Instant Analysis: Oklahoma’s path to playoff clearing up after rankings rise
There was bound to be movement at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings after four of last week’s top 10 teams lost. Specifically, Baylor fell to Oklahoma, Stanford was upset by Oregon, LSU was routed by Arkansas and Utah wound up on the wrong side of a double-overtime finish at Arizona. Meanwhile, several other squads scored important wins, including Alabama, Oklahoma State and the Sooners. It fell upon the selection committee to sort out those results and decide how they should affect this week’s top 25. Here are three key takeaways:
1. Oklahoma can keep climbing
Oklahoma scored one of the most significant wins of the season last weekend at Baylor. Not only did the Sooners shut down the Bears' high-powered offense and snap Baylor's 20-game home winning streak, they delivered a performance that suggests they’ve made strides since suffering a baffling loss to Texas in October. For its effort, Oklahoma was ranked No. 7 Tuesday after coming in at No. 12 last week. The committee dealt with a similar situation last season, when Ohio State fell to lowly Virginia Tech at home in September before ripping off 11 straight wins ahead of selection day. When it came time for the committee to select the final field of four, it could point to the Buckeyes’ improvement.
Oklahoma is following a similar script. In the big picture, the fact that it didn’t crack the top four this week is immaterial. If the Sooners win upcoming games vs. No. 18 TCU and at No. 6 Oklahoma State, they will have a strong case for inclusion. Even before Saturday’s win in Waco, Oklahoma looked like the Big 12’s strongest representative for a one-loss playoff team (if the undefeated Cowboys win out, they’re probably in). Not only would the Sooners have the aforementioned “improvement” narrative recommending them, they also boast a solid nonconference road win (Tennessee) and their defense rates out better than both TCU’s and Baylor’s.
Oklahoma isn’t in the clear yet, but if it handles its business in two admittedly tough games over the next two weeks, it will be difficult for the committee to deny the Big 12 again.
2. A stable top four
The top four did not change from last week. This isn’t surprising considering what happened on Saturday: No. 1 Clemson beat Syracuse on the road, No. 2 Alabama crushed Mississippi State, No. 3 Ohio State handled Illinois and No. 4 Notre Dame took care of Wake Forest. Of those four results, the only one that arguably improved a squad’s standing is the Tide’s blowout win over the Bulldogs. The committee could have swapped the Tigers and Alabama, but there’s a good chance that will happen anyway at some point if both teams win out, considering the Tide are set to face one team with a .500-or-better record (Auburn) and another ranked eighth in the playoff top 25 (Florida) while Clemson will play two cupcakes (Wake Forest and South Carolina) before the ACC title game, where it’ll likely meet No. 17 North Carolina.
As for No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Notre Dame, there was no compelling reason to move either squad up or down after they simply handled inferior competition. The Irish’s résumé took a bit of a hit with upcoming opponent Stanford and previous opponent Temple losing, but Navy’s rise and USC’s entry into the rankings offset the damage somewhat. Meanwhile, the committee has said that it believes Ohio State’s “best games are in front of them.” In other words, the Buckeyes can validate their top-four ranking by beating No. 9 Michigan State and No. 12 Michigan. In addition, Iowa remained at No. 5 from last week.
3. Let’s not write off the Pac-12 just yet
The reaction was nearly unanimous. Soon after Utah lost at Arizona in double overtime on Saturday night—which followed Stanford’s defeat at the hands of Oregon—the college football world eliminated the Pac-12 from the playoff race. This was a reasonable conclusion: The league now featured no teams with fewer than two losses. And with several teams from other Power Five conferences boasting only one or zero losses, the Pac-12’s best squads, it seemed, would spend the rest of 2015 jockeying for a spot in the Rose Bowl, and nothing more.
Perhaps we reached that conclusion too soon. Stanford fell four spots in the rankings from last week (No. 7 to No. 11). They will need to win out, but if a few other teams above them slip up, the Cardinal could jump back into contention. Victories over No. 4 Notre Dame in the regular season finale and either No. 13 Utah or No. 24 USC (UCLA is also still alive in the South) in the Pac-12 title game would significantly enhance a résumé that already includes an eight-game winning streak. The committee indicated it was willing to discount that season-opening road loss to No. 20 Northwestern to some extent, and on Saturday Stanford fell to an Oregon team that entered the rankings this week (No. 23) and has played like a legit Pac-12 contender since Vernon Adams returned from injury.
Stanford remains a long shot to crack the top four—we’ll have to see what happens over the next two weeks. But maybe its chances aren’t as dire as we initially suspected.