Best-case scenarios for remaining College Football Playoff contenders

What needs to happen in order for each top team to secure a playoff spot? Steve Palazzolo breaks down every possible scenario.

| 7 months ago
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Best-case scenarios for remaining College Football Playoff contenders

Hard to believe it’s rivalry week and championship week is right around the corner, but the next two weeks will determine the four playoff spots. There is still plenty of drama to come as the scenarios are endless, but let’s take a look at the best-case scenarios for the remaining playoff hopefuls.


  • Avoid asteroids, go to playoff

Barring an asteroid hitting the Earth, there’s little drama with the rest of Alabama’s season as they can afford to lose the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and perhaps even lose the SEC Championship game to Florida, and still punch their ticket to the playoff. Alabama has our top cumulative overall grade by a wide margin, and they’re the closest thing to a lock heading into rivalry weekend as we’ve seen in three years of the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State

  • Beat Michigan, or Beat Michigan and win Big Ten championship game if Penn State loses to Michigan State

While there may be a touch of controversy if Ohio State beats Michigan and does not play in the Big Ten Championship – that will be the case if Penn State also beats Michigan State next weekend – there’s no denying Ohio State’s playoff resume. They handled Oklahoma on the road early in the season and aside from their one loss to Penn State, they’ve proven playoff-worthy. It’s an interesting dynamic that Ohio State controls their own destiny for the playoff, just as Michigan does, yet they may only have to win one game to get there while Michigan has to win two.


  • Beat Ohio State, win Big Ten Championship game

This one is pretty simple. Michigan has to go on the road to beat Ohio State before winning the Big Ten Championship game. It’s somehow a more difficult road than Ohio State’s as they’re guaranteed to need two wins to get into the playoff. It’s a pretty clear path, however, as Michigan does not need any outside help, just the final two wins to get into the playoff. Pulling them off is a different matter as backup QB John O’Korn has taken the reins from injured starter Wilton Speight and O’Korn had his struggles in his first start Saturday against Indiana.


  • Beat South Carolina, win ACC Championship

Another easy scenario as Clemson simply has to win out to lock up their playoff spot. After a rivalry game against South Carolina, they will face either Virginia Tech or North Carolina in the ACC Championship with a playoff berth likely on the line. The ACC title game will not be a pushover, especially if Virginia Tech gets in as their defense will be one of the best Clemson has seen all season. While the path is clear, the road may not be a smooth one for Clemson who has played with fire all season to this point.


  • Beat Washington State, win Pac-12 Championship; Chaos in the Big Ten

While Washington should have a strong case for the playoff if they just take care of business against Washington State and in the Pac-12 Championship, they may also need some help as the Big Ten has laid claim as the nation’s top conference and they have a lot of potential players still alive. If Ohio State beats Michigan, Penn State goes to the Big Ten title game and if they win, the committee will have a difficult decision between a potential one-loss Pac-12 champion in Washington, one-loss Ohio State with no conference championship, and a Big Ten champion Penn State with their two losses.

Penn State

  • Beat Michigan State, Ohio State beats Michigan, win Big Ten Championship, get some help for good measure

That help could be in the form of Washington losing and perhaps Colorado or USC losing along the way as well, just to ensure that the Pac-12 is not a contender for a playoff spot. Regardless, a Big Ten Championship may just be enough, though it remains to be seen if winning the title would even guarantee a spot over one-loss Ohio State who has the better resume but obviously lose the head-to-head and a conference championship opportunity to Penn State. Perhaps both teams get in, but that’s where the Nittany Lions could use some help, either with a chaotic Pac-12 finish or perhaps Clemson losing a game along the way. If those things don’t happen, and Penn State takes care of business, the committee may have some serious discussions over Penn State, Ohio State and Washington for two of the four playoff spots.


