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Joe Boozell | | November 3, 2016

How every top-15 team can make the CFP

  Auburn is currently ranked ninth, but opportunities to notch key wins remain.

The first College Football Playoff rankings of 2016 are here and there's a path for just about every team in the top 15 to find its way into the College Football Playoff - seriously.

If there’s anything we can learn from the first two years of the system, it’s that an unsuspecting team in early November has a good chance to reach the semifinals in December. Some examples: Ohio State in 2014 (ranked No. 13 in the Week 10 AP Poll) and Oklahoma in 2015 (ranked No. 14 in the Week 10 AP Poll).

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

Yes. Combine dominant late-season play with some good fortune and a team can find itself in the College Football Playoff.

Here's precisely what needs to happen for each team to do so, starting with No. 15.

RELATED: Nov. 1 College Football Playoff rankings

15. Colorado Buffaloes (6-2)

Key wins: @ Oregon, @ Stanford

Colorado Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 3 UCLA
Nov. 12 @ Arizona
Nov. 19 No. 25 Washington State
Nov. 26 No. 16 Utah
Dec. 2 Undetermined (Possible Pac-12 championship game)

What does Colorado need to do to make the CFP?

Win out, and look amazing doing so. The Buffaloes get two ranked teams in Washington State and Utah at home to end the season; as of now, Colorado hasn’t knocked off a CFP-ranked team.

Here’s the good news for the Buffs: they don’t play in the same division as No. 5 Washington. So if Colorado can win the Pac-12 South, it will (likely) get a date with the Huskies in the conference championship game. If the Buffaloes can win, they’ll have compiled a fantastic resume.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Colorado’s control?

Even if the Buffaloes go undefeated the rest of the way, they’re going to need some help. Like any school in the 10-15 range, they'll need to root for chaos at the top.

Perhaps Clemson and Louisville lose two or more games apiece. Maybe the same happens with Ohio State and Michigan, and Alabama runs away with the SEC in a fashion that makes Auburn and Texas A&M look weak.

Colorado also needs for Washington to look outstanding before (hypothetically) upsetting UW in the Pac-12 title game. In fact, if the Huskies could catapult themselves into the top four some time soon, Colorado fans should be doing cartwheels. The same is true of Washington State and Utah; the Buffaloes need their foes to beef up their resumes in order to strengthen their own.

14. Oklahoma Sooners (6-2)

Key wins: vs. Texas, @ Texas Tech

Oklahoma Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 3 @ Iowa State
Nov. 12 No. 17 Baylor
Nov. 19 @ No. 20 West Virginia
Dec. 3 No. 18 Oklahoma State

What does Oklahoma need to do to make the CFP?

Get used to this for pretty much every team outside of the top six: win out. Luckily for Oklahoma, its schedule breaks quite nicely.

In the late teens of the first College Football Playoff poll, you’ll see a glut of Big 12 squads. Oklahoma takes on all three of them to end the season, and the Sooners are starting to find their groove on offense. Perfect timing.

As of now, OU doesn’t have any wins that will overwhelm the committee. Downing Texas and Texas Tech is nice, but neither of those triumphs will move the needle. However, knocking off Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks would raise some eyebrows.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Oklahoma’s control?

First off, Oklahoma needs to root like crazy for Ohio State. The Buckeyes blew the Sooners off of their home field earlier this season, and if OSU could vault itself above Michigan and solidly into the College Football Playoff field, the loss is far more defensible. Best-case scenario, the Sooners have two losses, but perhaps they’d receive a free pass given Ohio State’s dominance.

The Sooners would also root for the Pac-12 to cannibalize itself. They would need Washington to lose at least two games, and if two-loss, Big 12 champion Oklahoma were to put its resume up against a two-loss Pac-12 champion, it has a shot.

On that note, like Colorado, OU needs Alabama to separate itself from the rest of the SEC pack. If a team like Texas A&M or Auburn rises, Oklahoma doesn’t have a chance. Bob Stoops’ squad’s path is this: One team from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten, and upsets galore in the Pac-12. Then, Oklahoma has hope.

13. LSU Tigers (5-2)

Key win: vs. Ole Miss

LSU Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 No. 1 Alabama
Nov. 12 @ Arkansas
Nov. 19 vs. No. 11 Florida
Nov. 24 @ No. 4 Texas A&M
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible SEC championship game)

What does LSU need to do to make the CFP?

Beat No. 1 Alabama, which hasn’t lost a game in more than year, on Saturday night. Sounds like a plan, right?

But that’s not all. The Tigers would also need to knock off a solid Arkansas team, No. 11 Florida and No. 4 Texas A&M on the road. Perhaps no team has a tougher remaining schedule than LSU.

Then again, no other team in the country has Leonard Fournette. LSU’s Heisman candidate couldn’t make a dent in Alabama’s run defense a year ago, but perhaps some home cooking will do the Tigers well.

