Playoff roadmaps for the nation’s top 5 college teams

What needs to happen for each team to reach their College Football Playoff potential? Alabama, Michigan and more.

| 9 months ago
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Playoff roadmaps for the nation’s top 5 college teams

Five weeks into the season, the playoff picture is starting to take shape and the best teams in college football have separated from the rest of the pack. Some of the top teams have already faced top competition while others have showdowns looming as the season unfolds. Though we’re only five weeks in, the final four may not change much between now and selection time. It would take chaos-inducing upsets to turn the bracket upside down, but if the top teams take care of business, there will be few surprises in the playoff along with the winner of Michigan versus Ohio State.

Here’s what the road to the playoff looks like for the top five teams in the nation.


After a Week 3 win against Ole Miss, I mentioned that Alabama is now playing with house money. Even in their championship years, they’ve usually been allotted one slip up along the way, and getting past a good Ole Miss team on the road was likely their biggest test of the season. However, things will tighten up in the coming weeks as they travel to Arkansas next Saturday to face the physical Razorbacks before traveling to Knoxville to take on the SEC East leaders in Tennessee. The three-week stretch doesn’t get any easier as the also-undefeated Texas A&M Aggies come to town on October 22nd, bringing one of the nation’s toughest defenses and a potential Heisman candidate on that side of the ball.

The two wild cards on Alabama’s remaining schedule are yearly rivals LSU and Auburn. The first quarter of the season was not kind to either team, but with Ed Orgeron taking over at LSU and Auburn potentially finding their offensive groove, these games could prove more challenging than they will look on paper come November. Of course the other game to consider is the SEC Championship, which looks like a pending rematch with Tennessee, but a trip to Atlanta to face the East champion will likely provide less resistance than trips to Fayetteville, Knoxville and Death Valley.

Overall, Alabama is in the driver’s seat for a prime real estate in the playoff and they have the leeway to lose one game along the way while still finding a spot in the final four.

Ohio State

Much like Alabama, Ohio State discarded one of their most difficult games of the season with an emphatic win at Oklahoma in Week 3. It was supposed to be a transition year in Columbus, but Ohio State has a new crop of stars and here they are one of the top teams in the nation, controlling their own playoff destiny. Running back/slot receiver Curtis Samuel has the No. 4 overall grade among running backs at 81.1 and his 89.6 receiving grade leads the position. LB Raekwon McMillan leads the defense (84.2 overall grade) and CB Marshon Lattimore has emerged as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks. The paper schedule looks favorable for much of the season, culminating with a potentially epic finale against Michigan.

Before Ohio State gets to The Game, the biggest potential roadblocks will come from Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State. The trip to Madison to face Wisconsin should at least be close due to Wisconsin’s strong defense but their redshirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook may struggle against the strong Buckeye secondary. Nebraska may be the biggest challenge for Ohio State as they’re grading in the top 10 in both offense and defense in our team grades (with no adjustment for competition). The trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State may have looked like a difficult game on paper at the beginning of the season, but their loss of key players to the NFL draft has started to catch up to them in the last two weeks. None of these games should instill fear in the heart of Buckeyes fans.

It should, then, all come down to November 26, in an epic battle and de facto playoff game against Michigan. The Wolverines will have a similar path toward an undefeated season on their way to meet the Buckeyes. If Ohio State can prevail, they will be on to the Big Ten championship and a potential rematch against Nebraska or Wisconsin. They’ll be favored, once again, and likely on their way to their second playoff berth in the last three years.


The Tigers showed great resiliency in outlasting Louisville Saturday night, turning back perhaps their most difficult challenge of the season. There are plenty more difficult games on the horizon, but Louisville was rolling with QB Lamar Jackson as the clear Heisman front-runner, and an aggressive defense that has been creating havoc for opposing offenses. But here Clemson stands, still undefeated, boasting a Heisman candidate (Deshaun Watson) and strong defense of their own. Perhaps most impressive, they’ve done so without Watson playing his best football as he’s grading at 77.9 this season compared to his 90.3 mark that ranked third among FBS quarterbacks a year ago. He started slow last year as well, and if he is going to turn it on again in the second half of the season, it bodes well for Clemson running the table and returning to the playoff.

As for the schedule, a trip to Florida State on October 29th remains the most difficult challenge. The Seminoles are a talented team despite their two losses, and winning in Tallahassee is never easy. The Florida State game is surrounded by a number of games that Clemson should win and a rivalry game against a South Carolina team this simply isn’t as talented as they were a few years ago. Win or lose against Florida State, it should be off to the ACC title game where Clemson may face their toughest game of the year. The Coastal Division consists of a number of strong teams in North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Miami so whichever team makes it to the title game will be battle-tested and talented enough to knock off Clemson. Not to take anything away from the rest of Clemson’s schedule, especially in perhaps the best season of ACC football in many years, but Florida State and the ACC Championships are the hurdles that must be leapt in order to return to the College Football Playoff.


Riding a loaded defense with a dominant defensive line (seven players with 100-plus snaps and at least a 75.0 overall grade) and playmaking secondary, the Wolverines have a similar road to The Game as Ohio State. They discarded their first two Big Ten opponents in Penn State and Wisconsin and it appears that road games against Michigan State and Iowa will be their toughest challenge with a home game against Maryland as a potential wild card. Both Michigan State and Iowa have lost some of their luster in recent weeks and Maryland has yet to get into the meat of their schedule, so Michigan has a relatively clean path to the November 26th matchup against Ohio State.

We all deserve a battle of undefeateds in Columbus with two of the nation’s top defenses squaring off in the most important regular season game of the year. Throw in the added storyline of Jim Harbaugh coaching against Urban Meyer and this is lining up to be an all-time great game. If Michigan can pull off the road win at Ohio State, they’ll be a Big Ten Championship win away from their first CFB Playoff appearance.


A strong year appeared to be in the works for Washington given all of their returning talent on both sides of the ball. With their youth, there was a fear that the hype may have been a year too early, but they’re off to a great start, ranking third in our overall team grades with a well-balanced third in both offense and defense. The defensive line has set the tone for the Huskies, just as they did against Stanford, let by DT Greg Gaines (83.9 overall), Elijah Qualls (82.8) and Vita Vea (82.6). The trio makes life difficult on opposing rushing attacks, and they’re complemented well by edge rusher Joe Mathis (84.2) and CB Sidney Jones on the back end (84.6). The have the same firepower on the offensive side as QB Jake Browning (78.5) has distributed to playmakers such as wide receivers John Ross, Chico McClatcher, and Dante Pettis.

Washington certainly has the talent in the right places to win the Pac-12 North and represent the conference in the playoff, the Pac-12 features few off-weeks around the conference and Washington should be challenged a few times throughout the year. A trip to Oregon this weekend is not nearly as scary as it would have been in recent years, but playing in Autzen Stadium is still no cakewalk. Other road games include trips to Utah, Cal, and Washington State, all teams who may not have the best records by the end of the year, but three teams capable of winning any Pac-12 game in any week. Also looming are games against USC and Arizona State, both teams who have week-to-week identity problems but catching them on one of their good weeks could be grounds for an upset. Assuming the Huskies make it through the rough Pac-12 slate, a championship game wraps up the season, and they’ll likely have to go through the South champion in order to ensure a spot in the playoff. While the other teams in the top five have cleaner routes to the playoffs, the deep Pac-12 schedule may cause a slight step back along the way.


| Senior Analyst

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

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