Starting 11: The Playoff Race Narrows Edition

With one week left in the regular season, we are now down to nine playoff contenders.

Those contenders, in the order I’d rank them right now, are: LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama, Utah, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Baylor.

That’s pretty much it, four of these nine teams will be playing for the title.

So how will it all shake out and what has to happen to propel a team into the playoff?

Let’s dive in below and discuss.

1. Oregon’s loss may well have cost the Pac 12 a playoff spot and it was incredibly helpful to Alabama. 

It’s hard to know for sure because if, for instance, Auburn beat Alabama and LSU beat Georgia and Utah finished 12-1 with a win over Oregon then I think Utah would get in over the Big 12 champ, but that’s a lot of things that have to break the Pac 12’s way now for them to get in the playoff.

And even if that happens Utah will have only one top 25 win — along with a loss on the road against, at best, a top 25 USC team so it would be quite a battle between the Pac 12 champ and the Big 12 champ.

Unfortunately for Utah the Oregon loss didn’t just harm the Ducks, it delivered a big blow to the potential resume of Utah.

And the biggest beneficiary of all?

The Crimson Tide.

2. If Alabama beats Auburn, the Tide will be in a good spot for the playoff.

When you think about Alabama’s dynasty, what’s remarkable is how often the Tide have gotten just the breaks they need to get into playoff contention.

Back in 2011 Oklahoma State had to choke to put the Tide in for a rematch against LSU. In 2015 Alabama advanced to the playoff by the slimmest of margins over Ohio State.

And if Alabama gets in this year they will have a series of improbable results to thank once more.

LSU fans have to already be wondering if we could see a replay of 2011, when Alabama got the rematch with LSU in the Superdome and stole a title away from them.

Now the Tide, assuming they beat Auburn next weekend, needs LSU to beat Georgia and I think they’re probably going to be in the playoff.

I just don’t see how the playoff committee can look at Oklahoma, Utah, or Baylor and believe any of those three teams are better than Alabama, especially if Mac Jones looks good against Auburn.

So now the question is this, will LSU give Alabama the help they need to set up a playoff rematch with the Crimson Tide?

3. LSU’s in the playoff with a win over Texas A&M and Georgia’s in the playoff with wins over Georgia Tech and LSU. 

If LSU beats Texas A&M and Georgia beats Georgia Tech then the SEC will have guaranteed itself one playoff spot and Georgia could lock down a second playoff spot with an SEC title game win.

So if you’re a fan of any team other than Georgia, you need to be rooting for LSU to finish 13-0 and beat the Bulldogs.

You also want Alabama to lose to Auburn.

Because in that scenario 13-0 LSU would be the only SEC team in the playoff.

By the way, and this will drive SEC haters absolutely bonkers, it’s possible that the SEC could end up with THREE playoff teams.

How would that happen?

Alabama beats Auburn in the Iron Bowl and Georgia beats LSU in the SEC title game.

Then Oregon beats Utah in the Pac 12 title game, producing a two loss Pac 12 champ.

Oklahoma loses to Oklahoma State in Bedlam and then comes back to beat Baylor in the Big 12 title game, producing a two loss Big 12 champ.

Neither of these outcomes are that wild at all.

Then either Clemson would need to lose to South Carolina or to Virginia in the ACC title game or Ohio State would need to lose to Michigan to end the season and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, leaving the Big Ten with a two loss champion.

In that scenario that I just laid out, I think your four playoff teams would be LSU, Georgia, Clemson or Ohio State, and Alabama.

4. The Big Ten only gets messy if one loss Minnesota upsets Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

Minnesota plays Wisconsin for the Big Ten West crown this upcoming weekend. If the Golden Gophers win that game and then go on to upset Ohio State then Minnesota could steal Ohio State’s playoff bid.

But, and this would be the best case scenario for the Big Ten, 12-1 Minnesota could upset 12-1 Ohio State and it’s possible the Big Ten could get two teams in the playoff if everything broke right. (But that would require Georgia losing to LSU in the SEC title game. Because if both LSU and Ohio State lost their title games, I believe it’s pretty clear LSU would have the better resume over Ohio State and the Buckeyes would get left out of the playoff. If this happened then the debate would come down to Ohio State vs. Alabama and potential Big 12 and Pac 12 champs for the final playoff spot).

