The Eliminator faces difficult questions at every turn, such as this: If Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame win out — there’s a 29 percent chance of this, by the way, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index — but Washington State loses to Washington, Northwestern wins the Big Ten and the Big 12 champ finishes with two or more losses, could LSU sneak back into the conversation for the fourth spot in the College Football Playoff?
These are the potential situations that rob us of sleep in mid-November. The Eliminator is not so concerned with one-loss Power 5 teams and even less with the unbeatens at the top of the CFP rankings. It’s those teams residing in the margins that draw us down the rabbit hole of post-Thanksgiving scenarios.
Since our last edition after Week 8, five teams have been discarded, which leaves 10 left to fight over these next three weeks for the four CFP seeds.
Before getting into the contenders, let’s also address the elephant in the selection-committee room. The Eliminator made a unilateral decision after Week 8 to axe UCF and USF. It was unprecedented in that both were still unbeaten, but it was in step with reality.
Their seasons do not occur in a vacuum — and by that point, it was clear with what had happened in the Power 5 ranks that no Group of 5 team would climb into the top four this year. And so, as No. 11 UCF hosts one-loss Cincinnati and the College GameDay crew this week, that is where it remains: eliminated, despite its remarkable 22-game winning streak.
As usual, contending teams are listed by record and in order of FPI rank.
It’s a nice scheduling quirk for the Tide and slightly hobbled Heisman favorite Tua Tagovailoa that Alabama gets an open date ahead of its closing stretch against SEC heavyweights Auburn and Georgia. What’s that? Bama is hosting The Citadel, a eight-touchdown underdog, on Saturday? As we said, Nick Saban’s team gets a week to rest before it presumably continues its attempt to go all of this month without giving up a point. Two years ago, Alabama didn’t allow a touchdown in November. This defense appears primed to accomplish something even greater.
The ESPN Playoff Predictor gives the Tigers a 95 percent chance to make the CFP, the highest figure nationally. And why not? Duke and South Carolina don’t look to pose a big threat. Pitt, despite its reputation as a giant killer, did well just to qualify for the ACC title game. Imagine, though, the argument for UCF if Pitt beats Clemson after losing to the Knights by 31 in September. Almost more realistic is Clemson beating Duke this week by 85 to break the ACC record for point differential in one season of conference play.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Irish are 10-0 for the second time in a quarter-century, having shown that they can win with Ian Book or Brandon Wimbush at QB if Dexter Williams performs as he did against Florida State, rushing for 202 yards last week. Book is expected back from injury Saturday as Notre Dame meets Syracuse at Yankee Stadium. The Orange beat the Irish in an earlier model of the House That Ruth Built in 1963, a season in which Notre Dame finished 2-7 and only eight bowl games were played. In other words, it was 55 years ago and doesn’t matter.
Like Alabama, the Dawgs are off this week as UMass visits Athens. Really, the CFP committee is the only body that could penalize these SEC teams for their eight-game conference schedule and the resulting cream puff festival a week before the regular season ends. But, yeah, that’s not happening. Georgia, to its credit, has beaten ranked opponents in three straight weeks since its Week 7 loss to LSU, as D’Andre Swift and the UGA running game found a stride. Swift is the first Georgia back with multiple 75-yard runs in the same season since Herschel Walker in 1980.
Things are looking rosy — and not in a Rose Bowl kind of way — for the Wolverines. They don’t control their destiny like the three Power 5 unbeatens, or even Georgia, but it’s close. Without considering other outcomes, Michigan sits at 85 percent to make the CFP if it wins out. And it has the best chance of the six remaining one-loss Power 5 teams to win the next three. Defense remains the selling point for the Wolverines, who are on track to finish as the first FBS team since 2011 Alabama to allow fewer than 200 yards per game in conference play.
If the committee is pressed to choose between the Sooners and a comparable one-loss team for the last CFP spot, how does it reconcile that Oklahoma likely possesses the best offense and worst defense of all the contenders that survived the first half of this season? OU defensively is playing worse now than it was five weeks ago, when Mike Stoops was fired as coordinator. Of course, last week as Oklahoma State averaged a whopping 7.4 yards per play, Oklahoma put up 702 yards in the hair-raising Bedlam victory. Plus, QB Kyler Murray is gaining ground in the Heisman race.
Ohio State Buckeyes
A week ago, Urban Meyer’s team was trending down after a Week 8 loss at Purdue. But after facing a scare at home against Nebraska, the Buckeyes responded with a 20-point win at Michigan State fueled by a salty defense and punter Drue Chrisman, who pinned MSU inside its 10-yard line on five straight drives in the third quarter. This week at Maryland, QB Dwayne Haskins stands within reach of the Ohio State single-season passing yardage and passing touchdown records.
West Virginia Mountaineers
You thought the beauty of Dana Holgorsen’s gutsy call to go for two in the Week 10 win at Texas was that it worked to avoid overtime on the road? The beauty might reside in the boost of confidence it provided for WVU at a make-or-break moment. After a rout of TCU, here comes a trip to Oklahoma State, against which Will Grier threw a career-high four interceptions last season. The Mountaineers control their path to the Big 12 title. But even as a one-loss league champ, WVU’s chances would stand at 53 percent to make the CFP, lowest among all potential 12-1 teams other than Washington State.
