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Can Utah Make the College Football Playoff?

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Utah is ranked No. 12 and No. 13 in the Amway Coaches Poll and the AP Poll this week. We will find out tonight where they are ranked in the College Football Playoff poll. The Utes control their own destiny in the Pac-12. If they win out, they win the Pac-12 South and will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. With talk of teams like Auburn or Oklahoma still in the College Football Playoff with two losses, could Utah still have a shot? The short answer is almost certainly not, but let’s delve a little deeper. Despite controlling their own destiny in the Pac-12, Utah would need a lot of help nationally to be one of the four teams in the Playoff. There is one thing going for the Utes though, Ohio State in 2014 and Oklahoma in 2015 were ranked No. 16 and No. 15 respectively in the initial College Football Playoff rankings for those years. Ohio State went on to win the National Championship, and Oklahoma made the Playoff. Remember, Utah was No. 16 in the initial rankings this season.

First, for Utah to have any chance, they absolutely need to run the table and win the Pac-12. This is far from a guarantee. Joseph Silverzweig, using ESPN’s FPI, gives Utah only a 9.5% chance to run the table in the final three regular season games. The Utes have a 10.0% chance to go 0-3 in those games though. If Utah did manage to go 3-0 down the stretch, they still would have to win the Pac-12 Championship Game, against either a Washington team that beat Utah in Salt Lake City or a Washington State team who presents a matchup problem against Utah (WSU is 2-1 against Utah since Mike Leach took over as head coach in 2012).

For this scenario, let’s make the huge assumption that Utah wins the Pac-12 (which Joseph could likely calculate, but I would expect it would be a 5% chance or likely less), what needs to happen nationally for Utah to make the Playoff? A two-loss team has not yet made the College Football Playoff. A two-loss Pac-12 Champion Stanford was left out last year because the other four Power 5 conference champions all had one loss or less. I believe the ACC, Big 10, and SEC champions are all in, which leaves one spot. It could be claimed by the Big XII Champion, the Pac-12 Champion, or a one-loss non-conference champion team from the ACC, Big 10, or SEC.

The Big XII is down this year, and there are currently only two teams with one loss in that conference (Baylor and West Virginia), and both still have multiple tough games left. The best case scenario for Utah would be to have a Big XII champ with three losses (I think a two-loss Oklahoma is probably a more attractive choice than a two-loss Utah, given that the Sooners are ranked higher and were a Playoff team last season). This would eliminate the Big XII Champion, leaving the final spot to either Utah or a one-loss team that did not win its conference.

Utah in that scenario would still have to contend with several one-loss teams that did not win their conference. The SEC has only one team with one loss or less (thanks to Texas A&M falling to Mississippi State): Alabama. If Alabama wins the SEC, there is not a second SEC team that is more attractive than the Pac-12 Champion (even a two-loss Utah team). If Auburn were to win the SEC, I could easily see both Alabama (who would have only one loss) and Auburn making the College Football Playoff. Ohio State falling to Penn State was hugely helpful to the Pac-12’s Playoff hopes. If Ohio State loses to Michigan, they would likely not get in over the Pac-12 Champion (even if it is a two-loss Utah team). However, if Ohio State wins, a one-loss Michigan team could get in over a two-loss Pac-12 Champion Utah. Another possible team is Louisville in the ACC. The Cardinals lost in a close game at Clemson, so they could be a threat to make it into the Playoff over the Pac-12 Champion.

For Utah to have any shot to make the Playoff if they win the Pac-12, they would need Auburn, Baylor, Louisville, Oklahoma, Ohio State (or Michigan to lose two), and West Virginia to all lose at least one more game each. Baylor, Oklahoma, and West Virginia all still have to play each other, and Ohio State has to play Michigan, but they get Michigan at home. A Michigan loss at Iowa on Saturday would help the Pac-12 Champion greatly because that would mean the loser of The Game would have two losses. Auburn plays Alabama in the Iron Bowl to likely decide the SEC West the same weekend as Ohio State-Michigan and the Rumble in the Rockies. This season has been relatively free of chaos so far, so either we are due for tons of it in November, or we continue to have a season that goes relatively according to script.

A more achievable goal, that would require little to no help, is playing in the Rose Bowl. There are two different ways for the Utes to make the Rose Bowl, one would be to win the Pac-12 then they are guaranteed a spot. Utah could also make the Rose Bowl without winning the Pac-12. For that to happen, Utah would need to win the Pac-12 South, and they need Washington to run the table and play in the College Football Playoff. My understanding is that if the Pac-12 Champion is in the Playoff, the Rose Bowl would then select the next highest ranked team in the conference provided they are in the top 15. Colorado defeating Washington State would also help bolster Utah’s case over the Cougars as well in this scenario and could get the Buffaloes into the Cotton Bowl perhaps, which would be great for the Pac-12.

Because the only thing Utah can control is winning the Pac-12 South, that should be the goal. It will not be easy, so if Utah is the 2016 Pac-12 South Champions, it should be viewed as a tremendous accomplishment. Anything beyond that is just icing on the preverbal cake.