College Football Playoff, bowl predictions: Paths for the seven remaining contenders

The final weekend of the 2019 season is upon us with only the conference championship games remaining. The College Football Playoff picture is becoming much clearer, and I only see legitimate paths to the playoff for seven teams. That includes two teams that have basically locked up their spots and one that could end up getting in with two losses. That may sound like an impossibility, but there is a scenario that would allow that to happen. (Keep on reading for that and more.)

What makes the 2019 season unique is that, for the first time in all the years of the CFP, I wrote this column without including Alabama. The Crimson Tide are out after a 48-45 loss to Auburn last week. There is also a good chance Alabama misses the New Year's Six entirely, though that will depend on how the CFP Rankings shake out Sunday following the conference title games. Currently, the Tide are the fifth-ranked SEC team behind LSU, Georgia, Florida and Auburn.

Without further ado, here is a ranking of the remaining CFP contenders in order of how likely they are to find their way into the four-team field along with an explanation of what each team needs to accomplish to get in.

1
Clinched. Even if Wisconsin can avenge its earlier loss to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State will fall no farther than fourth. The Buckeyes' strength of schedule, strength of victories and overall domination of their opponents will keep them in the field.    
2
Clinched. A loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game will not prevent LSU from making the playoff for the identical reasons as Ohio State above.    
3
All-but-clinched. The Tigers just need to beat Virginia in the ACC Championship Game. Clemson will be heavily favored -- just like every other game it has played. There are very few scenarios where Clemson can get in with a loss due to its lack of quality wins and lack of schedule strength. The simplest scenario is described below.    
T4
Here is where it begins to get murky. Oklahoma vs. Utah has been the ultimate case study of eye test vs. resume quality. So far, eye test is winning, which is why the Utes are currently ahead in the CFP Rankings. Oklahoma has played a better schedule by almost any measure and is doing better in most computer rankings. The Sooners also currently have more wins over ranked teams (Baylor, Oklahoma State) than Utah (none). Their losses are similar, each on the road to 8-4 teams that have been in and out of the CFP Rankings.

The paths to the playoff are the same for each team. Oklahoma needs to beat Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game, while LSU beats Georgia, Clemson beats Virginia and Utah loses to Oregon, or it must hope the CFP Selection Committee chooses it over Pac-12 champion Utah if both win their respective title games. If LSU wins and Virginia beats Clemson, both Oklahoma and Utah can get in as conference champions.
T4
Utah has been winning bigger lately compared to Oklahoma. The Utes have only played one close game since their loss at USC (a five-point win at Washington, their best opponent in that stretch). Oklahoma, on the other hand, has seen five of its last seven games decided by a touchdown or less, including its loss at Kansas State. Style points matter, and with one game left, they may never matter more.

As noted above, the Utes have the same paths as the Sooners. Utah needs to beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, while LSU beats Georgia, Clemson beats Virginia and Oklahoma loses to Baylor, or it must hope the CFP Selection Committee chooses it over Big 12 champion Oklahoma (or Baylor). If LSU wins and Virginia beats Clemson, both Utah and Oklahoma can get in as conference champions.
6
The difference between Baylor and Oklahoma is that, if the Bears win the rematch, they will only have one win over a team in the rankings (unless another Big 12 team crawls onto the bottom this week). Baylor's overall strength of schedule isn't quite as good as that of Oklahoma, but it's better than that of Utah. The Bears have also had trouble putting up big numbers in wins before obliterating Kansas 61-6 on Saturday. Barring a blowout of Oklahoma, I am not convinced that Baylor will be ahead of Utah if the Utes win the Pac-12. However, Baylor can get in if it beats Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, the other conference championship favorites win and Utah loses to Oregon. That would make the Bears the top-rated one-loss team and put them in the field. Another scenario: If LSU wins and Virginia beats Clemson, Baylor would get into the playoff as long as it beats Oklahoma, even if Utah wins.
7
Beat LSU to win the SEC and Georgia is in the playoff. However, if Armageddon occurs, the Bulldogs might even get in with two losses. Part of that scenario requires Clemson to lose, so don't hold your breath. In fact, it requires the Big 12 to have the only one-loss conference champion with Oregon beating Utah. Then, the decision for No. 4 is between a very strong two-loss Georgia with a bad loss to South Carolina against a one-loss Clemson with a not-as-bad loss to Virginia and a terrible schedule but a 38-3 win over the Gamecocks. The committee could go either way. That would be another style over substance decision.

In addition to this list of playoff contenders, I have released my penultimate bowl projections for the 2019-20 season. Reminder: These projections are not how things stand now but rather how I expect them to look following the conference championship games next week.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jerry Palm started writing about sports on the Internet right after Al Gore invented it. He was the first to bring RPI out in the open and is one of the pioneers of predicting the March Madness bracket.... Full Bio

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