So, did anything big happen last night in college football?
What? You mean there was no “Fun Belt Tuesday” with Louisiana-Lafayette whaling on an unfortunate foe?
— NCAA Football (@NCAAFootball) October 28, 2014
Yes, a new era in college football history began last night. The newness of this venture has naturally created twin tidal waves of publicity and anxiety. It’s the conversational stew college football loves to cook up.
A lot more will naturally be said about the playoff in the coming weeks, but for now, let’s take an early look at the landscape.
Before you read another word, please — PLEASE — understand this and embed it in your brain: The next two weekends, especially Nov. 8, are going to dramatically reshape the odds for most of the contenders on the list. Nov. 8, in fact, could have as many as six games between teams currently ranked in the top 25. You can hear the folks in Bristol coming up with “Shakedown Saturday” or some other term right now. Allow this process to play out — we’re going to know a lot more about how good teams really are and where they stand in the middle of November.
In the present moment, though, here’s an early look at where the main College Football Playoff contenders stand. Keep in mind that with four playoff slots up for grabs, the numerical total of percentages will add up to 400, not 100.
Florida State: 50 percent
The Seminoles will, at worst, finish the season with only one loss. It’s very hard to find this team losing twice. Moreover, if it can somehow get past Louisville on Thursday night, Florida State has an excellent chance of running the table for the second straight regular season. The big question will arise only if FSU loses to Louisville: Will a 12-1 Florida State team get excluded from the playoff as the ACC champion? It’s possible, but not probable. A lot of things would have to go wrong for FSU to sweat out college football’s first true version of “Selection Sunday” on Dec. 7. The Noles are in good shape relative to the SEC West’s four teams because — well — the SEC West has four contenders who are going to tear at each other, thereby reducing each team’s individual odds. (Group odds for the SEC West getting two teams into the party? That’s a different conversation for a different day.)
Mississippi State: 40 percent
The Bulldogs do have to visit Alabama and Ole Miss. That will drag down their odds. However, Alabama is banged up right now, and Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is out for the season. If Mississippi State can just manage to split the Bama-Ole Miss sequence, it will probably win the SEC West and become a favorite to knock off Georgia for the SEC title, punching its ticket for the playoff. There are reasons to bet against all four SEC West contenders. Mississippi State’s reasons seem just a slight bit more tenuous than the others.
What’s fascinating about the SEC West is that its two rivalry games — the Egg Bowl for the Mississippi schools and the Iron Bowl for the Alabama schools — could both be playoff elimination games. Wouldn’t that be something?
Alabama: 35 percent
Whereas Mississippi State has to play its two biggest remaining (regularly-scheduled) games on the road, Alabama gets Hail State and Auburn at home. However, unlike MSU, Alabama can’t split any pair of games. It must run the table. Moreover, the Crimson Tide’s flood of injuries sustained against Tennessee could hold this team back.
Michigan State: 35 percent
The Spartans get Ohio State at home, and with the Buckeyes looking shaky against Penn State, it becomes that much harder to put Ohio State on the same plane as Michigan State. If Mark Dantonio’s team gets past the Buckeyes, only the Big Ten Championship Game (probably against Nebraska; we’ll see) would loom as a major obstacle on the road to the playoff. If you’re uncertain about the Big Ten champion getting in, the main tension point is this: Can Baylor or TCU run the table in the Big 12? If that happens and Oregon wins out, then Jim Delany will begin to sweat. However, we’re not there yet, and it will be very hard for the Horned Frogs or Bears to go the distance.
Oregon: 30 percent
The Ducks should beat Kevin Hogan and Stanford at home… but we’ve heard that one before, in 2012. The Ducks should win at Utah, but Oregon was supposed to have beaten Arizona in each of the last two seasons. A lot of “shoulds” cling to Oregon right now, but under Mark Helfrich, this team needs to turn “should” into a done deal. That’s why UO’s odds aren’t higher right now, even though the Ducks’ path looks pretty good.
