Now that the 2023 college football season has officially reached its midway point with some teams having already played seven games, the College Football Playoff picture is gaining clarity, with realistic contenders starting to create some separation from the rest of the pack.
Outside of the perennial preseason favorites -- Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Alabama -- there are some new teams that have had playoff appearances in the past who are contenders to make a return to the prospective field with Washington, Oklahoma, Florida State and Oregon belonging in the latter category. Penn State has flirted with the final four in the past but has yet to actually break through. North Carolina and Texas are making serious pushes for their first playoff berth too.
Now is the time where the margin for error thins out significantly. Some teams have already cleared their biggest challenges, while others face a very backloaded slate. Even among the upper echelon of programs with a realistic shot at the playoffs, no one squad has shown that it's ready to run away with things. Not all paths to the playoff are created equally, though.
Now with more data available, it felt appropriate to reassess each playoff contender's outlook and rank their remaining schedules from most difficult to easiest.
Oregon doesn't have a lack of resume-builders left on its schedule. The only saving grace for the Ducks is the fact they have two away games over the last month. One of those is at Arizona State, which is 1-5 with its win against Southern Utah. The road game at Utah is on the entire opposite end of the spectrum. The Utes haven't lost at home since 2020, when there weren't fans allowed at the game due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two out of Oregon's last three games of the year come against ranked opponents as well. To make matters worse, the Ducks don't have any room for error. Thanks to their recent loss to Washington, they'll have to win out and then likely get revenge vs. the Huskies in the Pac-12 Championship Game to have a shot at making the playoff. The pressure is on.
Remaining schedule: Arizona State (Oct. 21); at Stanford (Oct. 28); at No. 18 USC (Nov. 4); No. 14 Utah (Nov. 11); at No. 12 Oregon State (Nov. 18); Washington State (Nov. 25)
Washington has a couple of weeks before things get real. Arizona State and Stanford have one conference win between the two of them and shouldn't be too hard. Then Washington has to fly to Los Angeles and take on a USC team led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. Yes, the Trojans have serious issues. The defense is putrid and a recent loss to Notre Dame exposed a severe lack of physicality on both sides of the ball. But Williams is good enough to keep any game close.
After that, two top-15 opponents in Utah and Oregon State await. Utah is 5-1 despite the absence of quarterback Cam Rising and offensive star Brant Kuithe. If they're both back by Nov. 11, this game becomes significantly tougher. Oregon State is consistently great under coach Jonathan Smith and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei adds a new dimension. Washington State is no slouch either. The Cougars were ranked until Week 7's loss to Arizona and they already have a win against Oregon State. Then there's the potential of playing Oregon again if Washington makes it to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
3. Penn State
The Big Ten East is a gauntlet, folks. At this point, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State's remaining schedules seem virtually indistinguishable. Penn State gets the edge because it has to play both Michigan and Ohio State, two games that it will be underdogs in. James Franklin is a combined 4-14 against the Wolverines and Buckeyes during his time in State College. Penn State's only two losses last season were against Michigan and Ohio State. Franklin hasn't won against either of them since the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
Those are the only games that matter moving forward. Their impact is almost immeasurable. Everything else is elementary in comparison. Maryland and Rutgers both have five wins each, but neither have shown that they can run with the big dogs yet. Penn State should win big in both, though Maryland is sandwiched between two giants.
4. Ohio State
No team in the nation at any level faces a single game more difficult than Ohio State does to close its season. That trip to Ann Arbor seems like a make-or-break point in Ryan Day's tenure. Michigan has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 87-50. Both times it knocked Ohio State out of the Big Ten Championship, and in 2021 it eliminated the Buckeyes from the playoff field. Ohio State was able to sneak in last season thanks to a lack of quality teams overall, but that's not likely to happen this season. A loss on that stage virtually eliminates Ohio State from playing for anything meaningful in the postseason -- at least by its standards.
Not that the Buckeyes should be overlooking Penn State. PSU is in the top two in the Big Ten in total offense, scoring offense, total defense and scoring defense. Ohio State should be thankful that it gets this one at home. That game at Wisconsin seemed like a trap entering the year, but the Badgers will be without starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai for the foreseeable future. They didn't look like world-beaters with him healthy, anyway.
Remaining schedule: at Michigan State (Oct. 21); Purdue (Nov. 4); at No. 7 Penn State (Nov. 11); at Maryland (Nov. 18); No. 3 Ohio State (Nov. 25)
Michigan plays a two-game schedule, and it just so happens that those two games fall in the last few weeks of the season. It legitimately looks like the Wolverines won't get their first test of the season until Nov. 11's road trip to Penn State. By that point, there's even a chance the Nittany Lions have a loss to Ohio State on the ledger. Michigan State is in turmoil and it would be unreasonable to expect the Spartans to put up much of a fight, rivalry or not. Purdue is a shadow of its former self under Jeff Brohm -- who would give that game intriguing upset potential if he was still around.
