Key questions for College Football Playoff rankings release
The country’s top four teams — Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU — all won on Saturday to remain undefeated. As such, not much, if anything, should change Tuesday night when the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its third of six rankings at 9 p.m. ET.
Tennessee No. 5 should also maintain its spot after its lopsided win over Missouri, giving the Volunteers a chance to finish in the top four on selection day without winning their league or division.
After that, things get more interesting, but not unpredictable. No. 7 LSU should remain the committee’s top team with two losses, and USC will replace Oregon as the Pac-12’s top playoff contender after the Ducks and UCLA both lost. With Oregon falling, LSU should move up a spot to 6th, followed by a promotion for USC to 7th.
While things may seem simple above, the ramifications get a bit more complicated on selection day. Here’s your guide to interpreting what the committee is thinking behind closed doors, along with Adam Rittenberg’s argument for Clemson being ranked higher than USC and ESPN’s top 4 picks from college football reporters:
1. How much room for error does TCU really have? The Horned Frogs secured a spot in the Big 12 title game on Saturday night, and if they finish as undefeated conference champions, TCU is in the playoffs. If Tuesday night’s selection committee nudges TCU ahead of Michigan, it could indicate the Frogs have a little more leeway, but the strength of the conference as a whole is a question. With the exception of TCU, every team in the Big 12 has at least three losses, guaranteeing the Frogs will face a lower-ranked opponent in the conference title game. (The Ohio State-Michigan winner will face a similar scenario in the Big Ten, but victories in that rivalry game and over Penn State will trump anything TCU has on its resume). Notice where TCU’s opponents rank, starting with Texas, which now has four losses. If the frogs stumble upon Baylor (which they shouldn’t, given the bears’ spiral), their schedule could cost them.
2. Is LSU the only two-loss team with a chance? Alabama avoided disaster with Saturday’s win at Ole Miss, but by defeating the Rebels, the Crimson Tide secured LSU’s spot in the SEC championship game as West Division winners. Alabama should stay behind LSU in the rankings based on the head-to-head result, but it could also seem deceptively close at No. 8. There will be movement ahead of the 8-2 tide, as Ohio State or Michigan will lose in the regular season finals, and it’s possible for TCU to lose and/or Georgia to knock LSU out of the conversation. The CFP rankings don’t follow the Associated Press poll mentality; It’s not that easy for teams to lose and others to rise. Without a conference or department title, Alabama would face much more rigorous scrutiny in the selection committee boardroom. The group has a written protocol to adhere to, and Alabama would fall short in three critical areas: championships won, schedule strength, and head-to-head results.
3. How bad is the Pac-12’s situation? With USC still a top-10 team, the conference is still in the mix, but keep an eye on how far Oregon and UCLA fall — and where Utah fits in with two losses. The good news for the league is that Washington should move up and gave the conference five ranked teams, which is impressive. With no divisions, the Pac-12 is also in better shape than the Big Ten and Big 12 in terms of its title game (at least for now), as both leagues will have a team with at least three losses playing for their championship. If USC tops the table and ends up losing as the conference champion, it has most likely defeated three opponents in a row: UCLA, Notre Dame, and its opponent in the title game. That could be the boost the Trojans need, maybe ahead of Tennessee. It could also give them an advantage over TCU as Big 12 champions with one loss. The one message that should be clear: It’s USC or bust in the Pac-12.
4. Does North Carolina have a chance with a loss? Tar Heels fans want to know why their team isn’t sparking serious discussion. It’s a fair question with two simple answers: lack of evidence wins and defense. North Carolina’s regular season schedule does not feature a ranked opponent or a Power 5 non-conference win. An upset from Clemson in the ACC title game won’t make up for that, especially since the Heels’ defense played so poorly, allowing Appalachian State to have 61 points and at least 24 points in every win this season except against Virginia Tech (41-10). UNC is a brave team that is undefeated in the conference game, but when the conference is struggling, it’s harder to come through.
What the Committee will – and should – do
I’ve had far less beef with the second CFP ranking than I did with the first version, but it wouldn’t be a Tuesday in November without something to complain about. The top six spots in Tuesday night’s leaderboard shouldn’t cause too many surprises, but things could get interesting at number 7 and below, especially with a new Pac-12 leader and the teams lurking just behind.
What the CFP Selection Committee will do: Rank USC ahead of Clemson
What the CFP Selection Committee should do: Rank Clemson ahead of USC
When nine of the top 10 teams win in the rankings, it’s tempting not to play around with the order. Oregon will no doubt fall to a good but not elite Washington team after their home loss. USC is now the only losing team left in the Pac-12. The Trojans did nothing to inevitably lose their position and overcame a sluggish first quarter on Friday night to beat Colorado 55-17. USC has eclipsed 40 points for the eighth time this season, the most in FBS with Oregon.
But USC, through no fault of their own, beat another bad team, which the Trojans spent most of the season doing. As pointed out the great Jon Wilner, USC’s seven Pac-12 wins have come against teams with a combined league record of 14-36. Only two of those teams, Oregon State and Washington State, have won records. Oregon State was scheduled to return to the committee rankings Tuesday night, but USC’s best win was a 17-14 squeak over the Beavers, despite a 4-0 lead at Takeaways.
Right now, the Trojans are more buoyed by one big loss — they fell 43-42 in Utah after the Utes had a touchdown and two-point conversion in the last minute — than anything else on their profile. The Pac-12 is a vastly improved conference, but USC has only played and lost to one of the league’s really strong teams, Utah. The Trojans are finally getting opportunities to raise their profile this week against UCLA and next week against Notre Dame.
But right now, Clemson has the stronger overall record. The Tigers are unbeaten in the ACC game with five wins against teams with winning records. Clemson has three wins against teams ranked in the AP poll when it faced them and it beat rising Louisville by 15 on Saturday. There’s no doubt Clemson has an uglier loss than USC as the Tigers have never challenged Notre Dame with a 35-14 setback on the road, leading coach Dabo Swinney to admit, “That was a time when you kick ass.” But the Tigers have more solid victories, including an Oct. 15 triumph at Florida State that looks better every week.
Both teams have had some close wins. Clemson has won three games by six points or fewer, but all have been against teams ranked either at the time or now. USC has three wins by eight points or fewer, but only one against a currently-ranked team. The Trojans struggled to pull away from Arizona and Cal, averaging 72 points and 1,012 yards in those victories.
There isn’t a huge gap between these teams, but the CFP rankings are snapshots of the current landscape. USC is more rewarded for a loss and dominates bad teams, while Clemson has assembled a bigger and better set of wins. USC has the final stretch to cement itself over Clemson, but that time isn’t now. — Adam Rittenberg
ESPN reporters’ top four picks
Andrea Adelson: 1st Georgia 2nd Ohio State 3rd Michigan 4th TCU
Blake Baumgartner: 1st Georgia 2nd Ohio State 3rd Michigan 4th TCU
Kyle Bonagura: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Bill Connelly: 1st Georgia 2nd Ohio State 3rd Michigan 4th TCU
Heather Dinich: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
David Hale: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Chris Low: 1st Georgia 2nd Ohio State 3rd Michigan 4th TCU
Harry Lyles Jr.: 1st Georgia 2nd Ohio State 3rd Michigan 4th TCU
Ryan McGee: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Tennessee
Adam Rittenberg: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Alex Scarborough: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Markus Schlabach: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Paolo Uggetti: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Tom Van Haaren: 1st Georgia 2nd Ohio State 3rd Michigan 4th TCU
David Wilson: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/35025992/key-questions-college-football-playoff-rankings-release Key questions for College Football Playoff rankings release