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
Almost Famous: Syracuse, Mississippi St, Wake Forest, Purdue, Coastal Carolina
The Almost-Elite 8
20. North Carolina The Tar Heels have moved into pole position in the ACC Coastal, thanks to an electric offense with breakout freshman quarterback Drake Maye at the helm. Even if the defense stinks, being on track to Charlotte also puts you on the path to the Orange Bowl.
19. Cincinnati An underwhelming follow-up to last year’s playoff appearance still might not keep the Bearcats out of the New Year’s Six. The rest of the Group of 5 is cannibalizing itself, while Luke Fickell’s team hasn’t lost since the opener at Arkansas. Winning the American is enough to get back to a big bowl.
18. Texas How close are we to a season with wild variance like 2007? I would argue the truest sign we’re headed there is that there will be so much carnage that everything actually comes back around to putting the same power programs atop the rankings. Oklahoma lost to a mediocre Colorado team in ’07 and still ended up finishing the regular season in the top 5, and that’s before you get to the 2-loss national champion. Speaking of which, if that sort of carnage occurs, what 2-loss team would have a better resume than the Longhorns? Well, a few (snickers at getting hopes up for Horns fans). But they’re always going to be hovering around the NY6 if they can stay at 2 losses.
17. Illinois I’m still not sure how to feel about getting half-wrong my biggest preseason hot take that Minnesota and Purdue would finish top two in the Big Ten West, but the half that’s wrong has nothing to do with Wisconsin and Iowa! Bret Bielema has built the big, burly team that plays great defense and runs the ball at will that he always builds. Get comfortable with the idea that the Illini will be in Indianapolis and a win away from the Rose Bowl.
16. Oklahoma St Spencer Sanders has done a good job of avoiding the disaster game this season. But the Cowboy quarterback is not a star, and that’s how you peter out after leading 24-7 on the road. The Pokes have just always felt like they were capable of falling apart against equal or better opposition. If it happens one more time before the Big 12 Championship Game, they will not be playing in a New Year’s bowl, let alone keep faint playoff hopes alive.
15. Utah The Utes are right back in the race for the Pac-12 title thanks to the win over USC. Playoff dreams are dead, and they’ll need some help to leap UCLA in the standings, but as long as Dalton Kincaid keeps having monster games like his most recent one (16 catches, 234 yards), a return to the Rose Bowl is very much in play.
14. Kansas St The gauntlet begins this week with TCU, the first of 3 straight ranked opponents for the Wildcats. After that, the most interesting Sunflower Showdown in quite some time is the last big hurdle. Getting out of this coming 3-week stretch unscathed might be enough to offset how the Tulane loss effects your resume for the playoff or just the NY6.
13. UCLA It feels likely we’re going to live in a world with multiple SEC and/or Big Ten teams making the playoff, with Clemson maybe being the exception. But the team that stands squarely in the way of those scenarios is the Bruins. Going undefeated with your best wins coming in the back half of the schedule against Oregon and USC is going to be impossible to keep out. It’s just not something I feel like will happen.
The Terrific 12
12. Tulane The carnage in the Group of 5 is a good thing, because it means the playing field is leveled and more competitive games should be coming. It is a bad thing in terms of lacking a playoff party-crasher like Cincinnati last year, but it opens the door for teams like the Green Wave to have a dream season just by making it to the Cotton Bowl.
11. Penn St While Michigan made the Nittany Lions look short of playoff-caliber, losing to only Ohio State down the stretch is probably enough to put a big-name program like PSU into a big-name bowl.
10. Ole Miss Few than the Rebels have a tougher schedule left, so 2 close losses might be enough to keep you in the NY6. But only a loss to Alabama allows you to stay in the playoff conversation.
9. TCU Going undefeated in a really deep Big 12 makes you a no-brainer playoff team. But the Horned Frogs are going to have it earn it in a way few other teams will.
8. USC The Trojans’ flaws on defense finally caught up to them. Thanks to having one of the nation’s best offenses, they can get to a New Year’s bowl at 10-2. But the margin for error in the playoff hunt is down to zero.
7. Alabama I really don’t think this holds, but the Crimson Tide are now forced to win out. And that means either dethroning Georgia or beating Tennessee again, which only comes after you get by Mississippi State, Ole Miss and LSU. It’s going to be hard, and Nick Saban’s championship pedigree is the reason we don’t view it as such.
6. Oregon Only ‘Bama has a better 1-loss resume. But the Ducks could have plenty of company on that front soon. Still, the red carpet to the Rose Bowl is rolled out with a win against UCLA, so why not dream of more?
5. Clemson I’m torn on if the Tigers will get beat down the stretch. But it does make you wonder if every other conference is growing in value in a way that diminishes the ACC. Would Dabo’s unbeaten boys get passed over by a 1-loss team? Probably not. So let’s split the difference and say they’ll lose before still winning the ACC Championship Game.
The Playoff 4
4. Tennessee You beat Alabama, you get the perks. One of those is a little slack if you trip up. As long as the winner of their meeting also claims the SEC (and the loser doesn’t get blown out), both the Vols and Georgia are going to make the playoff. Anything can happen, but it’s feeling more certain.
3. Michigan The Wolverines played with their food and still went on to squeeze Penn State down to the pulp. If Ohio State is the only team that can make them pay for their mistakes (and, again, they don’t get blown out), the Wolverines are in a comfortable position.
2. Georgia It feels deeply unfair that Tennessee has to come to Athens in a few weeks and still maybe play Alabama again in order to completely secure their playoff spot. Meanwhile, despite being some sleepy Bulldogs now and then, all UGA has to do is win out.
1. Ohio St If someone could make the Buckeyes look at least a little human, that would be swell. Because it would be pretty neat if the national championship game was as much fun as the rest of the season.