CFB Playoffs: Road to the Final Four

As the playoff committee's official rankings are released, Scout's team of insiders present expert analysis on who's in, who's out, and, most importantly, who actually stands a chance.

Note: We didn't include every team; these are the programs Scout thinks have the best chance of making it to the Final Four, based on our rankings.

#1 Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-0)

When the official playoff projections are announced, Mississippi State should be at or near the very top of the list. With what is arguably the best in season resume in the country, Mississippi State is the only program that can boast three wins over three top ten opponents. The Bulldogs have been a consensus #1 for three straight weeks, and they should hang onto that distinction for at least two more. Dan Mullen and his team are in a position to be 9-0 and ranked #1 as they head over to Tuscaloosa in three weeks. That contest in many respects is a national playoff qualifier. While an MSU loss would not automatically knock them from consideration, a two-loss Alabama team probably has too steep a hill to climb to make the final four.

Certainly winning out for Mississippi State would be the path most easily taken, but navigating through four more conference games unscathed will prove to be a tall task. In addition to the road trip to Tuscaloosa, State has to travel to Oxford to battle an Ole Miss team who will still have plenty to play for no matter where they rank in the playoff projections. If State is to take a loss, then one would think losing earlier to an Alabama team with two weeks left to climb back into position would be the best case scenario.

If State wins in Tuscaloosa, we could see the Bulldogs wrap up the SEC Western Division before they play in the annual grudge match with Ole Miss, but a loss in that game would certainly impact the Bulldogs' chances of playing for all of the marbles come January.

The Bulldogs' historic season that has featured the program's first ever number one ranking could prove to be one for the ages if they can find away to win home conference tilts with Arkansas and Vanderbilt and leave Tuscaloosa and Oxford victorious. A split on the road and a sweep at home should be just enough to get into the final four if the cards fall just right. —Steve Robertson, Gene's Page

#2 Florida State Seminoles (7-0)

FSU is ranked this high because they’re the reigning national champs and have won 23 straight games. They haven’t all been pretty this year, but the champ stays on top until the champ is beaten.

If FSU wins out, they’ll be the top seed and will likely host the semifinal in the Sugar Bowl.

FSU is one of the only teams in the country that can still afford a loss and would likely make the playoff. Only one one-loss team can emerge from Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Auburn. A one-loss FSU goes to the playoff over any two-loss team, and a one-loss FSU would go over a Big Ten or Big 12 one-loss team thanks to the Noles’ non-conference schedule.

This Thursday night against Louisville is probably the biggest key remaining, though a rivalry game against an improving Miami on the road will be no cakewalk. But you could really pick any of the Seminoles’ remaining games. It’s a tougher slate than most realize down the stretch. Don’t forget: Boston College beat USC and Virginia outplayed UCLA for much of that game. And Florida is in disarray but has the talent to make it interesting against anyone if they decide to get things together. —Jason Staples, Nole Digest

#3 Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1)

No one involved in Alabama Crimson Tide football fails to appreciate the advantage Bama has in being one of the so-called “brands” of college football. Many years of national championship level success and having the game’s most well known coach add to the advantage Alabama might have in a subjective vote.

That doesn’t mean that Alabama is a lock for the inaugural College Football Playoff. The CFP Selection Committee, a group of 11 men and one woman, will reveal its initial poll Tuesday night, and the Crimson Tide is one of a handful of teams who may be in the top four or may find itself on the outside looking in.

Alabama is ranked third in the two major polls that may now be meaningless, though the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters and the Coaches Poll conducted by USA Today may influence the CFP voters.

Coach Nick Saban’s Alabama has negotiated the first eight games of its schedule with one loss, at previously number-three-ranked Ole Miss. The Tide has the additional advantages of being ranked second to start the season and of being in the Southeastern Conference Western Division, universally regarded as America’s best.

Bama has high profile games remaining, at LSU and at home to number one Mississippi State and previous number one Auburn. If Alabama wins out—including the SEC Championship Game—there is no doubt the Tide will be in the playoff.

However, one more loss and Alabama will be out of the four-team playoff.

Although there are three difficult games remaining, one on the road, the key game will likely be the last regular season game, when Alabama hosts Auburn. —Kirk McNair, 'BamaMag

#t4 Auburn Tigers (6-1)

The good news for Auburn is that its path to the new college football playoff is clearly defined. However, the journey will be anything but easy with major obstacles in the Tigers’ path.