It’s also possible if Ohio State beats Michigan and Wisconsin beats Minnesota that the Big Ten title game won’t matter at all. Because if 12-0 Ohio State played 10-2 Wisconsin, the Buckeyes would have already punched their ticket to the playoff regardless of the title game outcome.

The truth of the matter is also this, if Ohio State loses to Michigan this weekend, it probably won’t matter that much. Because the Buckeyes would still be in the playoff if they bounced back and beat Wisconsin or Minnesota in the Big Ten title game.

The only way the Big Ten doesn’t get a team in the playoff is if Ohio State loses to Michigan and then loses to 10-2 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

5. So what happens in the Big 12?

Oklahoma is incredibly wobbly right now.

The last four Sooner games have looked like this: lose to Kansas State by seven, beat Iowa State by one, beat Baylor by three after a 25 point comeback, hold on to beat TCU by four.

I honestly think the Sooners may well lose to Oklahoma State this upcoming weekend in Bedlam to officially end their playoff chances.

But even assuming the Sooners win this big rivalry game, do they look like a playoff team right now?

I don’t think so.

As for Baylor, the Bears will beat Kansas this upcoming weekend and then have a chance to erase the Sooner defeat in the Big 12 title game.

But I just don’t see the Big 12 being able to get in over 11-1 Alabama or, certainly, 12-1 LSU or 12-1 Georgia. So I think if you’re a Big 12 fan you need to be rooting for Alabama to lose to Auburn and then for LSU to beat Georgia.

And hope that you could sneak in over 12-1 Utah.

So just to be safe you need to be rooting for Oregon to beat Utah in the Pac 12 title game as well.

6. Okay, so rank the playoff contenders down the stretch. 

Let’s assume that LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson take up three of the four playoff spots.

So where does that leave us for the fourth playoff spot?

Here’s how I’d rank the teams if they win out.

1. 12-1 Georgia, with wins over Georgia Tech and LSU in the SEC title game, would be in the playoff.

2. 11-1 Alabama, if Georgia loses to LSU and the Tide beats Auburn, would be in the playoff.

3. 12-1 Utah, with wins over Colorado to finish the regular season and Oregon in the Pac 12 title game, would be in the playoff with Georgia and Alabama losses.

4. 12-1 Oklahoma, with wins over Oklahoma State to finish the regular season and Baylor in the Big 12 title game, would be in the playoff if Georgia, Alabama and Utah lost.

5. 12-1 Baylor, with losses from Georgia, Alabama, and Utah, and a win over Kansas to finish the season and Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, would be in the playoff.

That’s it.

I really do believe this is how things would shake out in all these playoff scenarios.

For all the talk about Alabama’s weak schedule, let’s look at these contenders and their resumes.

If Alabama beats Auburn (and Georgia loses to LSU) the Tide would have one top 25 win and their only loss would be by five points to the best team in college football, 13-0 LSU.

If Utah finishes 12-1 it would have one top 25 win, over Oregon in the Pac 12 title game and one loss to a top 25 team, at USC.

If Oklahoma beats Baylor (again) the Sooners would have two top 25 wins for sure (both over Baylor) and a loss to Kansas State, who may or may not finish in the top 25 depending on how they finish the season against Iowa State, who also may or may not finish in the top 25. (I don’t think Oklahoma State would finish in the top 25 if Oklahoma beats them).

Baylor’s resume would essentially come down to the win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, which would be their best win by far, and potentially top 25 wins over Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, depending on how these teams finish out the season.

Again, I just don’t see how a college football playoff committee could look at Alabama and not see them as the much more superior team than Oklahoma, Baylor, or Utah.

Put it this way, if LSU, who would be the number one team in this scenario, got to pick who they would play, is there any doubt they’d pick Oklahoma, Baylor or Utah in a heartbeat over Alabama?

Having said all of this, look what just happened to Oregon. These playoff debates tend to solve themselves.

There are still a bunch of big football games left to play.

But I think the biggest winner with the Oregon loss was Alabama.

