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Tennessee’s Path To The College Football Playoff

Tennessee Recruiting
Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee dropped four spots to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings following its first loss of the season at now-No. 1 Georgia.

The Vols come in behind Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU and are sitting right outside the four team playoff with three weeks left in the regular season.

So, what does Tennessee need to do and what do they need to have go its way elsewhere to make the CFB Playoff for the first time?

What Tennessee needs to do is simple. That’s win its final three games before the committee makes its final decision. With Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt remaining on the schedule, that shouldn’t be a tall task for the Vols.

Beating those three teams handily and with style points would help Tennessee but how far it would go is unknown.

More than anything, Tennessee will need some degree of help to make its first CFB Playoff.

They already received some of that help last Saturday when LSU handed Alabama its second loss of the season and — more importantly — Clemson lost to Notre Dame.

Despite looking shaky all season, Clemson had skated past the hardest part of its schedule without a loss and seemed bound to return to the CFB Playoff.

With Clemson now eliminated from playoff contention, there’s two open seats at the table behind the spots that Georgia and the Big 10 champion will occupy.

The most important thing Tennessee needs is for TCU to drop a game. The fourth-ranked Horned Frogs are one of the best stories in the country under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. However, once TCU drops a game they will fall out of playoff contention.

The Horned Frogs face a tough task this weekend when they travel to Austin to face Texas. TCU also would have to defeat Baylor (road), Iowa State (home) and whomever they face in the Big 12 Championship game.

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The Pac 12 race is fascinating because there’s three teams who could still put a playoff resume together. The most obvious candidate is Oregon who is No. 6 in this week’s ranking and hasn’t lost since the season opening blowout against Georgia.

CFB Playoff committee chair Boo Corrigan said the committee views both Tennessee and Oregon’s losses to Georgia as “uncompetitive” meaning a one-loss Pac 12 champion Oregon would be ranked higher than a one-loss Tennessee.

Still, Oregon has an extremely challenging schedule remaining with regular season matchups against No. 25 Washington, No. 13 Utah and Oregon State. That’s all before the Pac 12 championship game against likely either USC or UCLA.

Both Southern Cal and California-Los Angeles have one loss on the season and meet in two weeks with a Pac 12 Championship birth on the line. Neither school has as strong a resume as Oregon but either — and particularly USC due to its brand appeal — would have a case to make the playoff as the Pac 12 Champion.

The final team that will have a case to make the CFB Playoff is the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game. Whoever wins will no doubt be in the playoff but the 11-1 loser of that game will remain in the hunt. Neither Michigan nor Ohio State would have a resume as strong as Tennessee’s with one loss.

If Ohio State beats Michigan, the Wolverines making the playoff over Tennessee would be shocking. However, a one-loss Ohio State team shouldn’t make it over Tennessee, I wouldn’t count on it with 100% confidence.

Why? The committee values the blue bloods who have made the playoffs consistently.

A week ago, one-loss Alabama ranked ahead of undefeated TCU in the rankings. This week, TCU ranked ahead of a one-loss Tennessee (with a better resume than Alabama).

Being ranked behind TCU doesn’t really matter for Tennessee. An undefeated TCU was always going to get in over a one-loss Tennessee and a one-loss Tennessee would get in over a one-loss TCU. What those rankings do show is that the committee doesn’t respect Tennessee like it does the Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State’s of the world.

Maybe Tennessee would get in over one-loss Ohio State, but Vol fans should be holding their breath in that scenario.

The one other scenario that would create chaos is LSU winning out and becoming a two-loss SEC Champion. Would the committee value the conference championship over Tennessee’s fewer losses and dominant win in Baton Rouge?

Tennessee has the better argument to make the playoff in that scenario but there is no true guarantee.

There are two-spots up in the air with four probable paths to filling them. An undefeated TCU, a one-loss Pac 12 Champion, the loser of Michigan-Ohio State and a one-loss Tennessee.

We’ve looked at each team’s path and its clear Tennessee will need some help. However, if TCU drops a game it would be very surprising to see the Vols not make the playoff.

All Tennessee can do is keep winning but with no more opportunities for a marquee win, the Vols’ November will be spent watching and hoping.

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