Plenty still to be decided in College Football Playoff race

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The latest set of College Football Playoff rankings won’t come out until Tuesday night, and until then, there will be plenty of debate over which teams belong in the top four.

With the way this season has gone, however, it likely would be wise to wait until the final two weeks of the season — one more in the regular season followed by a chunk of conference championship games — before trying to determine which teams, exactly, belong.

That won’t stop us from prognosticating, however, especially after Michigan State’s victory at Ohio State on Saturday, a game that almost certainly knocked the defending champion out of the hunt while vaulting the Spartans smack into the middle of the conversation.

If this season has proven anything, there are no givens. Not for Michigan State. Not for unbeaten Iowa. Not even for Clemson and Alabama, the two teams most figure are the surest bets to reach the playoff field.

So with one week left in the regular season, here’s a look at which teams still have a realistic shot at making the playoffs and what it will take to get there.

Clemson (current CFP ranking – 1)

The Tigers are in great shape heading into the season finale at South Carolina. An upset there seems highly unlikely, though there could be some concern in the ACC championship game against North Carolina. The Tar Heels have won 10 straight after opening the season with a loss to South Carolina and will give Clemson all it can handle. The only question for the Tigers at this point is if they would still make the field if they lost to North Carolina.

Remaining games: At South Carolina, vs. North Carolina (ACC title game)

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Alabama (CFP ranking – 2)

Alabama is another team that is almost a certain lock for the playoff field if it takes care of business, though that is hardly a guarantee. The first test will come this week in the Iron Bowl as Alabama travels to face rival Auburn. The Tigers have struggled, but this rivalry always seems to save something special. A loss combined with an Ole Miss win would give the Rebels the SEC West title and hand Alabama two losses, something even the Tide couldn’t overcome. Get by Auburn and Florida is next in the conference title game. It’s another test, one that would make or break Alabama in its quest to reach the playoff field.

Remaining games: At Auburn, SEC title game (with a victory over Auburn)

Notre Dame (CFP ranking – 4)

It’s hard to give a whole lot of credit to a team that’s strongest aspect of its resume is a loss, but that’s exactly the position the Fighting Irish are in. Their 24-22 loss at Clemson in Week 5 is the most impressive thing they’ve done as none of their victories are especially head-turning. They’ve been solid, to be sure, with victories over good teams like Navy, Temple and Pittsburgh. But Notre Dame hasn’t dominated. Fortunately for the Irish, they’ll get a shot at that signature victory this week at Stanford. The Cardinal might be the best team in the Pac-12 and could walk away with the conference championship. A win in that rivalry game would allow the Irish to breathe a bit easier the following week as they sit idle and many of the other contenders play in conference title games.

Remaining game: at Stanford

Iowa (CFP ranking – 5)

The Hawkeyes haven’t been the flashy pick all year, but they have as good a shot as any team out there of reaching the field. It likely will require staying undefeated, and that alone will be difficult. The regular-season finale is Friday at Nebraska, and while Iowa will be favored, the rival Cornhuskers are playing for a bowl berth, something they haven’t missed out on since 2007. Even if the Hawkeyes finish off the perfect regular season, a meeting in the Big Ten championship game — a spot it has already clinched — against what likely will be Michigan State will be Iowa’s biggest game of the season. Iowa doesn’t have the resume of some of the other top teams with only one win against a ranked opponent, so suffering a loss would likely would knock them out of the hunt, even at 12-1.

Remaining games: At Nebraska, Big Ten title game

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Michigan State (CFP ranking – 9)

The Spartans might have one of the best resumes in the country after beating Ohio State — a team the playoff committee had ranked No. 3 — on the road on Saturday. Add that to a road victory over No. 12 Michigan and a win at home against Oregon, which is now ranked No. 18 and has now won eight games, and the Spartans have some impressive victories. Included in that is a win against an Air Force team that has clinched the Mountain Division of the Mountain West and is on the fringes of the Top 25. The biggest detractor for Michigan State will be the loss at Nebraska. Even so, if the Spartans run the table by beating Penn State this week and then knocking off unbeaten Iowa in the Big Ten title game, that’s a team that would be hard to keep out of the field.

Remaining games: Penn State, Big Ten title game (with a victory over Penn State)

Oklahoma (CFP ranking – 7)

The Sooners came close to suffering a critical loss on Saturday against TCU as the Horned Frogs went for the two-point conversion and the win, only to come up short by a point. It likely would have ended Oklahoma’s chances, but instead it becomes a victory over a ranked opponent. It was also the sixth straight victory for the Sooners, who face their biggest test of the season next week when they travel to Oklahoma State. The fact the Big 12 doesn’t have a championship game doesn’t help the Sooners, but what might be a bigger problem if the committee is splitting hairs when they select the field is the loss to Texas in the fifth week of the season. The Longhorns are 4-6, and need two wins just to reach a bowl game.

Remaining games: At Oklahoma State

Baylor (CFP ranking – 10)

Just when it looked like the Bears were letting the Big 12 slip away and, with it, a shot at the playoffs, they bounced back with a huge victory at Oklahoma State. The best Baylor can do in the conference is tie with Oklahoma, the only team it has lost to at this point. To do that, it would mean Baylor closes the season with wins at TCU and at home against Texas and Oklahoma will have to lose its matchup with Oklahoma State. It would still be a tough sell to the committee to move the Bears ahead of a team like Oklahoma, but the bigger issue is one for the conference. If Oklahoma loses, it could be left out again as there is no conference title game for one team to stand above the rest.

Remaining games: at TCU, vs. Texas

Florida (CFP ranking – 8)

The Gators have clinched their spot in the SEC championship game, but few are feeling great about the way they have been playing. The overtime victory over Florida Atlantic on Saturday was the latest underwhelming victory, coming just two weeks after scoring late to get past a bad Vanderbilt team, 9-7, at home. All that said, if Florida can beat Florida State this week and follow it with a victory over potentially Alabama in the conference title game, it would be another team that would be hard to keep out of the field. The win in Week 5 against Ole Miss stands out, but the loss to an LSU team that has now dropped three straight would be a big check against the Gators.

Remaining games: Florida State, SEC title game.

Oklahoma State (CFP ranking – 6)

The Cowboys took a significant hit to their chances with the loss at home to Baylor on Saturday. There is a chance they could at least get the committee thinking with a win at home over Oklahoma this week to close the regular season, but more likely it would just create a logjam in the Big 12 that could keep the conference out of the playoffs again. In addition to the loss at home to Baylor, Oklahoma State only had one quality win on the resume, beating TCU by 20 when the Horned Frogs were No. 8 in the nation.

Remaining game: vs. Oklahoma

Stanford (CFP ranking – 11)

The Cardinal have lost twice this season, both to quality teams, and it’s something they will be kicking themselves for. Stanford has clinched a spot in the Pac-12 championship game and will be a favorite, but that opponent won’t likely add much to the resume and lift Stanford into the playoff field. The loss to Northwestern to open the season was something the Cardinal could — and appeared to — overcome. But the two-point loss at home to Oregon was the one they couldn’t afford. The Ducks are a good team that is getting hot late, but Stanford’s only real shot was to finish with one loss. Beating Notre Dame in the finale would be nice, but considering what’s happening around the nation, getting a two-loss team into the playoff seems like a stretch.

Remaining games: vs. Notre Dame, Pac-12 title game