Starting 11: Breaking Down the Playoff Race

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Nov 14, 2015; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) runs the ball during the fourth quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Alabama won 31-6 Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports Matt Bush

With three weeks to go until the season’s over you can start to forecast the playoff picture fairly reliably. Thanks to Stanford and Utah both losing Saturday night the Pac 12 is pretty much eliminated from the playoff picture.  

This means there are now 12 teams alive for playoff spots in some form or fashion: Clemson, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame. 

(Based on how they looked against Kansas I’m being very generous leaving TCU here, but if the Horned Frogs beat Baylor and Oklahoma, they’d probably still win the Big 12 and get in the playoff provided that Oklahoma State lost to both Baylor and Oklahoma.) 

So I’m going to put on my playoff committee hat and take you through the process. 

Here we go:

1. What’s the most likely playoff?

Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State will all be substantial favorites over every opponent for the rest of the season. So all three of these teams would be clear favorites to make the playoff.

Then comes the biggest issues that looks like it may face the committee — who gets the fourth spot, Notre Dame or a one loss Big 12 champ? (Undefeated Oklahoma State would clearly get in above Notre Dame, but let’s presume that they lose at least one game.)

So one loss Notre Dame vs. one loss Big 12 champ Oklahoma State, Baylor, Oklahoma or TCU? Who gets in? 

2. I believe that a one loss Big 12 champ would get in over 11-1 Notre Dame.

Yes, even Oklahoma. The Sooners beat Baylor this past weekend and would have November wins over TCU and Oklahoma State. Notre Dame’s best late season win would be over Stanford to close out the season. Couple Oklahoma’s 8-1 Big 12 record with a pretty solid out of conference road win over likely 8-4 Tennessee and that resume is better than Notre Dame’s.

Yes, yes, I know, the two teams have one common opponent and Notre Dame beat Texas, but it was very early in the season. I think the committee is going to focus more on who you beat than on who you lost to. At least that’s what they did last year when they took Ohio State over Baylor and TCU despite the fact that both Baylor and TCU had infinitely better road losses than Ohio State’s home loss to 6-6 Virginia Tech.

I think one loss Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU would also all get in over Notre Dame as well because they’d be losing to a top ten caliber team in November and finishing with two wins over top ten caliber teams. 

Basically, I think a one loss Big 12 champ — given the strength of the conference — would definitely get in over Notre Dame.  

3. So how does Notre Dame get into the playoff?

Notre Dame needs to win out and hope the SEC, the Big Ten, and the ACC champs emerge with two losses. (I think it’s impossible for the Big 12 champ to emerge with two losses.) 

Essentially Notre Dame needs quite a bit of help. 

In fact, I think Notre Dame needs a lot of help to make the playoff. 

4. If Clemson wins out, the Tigers are in. 

That’s simple. 

But if Clemson loses just one game, the ACC title game, to 12-1 North Carolina, for instance, is it possible the Tar Heels could sneak in? Maybe, but they’d need some help. In order for North Carolina to make the playoff there would need to be some serious carnage. Notre Dame would have to lose to Stanford, and the SEC champ would need to have two losses. A two loss Michigan might need to win the Big Ten.

And here’s the other thing — doesn’t Clemson still have a better overall resume even with a loss to North Carolina?

I mean, even if 12-1 Clemson lost to North Carolina, you can’t put 11-1 Notre Dame in over a team they lost to head-to-head, can you? 

5. Alabama or Florida would definitely be in at 12-1 and SEC champ. 

Now that I’ve apologized to Bama fans for ever doubting their team, I don’t think the Crimson Tide will be challenged in their final three games and will finish 12-1. 

But if Florida beats Florida State and then pulls of a tremendous upset over Alabama then the Gators would definitely be in the playoff. 