The first major roadblock can be found this Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, where the Tigers will play their third road game of the season vs. a ranked opponent.

Even if the Tigers can advance past the Rebels, though, two equally challenging road tests remain with a trip to Georgia scheduled for Nov. 15th and the cross-state rivalry showdown at Alabama two weeks later to close the regular season.

If Auburn wins those games and an SEC home contest vs. Texas A&M, there is a possibility the Tigers will be headed to Atlanta to defend their SEC Championship, another game they would need to win.

If the Tigers run their late season gauntlet without suffering a second setback to go with their loss at Mississippi State, they will have proven themselves more than worthy of making the four-team tournament. However, the odds of knocking off three Top 10 teams on the road in November are long ones. Coach Gus Malzahn’s Tigers will need to improve all aspects of their play in the coming weeks to have a chance to get that assignment done. —Mark Murphy, Inside the Auburn Tigers

#t4 Oregon Ducks (7-1)

Oregon got here by keeping their high-powered offense moving. They lost several players on offense to graduation, but held on to the most important piece of the puzzle, in Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota. The Ducks also lost their offensive tackles early on, Tyler Johnstone for the season and Jake Fischer for a few games, but Fischer’s return has bolstered their offense and the last three games, the Ducks have won convincingly, thanks to keeping Mariota protected. They’ve also found their running back of the future, and of the present, in former five-star Royce Freeman, a true freshman who has become the focal point of the Ducks running game.

If the Ducks win out, there is no question they will be in the playoffs. They have their toughest test on Saturday when they face Stanford, the team that has derailed their hopes the past two years, and if they get past the Cardinal, their only tough game remaining is Utah on the road. A win in the Pac-12 title game would have make them 12-1 and keep them in the playoffs. They also have what is still the best non-conference win of the season, a double-digit win over fellow playoff contender Michigan State.

If they lose one more game, they have to hope it’s sooner rather than later, since late losses the last two years have knocked them out. They will tout their win over Michigan State and would need Michigan State to lose another conference game but win the Big Ten title to have that on their resume.

Key game to reach the Final Four: Stanford. This Saturday, the Cardinal come to Eugene, the place they ruined the Ducks perfect season in 2012 in overtime, the lone loss the Ducks would suffer. Last year, Oregon lost in Palo Alto (and again two weeks later to Arizona). But a win over Stanford would exorcise their demons. Stanford’s offense isn’t good, but their defense still is and has shut down Mariota and the Ducks the past two years. And there is still the national perception of Stanford’s defense. A win over the Cardinal would signal the Ducks are able to beat good defenses too, in case people forgot what they did to Michigan State. —Brandon Huffman, Scout

#6 Michigan State Spartans (7-1)

Michigan State got here by doing what Mark Dantonio's crew has become known for: playing great defense, notably scoring points too on that side of the ball, running the football, and not beating themselves. But where quarterback Connor Cook was considered more of a game-manager last season, his progression has pushed the offense as a whole forward and the Green and White are putting up more points on the scoreboard as a result. After an early loss to Oregon, the Spartans are undefeated in the conference and although Nebraska, Purdue and Indiana early-on played them tough at times, they've overcome every Big Ten challenge thus far.

If they win out, the Spartans will have a legitimate shot at the playoffs because that will mean they defeated Ohio State, the only ranked team left on their schedule. A convincing win over whoever they would end up facing in the conference title game would greatly help matters as well. How the SEC shakes out, whether or not Florida State remains undefeated, and how the Spartans' quality opponents fare the rest of the season, also all figure heavily into the equation.

If they lose one more, they're out, barring a miracle. The strength of schedule just doesn't give the Spartans much room for error.

Key game to reach the Final Four: Ohio State. A night-game in East Lansing looms large for the Spartans' conference title and playoff hopes. The Buckeyes pulling off a double-overtime win at Penn State last weekend was huge for preserving the magnitude of this game, and the Spartans' strength of schedule should they win. If they do come out on top, they would need to guard against let downs versus Rutgers and Maryland before finishing out with those Nittany Lions, who are always a tough out at home. —Allen Trieu, Scout

#7 Ole Miss Rebels (7-1)

The calling card for Ole Miss is defense.

