After this week, the College Football Playoff committee will meet and release their first poll of the 2019, giving us a clear idea of where Utah truly stands in the playoff race. The Utes were pegged as a possible dark horse candidate by several national pundits at the start of the season, with ESPN’s Lee Corso going as far as picking Utah to defeat Clemson in the first round and move on to play Alabama in the title game. That hype quickly died down after an early conference road loss to USC, but with fewer undefeated teams left to chose from, the idea of Utah (or Oregon for that matter) nabbing a playoff bid is no longer impossible, but they’ll need some help.
As far as the Utes are concerned, their task is simple; win out. With four games remaining, including road trips against Washington and Arizona, with home contests against UCLA and Colorado, the schedule is no cakewalk, but certainly manageable. Furthermore, Utah will likely need USC to drop one more conference game (the Trojans face Oregon this weekend, followed by back-to-back road games against Arizona State and Cal, before returning home to face UCLA in their final game of the regular season). This would likely set up a Utah vs Oregon PAC-12 championship game, with the victor vying for a spot in the CFP.
Through ten weeks of games, nine undefeated teams remain including:
• LSU (8-0 SEC)
• Alabama (8-0 SEC)
• Ohio State (8-0 Big 10)
• Clemson (8-0 ACC)
• Penn State (8-0 Big 10)
• Baylor (7-0 Big 12)
• Minnesota (8-0 Big 10)
• SMU (8-0 AAC)
• Appalachian State (7-0 Sun Belt)
Of those nine teams, SMU and Appalachian State can safely be removed from the equation, as the committee is unlikely to allow a Group of Five team into the final four, effectively leaving seven teams vying to lock in their spot in the semi-finals. The biggest hurdle to Utah sneaking in lies in the SEC.
Both LSU and Alabama are on bye this week before facing off in Tuscaloosa on November 9th. The winner of this game is likely to represent the SEC West in the conference championship at the end of the season, however the loser isn’t necessarily relegated to a less-significant bowl game, as proven by the 2017 season when Alabama lost to Auburn in their regular season finale. The loss awarded Auburn the SEC West title, before eventually losing to Georgia in the conference championship. As for the Crimson Tide, the loss dropped them from #1 to #5 in the rankings, however once the dust had settled and each conference champion was crowned, the committee opted to give the #4 seed to an Alabama squad that didn’t even play for their conference title. A similar situation is possible this season. If Alabama defeats LSU and runs the table, but the Tigers also win out the rest of their schedule, it’s possible the committee gives the SEC two bids, with Alabama taking either the first or second seed, and LSU sneaking in at #4. For Utah to find a way in, Alabama will need two conference losses, meaning LSU and Auburn will need to pull the upset, which would undoubtedly give the Tigers the #1 seed.
Up next is the Big 10, which currently houses three undefeated teams in Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota. Minnesota is presently atop the standings in the Big 10 West, but are projected by ESPN’s Football Power Index to finish the season 1-3 with losses to Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin all possible. Assuming FPI is correct, and Penn State comes away victorious, the Nittany Lions next road block comes on 11/23 when they travel to Columbus to battle Ohio State. The victor will likely represent the Big 10 East in the title game against either Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Iowa. While anything is possible, the Big 10 West appears to be the stronger division in 2019, meaning the #2 seed in the CFP looks to belong to whoever the winner of the PSU/OSU matchup ends up being.
In the Big 12, Baylor is the last remaining undefeated team following Oklahoma’s upset loss at the hands of Kansas State. The final portion of their schedule includes a Halloween night battle against West Virginia before traveling to TCU the following week. A home date against Oklahoma on 11/16 could go a long way in how the committee views both Baylor and Oklahoma moving forward, with a Baylor victory helping their case for a top four seed, and a loss dropping the Big 12 down with the PAC-12 in trying to convince the CFP that a one-loss team is a viable option for a playoff spot.,
As the defending national champion, Clemson is the ACC’s only hope of being represented in the CFP this season. If Clemson can stay undefeated, they’re certainly in, likely as the #3, however a near upset against North Carolina earlier this season has suggested the Tigers may be more susceptible than previously thought. Their remaining schedule sets up nicely for another undefeated run, with FCS foe Wofford up next, followed by a trip to a 4-3 NC State squad. A home date with 6-1 Wake Forest will decide which team comes out on top of the Atlantic division of the ACC, and if the Demon Deacons don’t pull the upset, an out-of-conference date with South Carolina, who previously upset Georgia, looms large to close out the season. Utah will need Clemson to lose one of those games in order to help make their case to the selection committee.
If the cards don’t fall completely in Utah’s favor, winning out the regular season still leaves the door open for a couple of New Years Six bowl appearances. A hypothetical loss in the conference championship to Oregon could still pit the Utes in the Rose Bowl if the committee determines Oregon’s resume is worthy enough of a top four ranking when all is said and done, and if both Utah and Oregon fail to crack the CFP, Utah could make a case for a Cotton Bowl bid against the highest ranked Group of Five team, meaning fans may want to start paying attention to the likes of Cincinnati, Memphis, App State and Boise.