6. The Big Ten champ will definitely be in the playoff unless that champ is 11-2 Michigan.

Ohio State and Iowa would both go to the playoff even with a loss. (Clearly a 13-0 champ is in easily.) 12-1 Big Ten champ Michigan State would also go to the playoff.  

(Michigan might technically be alive too, but it’s hard to see the Wolverines winning at Penn State, over Ohio State, and then beating Iowa in the Big Ten title game. And even if all of that happened the Wolverines would probably still not get in because there would be too many one loss teams with better resumes than 11-2 Michigan.)

Having said that, if Michigan beats Penn State and and Ohio State beats Michigan State then the Big Ten east title would be decided in Ann Arbor. 

7. What about a two loss team, does anyone other than Michigan still have a playoff pulse?

Probably not. The 12 teams we ranked above would all still have better resumes than any two loss team other than Michigan.

A two loss SEC champ, either Alabama or Florida, could, if there was enough carnage, even make the playoff.

Again, it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where any team is in the playoff and not listed as one of the top 12 teams above.    

8. So why does everyone spend so much time writing and talking about how complicated the playoff is?

I honestly have no idea. The playoff committee’s job isn’t going to be that hard in most seasons.

The playoff committee rankings are almost a perfect mirror of the AP and coaches polls. The first three teams are probably a consensus, the only real decision will come down to the fourth team. And if Notre Dame loses to Stanford then the committee doesn’t even need to meet. The fourth team will be from the Big 12 and the SEC, Big Ten and ACC will all be represented as well. 

9. The Big 12 will have a definite champ this year. 

Thanks to finally acknowledging the head-to-head tiebreak, the Big 12 will have one champ.


Here are the scenarios:

a. If Oklahoma State wins out the Cowboys are the undefeated champs of the Big 12. 

b. If Oklahoma wins out the Sooners are the champs of the Big 12, winning a tiebreak over any other one loss team. 

c. If Baylor wins out, the Bears need Oklahoma to lose to either TCU or Oklahoma State. 

d. If TCU wins out, the Horned Frogs need both Baylor and Oklahoma to beat Oklahoma State. 

There is no way we could have a tie and we’re guaranteed that the most losses a champ could have is one.

10. Could any conference get two teams this year?

I think that’s almost impossible. The best, and only, chance for that would come from the Big Ten. If undefeated Iowa or undefeated Ohio State lost a close Big Ten title game then the 12-1 Buckeyes or 12-1 Hawkeyes would need a ton to go their way.

Notre Dame would need to lose to Stanford and the ACC champ would need to have two losses. The Pac 12 champ would also need to probably finish with three losses. Even a two loss SEC champ would get in over them, I think.

Basically, it’s highly improbable and almost impossible to imagine what would need to happen for that scenario to emerge.    

11. SEC power ratings

Good luck with this. At this point in time we have to consider the totality of the resume factor. That is, we have to factor in all ten games that most teams have played to this point and not just their most recent games.

So here we go:

1. Alabama

2. Florida

3. LSU

4. Ole Miss

5. Arkansas 

6. Tennessee

7. Georgia

8. Texas A&M

9. Mississippi State

10. Auburn

11. Vanderbilt

12. Kentucky

13. Missouri 

14. South Carolina

Which team will bitch the most about these rankings?

I can already tell you — Arkansas fans. This is just like last year when Arkansas sucked early in the year and then played really well by the end of the season. 

Yes, Arkansas just beat LSU, but the Tigers beat Florida earlier this year and don’t have two really bad out of conference losses. Remember that Arkansas also lost to Texas A&M, our eighth best team head-to-head and needed multiple overtimes to beat Auburn, our tenth best team.

Put simply, we’re at the point in the season where you don’t rank teams entirely based on what happened head-to-head.  

The bottom four teams are, honestly, pretty interchangeable. I may have Vandy overrated, but they beat 2 of the 3 bottom teams here. Both Missouri and South Carolina are the only two SEC teams with a single conference win so I think they have to be the two worst SEC teams at this point.  

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.