They’re alive. If we’re left with three Power 5 unbeatens and a big mess of two-loss teams, which one is the committee taking over LSU? Not Washington State. Probably not Georgia, which lost to the Tigers by 20. Maybe Oklahoma (or WVU) if it wins the Big 12. Maybe Michigan (or Ohio State) if it loses close in Indianapolis. Or maybe the Tigers, who did themselves no favors by scheduling Rice, arguably the worst team in the FBS, on Saturday before closing at Texas A&M. If it boils down to 10-2 LSU or 12-0 UCF, well, just look at the CFP rankings this week (LSU No. 7, UCF No. 11).
Washington State Cougars
Speaking of the Cougars, the news is not great for the Pac-12, which placed all of its CFP hope with Wazzu after Colorado lost to Washington in Week 8. Yes, Colorado, which has since unraveled. Washington State’s 31-7 victory over the Buffs, in fact, earned it nothing more than a nod after close wins over Cal and Stanford. QB Gardner Minshew, eyeing a Heisman invite to New York, leads the FBS in per game passing yardage, at 385. This week brings a visit from Arizona, which beat WSU by three touchdowns last year despite allowing 602 passing yards. Think about that.
Better luck next season
Florida Gators: A furious rally to beat South Carolina kept the Gators alive for a New Year’s Six bowl spot. But losses in the two weeks prior to Georgia and Missouri dampened the mood around Gainesville and booted Florida from contention for any kind of a championship in Year 1 under Dan Mullen.
Iowa Hawkeyes: This was the team kicking itself most as Northwestern clinched the Big Ten West last week — while in Iowa City, no less. The Wildcats will be the first FBS team to play in a league title game without winning once out of conference. And really, it was all there for the Hawkeyes to take in Week 9. But since blowing a late lead at Penn State, Iowa has taken a nosedive.
Kentucky Wildcats: Considering this program’s history, it makes sense that in the year the Wildcats snapped a 31-game losing streak to Florida, they were put back into place by Georgia, which has beaten Kentucky in 20 of 22 seasons, and then lost a 17th straight visit to Tennessee. Nine regular-season wins still look likely.
Texas Longhorns: While alive in the race for a Big 12 title, the Longhorns have been living dangerously the past six weeks, with every game since Oct. 6 decided by seven points — the margin in a harrowing Week 11 win at Texas Tech — or fewer. A 38-35 loss at Oklahoma State in Week 9 doomed the CFP dream, but FPI says Texas has a 58 percent chance to play for the league crown if it beats Iowa State this week.
Texas A&M Aggies: The dateless plaque awarded last spring to Jimbo Fisher must stay in storage. Although the Aggies clung to life in previous editions of the Eliminator, earning credit for losses to Clemson and Alabama, three straight weeks of close shaves caught up to A&M in SEC West road losses to Mississippi State and Auburn. Next, can upstart UAB give it a scare?
Others who won’t make it
Eliminated after Week 8: Cincinnati Bearcats, Colorado Buffaloes, Duke Blue Devils, NC State Wolfpack, North Texas Mean Green, Oregon Ducks, UCF Knights, USF Bulls
Eliminated after Week 7: Miami Hurricanes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Washington Huskies, Wisconsin Badgers
Eliminated after 6: Auburn Tigers, Boston College Eagles, California Golden Bears, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Missouri Tigers, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Stanford Cardinal, Syracuse Orange, Virginia Tech Hokies
Eliminated after Week 5: Baylor Bears, Buffalo Bulls, Mississippi State Bulldogs, South Carolina Gamecocks, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Utah Utes, Virginia Cavaliers
Eliminated after Week 4: Akron Zips, Arizona State Sun Devils, Illinois Fighting Illini, Kansas Jayhawks, Kansas State Wildcats, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Louisville Cardinals, Marshall Thundering Herd, Pittsburgh Panthers, TCU Horned Frogs, Tennessee Volunteers, Vanderbilt Commodores, Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Eliminated after Week 3: Arkansas Razorbacks, Boise State Broncos, Eastern Michigan Eagles, Florida State Seminoles, Georgia Southern Eagles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, Houston Cougars, Iowa State Cyclones, Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio Bobcats, Oregon State Beavers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Toledo Rockets, UL Monroe Warhawks, USC Trojans
Eliminated after Week 2: Air Force Falcons, Arizona Wildcats, Arkansas State Red Wolves, Ball State Cardinals, BYU Cougars, Charlotte 49ers, Fresno State Bulldogs, Georgia State Panthers, Liberty Flames, Memphis Tigers, New Mexico Lobos, Nevada Wolf Pack, North Carolina Tar Heels, Purdue Boilermakers, Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, UAB Blazers, UCLA Bruins
Eliminated after Week 1: Appalachian State Mountaineers, Army Knights, Bowling Green Falcons, Central Michigan Chippewas, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, East Carolina Pirates, FAU Owls, FIU Golden Panthers, Kent State Golden Flashes, Miami RedHawks, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Navy Midshipmen, Northern Illinois Huskies, Old Dominion Monarchs, Rice Owls, San Diego State Aztecs, San Jose State Spartans, SMU Mustangs, South Alabama Jaguars, Temple Owls, Texas State Bobcats, Troy Trojans, Tulane Green Wave, UConn Huskies, UMass Minutemen, UNLV Rebels, Utah State Aggies, UTEP Miners, UTSA Roadrunners, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Western Michigan Broncos, Wyoming Cowboys
Eliminated after Week Zero: Colorado State Rams, New Mexico State Aggies
Eliminated before Week Zero: Ole Miss Rebels