Michigan football is 1 of 13 playoff contenders left -- here’s how all possible outcomes rank by priority

Wolverines check in at No. 5 in first College Football Playoff rankings

Kris Jenkins #94 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts against the Michigan State Spartans during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Nic Antaya, 2022 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan is one of only 13 teams left fighting for the four coveted College Football Playoff spots, but there are still so many possible outcomes based on how all those teams finish the season.

Two weeks ago, when the Wolverines were on bye, we broke down the priority list for 19 playoff contenders. Six have since been cut from that list, and three left the ranks of the unbeaten. That might not sound like much movement, but it makes the playoff picture much clearer.

Here are the remaining contenders:

  • ACC: Clemson, North Carolina
  • Big 12: TCU
  • Big Ten: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State
  • Pac-12: Oregon, UCLA, USC
  • SEC: Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee

Let’s run through an updated priority list, which ranks each hypothetical undefeated or one-loss outcome for those 13 teams.

How this works

So here’s how you read this list: Start from the top item and work your way down. If a team finishes the season with one of the listed outcomes, then that team will earn the top remaining playoff spot. If no team meets the specific qualification for that outcome, skip it and move to the next.

Continue in that manner until you’ve filled all four spots.

For example: No. 1 on this priority list is “Undefeated SEC champion.” In other words, if any team finishes this season as an undefeated SEC champ, that team will occupy the No. 1 spot in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

The No. 2 item on this list is “Undefeated Big Ten champion.” If there’s an undefeated Big Ten champ at the end of the year, that team will be the No. 2 overall seed IF there is also an undefeated SEC champ. If there isn’t an undefeated SEC champ, then that undefeated Big Ten champ takes over at No. 1 overall.

If there isn’t a 13-0 Big Ten team, then you move onto item No. 3 on the list, and so on.

The top four outcomes on the list that actually happen will determine the four teams that make the playoff.

So if “11-1 Michigan” is 15th on the list, in order to make the playoff, it would need three or fewer of the top 14 possible outcomes to actually happen.

1. Undefeated SEC champion

  • Possible teams: Georgia, Tennessee

If the winner of this weekend’s Tennessee-Georgia game runs the table, which would also include beating Alabama, Ole Miss, or LSU (all top 11 in the committee’s first poll) in the SEC Championship Game, that team will definitely get the top seed in the playoff.

2. Undefeated Big Ten champion

  • Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

Both teams have some work left to do before Nov. 26, but everyone considers Michigan-Ohio State to be one of the most meaningful games of the regular season.

The winner will go to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, where the East Division representative has never lost.

3. One-loss SEC champion

  • Possible teams: Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee

The only way a one-loss SEC champion isn’t the No. 1 overall seed is if a Big Ten team goes undefeated. We learned that last year, when one-loss Michigan got vaulted by Alabama in the final rankings despite dismantling Iowa in Indianapolis.

Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee are already ranked in the top six, so it’s obvious that even with a loss they would be a top-two seed in the final rankings if they win the SEC.

Ole Miss is a bit more complicated, but still, winning the SEC would mean the Rebels beat Alabama and either Georgia or Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. That, combined with the fact that the team’s only loss would have come against an LSU team that the committee ranked in the top 10, opens the door for a No. 1 or No. 2 final ranking.

4. Undefeated ACC champion

  • Possible teams: Clemson

This is the first ranking on the priority list that I’m changing from last month’s version. I thought TCU would get preference over Clemson if both finished 13-0, but based on the first poll, that’s not the case.

Clemson got the nod over Michigan at No. 4, while TCU fell all the way to No. 7 behind one-loss Alabama.

If what TCU’s done to this point isn’t enough to be ahead of Clemson, I’m not sure the next four weeks will be, either.

5. Undefeated Big 12 champion

  • Possible teams: TCU

The Big 12 is deep, and every team but West Virginia and Iowa State can pull an upset any given week. That’s still only good enough for the No. 4 seed if the other conferences also have undefeated teams, apparently.

6. One-loss Big Ten champion

  • Possible teams: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State

Like the SEC, the Big Ten is guaranteed to have a team in the playoff as long as its champion has only one loss.

Even Illinois would be a lock, because running the table would mean beating Michigan and then either Michigan or Ohio State in the conference title game. The Illini also would have gone a full three months since their only loss.

7. One-loss loser of SEC title game

  • Possible teams: Georgia, Tennessee

If Tennessee goes into the SEC Championship Game and loses, it will still finish the season with 12 wins, including two over Alabama and Georgia.

If Georgia goes into the SEC Championship Game and loses, it will still finish the season with 12 wins, including two over Tennessee and Oregon.

Think about that scenario. That team would go into championship weekend ranked No. 1 in the poll, and then lose a game to either Alabama, Ole Miss, or LSU. A loss like that isn’t going to drop No. 1 out of the top four unless both TCU and Clemson are 13-0.

8. Tennessee or Georgia finish 11-1

  • Possible teams: I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.

If the loser of this weekend’s Tennessee-Georgia game finishes the season 11-1 but doesn’t get into the SEC title game (due to losing the tiebreaker against the winner of that game), it still has a strong chance to make the playoff.

