The next three weekends will decide the College Football Playoff, and each contender for the four-team tournament wants to unwrap one gift well before Christmas.
Now, there’s one guideline to this list of presents: No hoping for injuries to opposing players. Other than that, the CFP-contending programs can wish for anything else to help them reach the championship stage.
Michigan: Recognition of Brand-Name Power
While it might merely be a moral victory, Jim Harbaugh’s team is the nation’s best two-loss squad. Michigan’s saving grace is those two losses were to opponents (Utah and Michigan State) still ranked in the top 20.
Plus, the Wolverines are one of only teams with an opportunity to defeat a pair of top-5 teams. After a road contest against Penn State, Ohio State and a potentially undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game are left. At that point, Michigan will hope for brand-name power to boost its playoff case.
Houston: Complete and Utter Chaos
A non-Power 5 Conference team must finish the season undefeated to have any reasonable hope for a College Football Playoff berth. Houston is the last such remaining squad, boasting a 10-0 record with Connecticut, No. 21 Navy and a perhaps-ranked Temple team in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
But the 13-0 record is merely Step 1. Houston needs respect from the committee, something not yet given despite victories over Louisville, Vanderbilt and then-No. 21 Memphis. Consequently, Houston’s best way to reach the CFP is basically for everyone else above them in the rankings to lose. It’s not fair, but it’s that simple.
TCU: Almost as Much Complete and Utter Chaos
Unlike Houston, TCU will receive some benefit of the doubt because of its conference affiliation. But the committee seems to require a little more evidence from a Big 12 school than it takes for an SEC or Big Ten program.
The Horned Frogs need a rather specific course of action to occur: Clemson and Alabama win out. Ohio State takes care of Michigan State and Michigan. Oklahoma State loses to Baylor and Oklahoma. TCU beats Oklahoma and Baylor. Notre Dame falls to Stanford. Iowa, Florida, North Carolina and Houston all lose in conference title games.
Yeah. That’s all.
Baylor: Three Dominant Wins
It truly is unfortunate we’ll never know what the 2015 team would’ve accomplished with Seth Russell at quarterback. Jarrett Stidham is a fantastic replacement, but he’s a true freshman. Expecting him to survive the three-game Big 12 gauntlet was a foolish endeavor.
But 2-1—and a win over Texas—might be enough to keep Baylor in the conversation. For the Bears to have any realistic hope at jumping a fellow one-loss team, though, they must flat-out dominate Oklahoma State and TCU. Otherwise, Baylor will be a talented 11-1 squad headed for a New Year’s Six bowl.
North Carolina: Upset Clemson
Thanks to a dynamic offense and underrated defense, North Carolina is a victory over Virginia Tech away from clinching a spot in the ACC Championship Game. The Tar Heels desperately need a chance to atone for a now-embarrassing season-opening loss to South Carolina.
North Carolina will have that opportunity if it represents the Coastal Division in the title matchup, since Clemson will represent the Atlantic side and is expected to still be ranked No. 1 overall. With 12 straight victories and a statement win over Clemson, the Tar Heels have a chance.
Michigan State: Help from Ohio State
Following a thrilling last-second victory over rival Michigan, Michigan State had a simple road to the College Football Playoff: Win when favored, then beat Ohio State. Whether or not the controversial call to Nebraska was the right one doesn’t matter. It happened, so MSU didn’t complete the first part.
The Spartans now need help from Ohio State, but they need to beat the Buckeyes first. If Michigan State beats OSU, which turns around to beat Michigan, MSU will have a place in the Big Ten title. A victory in Indianapolis should then send the Spartans to the playoff.
Florida: Find an Offense Before Alabama
From the “Easier Said Than Done” file, Florida needs to find an offense before it enters the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. Will Grier is suspended for the year, and Treon Harris isn’t exactly an All-American in waiting.
