Michigan isn't going to the playoff.
No shame in that; we're building this year. The team is as good as we could have hoped for. The pathway is open for Michigan to win its way into Indianapolis, assuming Ohio State (or Penn State, I guess) knocks of MSU.
But the playoff discussion naturally came up tonight's playoff ranking post. And a good point was made--sooner or later a 2-loss team will make it.
What would it take for it to be Michigan? We've all thought about it. We've talked about it. Yeah, it's bats, but #14 won the title last year and stuff. How could it happen now?
Well, let's start by saying that the unusually strong roster of undefeated and one-loss teams makes this a less likely season for this sort of event; this is not 2007 where LSU was the best of many, many 2-loss squads in a year where upsets started strong and never stopped.
Ok, but what it would take?
There are six "lanes" to get to the place where four teams are picked for the playoff. X (as used by others on the board) represents the number of losses, for reference.
|B1G||Big 12||SEC||Pac 12||ACC||"Other"|
X=0 Ohio State
|X=0 Baylor||X=1 Alabama||X=1 Stanford||X=0 Clemson||X=1 Notre Dame|
|X=0 Oklahoma State||X=1 Florida||X=1 Utah||X=1 North Carolina||X=0 Houston|
X=1 Michigan State
|X=1 Oklahoma||X=1 LSU|
Out of the Big Ten, Michigan has the best chance of any current 2-loss team in the country to make the playoff. They are already the highest ranked team with such a record and a hypothetical B1G championship would involve beating both Ohio State and Iowa, both probably undefeated--an unimpeachable record. This scenario would also involve MSU losing at least once more, probably to Ohio State.
Such a result would, even with a worse record, probably propel Michigan to the top of the B1G "lane." Beating OSU and Iowa head-to-head should be enough to pass them in the minds of the committee with our resume (losses aren't that significant, but neither are at all bad and Utah was on the road).
Verdict: I WANT TO BELIEVE
What would then be needed is for two more lanes to fail to produce a team with a better resume; except for Houston and possibly UNC, this probably requires no team to finish with fewer than 2 losses. Also, let's assume for a moment that no conference gets two teams in, since I have hundreds of words of text already written that would be useless if that did occur. (Besides, I think the committee would rather have a strong 2-loss team than, say, LSU sneaking in on Alabama's coattails).
So, how could that happen? Let's assume, not unreasonably, that a Michigan team that accomplishes this will have the best rating of any 2-loss team in the country. Now, let's look at our "lanes" and see what our chances are:
The Big 12 is still very much up in the air, and the "big boys" still have a lot of games against each other, but it is hard to find a scenario where all teams end with at least 2 losses short of a highly improbably series of dramatic upsets to lesser foes. We're looking for realism here. A 1-loss or 0-loss Big 12 team will have wins over at least two of the power teams in the conference, both of which are high quality wins. That should be enough of a resume to get into the playoff over a 2-loss team. Jumping the Big 12's best candidate is unlikely.
Verdict: Highly Improbable
The SEC is probably going to be won by Alabama going away; I am not enthusiastic about their chances of losing again before the playoff. However, there is at least a small possibility that Florida could lose to arch-rival Florida State and then beat Alabama in the SEC championship, which would leave them with 2 losses but a resume pretty similar to ours. Also, LSU is still hanging around with 1 loss, and they have a win over Florida; barring an upset (say, at Ole Miss) they are hard to ignore as well. The chances of the SEC getting left out are always small, and right now nearly nonexistent.
Verdict: Highly Improbable
The ACC has fewer candidates, but its best candidate is the #1 team in the country with huge wins at home against Notre Dame and Florida State. Their three remaining regular season opponents should be walkovers; the ACC championship beckons, probably against a surging North Carolina team whose best win is... uh, Duke. Frankly, it is hard to see Clemson dropping two games the rest of the way; in the odd scenario where they did, their second loss is probably to North Carolina, and a (likely) 1-loss North Carolina team with a win over Clemson has a decent chance of jumping Michigan. Let's face it, Clemson is close to a lock.
Verdict: Highly Improbable
Three conferences, three near-locks for bids. What's left?
The Pac 12 has two reasonable playoff candidates: Stanford and our old friends at Utah. These two teams are the leading candidates to meet in the Pac-12 title game, which may be a playoff-elimination contest. However, these teams have something the previous scenarios do not: both have multiple losable games remaining on their schedule.
Utah travels to a struggling Arizona team this weekend, and while Arizona has been poor this is a very losable game for Utah. Next week they host a good UCLA team. If they somehow get by both of those (and Colorado the week following) they will be serious underdogs to Stanford in almost any scenario. There is a very good chance that they will lose again; and I believe Michigan at 2-losses with its quality of wins would jump them here despite head-to-head.
Stanford hosts Oregon, which now looks more like the Oregon we've expected the past few years, and travels to Cal. Those are not as dangerous as Utah's contests, but both are good teams and either could pull off the upset. Stanford also hosts Notre Dame... which, see below. It's possible that Stanford could lose the Pac 12 title game, but I don't consider it likely; the best scenario is for them to drop one of the next two games and then win out. Not assured, but... neither this nor the Utah scenario are at all ridiculous.
Verdict: Somewhat Plausible
Which brings us to "Other." I have Houston listed here because they could theoretically go undefeated with wins against Memphis and Navy and get at least some consideration if one-win teams aren't available, but I think it is unlikely.
But that leaves Notre Dame. And that's where Stanford again comes in, because after Wake and BC, Stanford is the conclusion to Notre Dame's season. At Stanford. Win and they're probably in. Lose and they have 2 (good) losses, but their best win is probably USC; they're out. Stanford is playing very well; there is a good chance they win here.
Verdict: Very Plausible
So Stanford getting upset once but winning the Pac 12 vaults Michigan past that lane; Stanford beating Notre Dame likely jumps them above that one as well.
Michigan is not making the playoff. But, is there a scenario where they sneak in? The likeliest, by far, involves Stanford suffering an upset against a good team this Saturday or next, and then winning out. Not likely, exactly, but it could happen.
If, at the end of November 21, Michigan and Stanford both have two losses, I believe Michigan is very much alive in the playoff race. If not, Michigan would require a series of upsets so improbable that Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect themselves would appear in person to witness it.
I don't think Michigan is ready for the playoff yet. They probably won't get in. But... it's not impossible. I welcome other scenarios.