Welcome to a weekly series ranking college football teams based on their likelihood of making the playoff and/or a New Year’s Six bowl
The Almost-Elite 8
20. UCLA It doesn’t feel likely that even a 2-loss season will hold, as the Bruins tried very hard on defense to give away Friday’s win versus Washington. But Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the offense are capable of hanging with anyone. Utah this weekend plus Oregon and USC to come feels like too much to overcome, but those kind of wins would also solidify Chip Kelly’s team as playoff contenders if they surprise and come out unscathed.
19. Cincinnati The Bearcats are back in discussions for at least a New Year’s bowl thanks to the collapse of every other American team. They’re also potentially back to the same problem they faced in 2019, as the final game of the regular season is against Tulane, the other hottest team in the league. Memphis could be in the mix as well, as they are following suit with UC and haven’t lost since facing an SEC West team in their opener. But it’s probably best to bet on the reigning conference champs for now while we wait to see if someone trips up in the Sun Belt and if someone can dethrone Luke Fickell and Co.
18. LSU They’re a chaos team that seems doomed to a few more losses ahead, but for right now, they’re 4-1 and have not lost since Week One. With 3 top-10 wins possible over the next 4 weeks, the Bayou Bengals are technically a playoff darkhorse. But it’s hard to see them surviving just Tennessee this week.
17. Kansas St If they win out and win the Big 12, are they a playoff team? The Tulane loss is only gaining value, and while it’s true that wins like Oklahoma are losing their usual luster, the Wildcats could have those replaced by quality wins against Oklahoma State, TCU and (maybe) Kansas. There’s probably too many big brands ahead of them to make the CFP a reality, but winning a conference title or even making the NY6 at 10-2 is very much a possibility.
16. James Madison Time to start rethinking that postseason ban, NCAA. The Dukes are arguably the best team in the Group of 5’s best conference. Would they really be left out of a big bowl if they go unbeaten, given how often the NCAA’s rules can change and allow for exceptions?
15. Washington The playoff hype (including mine) was hurried and undue. This team probably still needs to work some things out to become elite, particularly on defense. But, after a few costly turnovers early, Michael Penix Jr settled in and did his thing against UCLA. Feels like only Oregon has a chance of stopping this offense enough to beat the Huskies before the Pac-12 Championship Game.
14. TCU Who knows how much of Saturday’s win is returning production finally playing under some semblance of solid coaching and how much of it is that Oklahoma’s defense stinks on ice. But the Horned Frogs looked like one of the nation’s elite offenses, and they’ve scored at least 38 points in every game. The next 3 opponents are the only ranked ones left on the schedule, so they might be part of a bigger discussion in Sonny Dykes’ first year if Max Duggan keeps looking like an All-American.
13. Texas There’s a simple reason why the Longhorns are on here and why Oklahoma is close to still making the list, despite both team’s obvious flaws and basically zero-sum odds for the CFP. In a typical year, you have to lose 4 times to be completely eliminated from Terrific 12 consideration. Losing 3 times still maybe gives you a shot at the NY6, especially if you’re a Capital-B Brand like both the Red River schools. Saturday’s showdown is not important in the playoff sense, but the winner does very much still have the record to back up their strength as a selling point for people to watch them in a big bowl.
The Terrific 12
12. Coastal Carolina This year is proving to be one where dominating the opposition may not be necessary to grab the G5 slot in either the Cotton or Orange Bowl. That’s good news for the Chanticleers, who had to survive a thriller with Georgia Southern Saturday night capped by one of the coolest game-winning touchdowns you’ll ever see. At the very least, that was one of the better teams on the schedule. Beating up on everybody else, including Virginia later in the year, should be the goal to set up quality wins against James Madison and a Sun Belt Championship Game against South Alabama.
11. Ole Miss The Rebels just seem to be an extraordinarily competent team, and I mean that as a compliment. An elite ground game is supplemented by an only-average passing attack; they give up the seventh-fewest points per game in the nation despite being middle-of-the-pack in in yards allowed; and they needed to force a couple of crucial fumbles to hold on and beat Kentucky. It’s hard to say just how good their prospects will be against the likes of Alabama or even hated rival Mississippi State. But Lane Kiffin has built up enough capital from his first 2 seasons to give those games stakes, at least.
10. Penn St After surviving a monsoon and dispatching of Northwestern, the Nittany Lions get to sit back and relax. Probably the right move, because the following 3 weeks (@ Michigan, vs Minnesota, vs Ohio St) will answer once and for all if this team is going to the NY6, let alone be playoff-eligible.
9. Tennessee The Volunteers could do wonders for the perception of their odds against Alabama and Georgia if the defense went out and disposed of a leaky LSU offense. You will eventually have to get a stop or two, no matter how many points Hendon Hooker leads the offense to.
8. Oklahoma St It’s a lot like last year, but for different reasons: the Cowboys likely enter the first Saturday in December just on the outside looking in of the playoff, but you don’t believe for a second they’d be competitive if they got there. We will see if the continuing cannibalization of the Big 12 bites the Pokes and makes this easier on the CFP committee.
7. Oregon Bo Nix is apparently a dual-threat QB now? At least that’s what the line against Stanford suggests (141 yards rushing, 161 passing). However he does it, he’s got the Ducks’ offense humming. There are still some tough tests left before we ever get to a potential Pac-12 Championship Game (UCLA, Washington, Utah). But there’s still few 1-loss playoff resumes better than that in Eugene.
6. Clemson The Tigers are caught between expectations that they will eventually morph into the elite, 2-time national champion of pre-2021 and the ever-growing reality that Ohio State would wipe the floor with this team after it goes 13-0 and wins the ACC. It feels like passing the eye test is going to matter at some point to firmly secure their place in the playoff…
5. USC …and part of that argument for Clemson is that there are teams like the Trojans, who pass the eye test just by looking at the roster on paper. It would help if they waxed a solid team like Washington State this week and maybe won at least one of those matchups with a ranked opponent that’s left. But very little is likely to keep some form of an unbeaten Southern Cal out of the big dance.
The Playoff 4
4. Alabama Bryce Young got the underwhelming Crimson Tide skill players to look pretty great in the first quarter, but then he exited, and while there were bright spots with Jalen Milroe at quarterback, that had more to do with his legs and a big day from Jahmyr Gibbs than the other receivers and running backs. As long as Young comes back fully healthy, it looks like the Tide will lean on his greatness and a still-elite defense. But how much that guarantees your success once you’re in the playoff is worth monitoring.
3. Michigan Clemson and/or USC going undefeated keeps a 1-loss Maize and Blue out of the playoff, but let’s say they don’t. It feels like it’s going to be extremely hard to keep the Wolverines away if the only stumble is Ohio State. And, right now, that feels like the most serious threat.
2. Georgia It appears that, as long as you harass him with a fierce pass rush, Stetson Bennett is a pretty average QB without a strong run game to help him out. Mizzou made the Bulldogs look extremely beatable a week after Kent State hung around for far too long. Auburn coming to town and looking for any excuse to can Bryan Harsin should be a healing balm.
1. Ohio St Hearing that there was a new #1 in the AP poll did not surprise me. But hearing that it was someone other than the Buckeyes was a little off-putting. Not sure if their defense is at the elite level of their offense, but Jim Knowles has them close. Maybe Penn State and Maryland put up game efforts, but Michigan on Thanksgiving Saturday feels like the only substantive chance that the Bucks trip up.