How Michigan, final 12 contenders fit into College Football Playoff hierarchy (all possible scenarios)

Wolverines improve to 9-0 with dominant second half at Rutgers

Quarterback J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines in action during a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium on November 5, 2022 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Rich Schultz, 2022 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan is among a dozen teams that still have realistic College Football Playoff hopes, and after a weekend of upsets and widespread chaos, a clearer hierarchy within the playoff race is starting to take shape.

READ: Why new College Football Playoff rankings still don’t look good for Michigan-Ohio State loser

Two teams lost for the second time and dropped out of playoff contention Saturday: Alabama and Illinois. But there was an unexpected complication: LSU suddenly has a heartbeat.

So while the field dropped from 19 to 13 last week, this week, it was only trimmed down by one.

Here are the remaining contenders:

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

The updated hierarchy list based on all remaining possible outcomes has also shrunk, since Clemson and Tennessee no longer have undefeated outcomes to consider. Let’s dive in!

How this works

NOTE: If you’ve read the breakdowns from the last two weeks (available here and here), you can skip this section. It’s just a refresher on how this works for the newcomers.

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 unclaimed 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 in this hierarchy 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 team assumes the No. 1 overall spot.

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 14th on the list, in order to make the playoff, it would need three or fewer of the top 13 possible outcomes to actually happen.

1. Undefeated SEC champion

Possible teams: Georgia

The lone undefeated team in the SEC has risen to No. 1 in the CFP poll, and it will remain there barring a loss.

The defending champs have taken down two current top-six teams by a combined 60 points and have earned this top spot, as long as they don’t slip up in the next four weeks.

2. Undefeated Big Ten champion

Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

If Georgia does drop a game between now and the final rankings, then the most likely team to finish atop the rankings is the winner of Michigan vs. Ohio State.

Two games separate us from the Nov. 26 showdown in Columbus, but if both teams take care of business, it will set up one of the most impactful regular season games of the year. The winner will lock up a playoff spot while the loser sweats for eight days.

3. One-loss SEC champion

Possible teams: Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee

Tennessee doesn’t really belong in this category because Georgia would have to lose to both Mississippi State and Kentucky for the Volunteers to even make the SEC title game. But it’s still mathematically possible.

If the Big Ten champion isn’t unbeaten, any of these three teams would take the No. 1 seed with a 12-1 record. Even though Ole Miss is currently all the way down at No. 11 in the CFP poll, wins over Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Georgia (or Tennessee, technically), would be enough to propel the Rebels to a top-two seed.

4. One-loss Big Ten champion

Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

If Michigan or Ohio State lose in the next two weeks, a win in The Game and a Big Ten championship would be more than enough to make up for it and earn the No. 2 seed.

Yes, I think this team would even get slight priority over an undefeated TCU, based on the way the Big 12 has played out. But it’s close.

5. Undefeated Big 12 champion

Possible teams: TCU

Last week, I put undefeated TCU ahead of one-loss Big Ten champion on this list. I still think the Horned Frogs are guaranteed a spot if they finish unbeaten, but it would likely be No. 3.

Other than TCU, every single team in the Big 12 has at least three losses. It’s the deepest league in the country, but that parity has consequences in the rankings.

In the theoretical scenario where TCU is undefeated, it would have two ranked wins at most, and possibly fewer. Texas would have earned a fourth loss this week, and whoever finishes second behind TCU would get its fourth loss in the Big 12 title game.

On the other hand, either Michigan or Ohio State would have a top-10 win over the other, as well as a win over (currently No. 14) Penn State.

This committee has proved it doesn’t really care about losses as long as a team has quality wins. Notre Dame is in the top 25 with home losses to Marshall and Stanford. LSU is No. 7 despite losing by 27 points to Tennessee and dropping a game to three-loss Florida State.

6. One-loss loser of SEC title game

Possible teams: Georgia

This one’s pretty simple: If Georgia goes into the SEC Championship Game with a 12-0 record and loses to either LSU or Ole Miss, it will still be guaranteed a spot in the playoff.

The wins over Tennessee and Oregon during the regular season would keep Georgia ranked over both of those teams, and only the Big Ten champion or an undefeated TCU would be ranked ahead.

7. Tennessee finishes 11-1

Seeing this down at No. 7 might alarm Tennessee fans at a glance, but in reality, it means the Volunteers are a virtual playoff lock if they win out.

Of the six outcomes above, no more than four can actually happen at the same time. For example, only two of these three can happen: “undefeated SEC champion,” “one-loss SEC champion,” and “one-loss loser of SEC title game.” Those are all listed individually because the resulting CFP seed would be different for each, but there obviously can’t be an undefeated SEC champ and a one-loss SEC champ.

