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Poll Problems: Week 12

We take a look at the College Football Playoff poll each week to see what the committee got right and what it got terribly wrong.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Houston
Houston’s shocking beat-down of Louisville on Thursday night knocked the Cardinals out of Playoff contention.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

NOTE: With just two weeks remaining in the season, we will only analyze teams that have a realistic chance to make the four-team Playoff field.

The chaos from two Saturdays ago spilled over to the following Thursday, when the long-forgotten Houston Cougars had something waiting for a Louisville team that had been clamoring for more love from the committee. While the rest of the top 10 did what it was supposed to, the 36-10 drubbing the Cardinals took knocked them from Playoff contention. We now enter the final week of the regular season (except for the Big XII, because they’re weird), and the slate is highlighted by a top-3 matchup that - depending on the result - could either provide clarity or even more maddening uncertainty.

1. Alabama

It’s pretty elementary for Bama at this point. Beat Auburn and Florida, and you’re the undisputed No. 1 seed. The only way the Tide could miss the Playoff is by losing both of those games.

2. Ohio State

You would think a win over No. 3 Michigan this weekend would be enough for the No. 2 Buckeyes to lock up a spot in the final four, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Remember a few years ago when TCU was ranked No. 3 entering championship week and, despite annihilating Iowa State 55-3, fell to No. 6 in the final poll as teams behind them earned strength of schedule boosts and conference championship trump cards that pushed the Frogs out? That’s not totally unlike Ohio State’s current plight, in that even if the Buckeyes beat Michigan (admittedly a much more formidable opponent and more impressive addition to a resume than the aforementioned Iowa State team), they would still be reliant on a Penn State loss to Michigan State to have a shot to win the Big Ten. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Clemson and Washington finish 12-1 with conference championships. To me, those teams are getting into the Playoff as things stand right now. I am still of the opinion that a Wisconsin win over Penn State in that title game could help Ohio State, in that its head-to-head road win over Wisconsin may outweigh the Badgers’ conference championship (although not a guarantee). A Penn State win, however, would make things more nerve-racking, as the Nittany Lions would then hold the Big Ten title and a head-to-head win over the Buckeyes, which I think could be enough to get them the nod despite having what would still be an inferior resume from a strength of record standpoint. Now, could the committee decide that it wants to put both Ohio State and the winner of that hypothetical title game matchup in the Playoff, perhaps at the expense of a Washington team with a middling SOS number? Sure. Or it may simply decide the Buckeyes are still unequivocally the better team and opt for them in lieu of the conference champ. Honestly, any outcome wouldn’t shock me. The point is, as crazy as it sounds, I think there is a scenario where an 11-1 Ohio State that just beat the No. 3 team in the country and is a solid No. 2 leading up to the final poll could be sweating it out at the 11th hour and feasibly be left out of the four-team field. The above hypothetical would truly test the committee in a way it hasn’t been in the three years since its inception, as we would see definitively just how much weight the committee gives to not only conference championships and head-to-head results - but also a potential combination of the two. Just bear in mind that we are yet to see a team that lacks a conference championship qualify for the Playoff. That fact alone makes this situation worth tracking.

3. Michigan

The recipe for a Playoff berth is far simpler for Michigan, which needs to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten title game to seal a bid. That’s certainly easier said than done, but I do expect the Wolverines to give the Buckeyes a run for their money this Saturday. Crazy things can happen in rivalry games after all.

4. Clemson

It’s also a win out and you’re in situation for the Tigers, as one of the teams ahead of them is guaranteed to lose, and they likely won’t finish lower than No. 3 if they beat South Carolina and whichever team emerges from the ACC Coastal.

5. Washington

Washington isn’t in bad shape at No. 5, considering a win over rival Washington State this weekend would move them into the top 4, and a subsequent win over another highly ranked team (either Colorado or USC) in the Pac 12 title game should keep them there when the final poll comes out. It’s a challenging potential pair of games though, so if they secure a Playoff bid, they will have earned it in the final weeks.

6. Wisconsin

It’s clear to me what the Badgers need to happen to leave no doubt about securing a spot in the final four. Aside from beating rival Minnesota (a team that has won 4 of 5 and is not to be taken lightly), Wisconsin should be hoping Michigan knocks off Ohio State to set up a Big Ten title game that would be a de facto play-in game for the Playoff - wherein if the Badgers win, they would certainly make the four-team field. As previously mentioned, it’s not impossible for them to get in another way, but this path would save them the potential drama.

7. Penn State

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, there isn’t a cut and dried way for them to assure themselves a Playoff spot, given that they need Ohio State to finish 11-1 to have a shot at making it. It’s an odd Catch 22: having to root for the team that could ultimately be the one that keeps you out. But here we are. Our diatribe in the Ohio State section of the article paints a situation where they could have a legitimate shot, but this team will ultimately be at the mercy of the committee, even in the best-case scenario.

8. Oklahoma

While I still just don’t see a plausible rout for rival Oklahoma State to make the Playoff (especially considering I can’t imagine them beating Oklahoma), the Sooners are still in the mix. They need some things to go awry here in the final weeks, but with last week’s demolishing of West Virginia and another “quality” win on the horizon against Oklahoma State, we can’t rule Oklahoma out just yet.

9. Colorado

Colorado’s solid win over Washington State kept the Buffaloes on the right track for an out-of-nowhere bid to the Playoff. However, there is still plenty that would need to happen, starting with Colorado disposing of Utah this weekend and upsetting Washington (another win over Washington State wouldn’t be as helpful) in the Pac 12 Championship. The Buffs would then need to find a way to jump Oklahoma and also have other things to go awry in the top 7 to find a navigable path. Far-fetched? Perhaps. Impossible? No.

10. Oklahoma State

11. Louisville

12. USC

13. Auburn

14. Florida State

15. Florida

16. Nebraska

17. Tennessee

18. West Virginia

19. Boise State

20. Houston

21. Western Michigan

22. Utah

23. Washington State

24. Stanford

25. Navy