That's when the difficulty ratchets up to 11. Beyond the aforementioned Penn State fixture, Michigan has to hit the road again to take on a 5-2 Maryland team that gave Ohio State a fight for three quarters. Then, of course, "The Game." Michigan vs. Ohio State will be the most significant regular-season game as usual.
Georgia's schedule actually looks significantly harder now than it did during the preseason thanks to a multitude of reasons. Missouri is finally breaking out under fourth-year coach Eli Drinkwitz with two top-25 wins against Kansas State and Kentucky. That game against the Tigers kicks off a stretch of three-straight showdowns vs. top-20 teams. The Bulldogs get two of those at home, but a road trip to Neyland Stadium looms large.
Compounding this unforeseen difficulty is the loss of star tight end Brock Bowers. He had tightrope surgery to repair an ankle sprain, and his timeline for a return is four-to-six weeks. That means, at the very least, he'll likely miss the Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss games since Georgia has a bye this week. It's hard to overstate how important Bowers is to Georgia's offense. He is the most valuable non-quarterback in college football. The Bulldogs could have serious problems without him, and this isn't the type of run that lends itself to figuring things out on the fly.
Alabama's next two games will define its postseason destiny. The Crimson Tide have to play two teams in Tennessee and LSU that beat them last year. Both of those games were road games in 2022, and even then the result was decided by a very thin margin. Getting those two at home could make a lot of difference. The Vols in particular have shown a tendency to wilt in big environments. It helps that Alabama is hitting its stride after an early season loss to Texas.
Quarterback Jalen Milroe is using his big arm to consistently hit on chunk plays. Wide receiver Jermaine Burton, a former Georgia transfer, has emerged as one of the best deep-threat options in the country. He's starting to make highlight plays on a weekly basis. The defense has been consistently dominant. It ranks second in the SEC in scoring (16 points per game) and third in total defense while allowing just over 292 yards per game.
8. North Carolina
North Carolina shouldn't have much trouble getting to 9-0. Virginia's lone win this season came against William and Mary. Georgia Tech might present a bit of a challenge. The Yellow Jackets are playing hard under coach Brent Key. They're a program on the rise, though it seems like they're still a ways away from running with top-10 teams. North Carolina will get all it can handle from its final three games.
Duke is a legitimate top-15 caliber team under Mike Elko. Quarterback Riley Leonard should be healthy by then, which will be a huge test for an improving Tar Heels defense. Closing the year with two-straight road games against Clemson and NC State isn't ideal. Dabo Swinney's dynasty might be winding down, but his Tigers are always a tough test. NC State has won its last two and five out of its last seven games against UNC.
9. Florida State
Florida State's remaining slate is only a slight degree harder than Oklahoma's. A couple of games make the difference here. Duke is the first ranked team the Seminoles have faced since their season-opening win against LSU. Even at that, the Blue Devils might be without starting quarterback and potential first-round NFL Draft pick Riley Leonard, who's working his way back from an ankle injury that kept him out for a win against NC State.
Then there's Florida State's annual in-state rivalry clash against Florida. This one takes place in Gainesville. While Billy Napier's Gators are dubious on the road, they're undefeated within the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and already have one win against a top-11 team at home this season. Florida is also really starting to hit its stride thanks to some strong play from quarterback Graham Mertz. Otherwise, FSU's schedule isn't too notable. A road trip to Pitt seems like the biggest trap game. Miami is spiraling down the drain so that shouldn't be much of a challenge.
Texas and Oklahoma both benefit from the Big 12 slumping. The Longhorns still have to play two of the top four teams in the conference's current standings -- Iowa State and Kansas State -- and those two are a combined 8-5 overall. TCU is a shadow of the team that made a Cinderella run to the playoffs last season. Texas Tech was a dark horse pick to win the conference in the preseason, but injuries have derailed the Red Raiders' hopes in that respect.
Texas' schedule sets up nicely, but the Longhorns put themselves behind the eight ball with their loss to Oklahoma. Now they have to win out and get a win in the Big 12 Championship in what's setting up to be a Red River Rivalry rematch if they want to make the playoff.
Oklahoma already cleared its biggest hurdle by getting a Red River Rivalry win against Texas. With the win, the Sooners now control their own destiny. They will be favored in every game from here on out, and there's a good chance they don't see another ranked opponent until the Big 12 Championship. Oklahoma doesn't play a single team that ranks better than fifth in the current Big 12 standings over the last month.
UCF, BYU and TCU are all at or below .500 in conference play thus far. Oklahoma State has a 33-7 loss to South Alabama on its resume, though the Cowboys have played a lot better since. West Virginia was in the middle of a Renaissance before things came crashing down against Houston. Maybe former top-25 team Kansas can provide a challenge but even the wheels of its season are falling off. To be quite frank, a loss between now and December would be an embarrassment for the Sooners.