The College Football Playoff broke rank last week. The new postseason ranking model of choice declared its independence for the AP and coaches poll by seeding Oregon above Florida State even though the Seminoles were undefeated and Oregon had lost a game. With the decision, the playoff selection proved it would not simply group teams by record and then rank them within those pods. It also raised several more fascinating questions.
If Florida State could fall behind one one-loss team, why not two? Or four? Could Florida State miss the playoff without losing a game? It’s very unlikely, but that can no longer be considered a total impossibility. The committee is giving itself plenty of options, so who will be in the top four this week?
Here’s a look at the cases for and against each of the top teams in playoff contention, ordered by the teams’ likelihood of appearing in the top four when the selection committee releases its fourth rankings Tuesday evening.
Oregon Ducks (9-1)
Case for: Congratulations, Oregon, you didn’t even play this week, and you might become the No. 1 team. With three victories over current AP top 25 teams, Oregon's most persuasive argument is its quality wins. The Ducks' dominant victory at UCLA looks better and better as the Bruins show their preseason hype wasn’t completely unfounded.
Case against: Yes, the loss at home to Arizona doesn’t help the Ducks’ cause, but it’s not as bad as it first looked. The Wildcats have continued to pick up wins and remain in the hunt for a Pac-12 South title. If they beat Utah and Arizona State to close out the season, they’ll likely rank among the best two-loss teams. That’s not much of an anchor weighing down Oregon’s bid.
Verdict: The Ducks are definitely in as long as they keep winning. Whether they can keep the No. 1 seed is up for grabs, though.
Path to the playoff: Oregon’s road to completing a one-loss season got easier on Saturday. Arizona State's loss to Oregon State put the Pac-12 South into a state of chaos, leaving no clear challenger to the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game. However, the Beavers proved Oregon can’t take its Nov. 29 trip to Reser Stadium too lightly.
Alabama Crimson Tide (9-1)
Case for: Alabama’s strength of schedule bests all other one-loss teams’. Sure, the Crimson Tide didn’t face a daunting non-conference schedule, but a win over West Virginia helps their resume. As Alabama has moved into the meat of its schedule, the Tide have risen to the occasion, especially in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State. And no team in the nation has looked better at home.
Case against: Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss isn’t a terrible defeat, but it’s not as strong as Mississippi State’s (to Alabama) or TCU’s (to Baylor). Luckily for the Tide, they hold a tougher strength of schedule and better marquee win than both and the head-to-head with the Bulldogs.
Verdict: In. Alabama missed out on the top four last week, though it was clear it controlled its playoff destiny. That’s still true now that Alabama is in the top four, and a No. 1 seed is within reach as well
Path to the playoff: A loss to Auburn may not eliminate Alabama’s playoff chances, but it would definitely need some help. And if Georgia reaches the SEC Championship Game, that’s another hurdle to clear.
Florida State Seminoles (10-0)
Strength of schedule: 51
Quality wins: None
Case for: Cue the Herm Edwards clip: “You play to win the game!” If the point of competitive games is to win, shouldn’t the team that’s done that without fail this season be ranked No. 1? Florida State may not show a lot of style points or dominate games from start to finish, but it finds a way to win.
Case against: Look no further than what’s listed in the “quality wins” category: None. With Clemson and Notre Dame losing Saturday, the Seminoles have not beaten a single team that will (likely) be ranked in the committee’s top 25 on Tuesday. You know who else is undefeated and lacks a single quality win? Marshall. And the Thundering Herd have yet to even crack the top 25. (Yes, Florida State’s strength of schedule is still much better than Marshall, but the point still stands.) The committee’s job is to pick the best teams. Especially given the sloppy way Florida State has won so many of its games, can anyone really say it would beat Oregon or Alabama on a neutral field?
Verdict: In. The Seminoles’ first-half team would be unranked while its second-half team would be No. 1, so No. 3 feels right for now. Florida State won’t fall out of the field without a loss.
Path to the playoff: Florida State just needs to continue to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat -- or it could just win comfortably.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (9-1)
Strength of schedule: 32
Quality wins: vs. Auburn
Losses: at Alabama
Case for: Sure, Mississippi State is no longer undefeated, but the Bulldogs didn’t fall far. A five-point loss in Tuscaloosa isn’t a killer. In fact, it’s the least damaging defeat among the one-loss teams. Mississippi State’s non-conference slate isn’t doing wonders for its strength of schedule, but when comparing the Bulldogs to TCU or Baylor, what matters is the overall quality of the schedule, not just who you play outside of your conference. And Mississippi State has the edge there.
Case against: A bigger concern than Mississippi State's loss is that its bounty of quality wins has been reduced to one, and even that one isn’t as impressive as it once looked. Auburn’s, LSU’s and Texas A&M’s losses this week all damaged the Bulldogs’ playoff case at least as much as the defeat to Alabama did.
Verdict: In. Mississippi State’s late touchdown didn’t help it beat Alabama, but that score was still critical to close the margin to a respectable level.
Path to the playoff: The Bulldogs no longer control their destiny to get to the SEC Championship Game, but they do control their destiny to make the playoff. This may be the biggest Egg Bowl ever.
TCU Horned Frogs (9-1)
Strength of schedule: 38
Quality wins: vs. Kansas State
Losses: at Baylor
Case for: TCU may fall out of the top four, but it still deserves to the top Big 12 team for now. Baylor has the head-to-head edge, but a three-point win at Baylor isn’t definitive proof the Bears would beat the Horned Frogs on a neutral field. Plus, with a better non-conference schedule and a front-loaded conference slate, TCU still has a strength of schedule edge of Baylor. A tougher schedule and a better loss makes up for the narrow head-to-head result and preferable quality win in the Bears’ favor.
