A Big Eight remain. That is, there are eight teams with one or no losses that have a realistic shot at advancing to the College Football Playoff entering the penultimate week of the 2021 season.
Unlike most years, at least there's some variety among those teams with Cincinnati, Michigan and Oklahoma State having never been to the College Football Playoff. The remaining five have filled 17 of the previous 28 slots available.
Cincinnati would be the only true party crasher. No Group of Five school has ever been represented in the final four. Based on Tuesday's latest CFP Rankings, a berth is so close for the Bearcats they can almost start selling tickets.
As with everything in college football, nothing is absolute. Disaster scenarios are possible (more on that below). For now, let's breakdown those eight top contenders.
No. 1 Georgia (11-0): The closest thing to a lock in this process. The Bulldogs (-35) merely need to beat Georgia Tech to all but clinch a spot. Georgia is already in the SEC Championship Game having won the SEC East. It's hard to imagine a scenario whereby Georgia beats the Yellow Jackets, loses to Alabama -- even in a blowout -- and drops out of the the top four. As the only remaining Power Five undefeated with an average victory margin of 33 in the nation's toughest conference, the Dawgs have earned that right. Unless the Yellow Jackets have raided the transfer portal this week, it's a done deal.
No. 2 Ohio State (10-1): It's simple, but it's not easy: beat Michigan and win the Big Ten Championship Game. As good as the Buckeyes have looked, they have a treacherous road to the playoff. Win those games, and they're in. No arguments. The last time this road opened up for Ohio State was 2019. That year, the season ended with the Buckeyes playing four consecutive top-13 teams. Reason to pause: The last time Ohio State won at Michigan, won the Big Ten title and won the national championship (as declared by the AP) was 1957. The most likely opponent in Indianapolis will be No. 14 Wisconsin (8-3), but Minnesota and Iowa are in contention.
No. 3 Alabama (10-1): Another cannot-lose scenario that is simple but not easy: beat Auburn and then Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Neither is a certainty. Bama hasn't been good lately on The Plains, losing three of the last four at Jordan-Hare Stadium. If the Crimson Tide get past both, that result would make it two from the SEC in the playoff. Other than that, the chance of a two-loss Alabama team getting in is remote (see below). First, the Tide wouldn't deserve it. They lost as a two-touchdown favorite at Texas A&M, which was playing a backup quarterback. Bama gave up 41 points doing it. Second, there has only been one two-loss team that's played for a championship in the history of college football. That would be LSU in 2007, and heaven and earth had to collide for that to happen.
No. 4 Cincinnati (11-0): Cinderella wears black. One of only three undefeated FBS teams, the Bearcats are finally getting respect from the CFP Selection Committee. Once again, it's a win out scenario. They have to win at East Carolina this week, then defeat Houston in the AAC Championship Game. If that happens, it's hard to imagine the committee keeping them out. If they do, Mike Aresco might spontaneously self-combust.
No. 5 Michigan (10-1): There is no gray area for the Maize & Blue. Win out, and they're in. That includes defeating Ohio State for the first time in 10 years and only the second time since 2003. One of the three aforementioned teams would await in the Big Ten Championship Game. I don't want to say this is a big two weeks for Jim Harbaugh, but he could earn $1.5 million in bonuses alone ($500,000 for making the Big Ten title game, $1 million more for winning the Big Ten).
No. 6 Notre Dame (10-1): That one loss to Cincinnati sticks out like a high-ankle sprain. The Fighting Irish need a lot of chaos above to get into the top four. It starts with a season-ending win against Stanford and then hoping for losses by Cincinnati, Ohio State, Michigan and Alabama. Even that might not get it done considering Notre Dame doesn't play in a conference championship game, and a Cincy loss would make its prior defeat look worse.
No. 7 Oklahoma State (10-1): The Big 12's best playoff hope is already in next week's Big 12 Championship Game, win or lose against Oklahoma in Bedlam. It would help the Big 12 if the Cowboys won out. They're higher ranked and would face less of a head wind into the top four. It would further help the OSU cause if Georgia won the SEC and everyone in the Big Ten finished with at least two losses. Mike Gundy's generational defense should gain credibility with the committee. Who would have thought all that from a program that has finished in the top five twice in its entire history?
No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1): The Sooners could win the Big 12 for a seventh consecutive year. They must win the Big 12 to get a chance of sniffing the playoff. A second loss on Saturday or in the Big 12 title game all but dooms Oklahoma's chances. If it gets in, OU would be coming from as far back as the No. 13 spot (prior to Tuesday night). The only playoff teams to come from further back were Ohio State (No. 16 in 2014) and Oklahoma itself (No. 15 in 2015).
In the interest of full disclosure -- and just for giggles -- a nightmare scenario could occur in which all of the contenders wind up with at least two losses. Again, no team with such a record has ever made it to the CFP. However, if every team -- or all but a couple teams -- have two losses, suddenly teams like Baylor, Oregon, Wake Forest, Ole Miss, BYU, Iowa and Wisconsin (three losses) can at least be involved in the conversation. Who would play for the national championship if that occurs?
1. Alabama (11-2) would have lost to Auburn and defeated Georgia.
2. Georgia (11-2) would have lost to Georgia Tech and Alabama.
3. Big Ten slot: The committee would decide between Iowa (11-2) or Wisconsin (10-3), which would have won the conference, or either Ohio State (11-2) or Michigan (11-2) that beat the other and lost the league title game.
4. Big 12 slot: The committee would decide between a non-champion Oklahoma (11-2) that went 1-1 against Oklahoma State in two weeks, a non-champion Cowboys (11-2) that beat the Sooners but lost the league title to Baylor (splitting the season series 1-1), or a league champion Bears (11-2) that beat Oklahoma State (splitting the season series 1-1).