One team will win the national title in January. Just about everyone else will lose their chance at the title in November.
This is the cruelest month for championship contenders and the fatal losses almost always happen on the road and usually at night.
Florida kicked off the annual rite of passage for pretenders with a 38-20 upset of Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party on Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla. The Bulldogs had the easiest path in the SEC to one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff.
Now they need help just to win their division. There are only 10 teams left (spoiler: including one from the Triangle!) that do not need any help from anyone. Note the key phrase there is “do not need any help.” That’s not you, Notre Dame or any team from the Big Ten. If any of these teams win out, they will be to get into the CFP.
Here they are, in the order of likelihood they will make the selection committee’s final four:
1. Florida State (8-0)
What’s left: Virginia, at Miami, Boston College, Florida, the ACC title game
Outlook: The Seminoles keep falling behind, 21-0 at Louisville this past Thursday, but keep coming back to win (42-31). Turnovers (they have a minus-1 turnover margin, compared to plus-17 last year) will ultimately be the reason the Noles don’t repeat as national champions, not any of the games left on this schedule.
The toughest road spot for the Noles is the trip to Miami. The Hurricanes are wonderfully talented but there’s a chance there will be more FSU fans at Miami’s cavernous NFL stadium than Miami fans. That’s not the November pitfall recipe.
2. Oregon (8-1)
What’s left: at Utah, Colorado, at Oregon State the Pac-12 title game
Outlook: Colorado, winless in the Pac-12, is awful. The Beavers, 1-4 in the conference, aren’t much better. This Saturday’s trip to Utah will be prickly for the Ducks, who are coming off of a 45-16 stomping of nemesis Stanford.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich seems to be making the most of the second chance since a 31-24 home loss to Arizona on Oct. 2
3. Mississippi State (8-0)
What’s left: Tennessee-Martin, at Alabama, Vanderbilt, at Ole Miss, SEC title game
Outlook: Veteran team, smart coach (Dan Mullen), outstanding quarterback (Dak Prescott). Mississippi State is this year’s Auburn, without the lucky horseshoe (at least thus far). The Bulldogs are a prime candidate for a November road stumble, with trips to Alabama and Ole Miss left. Oddly enough, if they lose to the Tide and finish 11-1, and the Tide goes to the SEC title game, the Bulldogs might be in a better position for the CFP.
4. Alabama (7-1)
What’s left: at LSU, Mississippi State, Western Carolina, Auburn, SEC title game
Outlook: Alabama’s getting a lot of credit for being Alabama at this point. To date, the Tide’s best win is over West Virginia.
But two of its potential remaining four challenges will be at home. The Tide, as the SEC is apt to do, got the week off before an important road trip (at LSU). The youthful Tigers probably played their Super Bowl against Ole Miss.
That leaves either Mississippi State or Auburn to keep the Tide, Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin out of the playoff.
5. TCU (7-1)
What’s left: Kansas State, at Kansas, at Texas, Iowa State
Outlook: Gary Patterson has done some incredible coaching work in Fort Worth but this has a chance to be his most impressive.
The Horned Frogs went 4-8 last season, so the 7-1 start is already remarkable. With a home win (at night) over K-State on Saturday, they will have the inside track on the Big 12 title.
6. Auburn (7-1)
What’s left: Texas A&M, at Georgia, Samford, at Alabama
Outlook: You’d rather be lucky than good, Auburn just happens to be both under Gus Malzahn.
An overturned touchdown after a gruesome injury to the other team’s best player? Only Auburn could win like that on Saturday at Ole Miss.
The Tigers have two incredible road challenges left at Georgia, who will have the services of Todd Gurley, and at Alabama, who will be more than interested in paying back the “War Damn Miracle.”
7. Arizona State (7-1)
What’s left: Notre Dame, at Oregon State, Washington State, at Arizona, Pac-12 title game
Outlook: There’s a lot of meat left on the bone for the Sun Devils but if they can find a way to finish 12-1, with likely a win over Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, they will be in the playoff field.
If that happens, the fans of the 38 other teams that Todd Graham left in his years to get to Tempe will cringe.
8. Kansas State (7-1)
What’s left: at TCU, at West Virginia, Kansas, at Baylor
Outlook: There aren’t many teams on this list that would trade schedules with the Wildcats. That’s three very losable road games in November.
The September loss to Auburn has the potential to be a stumbling block with the selection committee, especially if say a 10-2 Auburn is the alternative, but if Bill Snyder runs the table in the Big 12, the Wildcats will have earned a spot in the playoff.
9. Duke (7-1)
What’s left: at Syracuse, Virginia Tech, UNC, Wake Forest, ACC title game
Outlook: OK, stop laughing.
If the Blue Devils go 11-1 and then beat 12-0 FSU in the ACC title game in Charlotte on Dec. 6, guess who’s crashing the Final Four?
10. Missouri (7-2)
What’s left: at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, Arkansas
Outlook: If you hate the SEC, and ESPN’s affinity for the SEC, this is your team. Go find a Mizzou sweatshirt and hat and start rooting for the Tigers.
If Mizzou wins out, those three games aren‘t that tough by SEC standards, and then shocks the SEC West champion in the SEC title game, the Tigers will be in the CFP at 11-2.
Yes, that Missouri, 31-27 losers to lowly Indiana will be SEC champions and the representative of the country’s best conference in the first college football playoff.
Granted, it’s unlikely, but as we hit the heart of November, it’s still possible.