The Ole Miss Rebels have the stingiest defense in the nation through eight games, allowing just 10.4 points a game and is the chief reason they are 7-1 and are ranked #7 by AP.

Led by All-American free safety Cody Prewitt and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, Scout’s number one recruit for the 2013 signing class, the Reb defense has been able to weather every storm effectively. Ole Miss is currently using 32 players on the defensive side of the ball and seems to have confidence and trust in all of them. The secondary leads the nation in interceptions with 17 with cornerback Senquez Golson second in the nation with eight steals.

The offense, until LSU shut it down last Saturday in Baton Rouge, has been opportunistic, at times explosive and mostly error-free. QB Bo Wallace has thrown for a little over 2,000 yards with four regular season games remaining.

Ole Miss controls its own destiny. If they win out, they will win the SEC West Division, arguably the best division in the country. If they lose one more, they will have to depend on the West to cannibalize itself, which is a possibility in the SEC since any team can beat anyone on any given Saturday.

Ole Miss has three conference games remaining, two against Top 5 teams—No. 1 Mississippi State and #5 Auburn, both at home—and sandwiched in between is a road contest with a very physical Arkansas squad. Obviously, the next one—Auburn this Saturday—is the key game for now. —Chuck Rounsaville, OM Spirit

#8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-1)

They're ranked this high because they looked great against Michigan early, won dramatically vs. Stanford when it still mattered, and "should have" ended Florida State's reign of dominance of late. Notre Dame doesn't have a win commensurate with that of a Top 7-8 team, but they sure look like one. The defense is fast and plays that way, and quarterback Everett Golson gives them a chance against anyone.

If they win out, the Irish will likely qualify for the inaugural FBS Playoffs. That's not based on strength of schedule or the wisdom of the Selection Committee, but rather on the annual reality of November. Teams are going to lose. Those that win out will play on.

If they lose one more, they're out, and they'll face off against a powerful SEC West squad in the December's most watched (and hyped) non-playoff bowl game, the Peach Bowl.

Key game to reach the Final Four: Arizona State. Wins against Navy, Northwestern, and Louisville are expected—though the latter is a Senior Day trap in South Bend. And a win at USC to conclude the season will be difficult, because no Irish team wants to face a Trojans squad in the role of home field spoiler. (It wasn't easy in 2012, either.)

If the Irish exit Sun Devils Stadium at 8-1, they're a good bet for a No. 5 national ranking at worst, as either Auburn or Ole Miss will have dropped a game one week prior, and Alabama, Oregon and Florida State will have received tough tests.

Look for a shoot-out in Tempe, and if the Irish escape, it's a clear path to a No. 4, possibly a No. 3 finish by season's end. —Tim O'Malley, IrishEyes

#9 Georgia Bulldogs (6-1)

They're ranked this high because Georgia found themselves without Todd Gurley literally and figuratively in October. The Bulldogs figured out how to win without Gurley (who will be back at some point this season). The season seemed lost in early October, but the defense got it together in a big way, and freshman Nick Chubb became unstoppable.

If they win out, Georgia will be at least the two seed—and could jump an undefeated Florida State for the top spot with a 12-1 record. Doubt what winning the SEC means in college football at your own peril.

With the mess that the college football landscape, Georgia can likely survive a loss to Auburn if it wins every game it plays in the regular season and wins the SEC Championship Game against the much-talked-about SEC West. It's possible, but hard to imagine Georgia getting into the playoff without winning the title game…even at 11-2.

The SEC Championship is a terminal game is so many ways for the Bulldogs. Georgia should get to Atlanta. They will likely be favored in every game they play from here on out (with the possible exception of Auburn, but that game is in Athens). At that point the biggest game of the season will be the SEC Championship Game were the Bulldogs came up painfully short against Alabama in 2012. —Dean Legge, Dawg Post

#10 TCU Horned Frogs (6-1)

TCU is ranked where they are based off strength of schedule in my opinion. They have two wins over then-top-15 teams in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Plus, anyone who watched the Baylor game understands that the Frogs "gave" that game away in the end when they were up by 21 with 11 minutes to go. Losing by three to the then #5 team on the road by scoring 58 points is impressive even though they lost.

