Breaking Down the Playoff Contenders

The rise is real, undeniably so. But do the Colorado Buffaloes, ranked 8th in the second-to-last College Football Playoff rankings, have a legitimate shot to stake their claim for this year’s national title?

Yes, the Buffs would likely have to play Alabama, and the deck would most certainly be stacked against them. Yes, they’d need a lot of help in order to even get there; the odds are razor thin. If there’s one thing I do know, though, those odds are far better than any of us would have given the Buffs to be standing here today. You won’t see me start to doubt this dream season now.

Realistically, there are two spots up for grabs in the College Football Playoff. Alabama and Ohio State have separated themselves as locks; there are no feasible scenarios in which the committee would not call their names. How does Colorado really stack up amongst the remaining contenders?

We’ve put together a comprehensive breakdown of all the programs still vying for their shot at the title. We’ll attack their resumes one by one, creating arguments both for, and against, their shot to earn a playoff spot. Only one thing is certain for all of the teams discussed below, for those that are playing a game this weekend, if you lose, you’re out of the running.

#3 Clemson (11-1)

Why they should get in…

For Clemson, the argument is pretty simple. Beat #23 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game, and they’re in. Clemson currently owns the 2nd best Strength of Record in the nation (behind only Alabama), an average top 25 team would have just a 9% chance to play their schedule to an 11-1 record. The Tigers are 3-1 vs. the top 25, owning victories @ #12 Florida State, #13 Louisville, and @ #14 Auburn. None of the two loss contenders could justify being selected ahead of Clemson if they win the ACC Conference Championship and own just one loss.

Why they shouldn’t they get in…

Sagarin rankings suggest that Clemson has played the 47th most difficult schedule in the country this season, which would rank 2nd worst among contenders. Their loss, at home to #25 Pittsburgh, would rank as, at best, the 2nd worst loss, exceeded only by Michigan’s loss at Iowa, and that’s arguable. Despite their stellar top 25 record, they will finish the season having played zero opponents ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. All teams play close games throughout the season, but Clemson’s win at home vs. NC State is probably the most fortunate of all. NC State had a chance to win the game in regulation, but shanked a 33-yard FG as time expired.

#4 Washington (11-1)

Why they should get in…

Washington, should they beat #8 Colorado this weekend, would improve upon a 5th ranked Strength of Record, and also finish as one of just four power conference teams with less than two losses. They are 4th nationally in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by an average of 25.9 points per game. Washington is also one of the most explosive offenses in the country, ranking 4th in yards per play. They also rank 5th among the contenders in positive yardage differential, outgaining opponents by an average of 156 yards per game. They are the 3rd most efficient team in the country, buoyed by their 2nd ranked offense and 9th ranked defense.

Why they shouldn’t get in…

Despite their impressive metrics, they still fall behind #5 Michigan in nearly every statistical category. Washington has played by far the easiest schedule of any playoff hopeful, ranking just 60th nationally. Thus far they’ve played just one team ranked among the top 15 of the College Football Playoff rankings, and lost at home to #11 USC. Their ability to navigate their schedule with just a single loss is buoying their resume currently. A loss to Colorado would result in a substantial drop in the rankings, likely behind nearly every other two-loss team in the running.

#5 Michigan

Why they should get in…

Simply put, they own wins against #6 Wisconsin, #7 Penn State, and #8 Colorado, more top 10 wins than any of the other contenders combined. They rank 3rd nationally in Sagarin’s power rankings and 3rd in ESPN’s Football Power Index. They are 2nd nationally in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by 28.5 points per game. They are 2nd nationally in total efficiency, including being ranked 2nd in defensive efficiency, and 11th offensively.

Why they shouldn’t get in…

Despite dominant statistics, Michigan ranks just 8th in strength of record, while playing just the 33rd most difficult schedule in the country. An average top 25 team would have a 34% chance of finishing their schedule at 10-2. The loss at Iowa is arguably the worst among the teams mentioned in this article. The Wolverines have lost two of three to close the season, and finished 3rd in their own division. Probably their most damning blemish, though, is that Michigan won just one game outside of their own this season, and they beat Rutgers.

