In the first three years of the College Football Playoff, only five of the 12 teams that made the playoff debuted in the top four of the committee's initial rankings. The other seven had to use the months of November and December to make up ground with head-to-head wins against higher-ranked opponents or the cannibalization of teams ranked ahead of them.
In 2014, Ohio State climbed from No. 16 to No. 4 in the final rankings before the Buckeyes eventually won the national championship. Oklahoma made the playoff as the No. 4 seed in 2015 after debuting at No. 15. The Buckeyes and Sooners are proof that teams on the outside of the playoff picture can sneak their way in, and Oklahoma State could do so this year.
The Cowboys debuted at No. 11 in the selection committee's rankings on Tuesday night. Here's how, and why, they could make the playoff.
Nov. 4 – vs. No. 5 Oklahoma
Nov. 11 – at No. 15 Iowa State
Nov. 18 – vs. Kansas State
Nov. 25 – vs. Kansas
Dec. 2 – Big 12 Championship
Oklahoma State is currently in a four-way tie for first in the Big 12 with Oklahoma, TCU and Iowa State. In order to make the College Football Playoff, the Cowboys almost certainly have to win out, so we'll work under the assumption that Oklahoma State finishes the regular season with an 11-1 record, then beats TCU in the Big 12 Championship. Wins over Oklahoma and TCU would allow Oklahoma State to leapfrog both schools in the CFP rankings.
Here's how Oklahoma State can make the playoff if the team wins out:
- Using the brainpower and formulas behind the popular analytics website FiveThirtyEight, Oklahoma State has an 83 percent chance of making the playoff if the Cowboys win out.
- The ACC has two teams – No. 4 Clemson and No. 10 Miami – ranked ahead of Oklahoma State. The best-case scenario for the conference is that it sends one team to the playoff, and Clemson is the most obvious candidate. The Hurricanes, which have won their last four games by an average of 4.5 points, have a challenging upcoming schedule with games against No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 3 Notre Dame in the next two weeks. It's going to be difficult for Miami to make it out of November unscathed. If the Hurricanes manage to beat the Irish, Notre Dame will likely drop out of the playoff chase.
- There are three Big Ten teams currently ranked ahead of Oklahoma State: No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State and No. 9 Wisconsin. Right now the Buckeyes and Badgers are projected to meet in the Big Ten championship, and chances are the loser is almost certainly eliminated from playoff consideration. Penn State still has road games against No. 24 Michigan State and Maryland. If Oklahoma State wins out, it's likely only one of the three Big Ten teams in the top 10 would remain ranked ahead of the Cowboys.
- Georgia and Alabama, both undefeated, lead the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. At least one of them will suffer a loss. Even if they both run the table and meet in the SEC Championship Game with 12-0 records, a bad loss for Georgia could drop the Bulldogs and Notre Dame in the rankings after the Irish's home loss to the Bulldogs. In the albeit brief history of the College Football Playoff, no conference has sent two teams to the playoff in the same season, and with Georgia's road games at No. 14 Auburn and Georgia Tech, and Alabama's trips to No. 16 Mississippi State and Auburn, there's a challenging road ahead for both schools.
- Notre Dame is a wild card in the College Football Playoff sweepstakes, given the Irish's independent status. Their upcoming schedule, however, is not a walk in the park: Wake Forest (5-3), at No. 10 Miami (7-0), Navy (5-2), and at No. 21 Stanford (6-2). One more loss will likely knock Notre Dame out of the top four.
- The doomsday scenario for Oklahoma State is that Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State win out, and Georgia and Alabama meet in the SEC Championship as undefeated teams that are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, in some order. Those five teams are ranked ahead of the Cowboys and have an inside track for the playoff. But this is college football, where late-season upsets aren't out of the equation. Another loss for the Irish, Tigers or Buckeyes would likely put the nail in the coffin of their playoff hopes.