Rivalry Week came through as promised, shaking up the playoff picture one week before the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its final rankings for the postseason. Mississippi State, after its loss at Ole Miss on Saturday, has fallen off the playoff bubble, and the stage is set for a dramatic conclusion to the regular season with most conferences’ championship games and the Big 12’s final conference games of the year.
While the playoff committee’s weekly rankings -- and the television spectacle of their release -- may be a bit of contrived theater for TV ratings, they have created some compelling storylines heading into Saturday’s games. The first three spots of the playoff look certain, barring a late upset, but no one will know who will occupy the fourth spot until the committee unveils its rankings Sunday afternoon.
Will Baylor be able to catch TCU if the Bears beat Kansas State on Saturday? Could a Big Ten title be enough to carry Ohio State into the top four? Even with no upsets Saturday, three teams will hold legitimate hope that their name could be called for the No. 4 seed in the playoff. There will be great suspense and controversy; it’s everything fans could have hoped for in Year One of the playoff era -- unless they support one of the two teams that are left out.
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 third rankings Tuesday evening.
Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1)
Case for: As Auburn pulled ahead of Alabama 33-21 in third quarter Saturday, those who hurl accusations of SEC bias of the playoff committee grew giddy with excitement of the possibility of an SEC-less playoff. It wasn’t meant to be. The Crimson Tide came back in dominant form with a 34-3 run to put away the Tigers and ensure they’d remain at the top of the playoff rankings. With a great strength of schedule, three quality wins and an understandable loss, Alabama’s playoff resume remains clearly superior.
Case against: The Crimson Tide’s Iron Bowl comeback will keep them atop the playoff rankings for now, but Auburn’s lead served as a reminder that even the No. 1 team is just one loss away from falling out of the playoff field. Since Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 4, every game since has been a must-win. So far, the Tide have been up to the test.
Verdict: In. Alabama’s one win away from the No. 1 seed.
Path to the playoff: Missouri will be another tough test for the Tide. The Tigers have put aside their early-season embarrassments against Indiana and Georgia and emerged as an SEC force. Shane Ray and Markus Golden can put serious pressure on Blake Sims to force him into mistakes, and quarterback Maty Mauk has improved over the past four games.
Oregon Ducks (11-1)
Case for: Oregon’s trio of quality wins is outstanding, and the committee, which appears to be rewarding teams that played challenging nonconference schedules, must love the Ducks’ win over Michigan State. Even Oregon’s loss to Arizona, which appeared damaging to the Ducks’ playoff hopes at the time, doesn’t look nearly as bad now that the Wildcats claimed the Pac-12 South title ahead of UCLA and Arizona State.
Case against: Oregon’s strength of schedule isn’t anywhere near as good as Alabama’s, a result of the Pac-12 North’s rather pedestrian season. That is the biggest separator between the Ducks’ and Crimson Tide’s resumes.
Verdict: In. Oregon can add the last item to its playoff case with a conference title Friday.
Path to the playoff: Arizona took down Oregon in Eugene, so the Ducks will be on high alert heading into Friday’s Pac-12 championship game. The Wildcats play a similar up-tempo style to Oregon, so the Ducks can’t just beat them with speed. Oregon’s offensive line was banged-up against Arizona in the Oct. 2 loss, which allowed the Wildcats to badger Marcus Mariota. A key factor for Friday’s rematch could be the health of All-America center Hroniss Grasu, though his replacement, Hamani Stevens, has filled in well so far.
Florida State Seminoles (12-0)
Case for: The Seminoles did it again Saturday, holding off Florida thanks in part to two missed Gators field goals and a late fourth-down stand. Jameis Winston, who tossed four interceptions in the win, and the ‘Noles refuse to make it easy on themselves, but so far they’ve won every time. As ugly as the wins often are, they have to count for something, especially considering that Florida State’s strength of schedule is better than Ohio State’s and Baylor’s.
