How Michigan, 8 other contenders fit into College Football Playoff hierarchy

5 unbeatens, 4 one-loss teams still in playoff mix

STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 11: Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball in for a touchdown during the first half of a college football game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium on November 11, 2023 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images) (Aaron J. Thornton, 2023 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Since the first College Football Playoff rankings were revealed, four contenders have fallen from the ranks. Now there are nine teams left fighting for four spots.

Last season, I started a tradition of breaking down every possible outcome for every contender based on which team would make the playoff in each scenario. In other words, what needs to happen for each of those 13 teams to make the top four if they finish either undefeated or with one loss?

Here are the teams still in playoff contention:

  • ACC: Florida State, Louisville
  • Big 12: Texas
  • Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State
  • Pac-12: Washington, Oregon
  • SEC: Georgia, Alabama

How this works

NOTE: If you followed previous breakdowns, you can skip this section. It’s just a refresher.

Here’s how you decipher this list: Start from the top item and work your way down. If the specified team finishes the season as outlined in that scenario, then that team will earn the top unclaimed playoff spot. If no team meets the qualification for that outcome, skip it and move to the next item.

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, in that order.

So since “11-1 Michigan” is 16th on the list, in order to make the playoff with an 11-1 record, Michigan would need three or fewer of the top 15 possible outcomes to actually happen.

1. Undefeated SEC champion

  • Possible teams: Georgia

Georgia has back-to-back wins over one-loss teams that were fighting for their playoff lives, and suddenly, the two-time defending champs are looking like the favorite to win the title once again.

Star tight end Brock Bowers returned, and the Bulldogs are starting to hit their stride at the right time. They’ve already locked up the SEC East title, and now they just need to take care of two far inferior opponents -- Tennessee and Georgia Tech -- before a date with Alabama in Atlanta.

If Georgia wins out, it will receive the No. 1 ranking, without a doubt.

2. Undefeated Big Ten champion

  • Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

Michigan took care of business in its first true test of the season, beating Penn State on the road to improve to 10-0. This season is starting to look very familiar -- we’re just one week away from clinching another undefeated showdown between Michigan and Ohio State.

Michigan has been the No. 2 seed in the playoff each of the past two seasons, and that will be the case again if it can win out and Georgia doesn’t lose. The same goes for Ohio State if it beats Minnesota, Michigan, and the Big Ten West champ over the next three weeks.

I don’t think there’s anything Washington or Florida State can do to pass a hypothetical undefeated Big Ten champ.

3. Undefeated Pac-12 champion

  • Possible teams: Washington

Washington already had a better collection of wins than Michigan, and the committee continues top rank the Huskies outside the top four. That tells me the Pac-12 needs some help to crack the top two spots, even if Washington is 13-0.

The win over Utah should have been enough to vault Washington into the No. 4 spot ahead of Florida State, which struggled to beat a mediocre Miami team at home. Florida State only has one quality win (LSU), while Washington has now defeated Arizona, Oregon, USC, and Utah over the past month.

But there’s something about the Washington resume that isn’t impressing the committee, as it remained No. 5 in the third poll.

This week will be tricky, as the Huskies hit the road to face Oregon State. A loss wouldn’t eliminate them from playoff contention, but it would make the path much more complicated.

4. One-loss SEC champion Georgia

If Georgia has one loss but still wins the SEC, that means the loss came against either Tennessee or Georgia Tech, which means the loss definitely came against Tennessee.

That would be a surprise, and maybe it would be enough to drop Georgia to No. 4. But I think wins over three two-loss teams (11-2 Alabama, 10-2 Missouri, and 10-2 Ole Miss) would keep the Bulldogs ahead of Florida State.

5. Undefeated ACC champion

  • Possible teams: Florida State

Florida State seems bored. The team has so much talent, but the ACC is terrible, and the only other respectable teams (Louisville and North Carolina) aren’t on the schedule.

When the regular season ends, LSU will be the only team with fewer than four losses on Florida State’s regular-season schedule. That means out of all the potential undefeated teams, the Seminoles’ resume would be by far the weakest.

A win over Louisville in the ACC title game would provide a nice boost, but that’s still not enough to match up with the others. And I think a one-loss Georgia would overtake the Seminoles with a win over Alabama.

6. One-loss Pac-12 champion Oregon

Oregon is currently the highest-ranked one-loss team, and I don’t expect that to change if the Ducks keep winning.

Wins over Utah and USC are nice, but if Oregon finishes 12-1, that will include additional wins over Oregon State and Washington, which would guarantee a spot in the playoff.

7. One-loss Big 12 champion

  • Possible teams: Texas

The decision between Texas and Alabama if both teams finish 12-1 will be the greatest debate in College Football Playoff history. I really don’t know what the committee members would do.

But I know what they should do.

Yes, that Texas-Alabama game happened a long time ago. But it still happened, and the games have to matter.

If Team A goes on the road and beats Team B by 10 points, and then they both finish with the same record, and Team A’s only loss is a respectable one, how in the world can we justify ranking Team B higher? I know SEC fans are going to scoff, but that goes against the very spirit of competition.

