Question of the Week: Which team outside the top four will make the College Football Playoff

Each week during the season, the USA TODAY Sports college staff (Jace Evans, Paul Myerberg, George Schroeder, Erick Smith and Eddie Timanus) will provide their answers to on an intriguing question from college football.

The initial College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday. With Alabama and LSU playing each other this week, it's likely someone from outside the top four will make the field. Which team has the best chance?

Jace Evans

Ohio State came in at No. 10 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, but don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes find a way into the top four come December. It’s hard to envision a one-loss Big Ten champion not snagging one of the four bids, and while Michigan presently finds itself five spots higher in the rankings than rival Ohio State, the Buckeyes have a slightly simpler path before hosting “The Game” in Columbus. As you may have heard, Jim Harbaugh has not beaten Ohio State since he got to Michigan. The Purdue game brought Ohio State’s issues to the surface, but it also made it easy to forget this fact: this is a supremely talented football team led by one of the greatest coaches of all time. The bet is in Urban Meyer – now 77-9 at Ohio State – figuring the defense out and riding QB Dwayne Haskins back to the playoff.

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Paul Myerberg

No. 5 Michigan is too easy an answer, since the Wolverines will move into the top four by default should they win this Saturday against No. 14 Penn State. Meanwhile, rival Ohio State needs to show drastic improvement in a handful of key areas before climbing from No. 10 into a national semifinal. So my pick is No. 7 Oklahoma. The Sooners’ schedule is good enough to impress the selection committee as other teams cannibalize each other, capped by a road trip to No. 13 West Virginia and a rematch with one of the Mountaineers, Texas or Iowa State to decide the Big 12. And OU looks the part, especially on offense. I like the Sooners to be there when the committee makes its final call in December.

George Schroeder

This comes down pretty easily to Michigan or Oklahoma. If Notre Dame loses somewhere along the way, both could easily find their way into the four-team bracket. If Notre Dame goes unbeaten, it could come down to a debate.

Either has to win out, of course. Michigan’s schedule features some tough games. But sandwiched between Penn State this week and Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 24 are Rutgers and Indiana. Those are wins. (Note also: Michigan’s only loss would be on the road, at Notre Dame – a team in the playoff bracket.)

For Oklahoma, meanwhile, only Kansas is a gimme. The Sooners have road games against Texas Tech and West Virginia and Bedlam vs. Oklahoma State at home. And then, there’s a Big 12 championship game – which could conceivably be a rematch, one week later, with West Virginia.

It’s a difficult closing stretch, although if Kyler Murray and the offense keep rolling, it seems doable. Oklahoma’s midseason staff change might also factor in. If the defense shows improvement after Mike Stoops’ departure, the committee might view the Sooners as very potent.

Which resume would the committee like better? How would the eye test figure in? Who knows? But if we want to go deep, this might be important: Both Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione and former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer (whose son Shane Beamer is an Oklahoma assistant) are recused from discussion and voting when Oklahoma is being considered. If there’s a significant debate, that could loom large.

So let’s go with the Wolverines.

Erick Smith

The key to this question is that it asks which team has the best chance. It's not about which team is the best. That honor would fall to Georgia. But the Bulldogs have no margin for error and likely must get through Alabama. If it was possible to know LSU would upset the Tide this weekend, then the pick would be different.

But without a crystal ball, the rankings committee gave us a bit of an insight to their perspective with Ohio State at No. 10, well beyond other contenders. That leaves the Buckeyes a lot of ground to make up even if they beat Michigan along the way to the Big Ten title. Michigan has won in Columbus once this century, so that's a pretty big hill them to climb.

That leaves Oklahoma, which again appears to be rounding into form after an early loss. A trip to West Virginia could be difficult. And there's a Big 12 title game rematch with someone. But the Sooners look to be on the upward trend unlike the rest of the league and that should get them into the field.

Eddie Timanus

The easy answer is Michigan, since it occupies the first spot outside the top four. The Wolverines have a couple of significant obstacles in their path, however, like this week’s home tilt with Penn State and the small matter of that season-ending trip to Columbus. The Buckeyes have a couple matters to deal with themselves before the Wolverines come calling, but we’ll hedge our bets a little and say whichever Big Ten East contender emerges victorious from the Horseshoe will find its way into the top four. 

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