If the Frogs win out, they will have a very impressive body of work. They've already beaten Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and while those victories may not be as impressive to the voters as they were a few weeks ago, the Frogs still have a chance to make a splash against #20 West Virginia on the road and play at top-10 team in Kansas State. If they can go up to Morgantown and get a win, that's something Baylor couldn't do. Plus, the voters have been very impressed with the Mountaineers of late. If they beat Kansas State, that would be three wins over top-15 teams, including a top-5 team. If the Frogs finish the season with an 11-1 record with their only loss being a three-point loss on the road to a top 5 team, there's no question the Frogs should have a shot at the playoffs.

If they lose one more, they're out. They already have one loss in the Big 12; if they lose another it will be time to start thinking about different bowl scenarios. There will be too many one-loss teams in the country that will get in before a two-loss team from the Big 12.

The key game to reach final 4 starts this week on the road at West Virginia. It's a tough environment in Morgantown, but the Frogs won there two years ago in overtime. The quarterback of that game: Trevone Boykin. If they can get out of Morgantown with the win, that will be a very impressive win because as I mentioned earlier; that's something Baylor couldn't do. If that's not enough of a win, the good news is they have a chance to beat a top team in Kansas State and even better news is they play the Wildcats in Ft. Worth. —Jeremy Clark, HornedFrogBlitz

#11 Baylor Bears (6-1)

Just under two weeks ago, Baylor appeared to be in the thick of the race for a spot in the inaugural college football playoff. They were coming off of a monumental comeback victory over TCU, their first real challenge of the year. Life was good, and then a trip to Morgantown, WV, changed the course of the Bears season. The Bears suffered their first loss of the season and fell outside of the Top-10.

With games against Kansas State and Oklahoma, the Bears have multiple chances to improve their resume considerably. Along with the win over TCU, the Bears will absolutely be in the conversation for a spot in the college football playoffs with a one-loss season and a Big 12 Championship. The question will be, is a one-loss Big 12 champion better than a possible 1-loss Big 10 champ or a one-loss Notre Dame?

With one more loss though, the Bears are more than likely out of the conversation, due to a weak non-conference schedule and more than likely without a Big 12 Championship to help their cause.

The key game for Baylor is the season finale against Kansas State. The Wildcats are still undefeated in Big 12 play, and have a chance to be a top-five team coming into Waco if they keep winning. A win over the Wildcats would give the Bears a huge boost late in the year, and with wins in the rest of their games, give them a second consecutive Big 12 Championship. —Tim Watkins, Bears Illustrated

#12 Kansas State Wildcats (6-1)

The Wildcats got here by following the Bill Snyder Model of consistency, toughness and discipline. Kansas State hasn’t looked good in some of their wins, but they’ve found a way to win just about every time they had their back to the wall. Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett give the Wildcats one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12 and one of the most explosive playmakers in the country. And the Snyder defense, which shut out Texas on Saturday, is one of the best they’ve had in the Little Apple in years.

If they win out, the Wildcats will be in the playoffs. That would include wins over TCU and Baylor, both top ten teams, and West Virginia, a top 25 team. And all three of those wins would come on the road. With the Big 12 not having a conference championship game, the Wildcats would be the outright, and unbeaten winner of the conference. And those three wins, plus a road win over Oklahoma, would be as impressive a road record as any team in college football. Their lone loss is a close home loss to Auburn. Should Auburn make the playoffs, with that close win, that will further help the Wildcats.

If they lose one more game, they’ll need some help, thanks to that loss against Auburn. A two-loss Auburn, even if they don’t win the SEC, would get the nod over a two-loss K-State, because of the win, and because it was in Manhattan.

Key game to reach the Final Four: at TCU. The Wildcats are unbeaten in the Big 12, but the top three teams outside Kansas State are still left on the schedule. And they have to visit all three. If they beat TCU, that gives them momentum before they visit West Virginia and Baylor. While Baylor’s schedule softens a bit before the final game, the Wildcats need to beat and stop a hot TCU team before they worry about the Mountaineers or Bears. —Brandon Huffman, Scout

#13 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-1)

Ohio State is still a dark-horse candidate for the playoff, as the Buckeyes are thought to be below most of the other major conference one-loss teams but still in the mix with a high-profile game at Michigan State to come. The Buckeyes definitely have talent—there's a reason the team was in the top 10 to start the season—even with the loss of Braxton Miller, and the program and both Urban Meyer know what it's like to be relevant at the national level. Young J.T. Barrett has been impressive so far and the team's defense, a liability last year, is rapidly improving.

