How the contenders can reach the College Football Playoff

Mark Dantonio

Coach Mark Dantonio and fifth-ranked Michigan State can play their way into the College Football Playoff with a win over No. 4 Iowa in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday.

(Al Goldis / Associated Press)

The College Football Playoff picture became clearer yesterday when most of the contenders continued their winning ways.

Unless there’s a shocking shake-up in the rankings on Tuesday, No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State control their own destinies. The Big Ten championship game will serve as a knockout round for the last two.

If Clemson (12-0) defeats No. 14 North Carolina (11-1) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, the Tigers are in the CFP’s semifinals, to be played New Year’s Eve at the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl. The Tar Heels will be cracking the top 10 this week, but their weak nonconference schedule and loss to South Carolina (3-9) make it difficult to consider them a contender in most scenarios.

Alabama (11-1) seems a lock since the Crimson Tide faces No. 12 Florida (10-2) in the Southeastern Conference title game. The Gators are coming off a devastating 27-2 loss to No. 13 Florida State (10-2). But stranger things have happened, like Auburn returning a missed field-goal attempt 100-some-odd yards for a game-winning score in 2013 to steal the 2013 West Division title from Alabama.


Oklahoma (11-1) seems to have solidified its spot in the CFP’s final four with a 58-23 thrashing of No. 11 Oklahoma State (10-2). Since the Big 12 Conference has no championship game, the Sooners can relax and wait for the other contenders to play their way in or out of the playoffs.

Iowa (12-0) completed a perfect regular season with a less-than-spectacular 28-20 win over Nebraska (5-7). Then again, the Cornhuskers handed Michigan State (11-1) its loss. The Hawkeyes’ beating Michigan State should be impressive enough to guarantee them a final-four slot, while a win should also cement a berth for the Spartans, whose loss to Nebraska was stained by questionable officiating.

No. 8 Ohio State (11-1), which lost to Michigan State, and No. 9 Stanford (10-2) are long shots. The Buckeyes just rolled No. 10 Michigan (9-3), 42-13, but need three teams ahead of them to lose for a shot at a semifinal spot, and that seems unlikely. The Cardinal, coming of a last-second win over No. 6 Notre Dame (10-2), can win the Pac-12 Conference title by defeating USC (8-4) on Saturday. But a victory over the Trojans, who toppled No. 22 UCLA, 40-21, on Saturday likely won’t be enough.

In case you were wondering about the No. 7-ranked team, that’s Baylor (9-2), which is coming off a loss to No. 19 Texas Christian (10-2). A win on Saturday against Texas (4-7) will not help the Bears.