#6 Wisconsin

Why they should get in…

The only two blemishes on their resume came at the hands of #2 Ohio State and @ #5 Michigan, both in one possession games. They’ve proven they can play competitively with any team in the country and the playoff committee likes that. They own the nation’s 4th best strength of record, and played the nation’s 20th hardest schedule, the second most difficult among teams vying for a playoff spot.

Why they shouldn’t get in…

They’re currently 1-2 against top 25 competition, and the lone win comes against four loss #21 LSU by two points. While most of their metrics rank amongst the top ten nationally, when playing for the playoffs, that isn’t quite impressive enough. They are ranked 7th by Sagarin power polls, 9th nationally in scoring average, and ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks them 12th nationally. Nothing to scoff at, but when your best resume bullet point is…we lost close to good teams, is that going to be good enough?

#7 Penn State

Why they should get in…

Their win against Ohio State is easily the most impressive among the teams fighting for the final two slots, and they’ve now won eight consecutive games. They have an odd stigma of being boring to watch, yet rank 22nd nationally in yards per play, making them one of the more explosive teams in the country. They are representing the Big Ten East division in the Championship game despite sharing a division with both Ohio State and Michigan.

Why they shouldn’t get in…

They lost to #5 Michigan by 39 points, and also lost @ #25 Pittsburgh, one of the more questionable losses tallied among the teams vying for playoff position. Statistically, the Nittany Lions have failed to impress, they are 7th in Strength of Record, 14th in the Sagarin rankings, 14th in FPI, and just the 21st most efficient team in the country. They also played the 39th most difficult schedule in the country, just average once compared to other teams discussed here.

#8 Colorado

Why they should get in…

Colorado’s biggest asset right now is their Strength of Record, ranked 6th nationally, and 2nd amongst the teams with two losses. They’ve played the 23rd most difficult schedule in the country, which would rank 3rd among the teams still in the running to make the playoffs. Colorado has won six consecutive games, including @ #17 Stanford, #20 Utah, and Washington State, who was ranked prior to their loss at the hands of the Buffs. With a matchup with #4 Washington looming, a win would represent easily the most impressive closing stretch in the country outside of maybe Penn State. They haven’t lost a game in which QB Sefo Liufau has finished healthy, and their two losses came @ #5 Michigan and @ #11 USC.

Why they shouldn’t get in…

While their metrics are impressive, they don’t point to a playoff quality team at this current moment. They are 11th according to Sagarin, 13th in ESPN’s FPI, 11th in overall efficiency, and 16th in scoring margin. Their special teams, ranked 117th nationally in efficiency, have to be a major concern. Despite their impressive strength of record, the Buffs are currently 0-2 against top 15 competition. Fortunately, their match-up with Washington represents the biggest opportunity for a team on the cusp to make a statement in the final week of the season.

#9 Oklahoma

Why they should get in…

To be honest, at this point, they shouldn’t (and probably won’t) get in. Should they beat Oklahoma State in their final conference game of the year this weekend, they’d become the second Power 5 team to finish their conference slate undefeated and that will hold some merit amongst the committee members. Their 18th ranked strength of schedule means they’ve played the toughest schedule of any of the contenders, lifted mostly by their very difficult non-conference slate. They are the most efficient offense in the entire country, rank 10th in scoring margin, and 6th according to Sagarin. The computers definitely have a soft spot for the Sooners.

Why they shouldn’t get in…

They didn’t take advantage of their difficult non-conference schedule, losing to both #24 Houston and #2 Ohio State, both by double digits. As a result, their strength of record sits 9th nationally, worst among the teams with two losses that are still in contention for the playoffs. The Big XII is easily the worst Power 5 conference at this point, and their lone top 25 win came last week @ #16 West Virginia. The Oklahoma State game will provide the Sooners a chance to make a late statement, but they are going to need an incredible amount of chaos in front of them to sneak their way into the picture.


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