What needs to happen that’s outside of LSU’s control?

There’s a benefit to the Tigers’ brutal November schedule – LSU doesn’t really have to worry about what goes on at the top of the rankings. If it takes care of business, it’s going to be very hard to keep the LSU out of the College Football Playoff, because it will have beaten the Crimson Tide and the Aggies. Whatever happens either way, it’s on them.

Look, LSU could realistically (in fact, likely) could go into its bowl game 7-5. Its remaining slate is that difficult. Then again, what other team ranked this low controls its own destiny?

12. Penn State Nittany Lions (6-2)

Key win: vs. Ohio State

Penn State Remaining Schedule
Date School
Nov. 5 vs. Iowa
Nov. 12 @ Indiana
Nov. 19 @ Rutgers
Nov. 26 vs. Michigan State
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Big Ten championship game)

What does Penn State need to do to make the CFP?

Run the table, and perhaps even run up the score in the remaining four weeks. The Nittany Lions’ 62-point outburst against Purdue was a good start. Penn State’s combined opponent record is well below .500 – and with the Nittany Lions buried in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan, the College Football Playoff push is an uphill battle.

And it goes without saying, but if Penn State can somehow make it to the Big Ten championship game, it needs to win. But that might take a miracle at this point.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Penn State’s control?

Where to start? Essentially, Jim Harbaugh’s team is going to need to have its football talent stolen by the Monstars. The Wolverines toppled the Nittany Lions by a score of 49-10 earlier this season, so in order to leapfrog Michigan, Jabrill Peppers and company will likely need to lose three games. Best of luck with that.

From there, Ohio State would need to beat Michigan, but also lose one more game. Penn State holds the tiebreaker against the Buckeyes, so if each team finishes with two losses, James Franklin’s crew will play in the conference championship game.

The Big Ten is a near lock to send at least one school to the College Football Playoff; in the event that there are two, it’s almost certain that they will be Michigan and Ohio State. The gymnastics are difficult for Penn State, but a wild scenario does exist.  

11. Florida Gators (6-1)

Key win: @ Georgia

Florida Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @ Arkansas
Nov. 12 vs. South Carolina
Nov. 19 @ No. 13 LSU
Nov. 26 @ No. 22 Florida State
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible SEC Championship game)

What does Florida need to do to make the CFP?

Florida is the first team mentioned that could (potentially) afford to lose a game and still make the College Football Playoff.

The Gators are the only SEC East team with less than two losses, and as of now, they’re the favorite to reach the SEC championship game. If Alabama continues to dominate, we’ll see a rematch of last year’s SEC title bout. With a different outcome, the Gators will reach the semifinals.

Is there a scenario in which Florida beats LSU and Florida State, loses to Alabama and still makes the CFP? It’s highly unlikely, but not impossible. A ton of dominoes would need to fall around the country.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Florida’s control?

If Florida runs the table before falling to Alabama, like the rest of the schools mentioned, it just needs to root for chaos. Auburn and Texas A&M would need to take huge nosedives, and top schools from multiple conferences would need to fall.

Playing Alabama sounds about as fun as a Sunday of chores, but for the sake of reaching the College Football Playoff, it’s a massive opportunity that non-SEC schools simply don’t have. If your team plays its absolute best and shocks the Tide, it has a chance to head to the College Football Playoff. Bring it on.

10. Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-1)

Key win: vs. Oregon

Nebraska Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @ No. 6 Ohio State
Nov. 12 Minnesota
Nov. 19 Maryland
Nov. 25 @ Iowa
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible Big Ten Championship game)

What does Nebraska need to do to make the CFP?

Nebraska needs to go undefeated the rest of the way in order to have a realistic shot, and it has a chance to earn a signature win this Saturday night against Ohio State. Win at The Horseshoe, and the whole Playoff picture gets flipped on its head.

With a win against the Buckeyes, Nebraska would be a near lock to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game. As it stands, the Cornhuskers are 4-1 in league play; the Badgers (and a host of others) are 3-2, but Wisconsin owns the tiebreaker over Nebraska.

If the Cornhuskers are able to make it to Indianapolis, they’ll likely face Michigan. Wins over the Wolverines and the Buckeyes would absolutely be enough to make it into the CFP, and what a story that would be.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Nebraska’s control?

Win out, and the Cornhuskers don’t have to worry about their surroundings. But let’s say Nebraska splits its matchups against Ohio State and (potentially, if the Huskers make it to the conference title game) Michigan. Then what?

RELATED: Why the initial rankings don't always predict the Playoff

In that scenario, the Huskers would have an outside chance at the semifinals, but hopes would be bleak. They’d likely be the favorite to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl – but again, if top teams from other conferences implode, don’t rule out a two-loss Nebraska.  

