SALT LAKE CITY — It may be a rocky path, but there’s a fairly realistic way for the Utah football team to make it to the College Football Playoff next month.
The Utes were ranked No. 8 in the first playoff rankings that came out Tuesday evening, just as they were in the AP poll that came out Sunday.
That means Utah has to supplant at least five other schools to make it to football’s version of the Final Four, which will be announced Dec. 7, along with the rest of the bowl matchups.
Two semifinal games will be played on Dec. 28 — the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta and the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona — with the two winners playing for the national championship set for Jan. 13 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
It goes without saying that Utah must win its final three regular-season games against UCLA, Arizona and Colorado and then win the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 6 in Santa Clara, California, to have any chance of making it to the College Football Playoff. However, the Utes are going to need some help over the next month to find their way into the four-team playoffs.
Here’s what is almost certain when it comes to the CFP:
— At least one SEC team will make it — either No. 2 LSU or No. 3 Alabama, who play this week in Tuscaloosa, with one-loss No. 6 Georgia having an outside chance.
— At least one Big Ten team will make it — either No. 1 Ohio State or No. 4 Penn State, both unbeaten, who play each other on Nov. 23.
— Defending champion Clemson (No. 5) is likely to stay unbeaten in the weak Atlantic Coast Conference and make it to the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
— The fourth spot will likely go to a one-loss Pac-12 team, a one-loss Big 12 team or a second team from the SEC or Big Ten.
Here’s what needs to happen for the Utes to crash the party:
— Besides winning their last three games, the Utes need Oregon to win its last three games, giving them a high-ranked team to beat in the Pac-12 title game.
— LSU needs to beat Alabama Saturday afternoon. Because the Tigers have played a tougher schedule and are playing on the road, they can almost eliminate the Crimson Tide from top-four consideration. But if Alabama wins, then both teams are probably still alive, although only one can play in the SEC title game. It’s possible the loser could sneak into the playoffs without winning its division as Alabama did a few years ago.
— Penn State and Ohio State BOTH need at least one loss. One of them will have to lose when the two play on Nov. 23. But if one ends up undefeated and the other only has one loss, both could make it into the playoffs. Penn State has tough games at Minnesota this weekend, the game at Ohio State and the Big Ten title game if it gets that far. Ohio State has to play at Michigan on Nov. 30 in addition to Penn State and a possible Big Ten title game.
— Georgia needs to lose one more game. The Bulldogs have a tough game at Auburn on Nov. 16 and then must beat the winner of the SEC West on Dec. 6. If it’s an unbeaten Alabama or LSU, then both would probably get in.
— No. 9 Oklahoma looked like a final four team for much of the season before losing to K-State. If the Sooners win out, including a Big 12 championship victory, they could jump into the playoffs.
— Auburn is ranked No. 11 and has a win over Oregon to its credit. The Tigers could make some noise with wins over Georgia on Nov. 16 and Alabama on Nov. 30, but the Tigers do have two losses, which will hurt their chances. Same with No. 10 Florida, which also has two losses.
— Minnesota and Baylor are both unbeaten and if both run the table, they could leapfrog a one-loss Pac-12 champion like Utah or Oregon.
However, Minnesota is way back at No. 17 and has a tough road, with a game against Penn State this week, at Iowa the following week and a likely Big Ten championship matchup against Ohio State or Penn State.
No. 13 Baylor hosts Oklahoma on Nov. 16 and Texas the following week and would need to win the Big 12 title game.
— Upsets. Already this year, we’ve seen some head-scratchers, such as Kansas State’s win over Oklahoma and Illinois’ win over Wisconsin. Perhaps No. 19 Wake Forest will surprise Clemson on Nov. 16 or Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia team will knock off Clemson if it gets to the ACC title game.
If the Utes are able to win their last three regular-season games, they have a good chance of making a New Year’s Six bowl even if they don’t make the playoffs.
If no Pac-12 school gets in the playoffs, the winner of the championship game will go to the Rose Bowl. The loser of the game could end up at a New Year’s Six bowl such as the Cotton Bowl, which will be played Dec. 28 in Dallas. Or if a Pac-12 school gets into the playoffs, the loser would play in the Rose Bowl.