College Football Playoff, bowl predictions 2022: Paths the seven remaining contenders must follow

We are down to a Magnificent Seven: The seven teams with a realistic chance of advancing to the ninth College Football Playoff. The group is made up of the four remaining unbeatens, the only two one-loss teams left … and LSU. These seven also include the reigning national champions, a program aiming to make its second straight CFP after missing the first seven entirely, another hoping to become the lowest-ranked team at this time to ever join the playoff, and yet another aiming to become the first two-loss team to ever advance into the four-team field.

Who the list does not include is Alabama, out of playoff competition for the second time in the history of the CFP. We also know that the CFP Selection Committee may have an extraordinarily tough time if it must be decided between champions of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 should all emerge with one loss.

Tennessee was the major casualty from Week 12. Its second loss by such an embarrassing margin to such an inferior opponent (rankings-wise) that the Volunteers got eliminated from playoff contention. South Carolina was a 24-point underdog at home, then won by 25. That’s a 49-point differential between perception and reality.

An expanded playoff is going to be a blast whenever it is put into action. If there are seven teams alive at this point in the season for four spots, that extrapolates to 20 teams being in the running for 12 spots when the playoff is expanded. For comparison purposes, at this time last year, there were also eight teams in the running.

College Football Playoff contenders

No. 1 Georgia (11-0): The only lock unless it loses twice. The Bulldogs can seemingly “afford” a loss to Georgia Tech or LSU and still remain in the top four. That’s how dominant their season has been. Almost quietly, the Dawgs have won a nation-leading 13 in a row. Stetson Bennett is better at quarterback. Defensive lineman Jalen Carter is a massive force in the middle after missing significant time with an injury. We now must consider a potential all-time run by the Dawgs. There is only one team that has won back-to-back national championships since Nebraska won three out of four in the mid-1990s. That was Alabama in 2011-12. Georgia would be only the second in the last 27 years. Even now, that possibility is not being talked about enough. The Bama dynasty is not over. but the road to any championship for the time being runs through Athens, Georgia.

No. 2 Ohio State (11-0): Win on Saturday and the Buckeyes are in … at least the Big Ten Championship Game for the fifth time in the last six years. They’ll still have to beat the Big Ten West winner (probably Iowa) to clinch a CFP spot. Out of teams ranked 2-4, the Buckeyes have the best chance of surviving a loss Saturday, but it’s only a small chance. It starts with losing a close game to Michigan. Then TCU, LSU, USC and Clemson would all have to lose at some point. Even then, TCU could still win the Big 12 with one loss. LSU would create huge problems if it won out, most likely locking up two spots for the SEC. If any two of those four win out, there would be problems as well. That would create a decision for the committee. In that scenario, the four spots would be Georgia, Michigan and any combination of two from TCU/LSU/USC/Clemson as conference champions. It would be difficult to pick a one-loss Ohio State didn’t win its league (but was ranked in the top three all season) over any of those.

No. 3 Michigan (11-0): Basically, the Wolverines have to win out. Ohio State is in a similar situation, but Michigan is easier to dismiss as a one-loss team. The deciding factor for the committee might be the Wolverines’ weak nonconference schedule (Hawaii, Colorado State, UConn). We’re splitting hairs, but that’s where we are this late in the season. In the event of a loss, the competition for a playoff spot could include as many as three Power Five conference champions: TCU, USC, Clemson. Let’s just say Michigan should be big fans this week of Iowa State (vs. TCU), Notre Dame (vs. USC) and South Carolina (vs. Clemson).

No. 4 TCU (11-0): As one of only four undefeated teams, the Horned Frogs still have plenty of work to do — pesky Iowa State to close out the season, then most likely No. 12 Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game. The Wildcats will be motivated; they blew a 28-10 lead in the first meeting on Oct. 22. If TCU lost to Iowa State and still won the Big 12, it would highlight the brand-name disparity from which TCU suffers. To date, TCU has beaten five ranked teams at the time of kickoff. Ohio State and Michigan have beaten a combined total of three. And if we’re talking close games — five TCU wins have been decided by eight points or less — no one had a problem elevating Ohio State to the BCS Championship Game in 2002. That team won half its 14 games by a touchdown or less.

