The third rule: Barring incredible chaos the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 2007, a two-loss team isn’t making it.
And, finally, the fourth rule: No undefeated power conference team will be excluded from the playoff.
It’s already a certainty the last of those rules will hold up in 2021. Georgia (12-0) is the only power conference unbeaten, and the No. 1 seed belongs to the Bulldogs if they win the SEC title game.
As for the third rule, this season has enjoyed some unpredictability. Each of the past six playoffs featured at least two of Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. None of them are going to be picked this season. But unpredictability doesn’t equal chaos, and it will take a wild Saturday to squeeze a two-loss team into the field.
It does remain a possibility, however remote. But let’s start the setup for the weekend with the one thing that’s basically baked in already: Georgia will play another meaningful game regardless of how its trip to Atlanta unfolds.
In no matter what
No. 1 Georgia (12-0)
The Bulldogs have buried foe after foe with an unyielding defense, one that is allowing the fewest points (6.9) and yards (230.8) per game. They’ve throttled everyone in their path besides Clemson, and even then they gave up only a fourth-quarter field goal in a 10-3 victory. They are the consensus No. 1 at this point, and beating Alabama would only further validate that assessment.
Should Georgia lose to the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game … well, it will have lost to a fellow playoff team on a neutral field. Everyone else (besides Cincinnati) has taken a tumble, and one bad day — even one really bad day — is unlikely to dislodge the Bulldogs from a semifinal slot.
In with a win
No. 3 Alabama (11-1)
Seems pretty straightforward for the Crimson Tide: Beat Georgia in the SEC title game, earn a semifinal slot. Alabama would have a conference title, just one loss and the best victory on the board. It probably would be enough for the No. 1 seed.
As for the alternative, well, it would probably be a ticket to the Sugar Bowl.
This is not a virtually invulnerable Nick Saban juggernaut like last year’s team. Not only is there a three-point loss to 8-4 Texas A&M on the ledger, Alabama had one-possession victories over Auburn (6-6), Florida (6-6) and LSU (6-6). All of which is to say no one should think simply keeping it close against Georgia will be enough to get the Crimson Tide into the semifinals.
Could that happen? If there’s enough chaos, a lot of things could happen. But it’s best to think of this as Alabama’s playoff quarterfinal.
No. 4 Cincinnati (12-0)
The Bearcats have done everything they needed to do to put themselves in position to make the playoff. And since they beat Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish did everything possible to enhance Cincinnati’s reputation by winning out. The Bearcats’ victory in South Bend is arguably the best road victory on the board; Oregon’s early triumph at Ohio State is the only competition in the category.
With an edge over Notre Dame and everyone in the ACC and the Pac-12 owning at least two losses, things broke right for Cincinnati if it can get into the barn at 13-0. If the Bearcats knock off No. 21 Houston (11-1) at home in the American Athletic Conference title game, they should have their ticket as the first Group of Five team to reach the playoff.
And if not? Without the benefit of a conference title, Cincinnati might not even be in the New Year’s Six structure.
No. 2 Michigan (11-1)
The Wolverines used an old-school, ground-and-pound approach to flatten Ohio State last week, ending an eight-game losing streak against the Buckeyes and earning their first trip to the Big Ten title game.
Great on defense and good on offense, the Wolverines must navigate an Iowa team that is great on defense and bad on offense (unless it gets favorable field position from turnovers). Beat the No. 13 Hawkeyes (10-2), and Michigan can revel in its first playoff berth.
In with a win and help
No. 5 Oklahoma State (11-1)
It feels a bit like the Cowboys sneaked up on everyone, but here they are as the Big 12 regular season champs. Some of the stealthiness can be attributed to a program historically known for explosive offenses fielding an elite defense (No. 3 in total yardage, No. 5 in points allowed, No. 6 against the run).
Chalk some of it up to a month’s worth of forgettable opponents (Kansas, West Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech) that Oklahoma State outscored 165-23 before rallying past Oklahoma in Saturday’s Bedlam game.
Regardless of the background, Mike Gundy’s team has to beat No. 9 Baylor (10-2) for a second time to have a chance at a playoff berth. Another defeat of the Bears would be a plus, but the Cowboys could really use a loss from at least one of Alabama, Cincinnati or Michigan to secure a spot in the semifinals.
All those teams play well after the Big 12 title game’s early kickoff. Oklahoma State just has to win and then hope for the best.
In with help
No. 6 Notre Dame (11-1)
Despite Brian Kelly’s departure to LSU, the Fighting Irish really do have a chance to make the playoff. They can’t do anything themselves, considering they don’t have a conference championship game to play. But that also means they can’t hurt their profile, which is a plus if things get weird.
