Starting 11: The Calm Before the Playoff Storm Edition

We’ve now completed the ninth week of the college football season and I think we have a fairly easy playoff rundown as we prepare to enter November.

I have Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU, and Clemson as my top four playoff teams.

Then I’ve got Michigan, Georgia, and Oklahoma lurking just behind those playoff teams. After that, I’ve got a fairly substantial gap.

But I’ll explain below as we roll into the Starting 11.

1. My playoff four is Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU, and Clemson.

Given that Alabama and LSU play this weekend that playoff four will change for next week.

But for now I think it’s a pretty solid foursome and I believe it’s hard to argue for the inclusion of anyone else.

So who is up next on the list?

I think Michigan, Georgia and Oklahoma all have claims on the next team up list, but I’d rank them in that order right now in the five to seven spots.

Now let’s dive into the individual conference races and see how they implicate the playoff chances as well.

2. What’s going to happen in the SEC race?

This coming weekend Alabama at LSU has the potential to eliminate LSU from the playoff race. If Alabama beats LSU, as I think they will, then undefeated Alabama will close with games at home against Mississippi State, Citadel, and Auburn. I don’t see any way possible the Tide would lose any of those final three, which would mean Alabama was effectively in the playoff. (I think even if 12-1 Alabama were upset in the SEC title game, the Tide would still go to the playoff, but we’ll discuss that below.)

If Alabama goes 13-0 or 12-1 and wins the SEC title then the SEC would only have one playoff team.

But what else might happen? Well, LSU could beat Alabama and win out keeping the Tide out of the SEC title game. I still think 11-1 Alabama would stand a good chance of making the playoff too, but that would turn into a real battle. (Who would get in the playoff 12-1 Michigan, Ohio State, or Oklahoma or 11-1 Alabama?) Regardless, 12-1 LSU would be in the playoff.

Remember, and this won’t get much talk this week because the hype train will want to build up the game as high as possible, but even if LSU beats Alabama the Tigers still have to finish with a game at Texas A&M. (The Tigers also have to win at Arkansas, but there’s no way they could lose this game based on the way the Razorbacks are playing right now.) So LSU could beat Alabama and then lose to Texas A&M, knocking themselves out of the SEC title game and putting Alabama in even though they lost. So I think it’s important to understand that this is a division, conference title and playoff elimination game for LSU, but not necessarily one for Alabama.

I also think 12-1 Alabama, which lost to 12-1 Georgia in the SEC title game, would also be in and I think that’s an even easier argument to make, particularly if it’s a close game.

Georgia, coming off a solid beatdown of Florida, closes with games at Kentucky, home against Auburn, UMass and then Georgia Tech at home.

The Bulldogs should advanced to Atlanta with an 11-1 record.

But what if, god forbid, Kentucky pulled off the upset over Georgia and then advanced to the SEC title game to play against 11-1 LSU, which also would be pulling off their own upset over Alabama. And then, be still Wildcat fan hearts, what if Kentucky pulled off the upset over LSU?

Would 12-1 SEC champ Kentucky or 11-1 Alabama deserve to be the SEC’s first playoff representative? And would the second team get in at all?

I honestly think Alabama would beat Kentucky by thirty or more on a neutral field. In fact, I don’t even think Kentucky would score on Alabama. But would the playoff committee allow Kentucky, with wins over Florida, Georgia and LSU, get in over Alabama? I don’t think so.

That’s why it’s worth contemplating what a Kentucky upset and an LSU upset in the same weekend could do to the SEC playoff race. It would set up the possibility that the Wildcats could steal Alabama’s title game spot with a win over LSU.

(By the way, can you imagine the national outrage if Kentucky wins the SEC East and Alabama gets to play them for the SEC title? I honestly don’t know how many points you’d have to give me to bet on Kentucky in the SEC title game. I mean this seriously, I don’t think Kentucky would score a point.)

The most likely scenario, by far, is Alabama beats LSU and Georgia beats Kentucky. But if both home teams pulled off upsets?

Look out.

Regardless, it’s a hell of a doubleheader for CBS this week, proving, yet again, why the SEC’s game of the week — as well as its title game — is the most insanely undervalued asset in sports. Remember, CBS pays half for the entire SEC and the title game — $55 million — what ESPN pays for a single Monday Night Football game.

It’s absolutely bonkers.

(Final SEC thought on the week: league officials blew two calls that changed the outcome of two different league games. First, the pass interference call on Missouri was a joke. If anything it was offensive pass interference on Kentucky and the ball was not catchable in bounds. Throwing a flag here changed the entire outcome of the game. Missouri would have won if that call had been made correctly.

I’d be furious if I were a Mizzou fan. (I’d also be furious we didn’t get a first down in the entire second half, but that’s a different story).

Second, South Carolina clearly fumbled down 24-16 on a goal line run and Tennessee clearly recovered. Yet the play wasn’t even reviewed. How does this happen? If the play is called correctly Tennessee has possession and may well have won the game. That was an eight point swing in a game decided by three points.

I know no official is perfect, but these were two MASSIVE missed calls in crucible moments of the game. The Tennessee play is even more indefensible because it absolutely, positively has to be reviewed by instant replay. The league should publicly apologize for missing both calls.)

3. What about the Big Ten picture?

It now looks like Northwestern may win the Big Ten West. This sets up the Big Ten title game as a complete landmine for the Big Ten East champ, assuming it’s Michigan or Ohio State. The Big Ten East team, if it’s pursuing a title, will have absolutely nothing to gain by playing in the Big Ten title game.