The one scenario that could burn Tennessee or Georgia in this instance is if the SEC West representative wins the conference title. For example, if Tennessee beats Georgia, goes to the SEC title game and loses, 12-1 Tennessee would obviously have priority over 11-1 Georgia, considering the head-to-head win.

This also brings the possibility of three SEC playoff teams into the picture. What if Georgia beats Tennessee but loses to Alabama in the SEC title game? Alabama is in for sure as the one-loss SEC champ, and Georgia would also probably be in at 12-1. But what about 11-1 Tennessee, with a win over Alabama and its only loss on the road against Georgia?

I think that Tennessee team would get in over one-loss TCU or one-loss Clemson since Tennessee is already ranked ahead of both of those teams, and its loss to Georgia would be more respectable than any possible loss remaining on TCU’s or Clemson’s schedules.

9. One-loss loser of Big Ten title game

  • Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

This is the nightmare scenario for the committee. If the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game goes into Indianapolis and loses to the Big Ten West representative, does the Big Ten get left out of the top four entirely?

I’m not certain about this one, but I think a 12-1 Michigan or Ohio State team would still be ranked ahead of a one-loss Pac-12, Big 12, or ACC champion.

For example, if Michigan beat Ohio State, that win would be better than any win for Clemson, TCU, Oregon, USC, or UCLA. If you’re comparing 12-1 teams, does it really matter whether that one loss came in the conference title game or right before it?

10. One-loss Pac-12 champion

  • Possible teams: Oregon, UCLA, USC

The Pac-12 was the biggest winner of the first rankings, in my opinion, and that’s reflected in how far I’ve moved this up my list.

I previously had a one-loss Pac-12 champion below both a one-loss Big 12 champ and a one-loss ACC champ. But when the rankings were revealed Tuesday, Oregon and USC both made the top nine, right behind undefeated TCU.

UCLA is down at No. 12 for now, but in order to get to 12-1, it would have to beat USC and Oregon. It appears that would be enough to finish ahead of a one-loss champ from the other two leagues.

Utah at No. 14 and Oregon State at No. 23 in the CFP poll only helps boost the resumes of these Pac-12 playoff hopefuls.

11. One-loss Big 12 champion

  • Possible teams: TCU

I ranked undefeated Clemson over undefeated TCU on the priority list, but if both teams have a loss before winning the conference, I’m flipping the order.

My reasoning is simple: The teams remaining on Clemson’s schedule are worse, so unless TCU’s loss is against Iowa State (not happening), the Horned Frogs would have an easier time overcoming a blemish.

I also have a suspicion that Clemson could drop a bit more than expected if it loses a game. Those wins over Wake Forest, Florida State, and Syracuse weren’t particularly impressive, so I think Clemson’s resume relies even more heavily than others on that zero in the loss column.

12. One-loss ACC champion

  • Possible teams: Clemson, North Carolina

Oh yeah, North Carolina is still in the mix, too!

The Tar Heels don’t have a single impressive win -- not one. Their best is probably a three-point victory over Duke on the road. North Carolina’s 13-point loss to Notre Dame didn’t age well, either, as the Fighting Irish have since proved their loss to Marshall wasn’t a fluke by dropping one against Stanford.

But still, the committee ranked North Carolina 17th in the first poll, and wins over Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Clemson would vault them into consideration.

13. One-loss loser of ACC title game

  • Possible teams: Clemson

The ACC still sends division winners to the conference championship game, so Clemson and North Carolina have essentially locked up their bids.

Even if the Tar Heels go into this game 11-1, they might not be ranked as highly as TCU’s Big 12 title game opponent -- especially considering two-loss Kansas State is already ahead of one-loss UNC in the first poll.

But since Clemson is currently ranked so much higher than TCU when they’re both 8-0, my guess is that would still be the case if they’re both 12-0 going into conference championship weekend. If they both lose their conference title games, I doubt TCU jumps over Clemson for the first time simply for having a slightly higher-ranked loss.

14. One-loss loser of Big 12 title game

  • Possible teams: TCU

If TCU goes into the Big 12 title game undefeated and loses, it’ll be a nervous selection Sunday for the conference.

But since there aren’t any divisions in the Big 12, TCU’s loss would likely come against a top 12 team. The Horned Frogs would finish 12-1 in this scenario and remain in the mix.

15. Michigan or Ohio State finish 11-1

Unlike a Michigan or Ohio State team that beats the other and loses in the conference championship game (item No. 9 on the priority list), this team would sit at home the day before the final poll. That’s a huge blow to a resume that would also lack a statement win from The Game.

16. Ole Miss finishes 11-1

Here’s an obscure scenario: If Ole Miss and LSU both win out, LSU would go to the SEC Championship Game and Ole Miss would be left at home despite beating Alabama.

As unlikely as that is (because LSU would also have to beat Alabama), it’s technically still possible.

I don’t think LSU can get in with two losses (including one by 27 points), and that complicates the outlook for Ole Miss in this situation. How could you ultimately rank the Rebels over a team they lost to both head-to-head and in the division standings?

If we get to a point where Ole Miss finishes 11-1 and makes the playoff, these next four weeks are going to be peak chaos.


About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.