Here’s how Michigan could still make the College Football Playoff
Michigan needs eight specific outcomes to make playoff
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan could still make the College Football Playoff this season with a win over Ohio State, but it would need seven other games to go exactly as outlined below.
The Wolverines were left for dead a month into the season after getting blown out by Wisconsin, but they’ve battled back and won seven of their last eight games, including resume wins against Iowa and Notre Dame, a dominant effort against rival Michigan State and a solid road win at Indiana.
Any team that needs seven other specific outcomes doesn’t have much of a chance at all. Even with an upset against Ohio State, Michigan’s likelihood of making the playoff is probably below 1%. But when you break it down, none of these individual outcomes would even require major upsets.
Here’s what has to happen for Michigan to make the playoff.
1. Michigan beats Ohio State
Game details: Noon Saturday in Ann Arbor
Two months ago, a blowout loss to Ohio State was a foregone conclusion for Michigan. Now, there are reasons to believe it could at least be a competitive game.
The Buckeyes seemed to get most of their mistakes out of the way last weekend against Penn State, losing three fumbles but still dominating the Nittany Lions for an 11-point victory. Ohio State is one of three undefeated teams in the country and consistently in the conversation with LSU for who deserves the No. 1 seed.
Michigan would need to play a nearly perfect game to beat its hated rival, and even that wouldn’t be enough if Ohio State brings its A game. Justin Fields is perhaps the best quarterback in the nation and Chase Young will be by far the best player on the field.
But anything can happen in college football. Who thought Illinois would beat Wisconsin? How did South Carolina beat Georgia? Michigan has the players to pull an upset if Ohio State isn’t at its best.
A win over the Buckeyes would give Michigan one of the best wins for any team in the nation. Michigan would have three victories over teams ranked in the top 20 of the CFP poll -- Ohio State, Notre Dame and Iowa. Both of its losses came to top 15 teams, and it doesn’t hurt that they were a long time ago.
If Michigan beats Ohio State, it would have the best two-loss resume in the country, but for that to matter, every other team needs to have two losses.
2. Auburn beats Alabama
Game details: 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Auburn
We can argue about Alabama’s schedule all we want -- and those arguments are absolutely valid -- but in reality a two-loss Michigan team wouldn’t get in over a one-loss Alabama team. That’s just the way it is.
But if Auburn can beat its in-state rival at home this weekend, the Crimson Tide would be eliminated from the hunt. Alabama would be left with losses to the only ranked teams on its schedule. Its best win would be against five-loss Texas A&M, assuming the Aggies don’t win at LSU. Alabama would have seven wins against teams with losing records.
There’s reason to believe Auburn can beat Alabama. The Tigers already have a win over Oregon, and in its three biggest games of the season, Auburn been competitive against Florida, LSU and Georgia. Those teams are in the same class as Alabama this year, with Florida being the possible exception.
The wildcard here is the injury to star Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Mac Jones is an excellent backup option, but Tagovailoa was the generational talent who put Alabama over the top. It feels like Auburn has a real chance to win this game at home.
3. Wisconsin beats Minnesota
Game details: 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Minneapolis
If you thought the Wisconsin-Minnesota game in the final week of the regular season would have an affect on Michigan’s playoff hopes, you probably would have thought the Wolverines needed a win from the Golden Gophers. But that’s not the case.
Minnesota is the most under-the-radar playoff contender remaining. If they knock off a borderline top 10 team in Wisconsin and then beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, who could deny the Gophers belong in the conversation?
The sentiment nationally is that Minnesota still isn’t quite top-10 good. P.J. Fleck’s crew has a great home win over Penn State and not much else on the resume. Wisconsin has had some perplexing moments -- most notably the loss at Illinois -- but is still favored to win this weekend.
To be clear: A win over Minnesota would put Wisconsin in the conference title game and leave the Badgers ranked ahead of Michigan. But we’ll take care of that later.
NOTE: An alternate scenario is Minnesota beating Wisconsin but losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. That would probably drop both Minnesota and Wisconsin below Michigan, as well. But putting a 10-2 team ahead of an 11-2 team that picked up its second loss while the first team watched from home is always dangerous.
4. Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma
Game details: 8 p.m. Saturday in Stillwater
This is another outcome that feels a little unlikely, but not at all impossible. The Sooners have been surprisingly beatable this season, not only in a loss to Kansas State, but also in victory the last three weeks.
Iowa State missed a two-point conversation that would have knocked off Oklahoma three weeks ago. Oklahoma needed to overcome a 28-3 deficit to beat Baylor the following week. On Saturday, a questionable third down spot saved the Sooners from a possible upset at home against TCU. For once, the Sooners are failing the eye test, and a loss to Oklahoma State would certainly eliminate them from contention.
Mike Gundy’s team is quietly ranked in the CFP poll and riding a four-game winning streak. Oklahoma State has wins at Kansas State and against Iowa State, so it’s certainly capable of beating Oklahoma, especially in a home rivalry game.
5. Oregon beats Utah
Game details: 8 p.m. Dec. 6 in Santa Clara
The reason Michigan has even a sliver of hope of making the playoff is because Oregon eliminated itself with a loss to Arizona State.
Oregon and Utah had positioned themselves for a CFP play-in game in the Pac-12 Championship Game. If both teams went into the contest 11-1, the winner would have moved into the top four, barring a Georgia victory over LSU.
