Inside The College Football Playoff Rankings: Oct. 14

    Who's in the College Football Playoff puzzle and discussion? It's a big, giant, huge, enormous week for the playoff, led by Michigan State's chance to show what it can be in its showdown against Michigan.

    October 14, 2015

    Who’s in the College Football Playoff puzzle and discussion? It’s a big, giant, huge, enormous week for the playoff, led by Michigan State’s chance to show what it can be in its showdown against Michigan. 

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    Can USC save this?

    The Steve Sarkisian drama has certainly taken the focus off the 3-2 start and the loss to Washington that happened just a few days ago, but to be extremely crude and to spin a real-world human problem into a football perspective, six weeks from now this could all be spun a whole different way.

    USC is still one of the most talented teams in college football, and certainly is among the best in the Pac-12, so let’s say the team rallies behind the controversy and gets a win for interim head man Clay Helton – and itself – at Notre Dame this Saturday. Then, let’s say the Trojans beat the hottest of hot Utah teams. Then, let’s say they get by Cal on the road, Arizona at home, and Colorado and Oregon on the road – a stretch of three road games in four weeks – to be 9-2 going into the UCLA showdown. Assuming Utah loses somewhere else along the way, if USC wins out, it’s going to the Pac-12 title game with a possible rematch against Stanford. Like Oregon did last year beating an Arizona team that won the regular season matchup, if USC could get revenge in the championship for the 41-31 loss in mid-September, 11-2 would look awfully good.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, those are a ton of assumptions, but if USC wins out, all of a sudden it’ll be easy to blame the two losses on Sarkisian and his lack of focus – to put it kindly. The narrative will be easy – USC overcame the adversity, and by the end of the season will be the hot team at the right time, worthy of a playoff spot.

    Again, understanding there are several major leaps of faith in all of this logic, despite the rocky start, all probably is not lost for USC.

    Michigan and Michigan State, here we go.

    Michigan State, it’s time to show you’re for real.

    The Spartans have gone through the motions over the first six games, and now, that win over Oregon by the skin of their teeth looks mediocre after Utah and Washington State dominated the Ducks in Eugene. But they’ve been playing it close to the vest – at least that’s the way it appears – and now it’s time to show that this really is a top five team. Beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, and it’s smooth sailing against Indiana, Nebraska and Maryland before the Ohio State game. The Wolverines are getting that much respect right now.

    How many more times does Michigan have to do something big before the playoff chase is for real? For now, once.

    The 31-0 stomping of a Northwestern team that gave Duke and Stanford their only losses took things to another level in the terrific first half of Jim Harbaugh’s first season, but it’s Game On. If it was so easy, everyone would be coming up with three straight shutouts and allowing just 14 points in five games, but Michigan is actually stepping up and looking the part. And here’s the not-so-crazy part – if the Wolverines beat the Spartans, they might be one win away from the playoff.

    They have to go on the road to face Minnesota, Indiana and Rutgers, but if they’re playing like they have been, and if they’re good enough to beat Michigan State, they’re going to be double-digit favorites against everyone until Ohio State comes to Ann Arbor. But if Michigan really does do it and really does get to 11-1, it’s still might have to get through …

    Iowa – is it really a threat?

    I did a piece in the offseason piece on how Iowa had a path to the playoff, and I was roundly mocked and ridiculed for even bringing it up. The big key to the puzzle was the schedule with no Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State to deal with from the East, and a relatively light and breezy non-conference schedule.

    Any team worthy of even dreaming of the playoff had to beat Pitt – 27-24, done – and Iowa State – 31-17 – and it had to at least split on the road with Wisconsin and Nebraska. Part One of that is in the books on the way to a 6-0 start. This isn’t one of the four best teams in the country, but it doesn’t matter.

    Iowa is playing great defense, Jordan Canzeri and the running game are rolling, and with home games against Maryland, Minnesota and Purdue up soon, along with a road game at Indiana, there shouldn’t be any problems getting to the road trip to Nebraska unbeaten if – and it’s a huge if – it can come up with a win at Northwestern this weekend. Even with a loss, though, 11-1 and the Big Ten West are still on the table. Do that, win the Big Ten championship, go to the playoff. Done and done.

    Florida vs. LSU might not actually matter.

    SEC teams that go 10-2 always have a nice reward at the end of the rainbow, but it takes an 11-1 season – at least – to be a true player. There’s a chance Florida vs. LSU becomes a preview of the SEC championship, but that probably doesn’t happen if the Tigers lose at home.

    Even with the loss of starting quarterback Will Grier, Florida is still every bit as strong as Georgia – who’s up in two weeks after the trip to LSU. There’s no Alabama to face, no Texas A&M, and Ole Miss is out of the way, so if the Gators can beat LSU, with relative layups ahead against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the formerly-known-as-the-Cocktail-Party probably doesn’t matter. The Bulldogs already have two SEC losses, so it’s not insane to suggest the Gators might for all intents and purposes clinch the East with a win this Saturday.

    In late November there’s still Florida Atlantic to face, and there’s the Florida State rivalry, but both of those games are in Gainesville. In Florida’s case, 10-2 with losses to LSU and Florida State – but with an SEC championship win over Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss – probably means a playoff invite.

    It’s a different animal for LSU with road games at Alabama and Ole Miss still to deal with, along with home games against Arkansas and Texas A&M. This is a good LSU team, but it struggled against Syracuse, needed a break to beat Mississippi State, and isn’t strong enough to win all four of those killer November SEC dates. Lose to Florida, effectively kiss the playoff hope good-bye.

    Texas A&M, here’s your shot.

    Alabama knows what it needs to do to get to the playoff – win out and get another Ole Miss SEC loss – so a loss to at Texas A&M this Saturday all but ends any shot at a repeat trip into the post-season. For Texas A&M, though, this is the statement game.

    The Aggies got by Arkansas and Mississippi State, and they have a nice win over Arizona State on the resume, but with road games at Ole Miss and LSU still to deal with, a loss to Alabama makes it extremely tough to win the West, much less get into the playoff. However, hand Nick Saban his second loss of the season, and then the focus shifts to Oxford next weekend for yet another make-or-break moment. South Carolina and Auburn come to College Station, and there’s a trip to Vanderbilt, so the SEC race could come down to the next two weeks and what A&M can do.

    Based On What Happened So Far, RIGHT NOW, The CFP Four Would Be …

    1. Utah. No brainer. The win over Michigan is truly great now, the win over Cal is excellent, and the blowout over Oregon is still a blowout over Oregon.

    2. Florida. It’s still the team that beat the team that beat Alabama. Crushing Ole Miss still resonates, beating Tennessee is still strong, and the shockingly easy win over Missouri helps.

    3. TCU. There might have been a struggle to get by Texas Tech, but the Horned Frogs did it. The win at Kansas State is terrific, and even the win over Minnesota helps push them ahead of Baylor in the talk.

    4. Ohio State. The playoff committee would still give respect to the Buckeyes, even though it hasn’t been earned over the first half of the season.

    At The End Of The Fun, The CFP Will Be …

    1. Ohio State/Michigan State winner. Take the State out of that if Michigan pulls off the win this weekend.

    2. Alabama. It’s not going to be easy, but this is the best team in the country as long as the quarterback play is solid.

    3. Stanford. The Pac-12 isn’t nearly as good as it once appeared. UCLA, Washington, Oregon and Cal are at home. The two remaining road games? Washington State and Colorado.

    4. TCU. The Horned Frogs will lost along the way, but they’ll beat Baylor at home in the regular season finale to be the One True Champion.

    MORE: College Football Bowl Projections After Week 6

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