These six teams are at the heart of the race for the College Football Playoff: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Georgia. It will take an upset of some significance to prevent any of the four CFP bids from going to this group of six teams.
The most significant game is Michigan-Ohio State on November 24 in Columbus. The loser is out and the winner in all likelihood will win the Big Ten Championship Game and make the Playoff.
The fly in the ointment is the other big game—the Alabama-Georgia battle in the SEC Championship Game on December 1. A 12-0 Crimson Tide team that has dominated the field this year probably has a loss to give. A Bulldog squad that would likely be 12-1 if they win this game, would be very difficult to keep out if they beat Alabama. If everything else goes according to form, an SEC title for Georgia probably leaves the Big Ten champ by the wayside.
Notre Dame is the odd sock in this group of teams. It’s hard for me to see this Irish team as an unbeaten one, but here they are in mid-November at 10-0. There’s no way I’d pick this Irish team to beat Michigan right now—but that’s exactly what Notre Dame did to open the season.
Having said all that, if you aren’t good enough to run the table, a loss usually finds you. That’s the lesson we relearn every November in college football and it bears reflecting on as the Irish get set to play surprising Syracuse on Saturday in Yankee Stadium and then travel to underachieving, but talented USC to close the year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
An Irish loss creates the most potential for controversy within this group of six teams, even more so than a debate over a one-loss Alabama vs. the Big Ten champ would. Is an 11-1 Notre Dame team really one of the best four in the country? The “eye test” that so many analysts, especially those on the committee, take so seriously would likely say no.
But the “who have you beaten on the football field regardless of how it looked” test that some of us subscribe to, would say it is utterly impossible to leap a one-loss Michigan over one-loss Notre Dame when the Irish won head-to-head. We would further say it’s at least iffy to vault a one-loss Ohio State team that was destroyed at Purdue and has at least as many shaky close calls as Notre Dame.
We won’t know how the Playoff Committee will really see it until such a loss happens (and I’ll go on record as saying I think it will happen). So maybe Notre Dame has a loss to give. Or maybe not. It’s the biggest question out there right now. The same would go for Clemson, who has to play South Carolina and then Pitt in the ACC Championship Game. But the Tigers, who have the best defense in the country, are far less likely to make this a discussion point.