And, really, how weird would it be to collect two of these four breaks? Georgia beating Alabama; Iowa upending Michigan; Baylor paying back Oklahoma State; and Houston toppling Cincinnati — any of those results would be impactful, but none would be shocking.
The good thing for Notre Dame, whoever its coach is, is it has demolished opponents of late. The bad thing for Notre Dame is the last time it faced a team that was on its way to a winning record was Oct. 2, when it lost to Cincinnati. The Irish hammered a lot of mediocre teams, so it’s going to need some assistance to earn a playoff berth.
Baylor (10-2), Iowa (10-2), Oregon (10-2) and Ohio State (10-2)
This is the best of the two-loss lot, and Baylor, Iowa and Oregon even have a chance to claim conference titles this week. But remember that rule about two-loss teams: None of them have made the playoff yet, and none of these teams are likely to change that.
But “likely” isn’t the same as “capable,” and Baylor and Iowa have the opportunity to not only improve their profiles but damage the chances of someone ahead of them as well. These are all long shots, but they are all worth mentioning for the sake of thoroughness.
The train-wreck scenario
The smoothest scenario is outlined above. If Alabama, Cincinnati and Michigan win, the playoff field almost certainly will be a pair of 12-1 conference champions (Alabama and Michigan), the best team from the regular season (Georgia) and what would then become the only undefeated FBS team (Cincinnati).
So what would make the biggest mess? Pretty much the opposite. So let’s give Alabama, Cincinnati and Michigan losses, toss in a Baylor-over-Oklahoma State result in the Big 12 title game for good measure and even add Pac-12 champion Oregon to the mix just for fun. That would leave us with …
13-0 Georgia (SEC champion), 12-1 Cincinnati, 12-1 Houston (American champion), 11-1 Notre Dame, 11-2 Alabama, 11-2 Baylor (Big 12 champion), 11-2 Iowa (Big Ten champion), 11-2 Michigan, 11-2 Oklahoma State, 11-2 Oregon (Pac-12 champion), and 11-2 Pittsburgh or Wake Forest (ACC champion)
Not included are some 10-2 teams (Michigan State, Mississippi, Ohio State and Oklahoma) that aren’t playing this week.
Georgia and Notre Dame would claim two of the spots in this scenario, but good luck sorting out the rest of it.
1. LB Will Anderson Jr., Alabama (86 tackles, 30.5 TFL, 14.5 sacks). It is an award for the best player in the country. And with that in mind, picking the guy who leads the nation in tackles for loss and sacks wouldn’t be a bad call in which most of the high-end teams aren’t being powered by absurdly good quarterbacks. (Last week: 5)
2. RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State (1,636 yards, 18 TDs rushing; 13 catches, 89 yards, 1 TD receiving). Walker closed the regular season with his eighth 100-yard day in a 30-carry, 138-yard outing against Penn State. He’s second in the country in rushing, and that five-TD game against Michigan in October looks better by the week. (LW: 3)
3. QB Bryce Young, Alabama (3,901 yards, 40 TDs, 4 INTs passing; 2 TDs rushing). The final numbers from the Iron Bowl (25 for 51, 317 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) don’t fully convey how much Young struggled against Auburn. But if he can do what no one else has — namely, carve up Georgia — and help Alabama win the SEC title, he may be the choice for Heisman voters waiting to make a selection. (LW: 1)
4. QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh (4,066 yards, 40 TDs, 7 INTs passing; 221 yards, 4 TDs rushing). The ACC’s player of the year was the best quarterback in arguably the deepest year at the position in the league’s history. For voters willing to look beyond the top 10 in the rankings — and there aren’t as many of them as there should be — Pickett is a worthy inclusion on ballots. (LW: 4)
5. QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State (3,862 yards, 38 TDs, 5 INTs passing). The second-year player wasn’t quite as sharp against Michigan as he was the previous two weeks, but that’s a high bar to reach. He reached the end of the regular season ranked sixth nationally in completion percentage (70.9). (LW: 2)
6. DE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan (51 tackles, 14 TFL, 12.5 sacks). There’s always the Ndamukong Suh approach to a Heisman campaign — have a monster game when everyone is watching and shoot into the top five. Suh finished fourth in the 2009 Heisman balloting on the strength of a monster Big 12 title game. Hutchinson had three sacks last week against Ohio State. At the least, a lot of folks will be watching him in the Big Ten title game against Iowa. (LW: Not ranked)