasted to their 5-0 record. Also like Florida, there are plenty of challenges ahead for the Tigers. This week’s matchup with Georgia is the first of Auburn’s four remaining games against top 15 opponents.
If you haven’t noticed yet, there is a theme going on here. The SEC and B10 represent a combined 11 of the 13 teams I have identified as at least contenders. That means there are plenty of games ahead with major playoff implications. One such game in the B10 is this week between these Gophers and the 10-th ranked Badgers. The winner will likely be viewed as B10 West favorites.
Speaking of themes, here is our fourth team from the SEC West. A&M will have one more week before they begin the grind that is this loaded division. Surely whatever team comes out on top will be in a strong position to challenge for a playoff spot.
A strong win over Notre Dame keeps the Badgers in contention. But how much do the Badgers have left in the tank after a couple grueling weeks? They’ll have to dig deep in order to beat a surging Minnesota team, which is the only way that Wisconsin can maintain control over its own destiny.
There is no shame in losing to the 6th ranked team in the country. However, the way in which Michigan lost will be a bit concerning for their playoff hopes. Luckily for the Wolverines, the stacked B10 provides them with several more opportunities for major wins.
It’s the same old story for Georgia, having to overcome a loss to rivals Alabama. It will almost certainly take the Bulldogs winning the SEC to get into the playoff, which could mean another chance at the Tide.
Each of these teams is ranked highly, and has a good enough schedule remaining that if they were to win out they would give themselves a good chance to be in the playoff. Even if winning out doesn’t appear too likely, don’t sleep on these teams.
Oregon’s early season embarrassment against Ohio State looks less and less surprising as the Buckeyes continue to impress. It will be tough, and they may need some help, but if the Ducks can take care of business in the PAC 12 they could find themselves in the discussion at the end of the season.
The Cowboys are still undefeated, and last week’s win over TCU was definitely a good one. But there are far greater tests in store within the Big 12, including this week’s game against Iowa State. If Oklahoma State can come out on top, this team will start to pick up a lot more buzz.
They have certainly not made it look easy, but Nebraska are 5-0, and look likely to get two more wins in their next two games. After that, we will find out what Nebraska is really made of. An absolutely brutal stretch to end the season (@Ohio State, Penn State, @Iowa, @Wisconsin, Minnesota) is daunting, but offers Nebraska the opportunity to push for a top 4 spot.
These teams, whether undefeated or with one “good” loss, all still have a legitimate shot to make the playoff. They are either already ranked highly, or have a good enough remaining schedule to garner some serious attention if they keep winning. They will likely all need to win out however to have a chance at it.
Yes, they are undefeated. No, they have not looked that impressive against inferior opposition. We’ll see what happens when Clemson comes to town this week.
Playing in the ACC, a loss to Clemson all but eliminates the Cardinals’ playoff chances. However one game remains on the schedule that will give Louisville a chance at a much needed signature win: November 21 @ Notre Dame. If the Cardinals can avoid a loss until then, we could be looking at a game with potential playoff implications.
Baylor’s loss to Oklahoma wasn’t pretty, and it means the Bears no longer control their own destiny. But if they can get back to winning ways, Baylor will at least give themselves a chance.
The Cyclones have one thing going for them right now. Their lone loss (Iowa) is to a ranked non-conference team. Iowa State’s next two games are essential if they want to maintain any hope of pushing to be one of the top 4 teams in the country. That starts this week at Oklahoma State.
A devastating loss to Oklahoma State last week cut the Horned Frogs’ undefeated season short. But in a solid Big 12, wins will get TCU attention. It is up to them to take care of business.
How big might that one-point loss to Iowa State be? Like the other teams in this tier however, Texas Tech need to forget about the past and just win to give themselves any kind of shot.
A big loss to the Gophers didn’t eliminate the Hawkeyes, but with the strength of the Big 10 West, another loss might. That is tough news for Iowa, with juggernaut Ohio State up this week, and Penn State the next. The silver lining is that if the Hawkeyes can somehow win both, they will move their way up into the nation’s elite.
The loss at Cal certainly puts a major dent in Utah’s chances at the playoff. They can’t afford to drop another game.
The debate about how to rate a Notre Dame team with no ability to win a conference championship continues. But it will be a moot point if the Irish can’t win out after their crushing loss against Wisconsin. The big one is November 7th, a trip to Clemson and a shot to prove that they belong among the top teams in the country.
These teams are not true contenders for the playoff, but they aren’t necessarily eliminated from contention yet either. They have decent enough schedules that if they were to run the table and get enough chaos at the the top, it is conceivable they could sneak in.
San Diego State
There are some good teams that I did not mention. Some of them even have a good win or two. However, whether it is two or more losses, one bad loss, or a weak schedule, there is an insurmountable road block in the path to the playoff for any team not included here.