9. Auburn Tigers (6-2)

Key wins: vs. LSU, @ Ole Miss

Auburn Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 vs. Vanderbilt
Nov. 12 @ Georgia
Nov. 19 vs. Alabama A&M
Nov. 26 @ No. 1 Alabama
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible SEC Championship game)

What does Auburn need to do to make the CFP?

The 2016 Iron Bowl should be in super-bold. Auburn takes on Alabama two days after Thanksgiving, and plenty will be on the line. If neither team loses up until then, they could be playing for the SEC West title.

They could also be playing for a trip to the College Football Playoff, though if Alabama’s lone loss was to Auburn, it would still be in good shape. The Tigers have a pretty favorable schedule up until they face the Tide – winning at Georgia is always tough, but Vanderbilt and Alabama A&M shouldn’t pose much of an obstacle.

The theme for these second-tier SEC teams is common: win out, and a Playoff spot is yours. Their schedules just happen to contain the best team in the country, with other tough roadblocks to boot. That’s the beauty of the conference.

8. Wisconsin Badgers (6-2)

Key wins: vs. Nebraska, vs. LSU

Wisconsin Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @ Northwestern
Nov. 12 Illinois
Nov. 19 @ Purdue
Nov. 26 Minnesota
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible Big Ten Championship game)

What does Wisconsin need to do to make the CFP?

Wisconsin’s two losses are about as quality as any losses one can have, but it’s still going to need to win out. With that said, if the Badgers can do so, they should have an edge against fellow two-loss schools; nobody else in the country can say its only setbacks are against top-six teams. Wisconsin has quality wins over LSU and Nebraska, as well.

And the rest of their schedule is extremely favorable. It would come as a major shock if the Badgers didn’t go 4-0 in their final four regular season games. But at this juncture, whether or not they reach the Big Ten title game is out of their hands. But if they do, they must win it.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Wisconsin’s control?

Wisconsin fans rooted hard against Nebraska in Week 9, and they will continue to do so in Week 10. Or as long as it takes for the Huskers to lose. The Badgers need to win the Big Ten championship game in order to reach the College Football Playoff; in order to win the conference title game, for those of you scoring at home, they have to make it to the conference title game.

As it stands, Nebraska has one conference loss (Wisconsin has two). But if both teams finish the season with two losses, the Badgers own the tiebreaker thanks to their overtime win against the Cornhuskers. As soon as Nebraska loses, Wisconsin controls its own fate.

7. Louisville Cardinals (7-1)

Key win: vs. Florida State

Louisville Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @ Boston College
Nov. 12 Wake Forest
Nov. 17 @ Houston
Nov. 26 Kentucky
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible ACC Championship game)

What does Louisville need to do to make the CFP?

The Cardinals need to go 4-0 and look good doing so, and their schedule doesn’t look terribly daunting. About a month ago, the Louisville-Houston clash looked like it would have big Playoff implications. Now, it’s important for the Cardinals, but it’s essentially just another game for everyone else.

Louisville being ranked as low as seventh in the first CFP rankings is something of a surprise, and outside of Clemson and Florida State, it doesn’t have any top-25 teams on its schedule. If the bounces don’t break the Cardinals’ way, that will be what haunts them.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Louisville’s control?

It would be great for Louisville if Clemson could start losing some of these close decisions. Both schools are in the Atlantic, and since the Tigers have the tiebreaker over the Cardinals, the only way Lamar Jackson and company can reach the ACC title game is if they win out and Clemson loses two more conference games.

That’s possible, though highly unlikely. Louisville’s other avenue to the Playoff is to hope for powers in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 to beat one another up. The SEC seems like a lock to get at least one school in, and if Clemson doesn’t falter, the Cards will need help from the other conferences. Is a one-loss Louisville team going to beat out a two-loss Big 12, Pac-12 or Big Ten champion?

Maybe. Maybe not. But the Cardinals would just need to edge out one of those conference champions and hope that a formidable second SEC team doesn’t exist. Louisville’s case is as interesting as anyone’s in the country.

6. Ohio State Buckeyes (7-1)

Key wins: @ Oklahoma, @ Wisconsin

Ohio State Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 No. 10 Nebraska
Nov. 12 @ Maryland
Nov. 19 @ Michigan State
Nov. 26 No. 3 Michigan
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible Big Ten Championship game)

What does Ohio State need to do to make the CFP?

Just 23 more days until Ohio State takes on Michigan, for those counting. It might be the game of the year in college football this season, and it could very well serve as a CFP play-in affair for these two rivals.

But the Buckeyes can’t afford to look ahead – they lost to Penn State on the road two weeks ago, and they barely outlasted Northwestern on Saturday. They’ll need to play better than they have in the past two games if they’re going to knock off Nebraska at home in Week 10, and Michigan State will look to play spoiler on Nov. 19.

