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Path to the Playoff: How each Top 12 team can get to the final four

We are still several weeks away from the end of the season. Anything can happen, and that means that several teams are still in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.

Here, we are going to take the Top 12 teams — for the sake of simplicity — and determine a scenario for how they can end up in the Top 4 at the end of the season. This is going to involve a lot of hypothetical scenarios, but if you are a fan of any of these teams, it is going to be good to know just exactly what your school needs in order to be one of the final four standing.

Clemson

– Win out

Clemson is the current No. 1 team, and they have a chance to bolster their schedule by beating a ranked North Carolina team in the ACC Championship Game. Simply, if they win out, they’re in.

Alabama

– Win out

Same situation as Clemson; if they win out, they are easily in.

Ohio State

– Win out

An undefeated, defending national champion is in.

Notre Dame

– Win out
– Stanford wins Pac-12 championship
– The winner of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State loses the week before

Notre Dame doesn’t necessarily need all of this to get it in, but this is definitely the safest way. Stanford winning the Pac-12 strengthens Notre Dame’s schedule, and the Oklahoma and Oklahoma State scenario does the best to eliminate the Big 12 from contention. It’s possible in this scenario that Baylor ends up as a one-loss Big 12 champion, but they are not getting in over a one-loss Notre Dame.

Iowa

– Win out
– Ohio State beats Michigan State, Michigan

I want to say that Iowa only needs to win out, but they do need a little bit of help: they need to beat an undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. If a scenario happens where they get Michigan or Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, it could leave open a scenario where a #brand — Notre Dame or a Big 12 champ Oklahoma — gets taken over the Hawkeyes.

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Oklahoma State

– Win out

Beating Baylor and Oklahoma should be enough for Oklahoma State. An undefeated Big 12 champ is in.

Oklahoma

– Win out
– Notre Dame loses at least once

At least one of Iowa and Ohio State will be knocked out eventually, and Oklahoma can take care of Oklahoma State by themselves. It is possible that this is enough to get Oklahoma in over Notre Dame, but it is safer to say that it will take Notre Dame losing again for the Sooners to get in; that loss to Texas really complicates things if Notre Dame wins out.

Florida

– Win out
– Alabama beats Charleston Southern, Auburn
– LSU wins out

This looks easier than it actually is; that “win out” involves beating Alabama. Good luck with that, Gators.

However, if Florida does beat No. 2 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, that should be enough to catapult the Gators to the Playoff. A one-loss SEC champ probably in.

Michigan State

– Win out
– Iowa beats Purdue, Nebraska
– Notre Dame loses to Stanford
– The winner of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State loses the week before

Winning out for Michigan State would mean beating Ohio State and getting a ticket to the Big Ten title game. A win over Iowa there might put the Spartans in a good enough spot by itself. However, they might need some help, so Notre Dame losing and the Big 12 eliminating itself should do it.

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Baylor

– Win out
– Notre Dame loses to Stanford
– Stanford loses either to Cal or in Pac-12 Championship
– Oklahoma loses one game
– Ohio State wins out
– Alabama wins out

Baylor can do itself a favor by beating Oklahoma State on Saturday; that would eliminate one team ahead of them. Beating TCU the next week and Oklahoma losing one of their final two games would also give the Bears the Big 12 Championship.

But how can they jump six spots from No. 10 into the Top 4? Well, Baylor would need Notre Dame to lose to Stanford, but then it might also need Stanford to lose in the Pac-12 title game; a Pac-12 champ Stanford fresh off of beating Notre Dame and — likely — USC could get selected over a one-loss Baylor.

“Ohio State wins out” and “Alabama wins out” might seem random here, but they really aren’t. That scenario eliminates all of the Big Ten clutter in the Top 12, as Ohio State would firmly be in the Playoff. It also gets rid of Florida and eliminates some doomsday “two-loss SEC champ Alabama” scenario.

So to sum up: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Michigan State, Florida, and Iowa all probably have to lose for Baylor to get in. That’s a tall order, but not impossible at all.

Stanford

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– Win out
– The winner of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State loses the week before
– Baylor loses to TCU
– Alabama wins out
– Ohio State wins out
– Clemson wins out
– Oregon wins out
– Northwestern wins out

First of all, Stanford really got a gift by being ranked this high after losing to Oregon. It makes their path a lot easier than it could have been.

This has some of the same principles as the Baylor scenario; it will be simpler for Stanford if Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson all win out. This may take up three spots in the Playoffs, but those scenarios also take care of Iowa, Michigan State, and Florida, which are all currently ahead of Stanford in the standings. Stanford winning out would also eliminate Notre Dame.

The tricky scenario for Stanford involves the Big 12. “The Big 12 has to eliminate itself” has been a common theme for a couple of teams already, but Stanford needs some extra gymnastics because Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, AND TCU will probably all have to lose in the next two weeks. Luckily for Stanford, that is a possible scenario, and a two-loss, Pac-12 champ Stanford would probably get picked over a one-loss Oklahoma State. (note to Big 12: get a couple of teams so you can have a conference title game)

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Oregon and Northwestern winning out would make Stanford’s losses look better. Those might not have to happen, but if it does come down to Stanford and Oklahoma State, it wouldn’t hurt for Stanford to have that big of a strength of schedule advantage.

Michigan

– Win out
– Iowa beats Purdue, Nebraska
– Ohio State beats Michigan State
– Oklahoma beats TCU
– Baylor destroys Oklahoma State
– Oklahoma State barely beats Oklahoma
– TCU beats Baylor
– Stanford beats Notre Dame
– USC wins out
– USC beats Stanford in Pac-12 championship
– Utah wins out
– Alabama wins out

Yes Michigan, you are still alive! Congrats!

However, the Wolverines need A LOT of help. Ohio State needs to beat Michigan State, and then Michigan needs to beat Ohio State just to make it to the Big Ten title game. Beating Iowa there gives them a great two-loss resume.

Elsewhere, Michigan needs pretty much the same Big 12 scenario that Stanford gets, which is a lot of work. They also need Stanford to beat Notre Dame, but then lose to USC — and specifically USC — in the Pac-12 title game. This keeps Utah, who beat Michigan earlier in the year, from jumping the Wolverines in the rankings. Finally, Alabama winning out eliminates a scenario with a one-loss Florida champ and a two-loss Alabama. Could you imagine the committee trying to decide between a two-loss Alabama and a two-loss Michigan? Michigan fans certainly don’t want to imagine that.

Bo was born in Atlanta, GA, and has always been a savvy sports follower. He attended Georgia Tech and has previously worked with ESPN TrueHoop, HawksHoop, and the Georgia Tech Newsroom. He covers national college football for FanBuzz.
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