With winning out, the Buckeyes will have a chance, as it will mean the team is a conference champion with just one loss. There is no guarantee Ohio State will make the playoff with a 12-1 record, as it depends on how the rest of the landscape falls, and to call a spade a spade, the Buckeyes and the Big Ten don't exactly have the most sterling reputations. The loss to Virginia Tech will hurt, too, but that was early in the campaign with a young team. If OSU can run the table, there could be a feeling the young, talented Buckeyes finished strong, and if there's no clear second SEC team for the playoff, the Buckeyes will have a good chance to make it at 12-1.

But with another loss, the Buckeyes are simply done. First of all, they won't be a conference champion, and there will be plenty of teams with two losses ahead of OSU with better resumes and national reputations as well.

The key game to making the playoff for Ohio State coming down the stretch is obviously the Michigan State contest, as all eyes will be on East Lansing on Nov. 8 with the winner having the inside track at the league crown. A win there would likely put the Buckeyes in the top 10 and put them in excellent position to move up as other teams lose down the stretch. A trap game at Minnesota, the rivalry contest vs. Michigan and the Big Ten title games won't be easy, either. —Jeff Svoboda, Buckeye Sports Bulletin

#14 Arizona Wildcats (6-1)

They're ranked this high because of a big road win at Oregon. You can make the argument that it is the best road win for any team this season.

If they win out, Arizona has a good chance of being in the playoff. It would mean wins over at least UCLA, Washington, and Arizona State and the resume would make it difficult to turn Arizona down.

If they lose one more, Arizona is still in the race for the Pac-12 South, but it takes a big hit. With numerous teams having the same record, Arizona can’t afford to lose too many more games, if any.

The key game to reach final 4? It's hard to pick just one, but the game at Utah is shaping up to be a big one. —Jason Scheer, Wildcat Authority

#15 Arizona State Sun Devils (6-1)

Just over a month ago, even at a respectable 3-1 record, Arizona State’s season looked to be all but done after suffering a demoralizing 62-27 home defeat to UCLA with tougher games looming large on the horizon. Fast forward three contests, and behind a resurgent defense that shook off its inexperience, improved special teams play and yes even some luck (see Hail Mary USC win) the Sun Devils find themselves now at a 6-1 record and leading thePac-12 South against many predictions.

A huge division game versus Utah awaits ASU to be followed by another home matchup this time with Notre Dame. If ASU wins those two key contests they will vault into the Top 10 and put themselves in a good position to finish the regular season with one loss. They will have to win the Pac-12 championship to have a realistic claim to be in the playoff’s final four, and it would be hard to imagine the conference champion being snubbed out of that exclusive group if they had just one loss. Another loss more than likely eliminates any chances ASU has getting into playoffs. —Hod Rabino, DevilsDigest

#16 Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-1)

They're ranked this high because the Huskers are 7-1 and beating their opponents by an average of 21 points. While Nebraska struggled to get anything going against Michigan State early in East Lansing, they ultimately lost by just five points to a top ten squad. They are in the Top 25 in both total defense and total offense, one of only six teams that can say that.

If they win out, Nebraska should likely be the last team in the playoff. They would have two decent road wins in Wisconsin and Iowa, not to mention a win over a ranked Ohio State or Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. Would the playoff committee really keep a one-loss Big Ten champion out of the party? The Huskers would also like to see Miami keep winning football games.

While the field should be thinned out a lot over the next month, Nebraska’s playoff chances go out the window with another loss. Nebraska’s resume at this point just isn’t that of some of the other one-loss squads. With a loss though, Nebraska still could sneak into a playoff committee selected bowl game.

The key game to reach Final Four? If we are talking regular season, it’s a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. The Huskers haven’t seen the Badgers since their embarrassing 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game. It’s a different Wisconsin team with a different head coach, but it will be a storyline. If Nebraska is able to secure the road win, it’s all about Ohio State or a rematch with Michigan State. —Josh Harvey, Big Red Report

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