What to Know Going into the College Football Playoffs
Jeremy Young '24
The most chaotic year of recent college football history is coming to an end and there are still no clear cut favorites. Every week, it seemed that another top college football team would fall; Clemson, Penn State, Ohio State, Oregon, and Alabama all suffered losses early in the year, and three of these teams were in the playoffs last year (Clemson, Ohio State, and Alabama). With the absence of perennial championship contenders, new teams have stepped into the top ten. Cincinnati, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, and Michigan State have all been unlikely contenders. Unlike other years, though, only two teams have remained undefeated; Georgia and Cincinnati. Georgia, while being the consensus best team in the country, was still relatively untested heading into the SEC Championship. Cincinnati, suffered from not being in a Power 5 conference meaning they were perpetually held out of the top four until there were no teams left to pass them. While Georgia and Cincinnati were both heavy favorites if not locks heading into the Conference Championship, the other two spots are still up in the air.
Going into the Conference Championship weekend, there were six teams with a possibility of making the playoffs. Georgia and Cincinnati were both undefeated and were spots 1 and 4 respectively in the college football playoff rankings. Michigan (2), Alabama (3), Oklahoma State (5), and Notre Dame (6) occupy the remaining spots as teams with only one loss. If the season finished before the conference championships, Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, and Cincinnati would all be heading to the playoffs in that order. But with conference playoffs being used as the deciding factor, there were still many possibilities as to how all six teams could make the playoffs.
For Georgia, whether they won or lost against Alabama, it didn’t really matter. If they lost however, they would drop from the one seed to either the two or three seed. For Alabama, they had to win against Georgia. If they won they would be the top seed in the college football playoffs but because of their loss earlier this season to Texas A&M, they would have been out if they had lost. Michigan, coming off their big win against Ohio State still needed to beat Iowa to secure their spot in the college football playoffs. With Jim Harbaugh as the coach, Michigan’s record against top 25 teams is 14-29 so even though they had beaten Ohio State handley, they still needed to win again to get into the college football playoffs. Cincinnati had to play Houston in their conference championship, a team they had already beaten this season. While on paper a one loss Cincinnati should be a lock for the college football playoffs, the playoff committee has been notoriously biased against teams outside of the power 5 conferences who tend to play an easier schedule. Undefeated UCF, USF, and Cincinnati have all been left out of the college football playoffs before, so if Cincinnati had lost to Houston, the odds were they wouldn’t make the playoffs.
Oklahoma State has recently climbed in the playoff poll. Like Michigan, they are coming off of a big win knocking off a powerhouse team and ending their playoff chances. In Oklahoma State’s case, they beat Oklahoma 37-31 which was enough for Lincoln Riley to jump ship for Southern California. Oklahoma State still had to beat 10-2 Baylor and hope that one of Alabama, Michigan, or Cincinnati would lose for them to make the playoffs, which they came up short of doing by a matter of inches. Notre Dame remained an oddity. As Notre Dame is an independent school, they don’t play in a conference championship, which does mean they avoid the chance of a loss, but would also be the last of any one-loss teams to make the playoffs. Notre Dame’s one-loss came at home to Cincinnati, so even if Cincinnati lost they would still make the playoffs over them. Notre Dame would have needed Alabama to lose, Michigan to lose, and Oklahoma State to lose to make the playoffs. Even then, head coach Brian Kelly has already left for LSU so they are missing a head coach.
With this many teams in question, the idea always floats around of expanding the college football playoffs. The ideas floating around were to expand the playoffs to eight teams or possibly twelve teams. While this isn’t the case for this year (the playoffs will stay at four teams) this would drastically change college football. Teams with two losses would be able to make the playoffs, which creates a further problem. As of right now, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Baylor, Oregon, Michigan State, BYU, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and Wake Forest would be put in the conversation for filling those last four spots on top of the six already in the conversation. One thing is certain, teams will be left out of the playoffs and their fan bases will be up in arms that their team played a harder schedule, or that they had more top twenty five wins, or they played more games that they “should have lost.” With a four team playoffs there is no margin for error. In 2019, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma were all undefeated heading into the playoffs. This year, teams were given a second chance because of how many teams lost. While a four team playoff might sound pretty small, it is important to remember that the college football playoffs only expanded from two teams in 2014.
Disaster struck early for Oklahoma State’s chances to make the playoffs, as they threw two interceptions early on. At the half, they trailed 21-3 and while they were able to draw the lead to 21-16, they came up short on the goal line, knocking them out of the playoffs, and giving Baylor the Big 12 championship.
Cincinnati wasn’t going to let their fate be decided by the playoff committee, as they won soundly over Houston. Cincinnati’s win puts them at the number four seed and gives them the unenviable job of having to take on Alabama who is coming off of playing their best game of the year. This marks the first time in College football playoffs history that a Group of Five Team has made it even though Cincinnati got dropped from the second seed to fourth.
Alabama was the first team to punch their ticket to the playoffs. They won big over Georgia, 41-24. Bryce Young had a Heisman cementing performance throwing for 421 yards and 3 touchdowns as well as rushing for 40 yards and 1 touchdown. With one win, Alabama skyrocketed from facing elimination to the number one team in the country, as Alabama continues to be the bane of Georgia’s existence. While Alabama looked phenomenal against Georgia, it's important to remember that they have also played some dreadful games this year. They have won by the skin of their teeth multiple times to average opponents such as LSU, Auburn, and Florida. The question is, which Alabama team will show up for the semifinals?
With a loss, Georgia drops to the number three seed. While the loss to Alabama was definitely disappointing, it's not the end of the world. They will have until December 31st to regroup and prepare for Cincinnati, a team they beat handedly last year. The real worry for Georgia is their quarterback. While on paper, Stetson Bennet’s performance was respectable while not perfect, he let the game slip away from him and made many questionable decisions with the football. The question all year was whether Bennet would be able to step up in big games and against Alabama, he was not. Will Georgia stay loyal to Bennet, or will they turn to J.T. Daniels, who was the starting quarterback until he got injured?
The last team to secure their spot in the college football playoffs was Michigan. Any time Jim Harbaugh coaches against another good team, Michigan is in trouble. This was not the case though as they trounced Iowa 41-3. Michigan secured for themselves the second seed and a date with Georgia. While Michigan is undoubtedly the hottest team in college football right now beating Penn State, Maryland, Ohio State, and Iowa in consecutive weeks, they are a run first team. Michigan has failed to win games when their run game is shut down and Georgia has the best run-defense in football, so the pressure will be on to see if Michigan will try to adapt and try passing which Alabama was extremely effective in doing against Georgia, granted with Bryce Young as quarterback.
This season's college football playoffs are shaping up to be one for the ages. Will Alabama and Georgia both advance and face off in an all-SEC national championship and a rematch of their epic clash in 2018? On the other hand, if Michigan and Cincinnati both win, it will be the first time there will be a National Championship without an SEC team since 2015. Will Cincinnati live up to the expectations and make a case for an expanded playoffs? Can Jim Harbaugh and Michigan’s streak of playing up to big games continue? There are many storylines we will see play out over the course of the Semifinals and National Championship, these certainly aren’t games to miss.