The top four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings are all playing in Week 12, but the spotlight will be on No. 5 Wisconsin, which hosts No. 24 Michigan in the only game this week between ranked opponents.
The Badgers have remained outside the top four despite their unbeaten record, due in large part to a strength of schedule that ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks No. 67, lowest of any ranked Power 5 team. The Big Ten has a Power 5-leading six teams ranked in the selection committee’s top 25, but none in the top four.
No. 1 Alabama (vs. Mercer), No. 2 Clemson (vs. The Citadel), No. 3 Miami (vs. Virginia) and No. 4 Oklahoma (at Kansas) are overwhelmingly favored to win their respective games, so it might be status quo for the top four. But the Badgers can strengthen their résumé and maybe even play their way off the bubble.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, here are five pressing questions in the playoff race:
1. What does the Big Ten have to do to make the playoff?
No Big Ten team has been ranked in the committee’s top four all season, so its best hope is an undefeated Power 5 conference champion in Wisconsin. The Badgers appear likely to face No. 9 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, where FPI projects they would have only a 32 percent chance of beating the Buckeyes. In that scenario, which winner would make a stronger case for inclusion? The Badgers feel like a better bet.
Should the Badgers lose to Michigan on Saturday and enter the Big Ten title game with one loss, it’s a much more debatable scenario for the committee. In that instance, could Washington from last season serve as a comparison? The Huskies finished in the top four as a one-loss Pac-12 champion in spite of a dreadful nonconference schedule.
2. Will we see two teams from the same conference in the playoff?
This is the deepest into a season we’ve been where it feels like a realistic possibility. The ACC has No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Miami set to face each other in the ACC championship game, and No. 7 Georgia awaits the winner of of No. 6 Auburn or No. 1 Alabama in the SEC championship game.
To allow for the possibility of two SEC teams, one-loss Georgia would have to beat Alabama to win the SEC. FPI gives Georgia a 26 percent chance to enter bowl season with one loss, the lowest chance among the six Power 5 teams that have one or fewer losses. A similar situation could play out in the ACC, where Clemson could deliver Miami its only loss in a close game. FPI currently gives Clemson a 68 percent chance to win the ACC, and the Tigers have the second-hardest strength of schedule.
3. What’s the best scenario for a two-loss team in the top four?
No. 6 Auburn. The Tigers have already knocked off No. 1 Georgia. In two weeks they’ll have a chance to knock off No. 1 Alabama. If Auburn can manage to beat the committee’s top team twice, and go on to beat Georgia again to win the SEC, how could it possibly leave the Tigers out?
No two-loss team in the country has a better opportunity. Auburn’s losses both came on the road at Clemson and LSU. FPI only gives Auburn a 21 percent chance to win the SEC, though. When asked on Tuesday about a two-loss team potentially cracking the top four, selection committee chair Kirby Hocutt said, “if that is what presents itself here in three weeks, then the committee will handle it at that time.”
Don’t sleep on Ohio State, either. At No. 9, it’s not a huge leap for the Buckeyes to overtake No. 8 Notre Dame and Auburn in the next two weeks, should the Tigers lose to Alabama. Would another convincing win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game be the boost they need to get into the top four again?
4. What’s the biggest lesson we’ve learned from the committee so far?
A collection of good wins means more than one bad loss, hence Clemson at No. 2.
“With Clemson we continue to look at their total résumé, and their six wins against teams with a winning record is more than any other team in the top 25 this week,” Hocutt said Tuesday. “They have two top-25 wins. I think they’ve been impressive to the selection committee not only at home but on the road with two road wins at Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.”
Clemson has the No. 2 strength of schedule, and its seven wins over FPI top-40 teams is the most of any team. The Tigers still have games remaining against South Carolina (FPI No. 32) and Miami (No. 12).
5. What if we have five two-loss Power 5 conference champions?
Consider this before you dismiss it: No. 12 TCU or No. 13 Oklahoma State wins the Big 12. No. 9 Ohio State wins the Big Ten. The Pac-12 is already guaranteed a two-loss champ. No. 6 Auburn wins the SEC, or No. 7 Georgia loses to Georgia Tech and still wins the SEC. No. 2 Clemson loses to South Carolina and still wins the ACC.
There are only three Saturdays left, but there are still so many possibilities remaining. If every Power 5 conference champion had two losses, the selection committee would undoubtedly have to lean on its tiebreakers, which would include common opponents. TCU and Ohio State both would have played Oklahoma, for example.
The committee would also consider head-to-head results, such as Clemson beating Auburn, should both of those teams be in contention for one spot. And, of course, strength of schedule is always a predominant factor, which would be where some of those weak nonconference schedules could be the difference.