No. 5 LSU (9-2): Win out, and the Tigers are in … we think. If LSU beats Texas A&M and then upsets Georgia, it would become the third two-loss team to play for a national title since 1936 and first in CFP history. But the committee would have to do some soul searching first. If it doesn’t include two-loss LSU in the playoff, it would be the first time since 2004 the SEC champion wasn’t in the BCS/CFP. If it ignores an SEC-champion LSU, the committee would be dismissing wins over Alabama and Georgia. This is supposing Georgia — as noted above — would stay among the top four with only one loss. We’re witnessing why Brian Kelly came to LSU.

No. 6 USC (10-1): Lots of work to do. No. 15 Notre Dame in the regular-season finale won’t be a walkover, especially after all the emotion expended against UCLA. Then it’s most likely No. 9 Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The teams did not meet in the regular season. We know there is going to be a loss in the top four. For USC purposes, it is better than it’s Michigan. But a logjam occurs if TCU and Clemson also win their respective leagues. It’s fair to ask who has the better resume among those three in that instance. For this view, it’s TCU (if undefeated), but we’ll see. It gets worse for the Trojans if LSU upsets Georgia. Regardless, USC has brought the Pac-12 back among the living in the Power Five. The Trojans would be a dangerous matchup in the CFP. They have arguably the nation’s best player (Caleb Williams) and an opportunistic defense that has a nation-leading 18 interceptions. USC would be the first Pac-12 team in the playoff since 2016.

No. 8 Clemson (10-1): Clemson, along with USC, was the biggest beneficiary of the Tennessee loss. It also has probably the weakest resume if the competition for the last CFP spot is TCU and USC. The Tigers’ best path to a seventh CFP spot in eight years is to win out. That is a must. Then, a Georgia loss, an Ohio State win, and losses by either (or both) TCU and USC. If it comes down to the Notre Dame loss, it looks “better”. But a win over No. 17 North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game looks “worse” after the Tar Heels’ loss to Georgia Tech. Should the Tigers make it in, they would be the lowest-ranked team entering Rivalry Week to make the playoff field.

The Armageddon Scenario

As a bonus — really, mostly for giggles — we’ve also done a deep dive on a potential Armageddon Scenario where it’s possible that no conference champions make the CFP. Here’s how it could go down.

  • No. 1 Georgia loses its last two games (Georgia Tech, LSU) and moves to 11-2.
  • No. 5 LSU loses to Texas A&M but beats Georgia and moves to 11-3.
  • No. 7 Alabama loses to Auburn, moving to 10-3.
  • No. 10 Tennessee loses to Vanderbilt, moving to 10-3.
  • No. 2 Ohio State beats No. 3 Michigan but is upset by the Big Ten West winner with OSU moving to 12-1.
  • No. 4 TCU loses to Iowa State and No. 12 Kansas State with TCU moving to 12-1.
  • No. 6 USC loses to No. 15 Notre Dame. No. 14 Utah beats Colorado to move to the Pac-12 Championship Game as No. 13 Washington beats Washington State, No. 21 Oregon State beats No. 9 Oregon and No. 18 UCLA beats California. The Trojans would move to 10-3.
  • No. 8 Clemson loses to South Carolina and No. 17 North Carolina, moving to 10-3.

In that scenario, we would be looking at …

  • SEC champion: LSU (10-3)
  • Big Ten champion: Purdue, Iowa or Illinois (9-4)
  • Big 12 champion: Kansas State or Texas (9-4)
  • Pac-12 champion: Utah (10-3)
  • ACC champion: North Carolina (10-3)

Then, we would likely be left with these top four, none of which would have won their league…

1. Ohio State (12-1): The easiest decision given the head-to-head win over Michigan.
2. Michigan (11-1): A relatively easy decision given its only loss would be to No. 1.
3. Georgia (11-2): The committee would have to weigh LSU’s head-to-head win and far worse losses with Georgia’s body of work.
4. TCU (11-2): Likely a reward for their bevy of ranked wins in the regular season.

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