Well, if you thought Texas A&M’s shocking loss to Mississippi State last week would bring some stability to the college football playoff race, you were wrong. The #8 Aggies were upset once again this week by Ole Miss, but that’ll likely go down as just a footnote in a chaotic Saturday sure to jumble the rankings and leave everyone debating who the nation’s best four teams really are.
In an unprecedented turn of events, three of the nation’s top four ranked teams lost on Saturday. #2 Clemson’s longest home winning streak in the nation was snapped by unranked Pittsburgh after Panthers kicker Chris Blewitt failed to live up to his name, converting on a 48-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the game. Another stunning upset came in similar fashion, as the unranked Iowa Hawkeyes kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired to take down Jim Harbaugh’s previously undefeated Michigan Wolverines. Lastly, Washington’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback struggled as #20 USC went on the road to knock off the #4 Huskies.
The losses by Clemson, Michigan, and Washington leave only two teams left undefeated in the FBS: #1 Alabama, and #21 Western Michigan, who despite improving to 10-0 this week are unlikely to receive any actual consideration from the selection committee. If Saturday’s action clarified anything, it’s that Alabama are easily the team to beat, and seem to be playing on another level compared to the teams chasing them. The Crimson Tide continued to roll through the regular season, handing Mississippi State a 51-3 loss. At this stage, Alabama have all but cemented a spot in the playoffs, barring multiple losses down the stretch- something incredibly unlikely to occur.
So while one spot in the national semifinals seems to be locked in, three spots remain without an obvious grouping of teams they should belong to. And as if losses by teams ranked #2-4 wasn’t enough, #5 Ohio State, #6 Louisville, and #7 Wisconsin all won convincingly by margins of over 30 points. Granted, none played ranked opponents, but neither did Clemson and Michigan. Where does this leave us, then, in our quest to determine which four teams deserve the right to play for the National Championship?
Actually, despite all the crazy results, parts of the playoff picture have actually cleared up. Namely, the SEC lost its outside shot at a second team alongside Alabama in the four with losses by Texas A&M and #9 Auburn. Now with three losses, each of these teams no longer remain in the race, leaving just eight teams in the race.
Wisconsin and #10 Penn State, who should jump to either eighth or ninth depending on how the committee ranks them in comparison to Oklahoma, who despite a great recovery to their season, have been doomed by the weakness of the Big 12. Each of these teams’ playoffs hopes hinge on winning the Big 12 championship game. Wisconsin will make the championship game as long as they win their final two regular season games against Purdue and Minnesota. However, they are clearly the third-best team in the Big 12, evidenced by their losses (albeit close) to Michigan and Ohio State. Penn State will need some help to win the Big Ten East, but should Penn State or Wisconsin win the Big Ten title, they would have an interesting argument to make.
For now, though, the focus is on five teams fighting for three spots. I think the committee will have a relatively easy decision ranking Ohio State as the #2 team overall. The Buckeyes own the best resume of the teams under consideration, with wins against Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. Overall, they have been dominant, including a staggering five wins of 45 points or more. Their sole loss, a three-point road defeat to Penn State, is far from devastating. Overall, I think most of us knew Ohio State was one of the best four teams in the country, but just needed someone above them to lose to justify throwing them back into playoff position.
The third and fourth spots are where things get really interesting. For starters, as the #4 team before their loss, I’d be stunned if Washington remains in their current position, and see it as pretty straightforward as well that they will move down to #6 (or maybe even #7 if the committee likes Wisconsin enough). They simply don’t play a difficult enough schedule in the Pac-12, especially in a year where California, UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford have disappointed. They have yet to play their only real competition in the Pac-12 North, Washington State, and will not have an opportunity to play #12 Colorado, the second-highest ranked team in the conference. Washington will certainly need to run the table and win the Pac-12 championship, and will likely need help in order to get a chance to play for a title.
This leaves us with Clemson, Louisville, and Michigan fighting for the last two spots in the top four. Honestly, I don’t have a huge problem with any permutation of these three teams. However, I have my own opinion on their rankings, which I believe will differ from the committee’s. I see Michigan coming in as #5, and that’s where I would put them myself. Michigan’s season hinges on their Nov. 26 matchup on the road against Ohio State. It’s really make or break- I don’t believe the Wolverines can sustain a second loss which would leave them out of the Big Ten championship game. While a loss in this matchup would put Ohio State in extreme danger of being left out of the field, I don’t believe it necessarily ends their chances. This is because Michgian’s schedule leaves them unable to pick up key wins against Nebraska and Penn State while their loss against Iowa is much worse than Ohio State’s to Penn State.
Clemson also suffered a pretty bad defeat to Pittsburgh, but they are redeemed by their huge win over Louisville. Here’s where the problem lies. I believe Louisville is a better team than Clemson. I see Lamar Jackson as the clear Heisman frontrunner and best player in college football. While Clemson has survived many close calls, with five of their wins coming by a one-score margin, Louisville has only one such game. Clemson’s loss against Pittsburgh is much worse than Lousiville’s. However, of course, Louisville’s loss IS to Clemson.
This scenario is almost identical to that of Baylor and TCU back in 2014, the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff. The Bears and Horned Frogs were each one-loss teams fighting for a playoff berth. I saw TCU as the better team (as did the polls), but TCU’s only loss came to Baylor, in a three-point road loss. Louisville’s defeat came in a six-point loss on the road, where they were just yards away from a game-winning touchdown. While the Big 12’s lack of a conference championship team cost both squads a place in the playoffs, Baylor finished #5 while TCU settled for #6.
Clemson and Louisville are in a much better position than Baylor and TCU were. This year’s ACC is much better than 2014’s Big 12, and has a title game. Since both schools are in the Atlantic division, there is a chance (and a likely one, at that) that both teams win their last regular season games, Clemson is victorious in the ACC title game, and both teams finish with one loss. Should that happen, I believe both of these teams would make the playoffs, alongside Alabama and the winner of Ohio State-Michigan. Right now, I would rank Louisville as #3 and Clemson as #4, but I completely understand the argument of placing Clemson higher- they did win the matchup between the teams, after all, even if it was a close game at home.
Many things could change over the final few weeks of the season before the selection committee makes their final picks for the playoff field. However, right now I believe the rankings, while appearing to be totally up in the air, are actually relatively simple. Of course, the next set of rankings could prove me wrong, but for right now, I say it’s Alabama #1, Ohio State #2, and Clemson and Louisville in the final two spots dependant on the committee’s view of Clemson’s win against Louisville.