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Starting 11: Could a Two-Loss Playoff Team Emerge?

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I spent the weekend in Knoxville for the Georgia-Tennessee game with my three boys. It was my first time in Neyland Stadium with all three boys and despite the game outcome, the stadium, the crowd, and the overwhelming experience of a Saturday in Knoxville left all three of them in awe.

At the start of the game my first grader said, “Are half the people in America in the stadium right now, dad?”

As we walked into the stadium he said, “There is so much orange, dad. How is there this much orange anywhere?”

Seeing sports through the eyes of your kids, is one of my favorite parenting experiences. It takes you back to the earliest days of your own fandom, before you were a jaded and cynical adult. I still remember my first SEC football game well — UCLA at Tennessee on September 14th 1985. I was six years old and the game ended in a 26-26 tie.

I’m confident my own kids will remember this day for the rest of their lives.

You never forget your first big college football game. You just don’t.

The end result of the game? Georgia pretty much guaranteed itself a playoff spot with the win and Josh Heupel, who should finish 7-5 at Tennessee in year one, saw that he needs to have some better horses if he’s going to compete for sixty minutes with the top teams in the country.

At least the first quarter was fun.

Okay, let’s get on to the Starting 11.

1. Georgia is in the playoff, who else joins the Bulldogs there?

Right now my playoff four would be as follows:

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Oregon
4. Ohio State

That’s pretty much everyone’s top four right now.

But what’s interesting is this, who else is out there if some of these teams stumble? That’s especially the case because we really have three spots still up for grabs and not that many teams with good resumes.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are both still one loss Big 12 teams, Cincinnati is probably going to finish undefeated, but doesn’t appear to have much juice with the playoff committee. Then we have three one loss Big Ten teams — Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.

Meanwhile Notre Dame is still out there lurking as a potential 11-1 finisher as well.

Why do I raise all of these issues — which I’ll unpack below? — because there’s a decent chance that before all is done some two loss teams could end up in the playoff mix.

Really.

2. So what do Fan Duel national title tell us about how oddsmakers are breaking down the playoff race?

Here’s the top 13 title contenders.

As you can see, after the top three the odds drop precipitously.

Georgia -125
Ohio State +350
Alabama +450
Oregon 30-1
Oklahoma 43-1
Oklahoma State 50-1
Michigan 50-1
Cincinnati 60-1
Notre Dame 80-1
Wake Forest 100-1
Michigan State 100-1
Wisconsin 200-1
Utah 300-1

We know Georgia is pretty much a lock for the playoff at this point, but the other three playoff spots are still pretty much wide open. And there are at least ten teams who could make some form of conceivable playoff case if everything broke perfectly for them.

So let’s break all this down.

3. First up, what happens in the Big Ten?

Ohio State is playing the best football in the Big Ten right now. The Buckeyes are undefeated in conference play, crushing most opponents, and finish with the state of Michigan on the schedule — the Spartans at home on Saturday and then at Michigan in two weeks.

If the Buckeyes win both games then they’ll be in the Big Ten title game against, most likely, Wisconsin.

Michigan State finishes at Ohio State and then with Penn State at home.

Michigan finishes at Maryland and then with Ohio State at home.

So the Big Ten East feels like it will come down to Ohio State at Michigan in two weeks. But things could get really wacky too.

What if Michigan State upsets Ohio State this coming weekend? Then the Buckeyes are probably out of Big Ten title contention — Penn State would have to upset Michigan State — but they could still ruin Michigan’s season.

And no matter who emerges from the Big Ten East, Wisconsin is lurking and based on how the Badgers are playing they have a very real chance to pull off the upset, meaning the Big Ten might not get any team at all in the playoff because every Big Ten East team could end up with two losses and three loss Wisconsin might win the title.

So zero playoff teams is possible, but the best case scenario for the Big Ten could still be two playoff teams. How would that happen? If Michigan State and Michigan both won out, Michigan State would go to the Big Ten title game and Michigan would be left out at 11-1.

If Michigan State beat Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title, 12-1 Michigan State is definitely in the playoff, but Michigan, at 11-1, might make the playoff too.

So with two weeks left in the regular season, the Big Ten has a potential end of season run that leaves them with two, one, or zero playoff teams.

But the most likely Big Ten playoff path remains Ohio State wins out.

If the Buckeyes win out, no matter what else happens, thanks to the Oklahoma loss, There is now no scenario where 12-1 Big Ten champ Ohio State isn’t in the playoff.

4. Who plays in the Big 12 title game and is the Big 12 still alive in the playoff race?

First, yes, the Big 12 is still very much alive in the playoff race. I think a 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma or Oklahoma State would both end up in the playoff. But, frankly, I’m not that optimistic anyone finishes 12-1, which means a playoff spot may not materialize either.

Right now you have Oklahoma and Oklahoma State tied at the top of the standings at 6-1. Then Baylor is lurking at 5-2.

Oklahoma finishes with Iowa State and at Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma State finishes at Texas Tech — what a win for the Red Raiders yesterday — and with Oklahoma.

Baylor finishes at Kansas State and with Texas Tech.

The most likely outcome, in my opinion, is we get a rematch of Bedlam in the Big 12 title game on back-to-back weeks.

But if Oklahoma State wins out and Baylor wins out then it would be Oklahoma State and Baylor in the Big 12 title game.

The only way Oklahoma State doesn’t make the Big 12 title game is if the Cowboys lose out and Baylor wins out.

The point is, there are a ton of scenarios still at play here. If, and it’s a big if, either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State can finish 12-1 I still feel like there’s a very good chance the Big 12 champ will make the playoff.

5. Can Oregon run the table in the Pac 12?

Oregon plays at Utah and then they play Oregon State.