The Crimson Tide have surrendered just 15.3 points per game, which is the nation’s seventh-best mark. More impressively, they held Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries. Harris can’t carry the offense, and Alabama is the No. 2 rush defense in the FBS. Good luck, Gators.
Oklahoma: Strong Defensive Finish
Although Oklahoma allowed 34 points to Baylor, the defense played a fantastic game. Such is life in the Big 12, where points are rarely at a premium. However, the Sooners have the best defense in the conference, and that strength complements a high-powered offense.
If OU can finish strong on defense against TCU and Oklahoma State, the country’s Nos. 5 and 7 scoring offenses, respectively, Baker Mayfield and Co. should outscore the Horned Frogs and Cowboys. Winning 45-35 isn’t pretty, but that’s the Big 12.
Notre Dame: Oklahoma Steals the Big 12
Although the Fighting Irish sit at 9-1, they don’t have a particularly impressive résumé. But if Notre Dame beats Stanford in the regular-season finale and finishes 11-1, the only thing blocking a path to the College Football Playoff is a Big 12 team.
Should Oklahoma emerge as the conference champion, though, Notre Dame should have an edge because of its common-opponent win over Texas. But if Oklahoma State wins out, Notre Dame will likely be the No. 5 team behind the Pokes as well as—if all goes as anticipated—Clemson, Alabama and the Big Ten winner.
Iowa: Pull a Shocker in the Big Ten Championship
Kirk Ferentz isn’t the party-crasher we expected, but the 60-year-old dog learned a new trick: National relevance. Iowa is 10-0 heading into the stretch against Purdue and Nebraska, two teams that should be dispatched en route to a Big Ten Championship Game appearance.
Now, the committee has already given the Hawkeyes some respect, ranking them fifth before Week 11. A victory in the conference title over any of Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan would firmly plant an undefeated Iowa team in the playoff.
Oklahoma State: Two More Victories
Oklahoma State toppled TCU and officially burst into the College Football Playoff discussion. The Pokes only need two more victories to end the conversation and appear in the championship tournament.
There shouldn’t be a question about whether or not a 12-0 Oklahoma State deserves a place, considering the team would have beaten a trio of top-15 opponents over a four-week period. A prime-time battle against Baylor and a showdown vs. Oklahoma are the Cowboys’ final games. Win and they’re in.
Alabama: Just Keep Winning
Benefit of the doubt, thy name is brand. Despite a bad loss to Ole Miss, Alabama appeared at No. 4 in the initial CFP poll over a collection of undefeated teams. “Seriously, it’s the only program in the country that doesn’t get penalized for losing a game,” USA Today’s Dan Wolken said. “It’s disgraceful.”
Now sitting at No. 2, Alabama isn’t leaving the College Football Playoff unless it loses. That won’t happen against Charleston Southern, Auburn doesn’t stand much of a chance and an SEC title collapse is highly unlikely. The Crimson Tide are bound for a top-four finish.
Ohio State: Stability at Quarterback
Although the quarterback situation is technically settled, Ohio State can’t avoid controversy at the position. J.T. Barrett won the No. 1 role, but he nearly cost himself the spot after being arrested for operating a motor vehicle while impaired and getting suspended.
Cardale Jones failed to capitalize on his one-game opportunity, so Urban Meyer went back to the dual-threat sophomore. The Buckeyes have never strayed from their place as a favorite to reach the College Football Playoff, but a little peace and quiet from Columbus quarterbacks would be a relief.
Clemson: Stop Mentioning Clemsoning
“I think it’s ridiculous that you’re even asking me that question,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in October. “That you even say the word. I mean I’m serious. I’m sick of it. I don’t even know why we bring up the daggum word. How about some of these other teams that lose to unranked opponents all the time. … We haven’t lost to an unranked opponent since 2011, but I have to come to a press conference in 2015 and get asked that? And that’s all media bullcrap.”
Oh, and Clemson would like an ACC championship as well as a shot at the national title. But that’s whatever. Just stop talking about Clemsoning.