College Football Playoff contender tiers led by Georgia, Ohio State – USA TODAY

  • October 27, 2022

The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet early next week to unveil the debut Top 25 rankings of the 2022 season.
Barring any extraordinary upsets before the crew convenes in Grapevine, Texas, the inaugural rankings will be topped by Georgia and Ohio State, followed by some combination of Clemson, Michigan and Tennessee, should the Volunteers win Saturday against Kentucky.
This crowded top group speaks to the wider variety of teams in the national championship mix compared to, say, last season. At this point a year ago, the Bulldogs and Alabama had carved out a gap from the rest of the pack and established themselves as the clear teams to beat in the playoff chase.
Heading into the final Saturday of October, it’s even possible to map out a road to the national semifinals for more than a dozen unbeaten or one-loss teams from the Power Five. This includes multiple contenders from each of the major conferences – even the Pac-12, which hasn’t sent a team to the playoff since 2016.
Some of these contenders are more serious than others. The broader list of teams can be distributed across four tiers, from the elite group that has risen to the top of the Bowl Subdivision to those who could conceivably slither through the backdoor and reach the top four with enough chaos in November.
These are the clear-cut favorites to run the table or be deep in the mix for the top four with one loss.
Clemson hasn’t necessarily looked the part of a team capable of defeating two fellow Power Five champions to claim the program’s third championship under Dabo Swinney. But the Tigers might have the best odds of any team at remaining unbeaten through the regular season after Saturday’s close win against Syracuse. Of the teams in this tier, however, Clemson would have the hardest time getting into the semifinals with one loss.
The defending national champions are constructing three roads to the playoff. Georgia is likely the top overall seed at 13-0 and champions of the SEC. The Bulldogs would also be very difficult to omit at 12-1, with the loss coming to Alabama in the conference championship game. Georgia would even be a prime contender for the top four at 11-1, should that one loss come to Tennessee and the Volunteers go on to win the SEC.
Michigan and Ohio State are in the same boat. Both will be heavy favorites in every game the rest of the way, minus their head-to-head matchup to end November. Both are locks for the top two if unbeaten. And like Georgia, the loser of that rivalry game would be lurking around the top four at 11-1 – especially if that team is Ohio State.
Tennessee’s postseason future will be determined by games in the next two weeks against the Wildcats and the Bulldogs. Here’s the big question: How realistic are the Volunteers’ odds with one loss to Georgia and a second-place finish in the SEC East? 
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These three are just outside the top tier and ready to pounce if given a sliver of opportunity. 
There’s zero doubt that Alabama is in at 12-1 with an SEC crown. There’s also no room for error following this month’s loss to the Volunteers, creating a pretty black-and-white debate over the Crimson Tide’s postseason landing spot. Either they land in the semifinals by running the table, beating Georgia or Tennessee in early December, or the Tide finish with two or more losses and in one of the New Year’s Six bowls.
There’s one scenario that would force the selection committee into a historically difficult conversation over how to rank Oregon. Don’t forget – and really, how could you – that the Ducks lost by 46 points to Georgia in the season opener. While they’ve been rolling since, that head-to-head result could loom large, especially if Oregon is in contention for the fourth spot with an 11-1 Georgia team that didn’t play for the SEC title. Would a Power Five championship and that extra win outweigh getting whipped in September? 
TCU has risen to the top of the Big 12 standings with come-from-behind wins against Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Better yet, the Horned Frogs have seemingly gotten through the hardest part of the conference schedule, with games ahead against West Virginia, Texas Tech, Texas, Baylor and Iowa State. Instead of a statement on the Horned Frogs’ chances of going unbeaten, that they’re in this second tier is a reflection of an important truth: Given how there might be as many as five one-loss or undefeated teams from the SEC and Big Ten, TCU would be the Power Five champion most likely to finish outside the top four even if still unbeaten at the end of the regular season.
This group would need help but not necessarily total chaos to inch toward the top four and then clinch a playoff berth during conference championship weekend.
Oklahoma State has fallen out of the driver’s seat in the Big 12 since losing to TCU. The Cowboys are still a genuine threat to finish in the top four and would benefit tremendously from beating the Horned Frogs in a rematch to win the conference. In fact, the Cowboys would want TCU to win out in November to create the most high-profile matchup possible to decide the Big 12.
The winner of the rivalry game between USC and UCLA will be in position to play Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Oregon losing to Utah next month would deal a blow, however, since the Trojans or Bruins could use the reputational boost provided by a win against one-loss Oregon. (Though USC would be helped by avenging this month’s 43-42 loss to the Utes.) 
When it comes to the playoff chase, these four are like shipwreck survivors floating in the middle of the ocean: technically alive but in need of a miracle. It wouldn’t be enough just to win out; each team would need anarchy across the top three tiers.
One of the biggest success stories in the Power Five, Illinois has maximized a friendly schedule to start 6-1 in coach Bret Bielema’s second year. Winning out would require beating Michigan on Nov. 19 and then the winner of the Big Ten East — likely Ohio State, since losing to Illinois wouldn’t paint a rosy picture of the Wolverines’ chances against the Buckeyes a week later. Possible? Yes. Even borderline probable? Nope. But the Illini have given themselves a chance.
North Carolina might be an absolute sieve defensively and even lucky to be 6-1, given those close wins against Appalachian State and Duke. But the Tar Heels can begin to climb up the Top 25 with wins in November against Wake Forest and North Carolina State and then be in position to make a huge leap in the playoff rankings with a win against Clemson in the ACC championship game. This is the trail UNC followed in 2015, when the Tar Heels lost the opener and were unranked well into November but climbed to No. 8 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll before losing a close one to the Tigers in the same scenario. 
Penn State could rocket up the Top 25 with a win Saturday against Ohio State. Even then, the Nittany Lions would have a very convoluted pathway to the Big Ten championship requiring, among other things, that the Buckeyes beat Michigan and that Purdue and Minnesota finish at or near the top of the Big Ten West. (This assumes a three-way of 11-1 teams atop the East.) After getting walloped by the Wolverines in a 24-point loss, the Nittany Lions would need to win the Big Ten to finish in the top four.
Wake Forest is a second interesting case from the ACC. The Demon Deacons’ one loss was in overtime to Clemson, ending any real shot of repeating as d champions. But there are three upcoming games against competition currently in the Top 25 in N.C. State, UNC and Syracuse, which could leave Wake as a borderline playoff contender heading into the end of next month. This is doubly true should the Demon Deacons come in around No. 12 in the first rankings. 

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