Likewise, there can’t be an undefeated Big Ten champion and a one-loss Big Ten champion. So, in my opinion, that leaves just one scenario in which Tennessee gets left out of the playoff: TCU goes undefeated, Ole Miss goes 12-1 and wins the SEC, and Georgia goes 12-1 with a loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Championship Game.

In that scenario, the Big Ten champion would join TCU, Ole Miss, and Georgia in the playoff. Tennessee would finish fifth.

8. One-loss loser of Big Ten title game

Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

If the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game goes into Indianapolis and loses the conference title to the West Division representative, it should still be safely in the field.

The nightmare scenario is if Ole Miss wins the SEC and Georgia and Tennessee are both sitting there with one loss. Then, all three SEC teams might get the nod above a one-loss non-champ in the Big Ten. An undefeated TCU could then bump that Big Ten runner-up to No. 5.

9. One-loss Pac-12 champion

Possible teams: Oregon, UCLA, USC

The Pac-12 is in great position to put a team in the playoff for the first time since Washington in 2016.

No. 6 Oregon is positioned best of the three, but No. 8 USC and No. 12 UCLA will make big moves in the coming weeks if they continue to win.

I personally don’t see the Week 1 game between Oregon and Georgia coming into play if the Ducks win the Pac-12. It’s been three months since that 46-point beatdown, and Oregon is clearly a much improved team.

10. One-loss Big 12 champion

Possible teams: TCU

Even if TCU slips up at Texas or Baylor the next two weeks, it will remain in the playoff picture thanks to the Big 12 Championship Game.

The Horned Frogs have a two-game lead in the conference standings with three weeks to go, so it would take a monumental collapse not to finish in the top two.

Say, theoretically, TCU finishes 12-1 with a regular-season loss to Texas or Baylor that was avenged in the SEC title game. While I think the Pac-12 winner would still get preference, TCU would be lurking if that team and/or Tennessee finished with two losses.

11. One-loss ACC champion

Possible teams: Clemson, North Carolina

The committee doesn’t love North Carolina (No. 15, behind four teams with two losses), but it sure admires Clemson (No. 10 despite a 21-point loss to Notre Dame).

Unless both the Pac-12 and Big 12 champions have multiple losses, the ACC is the Power Five conference most likely to be left out of the playoff this season.

12. SEC champion LSU

The outrage will be deafening if two-loss LSU gets into the playoff, but it’s absolutely possible, and anyone who thinks otherwise is in denial.

The committee is already laying the groundwork to move LSU into the top four if the chips fall into place. The Tigers are ranked ahead of five one-loss Power Five teams, and if they go on to beat Georgia, the top team in the country, to win the best conference in the country, the flood gates will burst open.

SEC bias is real. Even though it’s consistently the best conference in the sport, the committee often goes too far in rewarding SEC wins and dismissing SEC losses.

But that’s the reality of the situation, and if LSU has beaten Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss, it will absolutely be in consideration.

One complication for LSU is that it can’t, under any circumstances, be ranked ahead of a one-loss Tennessee team because of the one-sided head-to-head result. That means if LSU gets into the playoff, it will likely be as a third SEC participant, alongside the Vols and Georgia.

13. One-loss loser of Big 12 title game

Possible teams: TCU

The committee’s initial skepticism of TCU combined with the lack of another highly ranked team in the Big 12 could come back to haunt the Horned Frogs if their lone loss comes on conference championship weekend.

TCU would still be alive, but it would be counting on both the ACC and Pac-12 to produce multiple-loss champions.

It’s ironic that TCU would be in a much better spot losing to Texas or Baylor in the regular season and beating them on a neutral field than vice versa, but that’s the way committees of the past have operated.

14. Michigan or Ohio State finish 11-1

Clemson isn’t going to finish undefeated. That’s good for the Big Ten. Alabama won’t be in the playoff. That’s also good for the Big Ten.

And yet, the chance of two Big Ten teams making the playoff still looks very slim.

The Maryland and Illinois losses this weekend hurt Michigan because wins over those teams will no longer be considered overly impressive. That means a loss on Nov. 26 would leave both Michigan and Ohio State with just one great win: Penn State.

Tennessee will have a better one-loss resume. The Pac-12 champion will likely have a better one-loss resume. Clemson won’t have a better one-loss resume, but the committee will reward it for a conference title.

The Big Ten will always have multiple teams in the playoff when it expands to 12. But before then, it’s not likely to happen.

15. Ole Miss finishes 11-1

If Ole Miss and LSU both win out, the Rebels will be left at home on conference championship weekend because of the head-to-head loss.

Home wins over Kentucky and Alabama would provide a boost to the resume, but thanks to a 25-point loss and seven bad teams on the schedule, it would take total chaos for Ole Miss to make the playoff in this scenario.

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.