The Road To The College Football Playoffs

With the CFB carnage continuing LB looks at the road to the playoffs and shares his best futures bets for the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 conference winners.

Things are nuts in college football this season. There were so many 4-0 teams coming into Week 5 that it was almost a lottery as to which ones (Georgia aside) would be heading to the College Football Playoffs. With no fewer than ten of the Top 25 schools losing on Saturday the playoff landscape seems a lot clearer. Let’s take a look at who is still in the running for a shot at the biggest prize in the sport.

How To Make The College Football Playoffs

In theory, the best four teams at the end of the regular season go to the playoffs. But how do you define the best four teams when there is 130 schools playing just 12 games each? It really is unclear and most years it is controversial. Last season a number of “and-oh” conference winners were ignored as the voting committee circled the wagons. With the absolute carnage on the pitch this season it could be another tricky year for the playoff committee once again.

The Perfect Record

It is something of a misnomer that you must go 12-0 to have a shot at making the playoffs. Since the new format was introduced in 2014 there have been 28 playoff berths. Seventeen one-loss and just 11 no-loss teams have made the cut. Of the seven ultimate winners only three enjoyed perfect seasons while four winners had suffered a loss before the College Football Playoff Final. You do not need to be perfect to get the nod from the committee.

Big Schools For The Big Day

Just because a 12-0 record is not needed it does not mean the playoffs are open to just anybody. Twice UCF won the American Conference with a perfect record and twice they were overlooked. In fact, only four teams have made it to the playoffs without being a Power 5 Champion (i.e. the winner of SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten or Big 12). All bar Notre Dame were Power 5 schools with 11-1 records who just happened to not win their conference.

At least five G5 Champions have not been invited despite finishing the season with a perfect record and being ranked within the Top 25 at the end of the term. In short, if you are not a Power 5 school or Notre Dame it will take something incredibly special.

The SEC Super Conference

It is possible for the College Football Playoff selection committee to select two schools from the same conference, although it has only happened once before. When did it happen? Unsurprisingly it was two SEC teams back in 2017-18 when Georgia and Alabama were both invited to the playoffs. The Bulldogs won the SEC Championship and Alabama had just a single loss. The committee deemed both to be among the top four in the country. The Crimson Tide eventually won out, justifying the decision to include a one loss, non-conference-winning school.


The 2021 College Football Playoffs

The SEC Contenders

Alabama (#1) and Georgia (#2) look to be near certainties to be selected this year. Both schools are 5-0 and have comfortably swatted aside multiple ranked opponents already. They will not meet each other until the SEC Conference Finals and if that game is the only loss on one of their records we will see a repeat of 2017 with both schools being selected. These are the only two programs that could suffer a loss and still expect to go to the playoffs.

Georgia still has 4 conference games remaining so it is possible they do not win the SEC East, but that would most likely require a loss against Kentucky (and the Wildcats winning out) so it is a safe bet the Bulldogs will go to the playoffs. Alabama are in a similar position and would need to lose at Auburn in Week 12 (and the Tigers win out) in order to miss out on the that coveted conference championship game. Even if both schools went 11-1 they would probably both still get the votes.

The Big Ten Contenders

Iowa (#3), Penn State (#4) and Michigan (#9) are all unbeaten and look the best, or only options, for Big Ten representation in the playoffs. Michigan State (#11) and Iowa State could still win the conference, but with a loss each already they will go no further than the Big Ten.

Unfortunately for Iowa and Penn State (two of my favourite programs this season) they meet each other in Week 6. The Nittany Lions have one of the tougher schedules this year. They are projected to play 6 games versus Top 25 teams so it is conceivable they lose here and still make the playoffs. They would need to beat Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and win the Big Ten and they would probably get the vote as 11-1 Big Ten Champs.

For Iowa, the picture would not be so bright. After the visit of Penn State they play 6 unranked teams and I feel even a Big Ten Championship would not be enough with a loss versus Penn State.

Michigan plays Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State and it looks an uphill battle for the Wolverines. However, if they run the board and win the Big Ten Championship (presumably by beating Iowa) then they would be another sure thing for the playoffs.

In short, any 12-0 Big Ten Champion will absolutely go to the playoffs, but things get messy with just one loss. It will be by no means set in stone, but my money is on the winner of Iowa versus Penn State being the lone Big Ten school in the final four.

The ACC “Contenders”

The reality is the ACC will not send a team to the playoffs. Clemson is the only school that has been looked upon kindly by the committee and with two losses already they are out of the running.

That is unfortunate for Wake Forest because they are mightily impressive this year but their fate looks sealed. They are 5-0 and somehow are only one place above 3-2 Clemson in the coaches polls. Should they win out then it will depend on what happens elsewhere. The Demon Deacons do not have the caché of many other schools. I have an inkling the committee would take a number of 11-1 teams over a small-named ACC Championship winner, even if they are 12-0. This is especially true if there are two heavyweight SEC schools sitting first and second in the rankings come December.