Case against: Game control remains the biggest argument against the Seminoles. They’ve now won their past three games by an average of four points, and the committee has to go back to Oct. 11 to find Florida State’s last game that it handled with little trouble -- all against middling teams. The question remains: Would Florida State be able to survive with its imperfect performances against better competition?
Verdict: In. Florida State has survived through 12 games with its flawed play. It just needs to survive once more to make the playoff.
Path to the playoff: That key question about the Seminoles will get an answer Saturday night when Florida State takes on Georgia Tech for the ACC title. The Yellow Jackets may not be a playoff-caliber team, but they’ll be the Seminoles’ toughest test this season.
TCU Horned Frogs (10-1)
Case for: Just because TCU played the meat of its schedule early doesn’t mean the Horned Frogs can’t still impress the committee. Thursday’s 48-10 dismantling of an improving Texas team did exactly that. The Longhorns won’t sniff the committee’s top 25, but the way TCU rocked them was still a nice reminder of why the Horned Frogs deserve to be ranked so high.
Case against: When the committee compares quality wins, TCU would seem to have the edge over Ohio State because of its three victories over top-25 teams compared to the Buckeyes’ two. However, all three TCU wins over ranked foes came at home, whereas Ohio State’s both came on the road. If the Buckeyes pick up a third marquee win by beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, those road wins could tip the argument in Ohio State’s favor.
Verdict: In. With Mississippi State losing, TCU will jump back into the playoff field at No. 4. The question is whether they can keep that spot next week.
Path to the playoff: The Horned Frogs almost suffered a devastating loss to Kansas on Nov. 15, so they can’t afford to look past Iowa State on Saturday. Still, TCU’s playoff chances will have more to do with the other teams in contention for the fourth spot than its own play. If Baylor struggles against Kansas State and Ohio State looks shaky with its third-string quarterback, that’ll be huge for the Horned Frogs’ hopes.
Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1)
Strength of schedule: 60
Quality wins: at Michigan State, at Minnesota
Losses: vs. Virginia Tech
Case for: Ohio State may be the most improved team in the country from Week 2 to Week 14. That doesn’t erase the Buckeyes’ shocking 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2, but it does cast the defeat in a more favorable light. The committee has seemed to cut Ohio State some slack given that J.T. Barrett was so suddenly thrust into the starting quarterback role after Braxton Miller’s injury. There’s no reason to expect that to change.
Case against: Barrett’s season-ending ankle injury presents an interesting test for the committee. Since Week 2, he has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the country and is a key reason the Buckeyes are in the playoff race. So if the committee’s goal is to pick the best four teams, should his absence count against Ohio State, even if it beats Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game? We’ll fight out if the "Kenyon Martin rule" of the NCAA basketball tournament (whether an injured star player should affect a team's seeding) applies to the College Football Playoff, too.
Verdict: Out. Ohio State’s stellar play since its loss to the Hokies has kept it in the playoff race, but that loss and a poor strength of schedule are still enough to keep the Buckeyes on the wrong side of the bubble.
Path to the playoff: Assuming TCU doesn’t lose to Iowa State, Ohio State’s best bet is to prove it’s still a dominant team without Barrett. Cardale Jones better be up to the challenge of delivering a signature victory over Wisconsin on Saturday.
Baylor Bears (10-1)
Strength of schedule: 66
Quality wins: vs. TCU, at Oklahoma
Losses: at West Virginia
Case for: When comparing their resume to the two other teams in contention for the No. 4 seed, the Bears have a strong argument against both teams. Obviously Baylor’s case against TCU is its Oct. 11 win over the Horned Frogs. As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes are the only one-loss team with a worse loss than Baylor.
