There’s still a week until the College Football Playoff field gets selected, but go ahead and fill in two spots. No matter what happens next week, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State will almost surely finish the season in the top four after both cleared hurdles in Week 13.
The undefeated Crimson Tide punched their tickets by shutting down No. 13 Auburn for a 30–12 victory. Alabama allowed just 4.0 yards per play and held the Tigers to two of 12 on third downs. Once the Tide got over some early hiccups from quarterback Jalen Hurts (who rebounded to finish the game 27 of 36 for 286 yards with three total touchdowns) and special teams miscues, they thoroughly dominated the game.
Yes, Alabama still has to play in the SEC Championship Game next week against No. 15 Florida, which fell to rival Florida State 31–13 on Saturday night. But even setting aside the improbability of the Gators winning that game, the Tide’s third straight trip to the playoff is secure. If they drop the SEC title game to finish 12–1, they’d still likely finish in the top four. And given Florida’s offensive struggles (the Gators didn’t convert a single third down against Florida State and didn’t score an offensive touchdown), there’s little reason to expect anything other than a comfortable Alabama win in Atlanta.
As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes’ playoff spot is secure because their regular season is over. Penn State’s win over Michigan State on Saturday clinched the Big Ten East for the Nittany Lions, sending them to Indianapolis to face Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. That means Ohio State can relax at home next week and wait for the unveiling of the final playoff rankings next Sunday.
The Buckeyes can rest easy after their dramatic 30–27 double-overtime victory over No. 3 Michigan on Saturday. Ohio State rallied from a 17–7 second-half deficit, as its defense held firm while the offense struggled and then sparked the comeback with an interception by Jerome Baker that set up a Mike Weber touchdown for the Buckeyes’ first offensive score of the game. Curtis Samuel’s 15-yard touchdown run in the second overtime sealed the win after J.T. Barrett narrowly moved the chains on fourth-and-one a play earlier.
Even though Ohio State won’t even play for its conference title, its spot in the playoff is safe. At 11–1 with quality wins over Oklahoma and Wisconsin on the road and Michigan at home, the Buckeyes’ playoff résumé compares favorably with plenty of other teams still in the hunt for conference championships. They entered the week ranked No. 2 and just beat the No. 3 team; they’re not falling out after that.
So who will get the other two spots? It depends on whether any upsets happen in the league title games.
If Clemson and Washington win their respective conference title games (Clemson will play Virginia Tech for the ACC title and Washington will play Colorado for the Pac-12 title), they’ll likely join Alabama and Ohio State in the national semifinals. That’s the cleanest scenario for the playoff selection committee with four teams finishing with one loss or fewer while every other power conference team has at least two losses.
If either the Tigers or Huskies lose, that likely opens up a spot for the Big Ten champion to join Ohio State in making the conference the first to send two teams to the playoff. No. 6 Wisconsin shrugged off a 17–7 halftime deficit to Minnesota on Saturday to beat the Gophers 31–17. No. 7 Penn State relied on a big second half to pummel Michigan State 45–12. Whichever one wins the Big Ten title game next week will add another quality win to its resume and will be in prime position to take the spot Clemson or Washington surrenders.
If both Clemson and Washington lose, things get really messy. Obviously, the Big Ten champ would get one of the spots, but the selection committee would face a difficult decision over the final team. Would the winner of the Bedlam Game between No. 8 Oklahoma and No. 10 Oklahoma State (a de facto Big 12 championship game) get the playoff berth? Or would No. 9 Colorado, which in this hypothetical closed its season by downing No. 22 Utah and No. 5 Washington to win the Pac-12?
Tuesday’s playoff rankings will likely offer a hint, but this may be a situation in which we’ll just have to wait and see. Of course, Clemson and Washington could just keep things simple by winning their conference championship games.