North Carolina State could potentially make the cut if they win out, but that would need some 10-2 champions in the other Power 5 conferences and even then it would be more likely the votes go elsewhere.

The Pac-12

The Pac-12 is a mess this season. There are no unbeaten teams and only Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State have kept it to just one loss. Oregon is still ranked in the Top 10 despite that loss so the judges have clearly taken a lenient view of their loss to Stanford. If we are being honest the officials played a big part in that loss so I am glad the polls have not overreacted. If the Ducks win out then they would almost certainly make the playoffs as an 11-1 Pac-12 Champion, but the other two would need results elsewhere to go their way.

Oregon State takes on Arizona State and Oregon in the final two regular season games so we won’t know more until late November or December. One thing is clear though, the whole Pac-12 is on thin ice and each of these teams can kiss any playoff hopes goodbye with another loss.

The Big 12 Hopefuls

Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and to a lesser extent Texas are the only CFP hopefuls from the Big 12. The Longhorns have already lost so they would absolutely need to win out to stand a chance at making the playoffs. OU and OSU both could potentially suffer one loss each and still go to the playoffs, provided they win the conference.

In short, a 12-0 Big 12 Champion will go to the playoffs for sure, and even with an 11-1 record it is still quite likely considering their tough schedules. If the ultimate winner is 10-2 I think it becomes very difficult to imagine them getting the votes.

All three of these schools have to play each other and the outcome of those games will essentially decide if a Big 12 school makes the cut (and if so, which one).

Everyone Else

The only non-P5 school to have made the playoffs is Notre Dame and in truth the Irish are a Power 5 school in all but name. With that in mind there are only a handful of schools remotely worth considering for the playoffs from outside of those five conferences.


The Bearcats kept Notre Dame at arms reach in Week 5 and jumped up to #5 overall in the rankings because of it. Can they hang on there? The schedule is not too taxing from here on out but the visit of SMU in November will be key. If they win out there is a pretty good chance they will go to the playoffs. A big name conference winner from either the Big Ten or Big 12 would get the nod over Cincy, unless those conference winners suffered two or more losses. Being a G5 school will not help things. The Bearcats must keep winning and hope the rest of the Top 10 doesn’t. It is unlikely but not impossible.

Notre Dame

The Irish had excuses in that loss to Cincinnati, with the injury to Jack Coan giving them a selection problem at QB. We have seen the panel forgive injury-related losses but Notre Dame will struggle to get inside the Top 4 after that reversal. Their remaining schedule is exactly what they need if they want to recover though – tough but winnable.

Wins against NC State, USC and Stanford could get ND just about back in the conversation, especially if those schools pick up some big wins in the meantime.

Similar to Cincinnati, the Fighting Irish would need a lot of the other contenders to suffer two losses and even hope for some in-conference upsets. Luckily for the Irish they do not have that G5 baggage. They need the same results to go their way as Cincy, and for the Bearcats to start losing too. It’s not looking good.


The Cougars had been written off by most pundits over the summer. Now they are 5-0 with two Top 25 wins under their belt and a tough but winnable remaining schedule. Can they become just the second ever non-P5 school to make the playoffs? It’s not as crazy as it might sound. If they keep winning I think they would get the nod ahead of both Notre Dame and Cincinnati. They have been hit hard with injuries so if they can get the big players back and win out I would not be surprised to see them get the votes ahead of any 10-2 conference winner.


The Mustangs are 5-0 and if they can beat Cincinnati and win the American conference they could be part of the conversation. It would take a lot though. Notre Dame would need to lose again, as would BYU and even then it would probably take the Big Ten and Big 12 champions to have gone 10-2.

Coastal Carolina

The Chanticleers were overlooked last year despite finishing as 11-0 Sun Belt Champions. They imploded in their bowl game against Liberty and that seemed to vindicate the decision not to invite them to the playoffs. In truth, I think the non-invitation soured things for Coastal and they struggled to get up for that game. They could easily have been in the playoffs ahead of Notre Dame and Clemson. If they win out and retain the Sun Belt Championship then they have a chance. With two perfect seasons and two conference titles they should be at least considered ahead of any of the other non-P5 team on this list. Sadly though, I think an 11-1 Notre Dame or any 10-2 Power 5 conference winner would get the votes instead.

What I want to see?

Georgia, Iowa, Notre Dame, Oregon.

There is no doubt the Bulldogs are the best team so far and nobody could want to see a playoff without them. Notre Dame are my team and who doesn’t want their team in the playoffs? Iowa for their defense deserve to go and Oregon are hugely entertaining.

What I think we’ll see?

Alabama, Georgia, Penn St, Oklahoma

The Crimson tide continue to win games before a ball is kicked and there is really only one banana skin left on the schedule (Auburn). Penn State have the schedule in their favour over Iowa and I think Oklahoma win the Big 12.

SRD Selections (Mid-Season Futures Bets):

Wake Forrest to win the ACC @ +750 (15/2) 

Iowa to win the Big Ten @ +300 (3/1)

Oregon to win the Pac-12 @ +200 (2/1)

The above in a treble at 101/1

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