Case against: The path for Baylor to catch up to TCU is simple: The Bears needed to dominate games so their head-to-head win against TCU would place them ahead of the Horned Frogs. Games like Baylor’s 48-46 win over Texas Tech are helping the Bears follow that path. Yes, Baylor won, and yes, Bryce Petty missed much of the game with a concussion, but Petty isn’t part of the defense that gave up 46 points to a subpar Big 12 team. Saturday’s result won’t sink the Bears; it’s just a missed opportunity to help them.
Verdict: Out. Among Baylor, TCU and Ohio State, the Bears helped themselves least this week. So there’s no reason to expect Baylor to move past either of the other two yet.
Path to the playoff: Baylor may have the best opportunity of three to help itself this week. The Bears need a strong showing against Kansas State, ideally better than TCU’s 21-point win over the Wildcats on Nov. 8.
Arizona Wildcats (10-2)
Case for: As one Pac-12 South team falls out of the playoff hunt, another emerges in its place. Arizona is the best two-loss team because its collection of quality wins is better than every other team, no-loss and one-loss squads included. The Wildcats’ win at Oregon is the best result of the season, and they’ve proved it was no fluke after beating Arizona State and at Utah.
Case against: Arizona’s two losses still leave it needing a lot of help to make the playoff. The loss at UCLA is understandable. It’s the 28-26 loss to USC that will haunt Rich Rodriguez’s squad, specifically Casey Skowron’s missed 36-yard field goal on the game’s penultimate play. Arizona might be the No. 4 seed right now if it had won that game.
Verdict: Out. So far the committee has been unwilling to put a two-loss team above any of the one-loss playoff hopefuls.
Path to the playoff: If the Wildcats can take down Oregon, they’ll remove one of the teams in their path to the playoff. Arizona would then likely need two losses among Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor.
Michigan State Spartans (10-2)
Strength of schedule: 58
Quality wins: vs. Nebraska
Losses: vs. Ohio State, at Oregon
Case for: Compared to Arizona, whose pair of losses is its biggest drawback, Michigan State’s losses might be its strength. The Spartans have only lost to other playoff contenders, something only Oregon and TCU can also say. Yes, losing to good teams doesn’t count for much, but it’s better than losing to mediocre teams.
Case against: Michigan State had three opportunities for marquee wins this season and lost two of those games.
Verdict: Out. The Spartans have played well enough to earn a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, but their matchup with Ohio State was correctly billed as a playoff elimination game.
Path to the playoff: Chaos would have to ensue. The Spartans don’t have the benefit of playing in a conference championship game, so their opportunity to impress the committee is gone. Michigan State needs the Ducks to beat Arizona, as Oregon’s head-to-head win over the Spartans would likely keep it ahead of them even if Oregon loses again. Other than that, Michigan State needs as many losses as possible from the top seeds, at least four from the six teams ranked ahead of them, not counting Oregon.
The Road Ahead
Arizona vs. Oregon (in Santa Clara, Calif.), Friday at 9 p.m.
The Pac-12 championship is the only game this week in which both teams hold some chance at reaching the playoff. Scooby Wright III and Arizona’s defense swarmed Marcus Mariota, sacking him five times in their Oct. 2 win. The game plan will likely be similar Friday night. Will the Ducks be ready?
Kansas State at Baylor, Saturday at 7:45 p.m.
A win alone won’t be enough for Baylor; it needs to rout Kansas State. Against common opponents, the Bears only have a better margin against Oklahoma and Kansas. They need to add the Wildcats to that list to make up for their worse loss and weaker nonconference schedule.
Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (in Indianapolis), Saturday at 8:17 p.m.
The committee will have its eyes on this one to see what the Buckeyes look like without J.T. Barrett. It’s imperative the offense still function seamlessly, or else the committee could knock Ohio State out of the conversation. The Barrett-led Buckeyes were a playoff bubble team. The Jones-led Buckeyes need to show they are, too.
Strength of schedule rankings come from Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. The committee does not use any metric for discussing strength of schedule, but these rankings can still provide a guideline of how committee might judge each team's body of work.