Yes, Alabama would have a win over Georgia at a neutral site. But you know what’s better than a win over Georgia at a neutral site? A win on the road over the team that beat Georgia, which is exactly what Texas would have in this scenario.

Do I think Texas is better than Alabama? No. I’m not sure there is a better team than Alabama right now. But Texas would be more deserving, and I think the CFP committee could easily justify sticking with the head-to-head result.

8. One-loss SEC champion Alabama

None of the other playoff contenders want Alabama to get into the top four, because this is starting to look like a typical Death Star Alabama team.

Tennessee-LSU-Kentucky was widely regarded as the toughest three-game stretch on Alabama’s schedule, and all the Tide did was win all three by a combined 56 points.

The football apocalypse scenario would be as follows: Florida State, Washington, and the Michigan-Ohio State winner all finish 13-0, while Alabama, Georgia, and Texas finish 12-1. That would be the only scenario that makes Alabama fans nervous going into the final CFP reveal.

9. One-loss Big Ten champion

  • Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

It’s hard to imagine the Big Ten champion getting left out of the playoff, especially after a win in The Game and the conference title.

But a one-loss Big Ten champ would mean either Michigan lost to Maryland or Ohio State lost to Minnesota, and those would be by far the ugliest losses of any remaining playoff contender (other than Louisville’s loss to Pittsburgh).

Everybody is looking ahead to Michigan-Ohio State next week, but this week is important in terms of keeping the Big Ten’s playoff spot secure.

10. One-loss loser of SEC title game

  • Possible teams: Georgia

It sounds insane, but if Georgia loses to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, it might be very much in danger of dropping out of the top four.

Think about it: Alabama would obviously jump Georgia in that scenario, but Alabama can’t really jump Texas (maybe) or the hypothetical undefeated conference champs. So where does that leave Georgia? Very tricky spot.

Georgia is unquestionably one of the four best teams in the country, but because of the way the chips have fallen, I don’t think a playoff spot is locked up just yet.

11. One-loss Pac-12 champion Washington

For the purpose of this list, let’s say Washington goes 12-1 and wins the Pac-12, but the loss is at Oregon State.

Washington would have two wins over Oregon, a win over USC, a win over Arizona, and a win over Utah -- pretty impressive. But the committee has ranked the Huskies last of the unbeatens in the first three polls, and that tells me close games against Arizona State and Stanford are penalizing them.

Would 12-1 Georgia fall below 12-1 conference champion Washington with a loss to Alabama? I think Washington would have the better resume, but something tells me the back-to-back national champs would get the benefit of the doubt here.

12. One-loss ACC champion

  • Possible teams: Florida State, Louisville

It’s going to be hard for a one-loss ACC team to get into the playoff this season. There just aren’t enough quality wins available in that conference.

Louisville lost by 17 points against a Pittsburgh team that’s currently 2-8 -- literally has not won a game since beating Louisville a month ago. Florida State’s loss would have to come against a Florida team that’s currently 5-5 (and likely to fall to 5-6 at Missouri this weekend).

So, yeah, the loss would be bad. Just as bad as a hypothetical Michigan or Ohio State loss this weekend. And there aren’t any top-tier wins to make up for that loss.

Florida State’s best two wins would be against LSU and Louisville, which is solid but not as impressive as Washington beating Oregon twice, or Alabama knocking off Georgia, or Michigan/Ohio State beating Penn State and each other.

As for Louisville, the committee ranked two-loss Missouri ahead of the Cardinals this week, which tells you all you need to know.

13. One-loss loser of Pac-12 title game

  • Possible teams: Washington

The problem for Washington if it loses the Pac-12 title game is that Oregon is probably going to get in, and it’s hard to imagine the Pac-12 getting two teams.

The Huskies have an excellent resume, but the committee viewed them as the worst undefeated team in the first two polls. Losing to the same Oregon team on which your resume was built would be hard to overcome.

14. One-loss loser of Big Ten title game

  • Possible teams: Michigan, Ohio State

Losing the Big Ten Championship Game would be even worse than losing the Pac-12 title game.

Yes, Iowa is ranked now, and that certainly helps. But Iowa isn’t Oregon, and Washington would have wins that stack up with the Big Ten runner-up’s top wins, so it’s hard to see Michigan or Ohio State getting in in this scenario.

15. One-loss loser of ACC title game

  • Possible teams: Florida State

If Florida State loses in the ACC Championship Game, I think its playoff hopes are basically shattered. The Seminoles desperately need that second quality win on their resume, and losing the “undefeated” tag would further highlight some of the other unimpressive performances, like last week against Miami and the near-miss at Boston College.

Florida State has enough talent to win the national title, but the resume has made its margin for error razor thin.

16. Michigan or Ohio State finish 11-1

Ohio State got into the playoff last year after a loss to Michigan, but that’s not going to happen this year.

Next week’s Michigan-Ohio State clash will likely feature two top-three teams, but it will still serve as a de facto playoff elimination game.

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.