The first votes will not be taken for two weeks, when members of the College Football Playoff selection committee convene in Grapevine to set their initial set of rankings for a Nov. 1 release.
But the “Who’s in?” conversations about this year’s four-team playoff bracket have been unfolding for weeks among fans, college football analysts and radio talk-show hosts.
As things stand, No. 6 Texas A&M (6-0) and No. 11 Baylor (5-0) carry the primary playoff banners for teams from the Lone Star State after No. 13 Houston (5-1) tumbled out of the top 10 in the Associated Press poll following last week’s 46-40 loss to Navy. But it’s only midseason and most meaningful games in Power 5 conferences have yet to be played.
Based on the results we have seen, it’s tempting to group the front-runners into two four-team groups. The First Four includes No. 1 Alabama (5-0), No. 3 Clemson (6-0), No. 5 Washington (6-0) and the winner of the regular-season showdown between No. 2 Ohio State (5-0) and No. 4 Michigan (6-0) on Nov. 26 in Columbus, Ohio.
The Next Four includes A&M, No. 7 Louisville (4-1), the Ohio State-Michigan loser and a wild-card team that could turn into the Big 12 champion or a runner-up team from a Power 5 league.
Other teams will rise and wane in the coming weeks as playoff contenders collide on the field. Key matchups before the first meeting of the selection committee include A&M-Alabama (Oct. 22), Ohio State at No. 8 Wisconsin (Saturday) and Alabama at No. 9 Tennessee (Saturday).
Alabama: The only team to make the playoff field for two consecutive seasons, the Crimson Tide seems poised for a three-peat behind a stellar defense and an emerging difference-maker in freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. Alabama earned CFP access despite a regular-season loss in each of the past two seasons. It’s hard to imagine the defending champs will not be granted similar wiggle room again this season by the selection committee.
Ohio State: Because this year’s game against Michigan will be played at Ohio State, we’ll assume a Buckeyes’ victory. CFP decision-makers will be swayed by dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett and a balanced, athletic team that ranks No. 2 nationally in both scoring offense (53.2) and scoring defense (10.8). The Buckeyes’ 45-24 road victory over Oklahoma, the defending Big 12 champ, makes for a nice tie-breaker.
Clemson: The Tigers, who fell to Alabama 45-40 in last year’s CFP title game, have found their stride in recent weeks behind standout quarterback Deshaun Watson and a solid defense. Clemson appears poised to repeat as the ACC champion and return to the playoff field.
Washington: The Huskies have been wiping out their primary Pac-12 challengers behind quarterback Jake Browning, a Heisman Trophy contender. Under third-year coach Chris Petersen, Washington ranks fifth nationally in scoring offense (49.5) and sixth in scoring defense (14.2). That’s a playoff-worthy combination.
The next four
Michigan: As the road team on Nov. 26, we’ll assume the Wolverines lose at Ohio State. But that may not be a playoff-killer if it is Michigan’s lone loss. The Wolverines lead the nation in total defense (212.8 yards per game) and scoring defense (10.3). They also feature versatile linebacker Jabrill Peppers, who averages 19.2 yards per carry in spot duty on offense and has a punt return for a touchdown.
Texas A&M: The Aggies have turned heads with their 6-0 start but must take down top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 22 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to move into the top tier of playoff contenders. That’s not impossible. But it’s a tall task.
Louisville: The Cardinals feature the nation’s most electrifying player, quarterback Lamar Jackson, and a capable defense. But a 42-36 loss at Clemson on Sept. 17 will be hard to overcome in CFP deliberations.
Wild card: This could be an undefeated Big 12 champion if one of the remaining options, No. 11 Baylor (5-0) or No. 20 West Virginia (4-0), emerges. But that seems unlikely based on the Big 12’s apparent balance. A more likely scenario would be a non-champion from another Power 5 league with an 11-1 record, perhaps even 10-2 for the first time in playoff history. Candidates to track include No. 10 Nebraska (5-0), Tennessee (5-1), Wisconsin (4-1) and the winner of an Oct. 20 showdown between No. 16 Miami (4-1) and No. 17 Virginia Tech (4-1).