Nothing has really changed in the Big Ten right now, just that the league’s playoff chances are down to Michigan or Ohio State.

Both of these teams have to finish 12-1 and win the Big Ten title.

What dangers loom on their schedules? For Ohio State every game is a potential disaster. The Buckeyes get Nebraska this weekend and then finish with at Michigan State, at Maryland, and host Michigan in the final week of the season. I’m honestly not sure Ohio State gets past games at Michigan State and at Maryland based on how they have played of late.

If the Buckeyes lose again before Michigan then they’d just be playing spoiler on Michigan’s playoff chances.

As for Michigan, the Wolverines are playing well, but they still have no margin for error with Penn State coming to Ann Arbor this weekend. After the Nittany Lions they play at Rutgers and at home against Indiana. So essentially if Michigan can beat Penn State this weekend they should be 10-1 headed into the clash against Ohio State.

The absolute nightmare situation for the Big Ten is both teams lose before the final game of the season, meaning the victor is 10-2 and the loser is 9-3.

If that happens the Big Ten, barring pure chaos, would miss the playoff for a second straight season.

4. The ACC is down to Clemson or bust. 

The Tigers have Louisville, at Boston College, Duke and South Carolina left on the schedule. The ACC title game opponent is still unclear as Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pitt, and Miami are all within a game of first play, but when the polls come out today there will only be one ranked team in the entire ACC- Clemson.

Do you know how hard it is for a conference of 14 teams to be this bad?

Yikes.

If Clemson plays like they did against Florida State — I’m sorry, Seminole fans, for what Willie Taggart has wrought with your program already — they aren’t losing to anyone in the ACC.

5. The Big 12, with Texas’s loss at Oklahoma State, now has decent clarity.

There are only two teams alive for the playoff — Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Both teams have to win the title and go 12-1 to be in the playoff race at the end of the season.

In an ideal scenario for the Big 12, if both teams won out then their game in Morgantown to finish the regular season would be for a potential playoff spot. (Of course if both teams won out this would also mean they’d likely rematch the next week in the Big 12 title game. Given the Big 12’s luck they’d split these two games and knock the conference out of the playoff thanks to the title game the Big 12 created to help its playoff chances.)

What do both teams have left? Oklahoma plays at Texas Tech, against Oklahoma State in Bedlam, home against Kansas and on the road at West Virginia.

West Virginia is at Texas, home against TCU, on the road at Oklahoma State and at home against Oklahoma.

I think the odds of West Virginia winning at Texas and at Oklahoma State are low, so my best guess is that West Virginia will be playing spoiler for Oklahoma’s title chances on the final weekend of the regular season.

6. The Pac 12 is down to Washington State, which may actually finish 12-1 with that controversial Pac 12 officiating screw up at USC as their only blemish. 

The final four weeks of the season for Washington State: California, at Colorado, Arizona and Washington.

Given these three of these four games are at home and the road game is against Colorado, who just collapsed against Oregon State, I think there’s a decent chance Washington State gets to 11-1 and advances to the title game. (The best bet is that Washington State would play against Utah in the Pac 12 title game.)

So what’s the Pac 12’s best route to the title game? They need for the Big 12 and Big Ten champ to finish with two losses. Then 12-1 Washington State would have a strong argument to slide into the playoff.

7. What about Notre Dame?

The Irish are sitting pretty right now but their November looks like this: at Northwestern, home against Florida State, home against Syracuse, and then finish on the road at USC.

The Irish will be substantial favorites in each of these games, but I wouldn’t say any of the four are guaranteed wins. (Not even Florida State, which is far too talented to be as bad as they’ve played).

But here’s the saving grace for Notre Dame, the Irish may not even need to win all four of these games. 11-1 is probably good enough, especially if Michigan wins the Big Ten, to get the Irish into the playoff.

8. So let’s say that Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame all lock up playoff spots, who gets the fourth spot?

Let’s make it as tough as possible and also say that Oklahoma or West Virginia go 12-1 in the Big 12, Washington State goes 12-1 in the Pac 12, and Michigan or Ohio State goes 12-1 in the Big Ten.

Since everyone loves talking hypotheticals in playoff season I’ll go ahead and rank each of these teams for you in the order they’d be selected for the playoff:

1. Michigan

2. Oklahoma

3. Ohio State

4. West Virginia

5. Washington State

9. What about UCF?

The only way I see Central Florida having a claim on a playoff spot would be if Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame all finish undefeated — or with one loss but win their leagues — and every other team in college football has two losses.

But if it came down to a decision like this — would the college football playoff committee rather have one seed Alabama play four seed UCF or two loss Michigan, Ohio State or Oklahoma?

This is a no brainer, right?

I just don’t see any way UCF makes the playoff.

10. The Outkick National Top Ten

1. Alabama

2. Notre Dame

3. LSU

4. Clemson

5. Michigan

6. Georgia

7. Oklahoma

8. Central Florida

9. Washington State

10. Kentucky

11. SEC power rankings 1-14

1. Alabama

2. LSU

3. Georgia

4. Kentucky

5. Florida

6. Mississippi State

7. Texas A&M

8. South Carolina

9. Auburn

10. Vanderbilt

11. Missouri

12. Ole Miss

13. Tennessee

14. Arkansas

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