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Handicapping The Playoff Contenders: TCU, Southern Cal Among Weekend’s Winners

TCU v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

There’s a chill in the air and the college football season is getting down to the nitty gritty. And Bulldog fans are among the lucky few who can still realistically dream of playing for a national title. As we prepare for the stretch run of the 2022 season, let’s take a look at the remaining contenders and their respective roads to the College Football Playoff.

Looking Good, Feeling Fine

These are the teams who should feel pretty good about their odds. The teams who are absolutely in if they just keep winning.

Georgia: This one’s self-explanatory. Over the past couple of weeks the Bulldogs have separated themselves from the field. Even if they stumble unexpectedly against a Kentucky team coming off a loss to Vandy, or a Georgia Tech team playing out the string, the ‘Dawgs will still have a shot to redeem themselves in the SEC Championship Game against a much-improved but still beatable LSU team. Of the teams with a margin for error in the playoff discussion Kirby Smart’s has the most room to slip, and has perhaps the least likelihood of doing so. The Bulldogs are the clear favorite in DraftKings’ updated College Football Playoff odds, and with good reason.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes were never likely to be tested by 3-6 Indiana, but essentially named their score in a 56-14 drubbing in the snow in Columbus. Ryan Day’s team looks like the one most likely to hang with the Red and Black on a neutral field. But they’ll get their biggest test of the year in two weeks in the Big Game against Michigan. The winner of that one almost certainly is in the playoff.

Michigan: The Wolverines took care of business against Nebraska, winning at home 34-3. The Fightin’ Harbaughs will host Illinois this weekend and can’t overlook the surprising Illini, but like Ohio State, the Maize and Blue likely know their playoff hopes rest heavily on the result of the game in Columbus in two weeks. Remember how I said the winner of that one is probably in? Well the loser, whichever team it is, will likely have as its best win a victory over Penn State and a series of triumphs over semi-hapless Big Ten also-rans. More on why that’s important below.

TCU: The Horned Frogs went on the road in a hostile environment in Austin and took care of business against the Texas Longhorns to stay undefeated. In the process Sonny Dykes’ team clinched a berth in the Big XII title game (I expect against a good Kansas State squad) and, if they get to 13-0, I believe the Hypnotoads are going to be impossible to keep a out of the playoff in favor of a one loss Tennessee, Ohio State, or Michigan.

Needs Help (Or To Help Themselves)

These teams aren’t likely in the playoff if the season ends today, but only need some reasonably plausible things to happen down the stretch to make it.

Tennessee: The Volunteers don’t feel like a team of destiny, but they feel like a team of default. If any of the current top contenders stumble, the Volunteers will be right there with a pair of solid wins (LSU and Alabama) and likely the best loss among contending teams (unless LSU plays Georgia closer in the SEC title game). Their two remaining games (South Carolina and Vandy) are imminently winnable, and they don’t have to risk things in the SEC Championship Game. Remember when I talked about Ohio State and Michigan’s best win up to now being Penn State? If the committee were to line up Tennessee’s resume with the one belonging to the loser of Ohio State/Michigan for the final spot I’d expect the Vols to be in.

LSU: The Bayou Bengals didn’t cover themselves in glory in merely surviving a middling Arkansas team. But in the process they clinched a spot in the SEC Championship Game, a necessary step if they hope to make the final four. If you’re going to lose in college football, do it early. That’s what the Tigers did, dropping a one point decision to Florida State on opening weekend. With the Seminoles surging into the top 20 that loss now looks defensible. If they shock Georgia in the SEC title game the Tigahs are likely in. If they play Georgia very close, and Tennessee or TCU stumbles, they’re in the discussion with the loser of Ohio State/Michigan. All in all this is way more than LSU fans had any right to expect in Brian Kelly’s first season in Baton Rouge.

USC: Lincoln Riley’s team pounded a hapless Colorado squad on Friday night in a game that told us absolutely nothing about their playoff worthiness, but did include this gem of a moment.

The Men of Troy end the year against #16 UCLA and #18 Notre Dame. I don’t like their odds of winning both of those games and then a PAC-12 title game. But if they do so no one loss team is likely to have closed the season hotter, something we know the committee considers as part of the overall body of work.

Clemson: Lil Ole Clemson is still sitting there at 9-1, and will play the ACC title game against #13 North Carolina. They’re still technically alive. But I fear the stench of that 35-14 shellacking at the hands of Notre Dame two weeks ago is something the committee won’t be able to unsmell. It was the kind of loss that’s disqualifying unless things go seriously pear-shaped elsewhere.

North Carolina: Like Clemson the Tar Heels could end up as a one loss ACC champion vying for the final spot with a one loss Big Ten runner-up or a one loss Tennessee. But also like Clemson they have a loss to Notre Dame, and one score victories over the likes of Appalachian State, Georgia State, Miami, and Duke. Mack Brown’s squad really should stop worrying about the playoff, enjoy their New Year’s Day bowl and be thankful that they got the bounces needed to avoid being 7-5.

Prediction Time

If everything goes according to plan Georgia, either Ohio State or Michigan, and TCU should be headed into the playoff. The final spot in this scenario would come down to the loser of the Big Game and Tennessee, and the pick may well depend on just how close that game in Columbus, Ohio is and what the winner does in the Big Ten Championship Game. I think that’s probably Tennessee at this juncture, given that we know the committee saw enough to rank them #1 before the loss to Georgia.

That defeat was definitive. But it likely wasn’t debilitating when viewed within the context of the struggles of every team not coached by Kirby Smart.

Where things get really fun is if Tennessee manages to stub its toe against a bad South Carolina or a truly awful Vanderbilt. Or if, more likely, TCU stumbles against Chris Klieman’s solid Kansas State team in the Big XII title game. If the committee has to fill two spots that aren’t no-brainers because an undefeated Georgia and an undefeated Big Ten champ are the only teams clearly in, things could get dumb in a hurry.