  • Beat Minnesota, win Big Ten Championship, get some help for good measure

A true ideal scenario may be rooting for Penn State to lose to Michigan State, have Ohio State beat Michigan, and then Wisconsin would play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, all but ensuring that the winner would be in the playoff. Then, of course, Wisconsin would have to win that game and all is good. Either way, help is needed for the Badgers whose only two blemishes came against Ohio State and on the road to Michigan.


  • Beat Utah, win Pac-12 Championship, Michigan loss to Ohio State, one of Penn State/Wisconsin loss in regular season finale before winning Big Ten Championship, Oklahoma State win over Oklahoma for good measure

After an impressive win against Washington State, Colorado remains alive with one last regular season game against Utah and a potential Pac-12 championship game if they win. If they win both games and get plenty of help, Colorado could backdoor their way into the playoff as their two losses are to Michigan and USC, not exactly the worst teams to lose to along the way.


  • Beat Oklahoma State, Ohio State beats Michigan, Penn State wins Big Ten, Washington loses at least one game, other Pac-12 chaos

Oklahoma is making their annual run, shrugging off two early losses to Houston and Ohio State to go on an eight-game winning streak led by one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses and multiple potential Heisman candidates. The above scenario seems like a lot, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility and the only reason Oklahoma has any hope is because of the late-season losses from a number of teams that opened the door for the red-hot Sooners to make their move. Bedlam against Oklahoma State will double as the Big 12 Championship game as well as a potential play-in game for the playoff if a lot of other pieces fall into place.

Oklahoma State

  • Beat Oklahoma, Ohio State beats Michigan, Penn State wins Big Ten, Washington loses at least one game, other Pac-12 chaos

An identical scenario as Oklahoma, though Oklahoma State is working from far less publicity as the Sooners and coming from a place much deeper in our consciousness. Still, they’re on a similar run, though their two losses are more detrimental to their case as they came to Central Michigan and Baylor. However, we’re one controversial call in the Central Michigan game away from calling Oklahoma State a one-loss team, so perhaps they deserve more consideration if they can get past Oklahoma.


  • Beat Notre Dame, Colorado loss to Utah, win Pac-12 Championship, see “Colorado” for other chaotic situations that must occur

Even if all of the above does come to fruition, USC is no guarantee to make the playoff, but they’re winning the “eye test” down the stretch. QB Sam Darnold has become a star and the team is clearly much different than the one that lost to Alabama and Stanford earlier in the season. Still, a three-loss team has to have a fantastic case, so it will take impressive wins against Notre Dame and another one after a backdoor invite to the Pac-12 Championship game to get USC into the conversation.


  • Beat Florida State, Beat Alabama in SEC Championship

Not happening.


  • Beat Iowa, Wisconsin loss to Minnesota, chaos ensues with all 17 teams ranked ahead of the them coming into the week

While the road may look similar to Wisconsin’s on paper, Nebraska is a long shot as they’ve been far less impressive than the Badgers. They also need more help, including a Wisconsin loss to Minnesota, so it’s not looking good for the Huskers.


  • Beat Kentucky. Michigan, Clemson, Washington lose multiple games, Penn State and Wisconsin lose at least once, Oklahoma loss, maybe even more chaos

OK, there’s little chance for Louisville at this point. They had a prime opportunity and blew it against Houston. QB Lamar Jackson is still the Heisman front-runner.

Western Michigan

  • Everyone loses. Somehow

If the committee hasn’t already put Western Michigan higher than 21 at this point, it’s probably not going to happen for the Broncos. They’re sitting at 11-0, one of two undefeated teams in the country, but they can’t overcome a perceived weak MAC schedule that has them viewed from a different lens than Power-5 teams. The best Western Michigan can hope for is an undefeated season and a New Year’s Six Bowl bid.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Anthony Schroeder

    I think it’s ludicrous to imagine any situation where Wisconsin manages to win out and doesn’t make the playoffs. It has the two best losses of all the playoff contenders, and assuming it manages to win would arguably have the best resume strength as well outside of Alabama. Now winning against Mich or OSU is not a given and they won’t be favored, and even against Penn state they’d need a good game.