With only two weeks left in the regular season and three weeks until the College Football Playoff selection committee unveils the national semifinal matchups, it is undoubtedly crunch time for the remaining playoff hopefuls. Losses by Clemson, Michigan and Washington this weekend upended the race for playoff berths even though Clemson fell only two spots to No. 4 in this week’s playoff rankings and No. 3 Michigan didn’t fall at all.
Still the margin for error for every team not named Alabama (which remains the clear No. 1 squad) is now paper thin, with any loss in the remaining weeks of the season likely to eliminate a team from the playoff hunt. Even winning out probably won’t be enough for some squads.
So among the teams in the thick of the race—No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Clemson, No. 5 Louisville, No. 6 Washington, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 8 Penn State—which should be most nervous about its playoff chances? College football experts from SI.com and FOXSports.com made their picks:
Andy Staples, SI: Louisville
It's probably Louisville because the committee clearly doesn't hold the Cardinals in the same esteem that it holds the other one-loss team that could wind up shut out of its conference title game. Unless Clemson loses to Wake Forest on Saturday, Louisville can't make the ACC title game. Its best win is against Florida State, and a non-conference game at Houston on Thursday doesn't look nearly as impressive as it once did. (That's the fault of the Cougars, not the Cardinals.)
Meanwhile, Ohio State is in a similar boat but ranked three spots higher. The Buckeyes have wins against Oklahoma and Wisconsin buoying them, and they could add a top-three win by beating Michigan. They may still get left out of the Big Ten title game, but the committee will like that résumé better than Louisville's.
The Cardinals need Michigan to win the Big Ten and Washington to lose again. Those things might open a path for them. Or they could just root hard for the Demon Deacons.
Bruce Feldman, FOX Sports: Louisville
The Cardinals play a pretty good Houston team on the road this week, but if they win, the Cougars won't be anywhere near the top 25 meaning Louisville will still probably have only one top 25 team on its resume—Florida State. If Washington, Colorado or even Utah win out, they could leapfrog the Cardinals. As could Wisconsin and Penn State and maybe even the Big 12 champ.
Pete Thamel, SI: Michigan
The Wolverines just lost to an unranked opponent, looked bad doing it and now are dealing with an apparent injury to their starting quarterback. They can make a playoff statement in Columbus in two weeks, but after dominating all competition for more than two months, no top-tier program's narrative has changed faster than Michigan’s after this weekend.
Stewart Mandel, FOX Sports: Louisville
The Cardinals only have one top 25 win, and it's likely going to stay that way unless Clemson loses to Wake Forest, allowing Louisville to reach the ACC title game. As it is, Clemson is boxing Louisville out, and the Cardinals not going to have an argument over a two-loss Big Ten champ and possibly even a two-loss Pac-12 or Big 12 champ.
Lindsay Schnell, SI: Michigan
First off, I like how we all just assume no one is beating Alabama. I stand in awe of Nick Saban and The Process. Second, I can't imagine Jim Harbaugh projecting anything but supreme confidence, but I'd be a little nervous if I were Michigan, just because Ohio State looms. I can see a two-loss team getting into the playoff but not if one of those losses is to a really bad team ... like, say, Iowa. Win out and the Wolverines are likely fine, but what are the odds of that?
Brian Hamilton, SI: Louisville
Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals are knocking on the door at No. 5, but they're unlikely to get a shot at a conference title/the coveted 13th data point. Their unimpressive schedule strength gets a boost Thursday at Houston, but that's assuming they win. As much of a wizard as Jackson is, he can't conjure losses from multiple other teams in the top eight. And that's what it seems like it would take to get Louisville in the playoff.
Joan Niesen, SI: Louisville
With fellow ACC Atlantic Division team Clemson ranked fourth with an identical 9–1 record, Louisville has to feel slightly powerless. Sure, Wisconsin and Penn State might be just as scared, but the odds of two Big Ten teams in the playoff is higher than the odds of two ACC squads, and barring a Clemson loss to Wake Forest, the Cardinals won't get a shot at their conference championship game. If Clemson wins that, the Big Ten shakes out as expected and Alabama wins out, Louisville's playoff dream ends. Sure, its one loss (to Clemson in a close game) looks better than the Tigers' defeat, but even so, the Cardinals are trailing in the rankings and their fate seems out of their hands.