There’s a strong chance the Pac 12 title game will be Oregon against Utah, a rematch of the game that will be played this coming weekend. (So many of these title games are rematches, which is why I’d rather have an expanded playoff, personally, than conference title games.)

But, and this is also key, what if Oregon lost to Utah this weekend and then came back to beat Utah in the Pac 12 title game? Is 11-2 Pac 12 champ Oregon still in the playoff mix?

I think 11-2 Pac 12 champion Oregon, with a win over Ohio State on the road, and a canceling out of a potential loss to Utah would still have a pretty decent chance to get in the playoff. Interestingly, Oregon would probably have a stronger playoff resume if the Ducks lost on the road at Utah and then came back to win the Pac 12 title game over them than if they beat the Utes this coming weekend and then lost to them in the Pac 12 race.

On the flip side, you want a playoff contender no one is talking about, what if Utah ran the table to finish 11-2 with a Pac 12 championship? Depending on what happens in the other title games, Utah might find itself in the playoff mix.

My point here is, a two loss playoff team isn’t out of the equation at all.

In fact, with Oklahoma’s loss, it became far more likely of a reality.

6. Could Alabama lose to Georgia and still make the playoff at 11-2?

That could happen, yes.

The easiest pathway for the Tide to make the playoff is to win out. A 12-1 SEC champion Alabama would not just make the playoff, the Tide would be your overall number one seed. (12-1 Georgia would drop to second in this scenario).

The conventional wisdom has been that if Alabama loses the Tide has no chance at the playoff, but I’m not sure that’s true if you analyze the playoff board.

What if we get some conference title game chaos down the stretch run here? Remember Georgia is pretty much our only guaranteed playoff team spot. Let’s say Ohio State gets upset by Wisconsin and finishes 11-2 with a Big Ten title game loss. Let’s also say the ultimate Big 12 champ has two losses. And that either Oregon or Utah finish as an 11-2 Pac 12 champ. Let’s also say we have a two loss ACC champ, either Wake Forest or Pittsburgh for instance.

Then you’ve got a bevy of two loss teams.

And you also might have Notre Dame at 11-1 and undefeated Cincinnati.

Who are your playoff four?

After Georgia isn’t it essentially a complete toss up? And, by the way, this isn’t a crazy scenario, this wouldn’t even require that many upsets in order to happen.

In this situation I feel like your playoff four might end up being:

1. Georgia
2. Cincinnati
3. 11-2 Alabama
4. 11-2 Oregon (edging out 11-2 Ohio State who they beat head-to-head)
5. 11-2 Ohio State
6. 11-1 Notre Dame
7. Two loss Big 12 champ
8. Two loss ACC champ
9. Three loss Big Ten champion Wisconsin

But all of this is just an educated guess because if I’m Notre Dame I’m arguing we beat the Big Ten champ — Wisconsin in this scenario — and our only loss was to an undefeated Cincinnati team.

My point here, there’s a very real chance of playoff chaos this season and two loss teams look like they could end up in the mix.

Now, to be fair, it’s also possible there’s zero controversy at all.

If Alabama beats Georgia and Oregon and Ohio State win out, your playoff is simple. This would be your four:

1. Alabama
2. Georgia
3. Oregon
4. Ohio State

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that two loss teams may well end up in the mix.

7. What does Cincinnati need to happen to make the playoff?

a. Win out.
b. Root for Georgia to win out.
c. Root for every other conference champ to have two or more losses.

The committee has made it clear they aren’t taking Cincinnati over a one loss conference champ. But would the Bearcats get in over two loss teams? That seems far more likely. So if you’re a Bearcats fan you should be rooting for Georgia to win out — because the Bulldogs are in already — and for every other conference to crown a champ with two or more losses.

8. What about the ACC champ?

Right now your ACC championship game would be Wake Forest vs. Pittsburgh.

Almost no one is paying attention to Wake Forest, but the Demon Deacons have these two road games left on their schedule: at Clemson and at Boston College.

If Wake wins both these games and then beats Pitts in the ACC title game, wouldn’t 12-1 Wake Forest have to be in the playoff mix too? Especially if, as I’m laying out, there’s a great deal of two loss team chaos also?

Buckle up.

9. Texas has lost five Big 12 games in a row, the latest a home loss to thirty point underdog Kansas.

Immediately after Kansas scored their fans — credit to any Jayhawk fans that made the trip for this game — began chanting, SEC, SEC, SEC, the same thing Baylor’s fans did after beating Oklahoma.

Texas is most certainly not back, but what looked like it might be a good season one for Steve Sarkisian has turned into a complete disaster.

Speaking of disasters, Florida let Samford, SAMFORD!, hang fifty points on them in the Swamp and then celebrated like this after the win.

Something is rotten in Gainesville and I’m not sure how to solve the issue. But it doesn’t feel like Dan Mullen is the answer right now.

10. My Outkick National Top Ten

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Oregon
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
6. Michigan
7. Cincinnati
8. Notre Dame
9. Oklahoma State
10. Oklahoma

11. SEC power rankings 1-14

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Ole Miss
4. Mississippi State
5. Texas A&M
6. Auburn
7. Arkansas
8. Tennessee
9. Kentucky
10. LSU
11. Missouri
12. South Carolina
13. Florida
14. Vanderbilt

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

2 Comments

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  1. This “anything can happen with two weeks to go” is great, but will likely die with playoff expansion. Thanks for coming out to Knoxville again. In a world that sometimes wants to remain virtual, always good to see you among the fans.

  2. The PAC 12 is horrible and Oregon is overrated. The Ohio St. win was a complete fluke and Utah will beat Oregon twice to close out the season giving Oregon 3 losses.

    The problem with an 11-2 Utah team making the playoffs is that Utah already has 3 losses so that isn’t going to happen.

    The PAC 12 will miss the college football playoff AGAIN.

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