Separating the CFP contenders from the pretenders

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Week 5 was revealing.

Clemson now stands alone in the ACC. With its game-winning field goal, North Carolina changed the season for Florida State. With its improbable Hail Mary touchdown, Tennessee officially solidified its spot as the top team in the SEC East. And Washington, which bullied Stanford for four quarters, made an in-your-face playoff statement that was impossible to ignore.

We now have a much better idea of who to take seriously in the College Football Playoff race — and who has faded into their shadows. The selection committee’s first ranking isn’t revealed until Nov. 1, but here’s a look at the most legitimate contenders in each Power 5 conference, and who is next in line:

Pac-12

In the driver’s seat: Washington.

Potential pitfall: The nonconference schedule. ESPN’s Football Power Index favors Washington in each of its remaining games, and there’s no way the selection committee leaves out an undefeated Pac-12 champ. The Huskies want to leave no doubt in the committee’s mind they’re top-four quality, though. If they lose a game or two, their weak nonconference schedule of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, which is ranked No. 127 out of 128 (just ahead of Baylor’s) according to ESPN’s Stats Information, could keep them out.

Next in line: Stanford

How to make a playoff push: Washington has to lose twice in order for Stanford to claim the North title, but the Cardinal have bigger problems than their lone loss. Stanford was outplayed in every phase of the game and simply didn’t look like top-four material. Stanford was a two-loss Pac-12 champ last year, so the Cardinal have made the comeback before, but they’re going to need some serious help.

Big Ten

In the driver’s seat: Ohio State, Michigan

Potential pitfall: The best of the West. We’re not going to know who’s the best in the Big Ten until Ohio State and Michigan play on Nov. 26 in Columbus — unless, of course, Wisconsin or Nebraska have something to say about it. Michigan was able to escape Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes have to beat both Wisconsin AND Nebraska during the regular season. And what if the Badgers regroup and win the West? There could be a rematch of Saturday’s contest, which was far from a convincing win for the Wolverines.

Next in line: Nebraska, Wisconsin

How to make a playoff push: Their only hope is an upset in the Big Ten championship game, and we’ll know who’s got the best shot at that on Oct. 29, when Wisconsin hosts Nebraska in a game that will determine the division leader heading into the committee’s first ranking. Wisconsin first has to get past Ohio State on Oct. 15, though. The Badgers have a bye week to regroup, but another loss would knock them out of the playoff picture. Nebraska’s three toughest remaining games are on the road, including trips to Ohio State and Iowa.

SEC

In the driver’s seat: Alabama

Potential pitfall: The next four weeks. Three of the next four games are on the road (Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU), and each of the next three opponents are ranked (Arkansas, Tennessee and AM). Alabama has to stay focused, disciplined and healthy — things it has struggled at times to do this season — in order to escape October unscathed.

Next in line: Tennessee, Texas AM

How to make a playoff push: Beat Alabama. Tennessee could have two shots at this. The Vols host Bama on Oct. 15, and they could also meet the Tide again in the SEC title game. With its win over Georgia, Tennessee separated itself as the top team in the East, but it faces Bama and Texas AM the next two weeks. The Aggies are undefeated and in great shape, but they have to win at Alabama on Oct. 22 to take the lead in the West Division. All roads to the CFP go through Tuscaloosa.

ACC

In the driver’s seat: Clemson

Potential pitfall: An upset in the ACC title game. Not even a loss in Tallahassee on Oct. 29 will keep Clemson out of the ACC championship game now that Florida State and Louisville have both lost. Clemson would have to lose twice to lose its grasp on the Atlantic Division title and ESPN’s FPI projects at least an 85 percent chance to win each remaining game except Florida State. The Tigers stand alone in the ACC, so the biggest remaining threat to their playoff hopes is an upset in the conference championship game.

Next in line: Louisville

How to make a playoff push: Pray the ACC gets two teams in. It’s not impossible, but it’s extremely difficult. The selection committee can put more than one team in from the same conference, but fast-forward to early December, when the committee is watching the Pac-12 champ, Big Ten champ, SEC champ and Clemson all earn statement wins against another ranked opponent and Louisville isn’t even on its TV screen. Louisville would first have to knock Houston out of the conversation to have a chance.

Big 12

In the driver’s seat: Baylor

Potential pitfall: Strength of schedule. Baylor needs to go undefeated to have a shot at the Big 12 because its overall strength of schedule will again be one of the worst in the country with nonconference wins against Northwestern State, SMU and Rice. It hasn’t helped that Oklahoma, Texas and TCU already have two losses each. It’s possible Baylor doesn’t have any wins over ranked opponents this year, though West Virginia should sneak the committee’s top 25 in if it keeps winning.

Next in line: West Virginia

How to make a playoff push: Play somebody. The Mountaineers have yet to play a ranked opponent, and have yet to play a road game. WVU’s schedule is backloaded, and ESPN’s FPI projects a less than 50 percent chance it will beat Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma. West Virginia ends the season at home on Dec. 3 against Baylor. If both teams can run the table until then, that game will mean something, but it looks like a long shot.

Group of 5

In the driver’s seat: Houston

Potential pitfall: The Power 5s. It’s not just Louisville that’s standing in Houston’s way on Nov. 17 — an already sold-out Thursday night home game for the Cougars. It’s also the Big Ten champ. The Pac-12 champ. The ACC champ. The SEC champ. It also didn’t help Houston that Louisville lost to Clemson, because there goes the Cougars’ chance to claim a win over the ACC champ. Houston has to go undefeated.

Next in line: Sorry, Boise State fans. There is no other potential playoff crasher waiting in the wings. The Broncos simply don’t have the schedule strength, even with an undefeated season. Houston’s résumé is different because it has Oklahoma and Louisville, but there’s still no margin for error.



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