College Football Playoff scenarios from the likely and possible to total chaos

Projecting the College Football Playoff field is only slightly easier today than it was in August. At least the options have been trimmed, from the entire breadth of the Football Bowl Subdivision — that’s the idea, in theory — to a select handful of college football’s best.

It’s still too early to say that any single team has a national semifinal in its grasp, and yes, that includes Alabama. November will be telling: Starting with the Crimson Tide’s matchup with LSU on Saturday, the season’s final month will eventually decide which four teams will reach the national semifinals.

But what will happen in November is anyone’s guess. The scenarios that may unfold range from the likely through the possible through the unpredictable.

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Recent history tells us to prepare for the unexpected. With the initial College Football Playoff rankings set for release on Tuesday night, here’s how the race may play out:


Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame win out, locking in the top three and leaving the fourth and final spot open to a Power Five conference champion.

Scenario No. 1: Alabama. Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan

Scenario No. 2: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State

Scenario No. 3: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma

Scenario No. 4: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Washington State

The first two scenarios hinge on the regular-season finale between the two Big Ten rivals and the ensuing conference title game, which would pit one of the Wolverines or Buckeyes against the winner of the West Division. As of now, that looks like Northwestern.

Oklahoma would need some help, specifically from a Big Ten team currently holding two or more losses. But one misstep from Ohio State or Michigan in November – an OSU loss to Michigan State or a Michigan loss to Penn State, for example – would create a scenario where the Big Ten puts forth a two-loss champion, and a one-loss OU team would then hold the edge.

Washington State would need to run the table and have the winners of the Big Ten and Big 12 enter the postseason with at least two losses. Not as likely as the first three scenarios, maybe, but still likely enough to be a realistic scenario to unfold in November. Conference championships matter to the selection committee, even one that would come from the weakest of the Power Five leagues.


The first upset to the system would be if Notre Dame loses to one of Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse or Southern California, which would widen the field to include an additional Power Five conference champion. Even then, Notre Dame wouldn’t be officially eliminated — all the Irish would need is a loss by Washington State or one of Ohio State and Michigan on the way to a conference title.

Scenario No. 1: Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Oklahoma

Scenario No. 2: Alabama. Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma

Scenario No. 3: Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington State

Scenario No. 4: Alabama. Clemson, Oklahoma and Washington State

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