Notre Dame: 30 percent
The Fighting Irish should be favored to win each of their big remaining contests in the West, against Pac-12 foes Arizona State and USC. Notre Dame is banking on chaos in the other conferences. High on the list of scenarios that will get Notre Dame to the playoff is the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game losing the Big Ten title game to a two-loss Nebraska side. The Fighting Irish want TCU and Baylor to lose at least once more. They’d like Oregon to slip up. If any one of those three scenarios crops up, Notre Dame’s odds will improve. The clash with Arizona State feels like a tipping-point moment in the Irish’s season.
Baylor: 30 percent
The Bears will have a hard time beating Oklahoma on the road, but if they do, their odds will skyrocket. The Bears need to rely on their offense to exploit all of the Sooners’ defensive weaknesses, chiefly OU’s lack of a consistent pass rush. If Baylor puts together its best offensive game of the season, Art Briles will put his team in good position to make the playoff.
Ole Miss: 25 percent
The Rebels get Auburn and Mississippi State at home, but their offense needs to show a greater measure of potency, now that Denzel Nkemdiche is out for the year. Ole Miss’s defense is excellent, but it will need some help this weekend against Auburn and in the Egg Bowl as well.
TCU: 20 percent
The Horned Frogs’ playoff aspirations are on the line the next two weeks: A visit to West Virginia and a home date against Kansas State will likely decide this team’s fate. The back end of the schedule is quite manageable. The questions surrounding this team concern its ability to perform consistently well at the back end of what has been a grueling stretch, beginning with the win over Oklahoma a few weeks ago.
Kansas State: 20 percent
The Wildcats, once again epitomizing the Bill Snyder method, are on the doorstep of the playoff. “The Snyder Way” is defined by slipping through the cracks and quietly advancing to the top of the Big 12 because of sound positional defense and a lack of untimely errors on offense and special teams. When Snyder gets his hands on a really good team at Kansas State — this is one of them — he usually finds a way to frustrate most opponents, so while road dates at West Virginia and TCU are daunting, the Wildcats merit trust in those games. It’s against Baylor in the season finale when the Wildcats might run into reality against the Bears’ raw speed.
West Virginia: 20 percent
The Mountaineers get both TCU and Kansas State at home in the coming weeks. If West Virginia can win both games, it will be in position to snag a playoff berth. However, it’s hard to see this team coming up with the sweep.
Auburn: 20 percent
The Tigers, despite a horrid defensive performance against South Carolina, were able to get through that game, which might have been a look-ahead to this weekend’s clash against Ole Miss. Auburn knows that it still has everything to play for, and that if it can knock off Ole Miss and Georgia, it will get to play Alabama in late November with a playoff spot within reach. Should Mississippi State lose once before the Egg Bowl, the Iron Bowl could ultimately decide the SEC West championship once again.
Ohio State: 15 percent
The Buckeyes are not likely to beat Michigan State on the road on Nov. 8. If they can pull off the upset, though, their whole world changes. They’d move way up the list into a likely playoff position, provided they could avoid an upset loss for the second straight year in the Big Ten Championship Game. One game at a time, of course.
Georgia: 10 percent
The Bulldogs, who have teed off on a weak SEC East and have therefore not proven themselves at a higher level, just have to beat Auburn and the SEC West champion in order to make the playoff. That’s all. It’s true that the SEC East’s weakness isn’t Georgia’s fault. Yet, the Bulldogs don’t deserve the same benefit of the doubt when compared to the SEC West’s foursome.
Arizona State: 10 percent
The Sun Devils are the best non-Oregon hope in the Pac-12, if only because the Notre Dame non-conference game gives them a chance to play their way into the playoff conversation. Arizona State gets that game at home and could realistically win it. The ultimate and likely roadblock for ASU would be a date with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game in San Francisco. Should that contest occur, the Ducks would have to be favored.
The field: 10 percent
There is still enough time left in the season for some 2007-level chaos to unfold. A series of amazing events — such as Missouri and West Virginia losing on the final Saturday night of the 2007 regular season — could put one or more two-loss teams into the College Football Playoff.
In conclusion, don’t take these odds too seriously. The next two weeks will shake things up… and we’ll still have four more Saturdays after that point in a season that figures to throw us many more curveballs when it’s all said and done.