The road to the College Football Playoff has almost completely disappeared for the Michigan Wolverines, but an unlikely path still exists. As Tuesday night’s rankings revealed, No. 5 Michigan still has a thin shred of hope to sneak into the top four. After losing a controversial heartbreaker to No. 2 Ohio State, the Wolverines, lost the opportunity to control their own fate. Now they have to sit back and hope that virtually everything falls their way.
There are two reasons Michigan is even in the playoff conversation. The first is an impressive resume that few other contenders can match up against. Wins over No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Penn State, and No. 8 Colorado, give Michigan more top-10 victories than the other teams around them, and also provide important head-to-head advantages.
The second reason is that the playoff picture is very messy right now. During the first two seasons, every playoff team was a conference champion. Ohio State is going to break that mold this year, potentially opening the door for another team do to so as well. With many of the Power Five conference champions potentially ending the season with a couple of losses and iffy resumes, Michigan may be able to jump ahead of them.
As it stands right now, two of the four playoff spots are accounted for by Alabama and Ohio State. (The assumption is that Ohio State is favored to both Penn State and Wisconsin because of the current ranking.) The other two spots come down to five teams: Clemson, the winner of Washington-Colorado, the winner of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, the winner of Penn State-Wisconsin, and Michigan. For the Wolverines to end in the top four, they must be better than at least three of their four competitors.
The situation in the ACC is fairly cut and dry. No. 3 Clemson sits at 11-1 and faces No. 23 Virginia Tech in the conference championship game. A win would guarantee a spot in the playoff for the Tigers, severely hampering Michigan’s chances. But a win by the 9-3 Hokies might knock the ACC completely out of the playoff. Michigan would certainly rank ahead of Virginia Tech, and a two-loss, non-champion Clemson should also fall behind Michigan because of their inferior resume.
There is not a ton to say here, as No. 1 Alabama will make the playoff regardless of the SEC championship game outcome, and No. 15 Florida has too many loses to jump in with a win. However, Michigan should be rooting for the Gators to pull the upset this weekend. With Ohio State already sure to make the playoff, a loss by Alabama would put two non-champions in the top four. If the committee is willing to value quality resumes over conference titles, the window is wide open for the Wolverines.
The Big 12 does not have a championship game, but the winner of No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 10 Oklahoma State will take the conference title. The victor will end 10-2, but both would have a much less impressive resume than Michigan. Maybe the committee would place a ton of value on the conference championship, but since the Wolverines are currently ranked at least four spots ahead of both, they should still be ranked ahead of the Big 12 champion after this weekend.
Somewhat similar to the ACC, Michigan needs an upset in the Pac-12 championship game. A win by No. 4 Washington should put them into the playoff, given just their one loss and their conference title. However, things get interesting if Colorado gets the win instead. The Buffaloes would have the same amount of losses as Michigan -- better losses, too -- and would have a conference title with them.
But since Michigan already proved on the field that they are the better team, and given the three-spot gap in rankings this week, it seems like the committee would favor the Wolverines here. Maybe a win over Washington would be enough for the Buffaloes, but it looks like the committee would still rank Michigan ahead of a Pac-12 champion Colorado.
Somebody has to win the Big Ten, but neither team should feel too confident about their ranking after the fact. Michigan beat both Penn State and Wisconsin during the season, and the Wolverines have more top-10 wins than either team. Winning the conference will mean something, but Michigan’s head-to-head victory will mean something too.
The winner of the Big Ten will have a conference championship that Michigan does not have, and will have one extra win with the same amount of losses. However, Penn State would only have two top-10 wins and Wisconsin would have just one top-10 win, compared to three top-10 wins for the Wolverines. But even more important than these factors should be Michigan’s head-to-head victory over each team.
Michigan’s rooting interests are pretty close, but the edge goes to Penn State because they are currently ranked slightly lower. Additionally, the Wolverines dominated the Nittany Lions during the season, compared to a closer victory over the Badgers. Could the Big Ten champion win and still be ranked behind Michigan? For the Wolverines to make the playoff, this has to be the case.
One game away
For Michigan to have a chance, the committee is going to need to favor them over at least two conference champions, one of whom is from their own conference. Given the current order of the rankings, Michigan should feel confident over Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, even if these teams were able to win their conference this weekend.
The Big Ten situation is much less clear, but the committee definitely feels at this time that Michigan is better than both of Wisconsin and Penn State. The latter teams have a chance to add a signature win this weekend and will hold the conference title, but the Wolverines still hold the head-to-head advantage over both. Assuming Michigan stays above the Big Ten champion leaves just four teams ahead of them: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington.
Alabama and Ohio State are going to be in no matter what. That means Michigan can make the playoff if either Clemson or Washington loses. FiveThirtyEight is giving Virginia Tech a 20 percent chance of winning, while Colorado sits at 32 percent (meaning there is a 45.6 percent chance of at least one winning). One of these teams needs to pull the upset, and if they do, the Wolverines might be on their way to the semifinals. Even if there is an upset, Michigan could still be left out in the cold, but the idea of the Wolverines making the top four now seems closer to reality than just a dream.