Nobody could fathom Florida being in the position they’re in right now ten days ago.
Yes, it was just two Saturdays ago that the season seemed destined to settle for consolation prizes. The Gators were celebrating their Senior Day in Gainesville against South Carolina. Jim McElwain’s team was coming off a 31-10 thrashing at the hands of an unranked Arkansas squad, and even though they still controlled their own destiny in theory, everybody was watching the scoreboard to see if Tennessee would lose. That’s how much faith this fan base had in Florida beating LSU in Death Valley.
It wasn’t just the fact that LSU was favored, or that the game was in Baton Rouge that had the Gator Nation hoping instead of believing. It was the way the Gators were so thoroughly taken apart by Arkansas- a team that was then in turn taken apart by that LSU team Florida had to play next- that made for the most depressing mood I’ve ever seen from a fan base that controlled its own destiny to its conference championship.
Then a 16-10 win over LSU changed everything.
Once the shock wore off, reality set in. Not only did Florida clinch their spot in the SEC Championship Game in the most unbelievable way possible, the Gators now control their own destiny to the College Football Playoff. Yes, really. And let me preface this entire explanation with this: nobody is claiming Florida will win out. That’s an entirely different argument. I’m just saying that if they do, the ultimate reward will be waiting for them.
Florida comes into rivalry week sitting at #15 in the CFP Rankings. That’s not a terrible position to be in with two games still to play, but it isn’t idea, either. However, should the Gators beat #14 FSU and then beat #1 Alabama, they would have two advantages that nobody else in the country can claim, and a third that only four other teams could claim.
Per the CFP’s official guidelines, they select the four playoff teams based on four main criteria:
- Did you win your conference?
- Head to head competition
- Strength of schedule
- Common opponents
Florida’s strength of schedule throughout its first nine games wasn’t much to sneeze at, with the exception of a road game against Tennessee (which they lost). But that’s about to change. And on top of that, they would have additional criteria in their favor that the current rankings do not reflect.
Don’t be fooled into worrying about all the teams Florida is currently stuck behind, or even how Florida would simply be dumped into the massive pool of two-loss teams. Things will work themselves out.
Let’s start with the (safe) assumption that Florida jumps all three of the three-loss teams currently ranked ahead of them if they can beat FSU this weekend. The committee has not yet factored in the road trip to #14 FSU into the Gators’ strength of schedule, but once they do- assuming Florida wins, of course- Florida would hop up to #12 heading into its showdown with Alabama. The only logical way this doesn’t happen is if Auburn shocks Alabama this weekend, but even if they do, the Gators would vault over Auburn if they beat Alabama in two weeks simply because they won their conference and Auburn did not. But really, nobody’s worrying about being stuck behind three loss teams; I’m just covering all the bases here.
The first cluster of teams the Gators will need and figure to pass reside in the midwest. Three of the Big 10 teams currently ranked ahead of Florida will be in that two loss pool, and won’t be able to say they won their conference; either Ohio State or Michigan will have a second loss after Saturday, and Penn State and Wisconsin already do. The Big 10 would get its champion in, but that would be it.
Louisville would be in that two loss pool, too. But nobody really believes the Gators wouldn’t jump them simply with the added strength of schedule that the next two weeks provides, right? Good. Moving on.
With all that said, the Gators still have seven teams left to deal with, and that number needs to get whittled down to three. Realize that #8 Oklahoma and #10 Oklahoma State play each other, and one of them has to lose their third game of the season, and now that number of teams needed to pass is six.
The Pac-12 is where things get tricky. #5 Washington (10-1) plays #23 Washington State (8-3) for the Pac-12 North championship, while #9 Colorado (9-2) has to beat Utah to clinch the Pac-12 South. If Utah springs the upset, #13 USC (8-3) takes the South and goes to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Play around with all the permutations you’d like, but all that does is alter 10-2 Florida’s Playoff chances from lock to pretty sure bet. To be completely safe, the ideal scenario is that one of the three loss teams wins the Pac-12. The worst case scenario is that Washington wins it. But even if Washington does win the Pac-12, it feels like Florida is pretty likely to jump the entire Pac-12 should they win their next two games.
Keep in mind that the committee has not factored in Florida’s road trip to #14 FSU or neutral site game against Alabama into its strength of schedule calculations, nor have they factored in that Florida won their conference as this hypothetical situation has them doing. Washington’s strength of schedule is more impressive than Florida’s right now, but won’t be for long. Each of the next two weeks see Florida play much stronger teams than Washington, and though they’d be even in the “we won our conference!” department, the hypothetical wins over FSU on the road and on a neutral field over Alabama- a team that the committee has shown undying allegiance to since it was first formed in 2014- would almost surely vault the Gators over the Huskies and into the four team field, even with one more loss than Washington, and would probably touch off riots if it didn’t.
Having said all that, I’m not counting on Hypothetical 10-2 SEC Champ Florida jumping Hypothetical Pac-12 Champ Washington quite yet. I’m pretty confident they would, but they’re not guaranteed to. They would, however, jump the rest of the Pac-12 for sure, so that cuts Colorado out of the mix. We’re down to five teams still ahead of Florida.
Now let’s circle back to the Big 12. Given that the Big 12 champion would have two losses, we can safely assume a 10-2 Florida team would be given the same preferential treatment over that Big 12 champion that they would over a two loss or potentially even one loss Pac-12 champ. The number of teams Florida needs to jump is adjusted downward to four.
So here’s where we stand, if you’ve followed everything so far. Barring a Clemson upset, there are four teams ahead of the Gators: one-loss ACC champ Clemson, a one-loss Big 10 champion, one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington, and… one-loss SEC runner-up Alabama… a team that Florida would not only have the “we won our conference!” advantage over, but the head to head advantage over as well. And while a comparison of overall records and common opponents would benefit Alabama, (Alabama beat Arkansas and Tennessee, both of whom beat Florida) that’s not nearly enough to overcome the head to head loss to Florida that Alabama would have nor the fact that Florida won their conference and Alabama did not.
So mark this down: if Florida wins their next two games, they would jump Alabama.
And now, at last, we have our four team playoff in a scenario where the Gators get no help: 12-1 ACC Champ Clemson, 12-1 Big 10 Champ Ohio State/Michigan, and 12-1 Pac-12 Champ Washington. Of course, getting help via mass chaos at the top of the rankings is never a bad thing, like if Clemson loses to either North Carolina or Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship, or if Washington State wins the Pac-12, but it’s never safe to assume anything like that happens, and even if it does happen, it wouldn’t necessarily change much.
Again, none of this is to say that Florida will win out. They could very well lose their next two games. All I’m saying is that if the Gators do win their next two games, they should have nothing to worry about.