Entering the final weekend of the regular season, with its tantalizing lineup of traditional rivalry games, does it seem as if there is an unusual number of contenders for the four College Football Playoff berths?
That’s probably because there are more undefeated or one-loss contenders at this point in the season than there have been in any of the previous four years of the playoff.
After Saturday’s games, eight teams from the so-called Power Five conferences (including independent Notre Dame) had no losses or just one. (From the second-tier conferences, known as the Group of Five, Central Florida remains undefeated, with 23 straight wins, and Utah State is 10-1, but the selection committee has ignored such teams in the past.) There were seven in 2014 and 2015 — when North Carolina, at 10-1, was not considered a serious contender. There were six last year, and just four in 2016. The selection committee had it easy!
It easily could have been nine such teams, but West Virginia lost unexpectedly at Oklahoma State (6-5) on Saturday, dropping to 9-2 and No. 12 in the Associated Press poll.
Here are those final eight: No. 1 Alabama (11-0), No. 2 Clemson (11-0), No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0), No. 4 Michigan (10-1), No. 5 Georgia (10-1), No. 6 Oklahoma (10-1), No. 7 Washington State (10-1) and No. 10 Ohio State (10-1).
So the final week of the 2018 season is shaping up to be the most consequential in years — and the decisions regarding those four spots in the bracket could be the most hotly debated yet.
Of those eight contenders, four are playing traditional rivals in relatively easy games; two are playing against stout, highly ranked competition; and the final two are playing each other in perhaps the biggest rivalry game of them all: Michigan-Ohio State, on the last Saturday of the regular season, at noon (as always).
The Buckeyes helped neither themselves nor the Wolverines by needing overtime on Saturday to defeat Maryland (5-6). Last week, the selection committee and the A.P. voters ranked two-loss Louisiana State above Ohio State, and it seems likely that this week, the committee will join the A.P. in slotting Central Florida above them.
And yet, salvation may await. If Ohio State wins on Saturday against Michigan and its top-ranked defense, that will immediately become the most impressive victory on the Buckeyes’ résumé.
The winner of Ohio State-Michigan will play No. 20 Northwestern (7-4) the next weekend in Indianapolis in the Big Ten championship game. If the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes and finish with just one loss — at Notre Dame back in September — could the committee leave them out of the playoff?
It would be unlikely in a normal year, but this is not a normal year.
Alabama will try to avenge its Iron Bowl loss last year against Auburn (7-4) in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Much was made of the 10-10 halftime score this weekend when Alabama hosted The Citadel of the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, but let the record show that the final score was 50-17.
Clemson welcomes South Carolina (6-4) to the Upstate a week after demolishing Duke, 35-6.
Notre Dame, fresh off its big win over Syracuse, heads to Los Angeles to face Southern California (5-6), which on Saturday handed U.C.L.A. and Chip Kelly their third win of the year.
And Georgia will host Georgia Tech (7-4).
Pause here for a moment. Those four teams — all heavily favored to win — will be extremely well-positioned for the playoff if they do win. As some are already noticing, those teams’ inclusion in the playoff would lock out three Power Five conferences — which could be a problem for the four-team playoff just five years into its 12-year contract.
After next Saturday, Notre Dame has no more scheduled games. Clemson faces No. 24 Pittsburgh (7-4) for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship up the road in Charlotte, N.C. And Alabama and Georgia will contest the Southeastern Conference title in Atlanta. Would the committee hold a loss against either team, particularly with Georgia’s sole defeat to this point having come on the road at No. 7 L.S.U. (9-2)?
Now consider the other four contenders, who face far tougher tests.
It starts Friday night as Oklahoma faces still-formidable West Virginia on the road.
Also that night, Washington State hosts No. 16 Washington (8-3) in the 112th Apple Cup. The winner will play No. 18 Utah (8-3) in the Pacific-12 title game a week later.
And then Saturday brings Michigan-Ohio State.
So whom does the committee leave out? A one-loss Alabama team that fails to win its conference? Or Oklahoma, 12-1 with a Big 12 championship? Or a 12-1 Washington State team with a Pac-12 title?
There are no good solutions, and the most likely outcome is a bad one for someone.
One of the great things about rivalry weekend is that the passion the games generate invariably leads to a few upsets. Advice to the committee: Root for plenty of those.