Case against: Whatever goodwill TCU got via the eye test for its dominance against Kansas State was more than wiped out by the Horned Frogs’ four-point win over Kansas. TCU was sloppy and lucky to avoid a devastating loss to the Jayhawks. Even if it’s not enough to push the Horned Frogs below Baylor this week, it’s not a performance the selection committee is likely to forget quickly.
Verdict: Out. TCU badly wanted either Alabama to lose or completely blow out Mississippi State. Neither happened, so the Horned Frogs are on the outside looking in.
Path to the playoff: It’ll get harder and harder to defend ranking TCU ahead of Baylor if the Horned Frogs squeak by the easier teams on their schedule and the Bears pick up a marquee victory against Kansas State. If Baylor jumps TCU, there’s no opportunity for the Horned Frogs to play their way back into the playoff.
Baylor Bears (8-1)
Strength of schedule: 55
Quality wins: vs. TCU
Losses: at West Virginia
Case for: How many comparative results against the same opponents will it take for Baylor to jump TCU? The Horned Frogs beat Kansas by 4. The Bears trounced the Jayhawks by 46. TCU beat Oklahoma by four at home. Baylor won on the road by 34. And of course there’s that 61-58 result when the Bears and Horned Frogs squared off. Yes, Baylor’s strength of schedule is poor, but every Minnesota loss brings TCU’s closer to the Bears’ level.
Case against: Margin of victory isn’t an allowed topic of discussion for the committee, but if Baylor wants to compare outcomes against the same opponent, TCU would be happy to compare performances against West Virginia. There’s no way to hide the Bears’ loss to the Mountaineers, which hurts their comparison against more than just TCU. Alabama beat West Virginia by 10 on a neutral field. Baylor’s strength of schedule -- the worst among the teams in the playoff hunt -- and defeat in Morgantown are two big strikes against it.
Verdict: Out. It seems likely that Baylor will eventually pass TCU. Maybe this week or next week or after the Bears play Kansas State on Dec. 6 (assuming they win, of course). But will passing TCU be enough to reach the top four?
Path to the playoff: The Bears need some help, as leapfrogging TCU only gets them to No. 5. Baylor’s best hope is for either Alabama or Mississippi State to lose again.
Ole Miss (8-2)
Strength of schedule: 14
Quality wins: vs. Alabama
Losses: at LSU, vs. Auburn
Case for: If one-loss teams can jump undefeated teams, there’s no reason a two-loss team can’t jump a one-loss squad. Ole Miss’ strength of schedule is better than every one-loss team’s except Alabama’s. Plus, the Rebels’ win over Alabama is the single best victory of the season among the teams in the playoff hunt.
Case against: With two losses, Ole Miss has no one to blame but itself for not being in better shape for the playoff. While neither loss is as bad Ohio State’s to Virginia Tech, LSU and Auburn are sinking fast right now. While Auburn should hang in despite its loss to Georgia, LSU could drop out of the committee’s top 25 this week after a loss to Arkansas.
Verdict: Out. Two losses may not be to absolute killer we once assumed it was, but Ole Miss will still need a lot of help to make the playoff.
Path to the playoff: The Rebels can still help themselves by beating Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. If Auburn beats Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Ole Miss’ win over the Bulldogs would send them to the SEC Championship Game for another possible quality win. Would the committee really leave out an SEC champion with wins over Alabama, Mississippi State and possibly Georgia?
Ohio State Buckeyes (9-1)
Strength of schedule: 47
Quality wins: at Michigan State
Losses: vs. Virginia Tech
Case for: Few teams have looked better from Week 3 forward. Ohio State has nearly completed its sweep of Big Ten competition, and J.T. Barrett looks like a completely different quarterback from the shaky redshirt freshman who lost to Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes’ 49-37 win at Michigan State in Week 11 isn’t shabby either. If the committee wants the teams that are playing the best right now, it could do a lot worse than Ohio State.
Case against: That may be true, but the committee isn’t just looking at the now but rather the full body of work. Buckeyes fans may want a pass on the loss to the Hokies because Barrett was clearly a different player then, but there’s no reason for the committee to accept that excuse. If Braxton Miller had been injured for the first two games of the season and then returned to lead Ohio State on this run, there’d be more legitimacy to Ohio State’s argument. But the Buckeyes who played Virginia Tech are the same ones playing now, and their full body of work -- Virginia Tech loss and all -- doesn’t stand up to that of the teams ahead of them.
Verdict: Out. The weak Big Ten left Ohio State without the ability to win enough marquee games to make up for its defeat to the Hokies.
Path to the playoff: The Buckeyes at least have the chance to pick up one more quality win. Ohio State needs Wisconsin to win the Big Ten West, as the Melvin Gordon and co. would be the most respectable opponent. It’ll also take a lot of chaos in other conferences. The Buckeyes would love the situation that sends Ole Miss to the SEC Championship Game, only with the Rebels losing that game to Missouri. Maybe that, along with losses for both TCU and Baylor would be enough. Maybe.
The Road Ahead
As TCU proved in Week 12, just because a team beats its weaker conference opponents doesn’t mean its playoff stock is safe. Although there’s an absence of high-profile matchups this week, every team needs to take care of its image by scoring dominant victories. While margin of victory is not a statistic the committee can use in its discussions, the eye tests of each committee member still allow for style points to count.
Ole Miss is the biggest upset risk this week on the road against an Arkansas squad that finally won its first SEC game under Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks would love to turn that into a streak with a win over the Rebels.