If Ohio State runs the table, it’s a shoe-in. Anything less likely won’t cut it.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Ohio State’s control?

The Buckeyes just need to worry about their own locker room. If they handle their business, they’ll be playing for their second national championship in three years.

5. Washington Huskies (8-0)

Key wins: vs. Stanford, @ Utah

Washington Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @ California
Nov. 12 USC
Nov. 19 Arizona State
Nov. 25 @ No. 25 Washington State
Dec. 2 Undetermined (Possible Pac-12 Championship game)

What does Washington need to do to make the CFP?

The Huskies just need to keep doing what they’re doing. The first undefeated squad to appear on this list, they have a few tough games coming up against USC and Wazzu. But a team with serious Playoff aspirations wins those battles, and Washington should go into the Pac-12 title game undefeated.

Their margin for error is undeniably slim, as we saw on Tuesday night. But the Huskies just need a dash of help in order to reach the College Football Playoff.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Washington’s control?

Washington is just barely on the outside looking in, so several things could happen that would benefit the Huskies. The most simple: Texas A&M could lose. Or Clemson could lose. Or Ohio State could beat Michigan, but lose in the Big Ten title game. Alabama loses its next two ga…. Yeah, really no reason to complete that sentence.

The Huskies just need an inch to take a mile.

4. Texas A&M Aggies (7-1)

Key wins: @ Auburn, vs. Tennessee

Texas A&M Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @Mississippi State
Nov. 12 Ole Miss
Nov. 19 UT-San Antonio
Nov. 24 No. 13 LSU
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible SEC Championship game)

What does Texas A&M need to do to make the CFP?

What a pleasant surprise Tuesday night was for the Aggies. A&M is in a good spot. Unless Alabama loses, TAMU won’t have the opportunity to play in a conference championship game, but it's already notched several quality wins.

The Aggies have a chance to gain two more against Ole Miss and LSU. If it wins out, A&M is likely to make it to the semifinals. Losing isn’t an option at this point, though a two-loss Texas A&M squad would make a New Year’s Six bowl.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Texas A&M’s control?

A Clemson or a Michigan loss would be nice -- it would allow the Aggies to solidify their Playoff position. But if the season ended today, they’d be in the field of four. As you’ll see with these top teams, it’s less about what happens around the country and more about how they perform on Saturdays.

3. Michigan Wolverines (8-0)

Key wins: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Colorado, vs. Penn State

Michigan Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 Maryland
Nov. 12 @ Iowa
Nov. 19 Indiana
Nov. 26 @ No. 6 Ohio State
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible Big Ten Championship game)

What does Michigan need to do to make the CFP?

Obviously, it would be in Michigan’s best interest to win out. But if it doesn’t, it can still reach the College Football Playoff.

If Michigan loses to Ohio State or beats the Buckeyes and loses in the Big Ten title game, is a one-loss Wolverines squad more attractive than a one-loss ACC champion, a two-loss Big 12 champion, a two-loss Texas A&M or a one-loss Pac-12 champion? Quite possibly.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Michigan’s control?

We kind of just answered this above. In the event that the Wolverines lose, they aren’t doomed, but they would need some help. Clemson would need to fall, the Big Ten West champion would have to have at least two losses, or Washington would have to falter (perhaps more than once) out west. Jim Harbaugh’s squad is sitting pretty at the moment.  

2. Clemson Tigers (8-0)

Key wins: @ Florida State, vs. Louisville

Clemson Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 Syracuse
Nov. 12 Pittsburgh
Nov. 19 @ Wake Forest
Nov. 26 South Carolina
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible ACC Championship game)

What does Clemson need to do to make the CFP?

Man, does Clemson’s remaining schedule set up nicely. Syracuse is frisky and you can never count out Pittsburgh, but the Tigers look like they shouldn’t lose another game this season.

Clemson will see a worthy foe in the ACC title game if it reaches that point, and if the Tigers happen to lose, their Playoff hopes look like Louisville’s at this exact moment.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Clemson’s control?

Nothing. Dabo Swinney, Deshaun Watson and crew just need to focus on themselves.  

1. Alabama Crimson Tide (8-0)

Key wins: vs. Texas A&M, @ Ole Miss

Alabama Remaining Schedule (biggest games in bold)
Date School
Nov. 5 @ No. 13 LSU
Nov. 12 Mississippi State
Nov. 19 Chattanooga
Nov. 26 No. 9 Auburn
Dec. 3 Undetermined (Possible SEC Championship game)

What does Alabama need to do to make the CFP?

Obviously, if Alabama wins out, it’s the No. 1 seed. It can also afford to lose a game and still make the semifinals, and potential upsets loom. The Crimson Tide losing two games seems far-fetched, so we won’t even go there.

What needs to happen that’s outside of Alabama’s control?


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