The fun part is that, about two-thirds of the way through the season, all three intriguing — and potentially consequential — possibilities listed above remain on the table.
Notre Dame (7-1), ranked No. 5 in The Associated Press poll and with its lone loss coming by one point against No. 2 Georgia, is a contender to make the bracket.
Georgia also complicates the math. The Bulldogs (8-0) and No. 1 Alabama (8-0) are among top-tier college football’s five remaining undefeated teams, and both are in the SEC. The committee might look askance at the low quality of their opposition — Georgia has played only two ranked teams and Alabama, as one might say in Tuscaloosa, ain’t played nobody — but if both win out and then play each other in a competitive SEC title game, both might land in the playoff.
Outside the Power 5, Central Florida (7-0) of the American Athletic Conference — generally regarded as the closest thing to a sixth power conference — is No. 15 according to The A.P. but, with several blowouts and victories over No. 22 Memphis (7-1) and Navy (5-2), will likely be ranked even higher by the committee.
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As of now, the Power 5 league least likely to be represented in the playoff is the Pac-12, whose teams have steadily beaten each other; only one of its teams is ranked in The A.P.’s top 15.
But also perilously perched is the Big 12, which missed two of the first three playoffs. Its last undefeated team this season, Texas Christian, lost at No. 14 Iowa State on Saturday, dropping to 7-1 and No. 10. No. 8 Oklahoma (7-1) also lost to Iowa State (6-2), and the Sooners still must play No. 11 Oklahoma State (7-1) and T.C.U. There is also a conference title game featuring the league’s two best teams.
If chaos ensues in the Big 12, with its four top teams beating one another in irregular fashion, then missing the playoff for the third time in four seasons is a strong possibility.
But even more damning would be for the Big 12 champion to deserve to make the playoff — and still fail to get a bid. Take the Sooners, for example, who still could rip off four impressive wins to go with a September victory at No. 3 Ohio State (7-1) — and then find themselves ranked fifth or sixth, behind some combination of the SEC champion, the Big Ten champion, a one-loss A.C.C. champion (or even an undefeated one: hello, Miami!), a great one-loss SEC team and even one-loss Notre Dame.
That kind of ego-bruising, budget-blowing disappointment would not be unprecedented. At the end of the 2004 season, Auburn was 12-0 and was passed over for the Bowl Championship Series title game. Although the four-team playoff took another decade to arrive, that Tigers season is seen in retrospect as the moment it became inevitable.
If the Big 12, with tradition-rich Oklahoma boasting a deserving résumé and (possibly) a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Baker Mayfield, finds its face pressed against the wrong side of the glass yet again, then prepare for more changes to the way college football picks its champion.