Pre-November playoff predictions are pretty much a useless exercise (but thanks for clicking anyway hey-oooo). The college football world usually has a way of sorting itself out in ways that we can’t or don’t want to envision this early-ish in the season. ‘Bama still has to head to LSU, Michigan has to try (and probably fail) to win in Columbus, Notre Dame has to win four games in November, etc. That being said, fuck it, we’re ⅔ of the way through the season, let’s do it anyway! The first rankings will be revealed tonight, and things are starting to get real as we turn the calendar to the spookiest month of the year. It’s time to strap in; the playoff race is officially here and carnage is coming.
As far as theoretical contenders go, this list is comprised of P5 teams with one or zero losses, plus an undefeated UCF (that we all know has no real shot of making it — or do they???). It is otherwise known as the current AP top 12.
Teams with a shot:
- ACC: Clemson (8-0)
- Big 10: Michigan (7-1), Ohio State (7-1)
- Big 12: Oklahoma (7-1), West Virginia (6-1)
- Pac 12: Washington State (7-1)
- SEC: Alabama (8-0), LSU (7-1), Georgia (7-1), Kentucky (7-1) (wow that felt truly weird to type)
- Other: ya bois (8-0), UCF (7-0)
Some of those teams obviously have much more realistic shots than others (we all know the Pac is getting shut out) — but let’s jump into staff predictions.
- Notre Dame
- Ohio State
This list feels relatively safe, I know. Clemson is a given at this point. ‘Bama has two ranked regular season matchups remaining, but ya know, they’re ‘Bama. To be honest, it took me a while to convince myself to slot the Irish in, if only because winning twelve football games in a row is a profoundly challenging task, and also my outlook can sway between wildly optimistic or pessimistic by the hour. But, for the time being, faith in this team is warranted — if the 2012 squad could glimpse the promised land, so can the 2018 varietal. Theoretically, with four spots available, this team has more leeway than was available in the BCS era. One loss doesn’t necessarily doom the Irish, but…I mean…it probably does. So four more wins is advisable.
I also feel very weird placing OSU in, because they frankly aren’t all that good, but I have a hard time believing Harbaugh and crew will actually beat them on the road. And with all the talk about how the Skunks are a ✌️new team✌️ since their loss in South Bend, and potentially deserving of that third slot (because they had a comparable amount of yards to us or something), an OSU win there and another in the B1G championship against a mediocre opponent is probably enough to warrant #4 in the eyes of the committee. Apologies to the Sooners, who, despite getting edged by the Buckeyes, really get their lunch eaten by the undefeated and independent Irish in this scenario.
We call this one The Usual Suspects + UCF and it obviously sucks. Alabama does Alabama things, beating LSU and squeaking by Georgia in the SEC title game. Since Georgia absolutely pasted Kentucky by a score of 59-14, the committee feels pretty good about slotting them in at #4. Clemson wins out and is hard to say “no” to at 13-0, even in a down year for the ACC. West Virginia and Oklahoma both finish with two losses, keeping the Big 12 out of the playoff entirely. The PAC-12 is forgotten about until someone finds a Post-It Note with “USC? Wazzu?” scribbled on it, which is then deposited in the trash along with the rest of the conference’s bowl season.
Notre Dame’s absence is explained by an extremely unfortunate loss to Northwestern this weekend. Of the remaining opponents, Northwestern actually worries me the most. With Notre Dame no longer perfect, the committee decides to shut the Golden Knights up once and for all by letting them play Clemson as the #3 seed. Frankly, I would not be shocked to see them actually win that matchup, and then get blasted into a fine mist by the Spawn of Saban in the title game.
- Notre Dame
Will we actually win out? I can’t say I’m expecting it, but I’m a bit of blind optimist every year, so you won’t find me betting against the Irish at this point. Here’s the thing…it would be incredibly impressive to run through this month without an L. But that’s what great and memorable teams do — let’s hope that’s what we are. I think we should expect Alabama and Clemson to win out, and if they do manage to slip up I’m still mentally prepared to see one (or both?) of them find their way back into a 3 or 4 spot. Relatedly, I would be surprised if there is more than one other team that manages to finish with a conference championship and one loss or fewer. I’ll ride with Oklahoma as the most likely to hold that distinction but who the hell knows.
I’ll finish with an alternate hypothetical, because that’s the only fun part about CFP speculation. Let’s say ‘Bama and Clemson win out, Michigan beats OSU but chokes in the Big 10 title game, and WVU and Oklahoma keep winning until they play each other twice in a row and split. Now let’s also say ND drops one, but looks great in the other three. Does a 2 loss SEC team get in? If Wazzu wins out too are they now locked in? Is the door still open for ND? Is this scenario or something similar any less realistic than another outcome? Food for thought.
- Notre Dame
This is a stretch, but someone had to not put Alabama on top. I’m rooting for chaos and choose to live in a world where Notre Dame is the only undefeated team to reach the postseason (sorry UCF). Alabama loses to LSU, Clemson loses to… Boston College? Work with me here.
But because we can’t have nice things, our 12-0 Irish come into the playoffs spotless, yet ranked below three 11-1 squads. This weekend’s Alabama-LSU clash is an all-timer, with both sides trading knockout blows and LSU winning in triple OT. They ride it to an SEC championship and the top ranking. ‘Bama takes care of business too, laying the hammer in every game played outside the state of Louisiana to make a reasonable case for #2. And Michigan cruises through the rest of the year, dominating Penn State and Ohio State and making the world forget about their loss in South Bend — the committee puts them above the Irish, who look shaky and win by a score or less in all four remaining games (I’m definitely not trying to duck ‘Bama here, promise).
All of it makes for some stars-aligning, cosmic justice kind of shit. In our first playoff matchup we do what we do best — beat LSU in January. Miles Boykin has another highlight reel TD where he stiff arms a Tiger defender and the guy like, does a backflip (why not). The game’s not even close. Then the real show begins. Either we beat Michigan again AND win a championship in one swoop, or we get revenge for 2012. I’ll take it regardless.
- Ohio State
This is probably the most boring scenario in which familiar faces Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State all win out. The Tide’s toughest test will likely come this weekend against a surging LSU team in Baton Rouge, but if they get through unscathed I don’t see them losing the rest of the way. Mississippi State and Auburn won’t pose much of a challenge to Tua and Co., who should handle Georgia or Kentucky in the conference championship.
Clemson has the easiest road remaining (even if you take BC’s #24 ranking seriously, which I don’t) and will take the second seed at 13-0. Oklahoma faces a tough test in Morgantown in week 12 but has put together back-to-back dominant performances since their loss to Texas, and I think they win out. Ohio State overcomes their embarrassing blowout loss to Purdue by beating Sparty on the road and Michigan at home (do we really think that Harbaugh will suddenly win a big road game in week 12 of year 4?). Nobody in the B1G West (is that the “Legends” or the “Leaders” half?) will contend for the conference title.
Why are the Irish missing from the list? A dreadful November loss at Yankee Stadium at the hands of Syracuse. The Orange are putting together a solid season (currently 6-2 with both losses by one score) and trending upward with a win over NC State. What’s more, they come into our game after a cushy Friday night matchup at home against a Brian VanGorder-coached (for now) Louisville defense. Although our November schedule appears very manageable with the shitstorm seasons FSU and USC are having, I worry about ‘Cuse (7th in the country in scoring) putting up ~30 points against what could be a worn-out Irish defense. Hopefully I’m wrong.