There are few things that can unite America. Things such as the Olympics, JFK, Morgan Freeman, and Ted Lasso can get the country all on the same page. Another item to add to that list is when the Alabama Crimson Tide loses a football game. There is something about seeing a juggernaut get toppled that sports fans everywhere (except Tuscaloosa) just love to see. I don’t really have an opinion either way on Texas A&M but I found myself saying “Come on Aggies” multiple times during their 41-38 upset on Saturday.
Alabama’s loss was not just a fun way to end an entertaining Saturday night, it has a ripple effect of implication across the landscape of college football. For a few weeks, we have been talking ourselves into the inevitability that there would be two SEC teams in the College Football Playoff. That is certainly still a possibility (maybe one of those teams will be Kentucky) but if the SEC Championship game pits Georgia and Alabama against each other, which all signs indicate it will, a Georgia victory would essentially boot the Crimson Tide from the playoff consideration.
That scenario would open the door for a handful of teams not usually in the CFP conversation to vault into that upper echelon of teams this season. There have been 28 spots in the four-team playoff that have been filled over the seven-year lifespan of the new format. Alabama and Clemson, which has already been ousted from consideration due to their two losses and unranked status, have accounted for 12 of those spots, each making it in six out of the seven years. Not having both of those teams would definitely lead to new faces playing in the biggest games of the college football season.
The biggest beneficiary as a conference would have to be the Big 10. That conference has half of the top-10 teams as determined by the AP poll and now the conversation has shifted to whether or not they can become the second conference to get two teams into the playoff in the same year. Ohio State has the most appearances out of conference members with four while Michigan State has also appeared in one semifinal game. The team with the best chance to make the playoff this year is Iowa, which is ranked number two in the country after taking down fellow top-five team Penn State.
If Iowa runs the table, the rest of the way they are likely in the CFP even if they lose the Big 10 Championship game. If the winner of that game is a zero or one conference loss Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, or even Penn State, that team would also probably get into the playoff. Those two along with Georgia would occupy three of the four spots, leaving just one remaining place for the rest of the conferences to battle over. But if the Big 10 beats itself up during the season and only secures a playoff spot for its champion, things could get really interesting in the CFP conversation.
Now it is time to talk about the elephant in the room: Cincinnati. UCF got the group-of-five-team-in-the-playoff buzz going when they ran off back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2017 and 2018. The Knights were only able to climb as high as number seven and Cincinnati has already achieved a number three ranking. This makes them the most legitimate group of five championship contender in the CFP era. They seem to be in control of their own destiny. If the Bearcats can finish undefeated and win the AAC Championship, they would have a solid chance to make history and earn a playoff berth. A little turmoil in some of the other conferences would all but guarantee a 13-0 Cincinnati a spot in the playoff.
Some of that turmoil has already when Oregon lost its number three rankings after dropping an overtime game to the Stanford Cardinal last week. Oregon then got horrible news that running back CJ Verdell would be out for the rest of the season. The Ducks were in a similar place as Cincinnati before suffering that loss. Had they finished the season undefeated in Pac-12 play, along with their nonconference win over Ohio State in September, they would have been a shoo-in to return to the CFP for the first time since its inaugural season. Now Oregon’s chances to go 12-1, and make the playoff, are in question due to a combination of injuries, lackluster play, and other conference teams like Arizona State looking like solid competitors.
The only other team that might be able to keep Cincinnati out of the playoff if Georgia and two Big 10 teams fill up three of the spots are the Oklahoma Sooners. They are ranked right behind Cincinnati at number four and have also won every game on their schedule so far. In many of those games, they looked like they were going to lose, especially in the Red River Rivalry comeback against Texas, but they have survived every contest through six weeks. It now looks like the Sooners could be rolling with freshman quarterback Caleb Williams as the starter after he supplanted Spencer Rattler and led a comeback over the weekend against Texas. If Oklahoma looks like the team we all expected them to be this season and puts the too-close-for-comfort games in the rearview mirror, they will not only be a CFP contender but a legitimate National Championship contender.
Lastly, I want to give some credit to one member of the ACC. In a season where Clemson, North Carolina, and Miami have all disappointed relative to their preseason expectations, Wake Forest has started out 6-0 and has climbed their way up to number 16 in the AP poll. No one is really taking them seriously as a playoff candidate, which is appropriate, but if enough chaos happens in the other conferences, an undefeated Wake Forest could be a really intriguing team at the end of the season.
All of this theorizing and projecting might be for naught. It is very much within the realm of possibility that Alabama wins out the rest of the regular season, beats Georgia in the conference championship game, and then goes on to play in the CFP. Alabama dropped all the way down to number five in the poll after their loss, meaning that one loss by a top-four team puts the Crimson Tide right back into the driver seat for playoff contention. Even with that reality still hanging over our heads, it is too much fun to not dream about a College Football Playoff full of underdog teams and new faces. A Georgia-Iowa-Cincinnati-Oregon finale would have two prior playoff appearances. A Michigan-Kentucky-Cincinnati-Iowa group would have zero. This year’s college football season has already been a wild ride, so let’s hope this rollercoaster of a season continues and we see more upsets and Cinderella runs leading to a CFP full of unforeseen faces.