But Oregon now has an ugly second loss on its resume -- a resume somewhat devoid of impressive wins. It’s highlighted by victories against four-loss USC and five-loss Washington.
Utah, on the other hand, is still very much alive. The Utes are soon to be 11-1, assuming they take care of business at home against Colorado. Utah’s resume was even less impressive than Oregon’s heading into last weekend because of a loss to USC. The only meaningful win came at Washington and, again, the Huskies have five losses.
A loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game would doom Utah and the entire conference. The Utes need at least one win over a ranked team and a conference title to overcome an otherwise weak schedule.
Before the debacle at Arizona State, Oregon likely would have been favored in the conference title game, so this outcome is entirely possible.
6. Oklahoma beats Baylor
Game details: Noon Dec. 7 in Arlington
Michigan needs Oklahoma to lose to Oklahoma State this weekend because it also needs the Sooners to turn around and beat Baylor for the second time in a month.
Baylor has already dropped behind Michigan in the CFP poll, but a 12-1 record and a Big 12 title would certainly vault the Bears back ahead.
It’s hard to beat a team twice in one season, so this would be a test for Oklahoma. But it likely wouldn’t spot Baylor a 25-point lead this time. Baylor couldn’t finish the job at home, so Oklahoma would have the advantage at a neutral site.
The debate after this game would turn to Oklahoma vs. Michigan. Even though Oklahoma would have a conference title, Michigan would have three better wins, more defensible losses and the advantage of recent success. Coming off a victory against an elite team in Ohio State, I believe Michigan would get the nod.
7. LSU beats Georgia
Game details: 4 p.m. Dec. 7 in Atlanta
Georgia has been hanging onto its playoff life over the last month, but the Bulldogs are going to be 11-1 heading into the SEC Championship Game with a chance to clinch a playoff spot.
Georgia has by far the worst blemish of any top playoff contender: A home loss to 4-7 South Carolina. But close wins over Florida, Auburn and Notre Dame have slowly resurrected this resume, and the Bulldogs control their own destiny.
LSU has been the best team in the nation this season, so Michigan would be in good hands relying on them to win a game. The question is whether a loss to the No. 1 team in the country would be enough to drop Georgia below Michigan.
The answer is yes. Georgia would still have a loss to South Carolina, which that by this time will have finished the season 4-8. The Bulldogs would also lack an elite win that matches up with one over Ohio State. That’s not even mentioning that Michigan was much more dominant against Notre Dame, its only common opponent with Georgia.
8. Ohio State beats Wisconsin
Game details: 8 p.m. Dec. 7 in Indianapolis
If the seven games above somehow fall in Michigan’s favor, the irony of the situation is that it will all come down to rooting for Ohio State to win a conference championship.
Wisconsin has the ultimate trump card over Michigan: a convincing head-to-head victory. Yes, that came more than two months ago, and Michigan is a much improved team, but in college football, every game matters.
Michigan has been nipping at Wisconsin’s heels in the rankings for weeks and currently sits just one spot behind the Badgers. If Michigan beats Ohio State and Wisconsin wins at Minnesota, they’ll likely be back-to-back once again. But a third loss on Wisconsin’s resume, even in the conference title game, would be the final straw that finally puts Michigan over the top.
Penn State: Michigan also has a head-to-head loss against Penn State, which will finish 10-2 and around No. 10 in the rankings. A win over Ohio State would be enough to overcome that loss in University Park, though, and the Wolverines would certainly finish in front, much like Penn State did after losing in Ann Arbor in 2016.
Florida: The Gators are a complication because they’re already ranked ahead of Michigan in the CFP poll and will likely finish 10-2 after a home game against Florida State. But the resumes wouldn’t even compare in this situation. Florida only has one win over a ranked team: Auburn. The rest of its resume is extremely underwhelming. If the Gators finish 10-2, nine of their wins will have come against teams with at least five losses. Michigan’s wins over Notre Dame, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State would make this an easy decision.
Auburn: A win over Alabama would be a feather in Auburn’s cap, and SEC bias often prevails when two resumes are similar at the end of the regular season. But Michigan is already ranked ahead of Auburn, and Ohio State is ranked ahead of Alabama, so if Michigan beats Ohio State on the same day Auburn beats Alabama, there’s no reason for the committee to flip these two teams. The Tigers also have three losses.
How the playoff would look
If this unlikely scenario plays out, LSU would be the unquestioned No. 1 seed.
Clemson would probably slide up to No. 2 as an undefeated ACC champion. The Tigers would be 13-0 with no wins over ranked teams.
Ohio State would deserve to be No. 2 even with a loss, but that’s mostly irrelevant since the Buckeyes would play Clemson regardless of which team is No. 2 and which is No. 3.
That would leave Michigan at No. 4 and set up a date with the most impressive team in the country in LSU. The Tigers are led by Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow, who’s become maybe the best passer in college football.
That would be a tall order, but this season would have already gone down as a massive success. Jim Harbaugh would have a win over Ohio State and a playoff appearance. Anything more would be icing on the cake.
There’s almost no chance this all plays out over the next two weeks, but the fact that a scenario even exists at this point in the season is a testament to how Michigan has turned its season around.
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