With the penultimate College Football Playoff Rankings released Tuesday, it is time to examine the prospects for the teams still in the hunt for the four-team field. There are basically five teams in contention for those spots with only four of them actually competing in conference championship games played across Friday and Saturday.
Given it is such a short list this year, we have expanded this annual story to include a look at what possibilities exist for the four remaining New Year's Six games outside of the playoff. There is not much flexibility with so many conference connections involved, but there is still some intrigue.
Without further ado, here is list of the remaining CFP contenders in order of their current ranking along with an explanation of what each team can accomplish this weekend. Let's take a look how those teams stack up with Championship Week and the final CFP Rankings ahead.
College Football Playoff paths
|CFP berth clinched. Win or lose in the SEC Championship Game against No. 14 LSU, the Dawgs will be no worse than the third seed. The reigning national champions were in this exact position one year ago. Update: Georgia won and has locked up the No. 1 seed.|
|CFP berth clinched. Win or lose the Big Ten Championship Game against unranked Purdue, the Wolverines will make the four-team field. If Georgia loses, Michigan could move up to the No. 1 seed; a loss could drop UM as far as the fourth spot. Update: Michigan won and has locked up the No. 2 seed.|
|CFP berth clinched. Win or lose the Big 12 Championship Game against No. 10 Kansas State, the Horned Frogs will make the four-team field. K-State is the best opponent any CFP contender faces in the conference championship games, and TCU already beat it 38-28 in the regular season. If TCU is the lone undefeated team standing, it follows that the Frogs could be the top seed. Even a loss will not drop them below Ohio State (11-1). Update: TCU lost but likely locked up the No. 3 seed given USC's loss.|
|The Buckeyes got to watch TV and see Utah do its bidding Friday night. A USC loss has allowed Ohio State to . There was no other path for the Buckeyes. With OSU likely entering the field, the Big Ten would become the only conference other than the SEC to get two teams into the a playoff field in the same year.|
New Year's Six paths
The New Year's Six options are more numerous. After the CFP pairings are set, the Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowls will select the teams for their games. Here is how that will go down.
If the Big Ten and/or Pac-12 champions advance into the playoff, the bowl gets to choose its replacements. Traditionally, those would be the highest-ranked teams remaining from those conferences. However, the Rose Bowl has the option to choose its entrants from a "cluster" of similarly rated teams.
If Michigan and USC both won this weekend, the Rose Bowl could have been left with a rematch of last year's game featuring Ohio State and Utah. That would have been less than ideal. The Rose looked prepared to insert No. 8 Penn State from the Big Ten and/or No. 12 Washington from the Pac-12 to ensure the game was not a repeat. The Buckeyes played at the Rose Bowl twice in the last four years, while the Nittany Lions have not been in the game since 2016. The Huskies were a possibility from the Pac-12 as the Utes, in addition to playing the Rose Bowl last year, would have also taken their fourth loss.
However, all of that became moot Friday night with Utah beating USC to ensure the Pac-12 champion advances to the Rose Bowl. With Ohio State moving into the playoff and Michigan already locking up a spot, Penn State is now projected for the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten representative. The wildcard is Purdue, which would automatically be in this game if the Boilermakers become the Spoilermakers against Michigan.
- Michigan wins: Penn State vs. Utah
Purdue wins: Purdue vs. Utah
Similarly, the Sugar Bowl features conference champions from the SEC and Big 12. The Big 12 situation is set. Since TCU will be a playoff team win or lose, Kansas State will be in the Sugar Bowl either as the Big 12 champion or the replacement for the Horned Frogs. If Georgia wins, No. 6 Alabama will replace the Bulldogs in this game. Otherwise, LSU gets in as the conference champion.
- Georgia wins: Alabama vs. Kansas State
LSU wins: LSU vs. Kansas State
This bowl only gets one conference champion. The ACC title winner is the anchor with No. 9 Clemson vs. No. 23 North Carolina deciding the berth as neither team can reach the playoff. The opponent is the highest-ranked team remaining from the SEC, Big Ten or Notre Dame not in the playoff, Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl. That representative will come from the SEC and be either Alabama or No. 7 Tennessee.
- Georgia wins: Tennessee vs. Clemson or North Carolina
LSU wins: Alabama vs. Clemson or North Carolina
This is the only game with at-large spots. One of those gpes to the Group of Five automatic qualifier: No. 18 Tulane, which beat No. 22 UCF for the AAC title. The other spot simply goes to the highest-rated team left that is not already in a New Year's Six game.
Those options will be USC, Tennessee or Washington. What's unknown is where USC will fall in the final rankings, but at 11-2, the Trojans are the most likely team to get the final New Year's Six spot.
The highest-ranked team with no chance at all to play in the New Year's Six is No. 13 Florida State. However, that does not mean all of the top 12 teams will qualify. In fact, the AAC champion will not be in the top 12. and Purdue would not rank that high either even as a Big Ten champion.
Beyond this list of contenders, CBS Sports has released my updatedon Friday night. Reminder: These projections are not how things stand now but rather how I expect them to look following the conference championship games Saturday.