These 13 teams are still alive for College Football Playoff. What’s their path to get there?

A cloudy College Football Playoff picture has been at least partially defrosted by recent results in the SEC and ACC, leaving at least four teams with a win-and-in road to the national semifinals and several others just one Saturday away from joining the top four.

Every team still in contention has pathways to the playoff ranging from the sublimely simple – as is the case with those four teams atop this week’s rankings – to the deeply complex, with some in the latter group requiring the equivalent of chaos in November.

No matter how you map out these final weeks, however, there will be at least one spot available to a team currently outside the top four. That’s due to the head-to-head matchup between Big Ten favorites Ohio State and Michigan, which could end up being an elimination game for the loser.  

Even then, the losing team in that rivalry could still land in fourth with enough help from teams in the other Power Five leagues. In other words: Everything is very complicated.

Let’s try to simplify things by mapping out the most realistic road for every unbeaten, one-loss and select two-loss playoff contender to reach the semifinals, starting with those teams currently at the top. In every case but one – and you can guess which team is the outlier – every contender needs to win out to guarantee a seat at the table.

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Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU

Of this group, only Georgia can afford to lose once and still land in the top four. In fact, that loss can come at any point, including in the SEC championship game – as was the case a season ago, when the Bulldogs lost to Alabama before avenging that defeat to claim the national championship.

For argument’s sake, here’s how the loser between the Buckeyes and Wolverines could climb back into the playoff with some help, as long as the loss is competitive:

  • TCU losing once;
  • Oregon, USC or UCLA losing once but winning the Pac-12 championship;
  • LSU winning the SEC West but losing to Georgia in the SEC championship.

TCU has a more difficult road should the Horned Frogs lose one to either Texas, Baylor or Iowa State but still take home the Big 12 crown. In that case, TCU would need:

  • Ohio State or Michigan losing by a significant amount;
  • A two-loss Pac-12 champion;
  • LSU losing to Georgia;
  • Clemson losing the ACC championship to North Carolina.

But given how the committee has waffled on TCU, one loss may end up being enough to send the Horned Frogs packing from the playoff race.


The Volunteers are lurking just outside the top four in this week’s playoff rankings and are ready to pounce following that huge end-of-November matchup in the Big Ten. It might not take more than this to guarantee Tennessee a hugely unexpected playoff berth:

  • One more loss from Oregon, regardless of whether the Ducks win the Pac-12;
  • LSU winning the SEC West but losing the conference championship.

While Tennessee routed LSU last month, a conference championship could provide the Tigers with the ammunition to leapfrog the Volunteers to become the second SEC team in the four-team field.

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Behind an outstanding offense piloted by quarterback Bo Nix, the Ducks have rocketed back into contention after an ugly loss to Georgia in the season opener. Oregon’s simplest path to the playoff requires:

  • An uncompetitive result between Ohio State and Michigan;
  • Georgia winning the SEC;
  • One loss by TCU or Tennessee.

Should Georgia and the Big Ten champion occupy half the field, an unbeaten TCU and one-loss Tennessee might fend off Oregon and leave the Ducks in fifth. 

LSU and Mississippi

With wins against Mississippi and Alabama already in hand and the chance to add another résumé-making win against Georgia, LSU would be nearly impossible to ignore even as a two-loss SEC champion. Just to be safe, the Tigers would need:

  • Georgia to win out through November, increasing the value of that hypothetical conference championship;
  • Tennessee to lose, removing that potential obstacle come early December.

Much like LSU, the one-loss Rebels are in with an SEC championship. Losing just once would be an eliminator, though, since dropping this Saturday’s key game to Alabama would hand the Crimson Tide the tiebreaker; the Tigers already own the head-to-head advantage. 

Southern California and UCLA

The selection committee thinks more highly of USC than UCLA, which could leave the latter out of the playoff even as a one-loss Power Five champion. For the Bruins, getting to the top four starts with a rivalry win against the Trojans and includes:

  • Once again, an uncompetitive result between Ohio State and Michigan;
  • Oregon winning out and then losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 championship;
  • Georgia winning the SEC;
  • TCU losing the Big 12 championship or Tennessee losing once.

In this setup, UCLA would round out the semifinals with Georgia, the Big Ten champion and either TCU or the Volunteers. The scenario for USC is similar, only the Trojans might finish ahead of the second-place Big Ten finisher regardless of how competitive the game is between Ohio State and Michigan.


Alabama needs two steps to climb back into the top four, one plausible and the other mathematically feasible but difficult to imagine:

  • LSU losing to both Arkansas and Texas A&M, erasing the Tigers’ head-to-head advantage;
  • Georgia winning out before dropping a second SEC championship game in a row to the Tide.

While hard to picture during the preseason, there’s a chance that this year’s playoff doesn’t feature one of Alabama or Clemson for the first time in the format’s history.

Clemson and North Carolina

Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame has put the Tigers’ playoff hopes on life support. To get back into the semifinals after a one-year absence, the Tigers would need:

  • North Carolina to run the table in November and climb in the playoff rankings before meeting the Tigers to decide the ACC;
  • LSU to lose to Georgia;
  • The Big 12 and Pac-12 champions to have two or more losses.

Should this unfold, Clemson would be the certain fourth seed with Georgia, the Big Ten winner and Tennessee.

Currently the lowest-ranked one-loss Power Five team, North Carolina could still make the playoff with a strong close to the regular season and a run of assistance:

  • Beating one-loss Clemson to take home the program’s first conference championship since 1980;
  • Georgia winning the SEC championship game;
  • A blowout in either direction between Ohio State and Michigan;
  • A two-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champion.

Even then, that UNC is coming in so far off the preseason radar without any major fanfare means the Tar Heels could still be edged out by a second-place Power Five team. 

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