7. How about Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee?

In early October Tennessee was 1-4, with losses to Georgia State, BYU, Florida, and Georgia.

There was abundant talk about whether or not Jeremy Pruitt would even survive the season.

It was ugly in Knoxville.

Some were forecasting a 3-9 season, which would have been the worst in program history.

And then what happened? The Vols embarked on an incredibly impressive run. Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols have now won five of their past six games, including four SEC games — against Mississippi State, South Carolina, at Kentucky and at Missouri — where the Vols were outright underdogs in the game.

The wins on the road at Kentucky and Missouri were gutty, program building victories.

And how about Jarrett Guarantano’s performance on the road at Missouri? He goes for over 400 yards passing and the Vols have three receivers go over 100 yards receiving for the first time in program history? Just wow. This is the Guarantano the Vols thought they would have all year long.

It’s a shame Tennessee couldn’t go back and replay Georgia State and BYU anew now because I think this team would handle both of those teams with ease right now and a 9-3 season would be possible.

But in the long run it may be the case that losing those early games was important because it instilled in Pruitt’s Vols a resilience that has carried them well down the stretch. And it also taught Pruitt, a new coach, something as well.

If Pruitt’s Vols can beat Vanderbilt this upcoming Saturday then Tennessee will finish 7-5, 5-3 in the SEC, which will equal the best SEC record for Tennessee in 12 years. (The last time Tennessee went 6-2 in conference was in 2007, when Phil Fulmer’s Vols won the SEC East and lost to LSU in the SEC title game).

So in year two of his coaching tenure Jeremy Pruitt would equal the best SEC record Butch Jones ever had and tie for the most SEC wins since Fulmer in 2007.

Did anyone see this coming after the start to this season?

No way.

Wilder still, the Vols could end up in the Outback Bowl if Texas A&M loses to LSU and the Outback Bowl decides to pass on the Aggies in favor of a more excited fan base which would be closing out the season 6-1.

Even if that doesn’t happen the Vols would likely slide into the Gator Bowl.

So we’re not just talking about Tennessee making a bowl, which seemed like a crazy dream when the Vols were 1-4, we’re talking about Tennessee making a New Year’s Day bowl game.

8. What does USC do with Clay Helton?

This is the biggest question in the offseason coaching hire universe.

Helton’s Trojans finished the regular season 8-4 with an easy win over UCLA.

So now what do the new athletic director and school president do?

I think the decision boils down to this: can you get Urban Meyer or James Franklin? If you can, I think you have to let Helton go. But if you can’t, who’s the coach out there who is head and shoulders above Helton?

Matt Rhule? Kyle Whittingham? Matt Campbell?

Would any of these guys take the job?

What’s your floor here?

Remember, USC has never gotten its top target in the past generation of coaching hires. Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Clay Helton, all of them were fairly far down the list of top candidates.

So is this year different? Can USC snag a top candidate? I have my doubts.

But this will be an absolutely fascinating story to follow.

9. Joe Burrow is your Heisman winner.

Even if Burrow got hurt I think Justin Fields would split many Heisman votes with Chase Young, which would still leave Burrow as your likely winner.

So I think the Heisman drama will mostly center on whether Chase Young gets an invite to New York or not.

10. Here’s the Outkick top ten:

I have Alabama ranked above Georgia because, frankly, I think Alabama’s loss to LSU is far better than Georgia’s loss to South Carolina. And because I think Alabama has been the better team, even with the Tua injury, all season.

This Georgia offense just doesn’t impress me.

1. LSU

2. Ohio State

3. Clemson

4. Alabama

5. Georgia

6. Utah

7. Minnesota

8. Oklahoma

9. Baylor

10. Florida

11. SEC power rankings 1-14:

As I’ve been saying for the past couple of weeks, the top seven are pretty easy to figure out and so are the bottom two, but the group of teams from 8-12 is really tough to rank accurately.

1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Georgia

4. Florida

5. Auburn

6. Texas A&M

7. Tennessee

8. South Carolina

9. Mississippi State

10. Kentucky

11. Mizzou

12. Ole Miss

13. Vanderbilt

14. Arkansas

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