College Football Playoff Bubble Watch: Top four clear entering first rankings

Expect to see Alabama, Michigan, Clemson and Washington in the top four of the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season.
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The first set of College Football Playoff rankings will be released at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN, and the first four teams should be easy to pick out for the committee as Alabama, Michigan, Clemson and Washington all sit at 8-0. Those four are the only undefeated teams from the Power 5 conferences.

The number of teams with playoff potential appears to be smaller than last season at this point, especially given the clear path each of the above teams has to finish out the season undefeated.

Before the rankings are released, here’s a look at the cases for and against eight teams in playoff contention, ordered by their likelihood of appearing in the top four this week.

Alabama (8-0)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin ratings): 7
Last week: Bye
Next week: at No. 15 LSU
Best wins: vs. No. 7 Texas A&M, vs. USC, at Tennessee
Losses: None

Case for: Alabama will be No. 1 when the rankings come out, and for good reason. It boasts a number of solid wins, including a drubbing of a talented Texas A&M team. The domination on both sides of the ball is remarkable, but the defending champs do have two difficult games ahead, this week at LSU and of course the Iron Bowl against a surging Auburn squad in the last game of the regular season.

Case against: Wins against USC, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Arkansas are not as good as they once appeared. Ole Miss is a dumpster fire after losing three straight games, and Tennessee and Arkansas are underwhelming. Luckily for Nick Saban's squad, those two games were road wins.  

Consensus: In. Doesn't get much easier for the committee.


Michigan (8–0)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 49
Last week: Won 32–23 at Michigan State
Next week: vs. Maryland
Best wins: vs. 8 Wisconsin, vs. No. 20 Penn State, vs. No. 21 Colorado
Losses: None

Case for: Michigan's defense has been dominant this season. Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling form a dominant pair of cornerbacks that allows the Wolverines to play more man coverage and send playmakers like Jabrill Peppers on blitzes. The defensive line is right there with the Crimson Tide for the best in the country too. On offense, a physical running game and a Jake Rudock-like progression by quarterback Wilton Speight should leave fans comfortable, especially with two NFL bound wide receivers. The senior-loaded Wolverines should remain undefeated when they travel to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes. 

Case against: Michigan hasn't been tested outside of the Big House yet, and its only road game against a ranked foe will come against Ohio State. It's not the Wolverines fault, as Michigan State and Iowa quickly fell out of the rankings.  

Consensus: In. The only question is whether the committee puts Michigan at No. 2 or No. 3. I'd give the edge to Michigan but won't be shocked no matter how it turns out.

Bowl Projections: Big Ten fills New Year's Six bowls after Week 9

Clemson (8–0)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 18
Last week: Won 37–34 at No. 19 Florida State
Next week: vs. Syracuse
Best wins: vs. No. 5 Louisville, at No. 11 Auburn, at No. 19 Florida State
Losses: None

Case for: Clemson has an impressive trio of ranked victories, especially considering two of them came on the road. Quarterback Deshaun Watson will again be right in the middle of the Heisman Trophy conversation, and the defense has come up big when it's mattered most (see Florida State's final drive). The Tigers should coast to a 12–0 season before facing North Carolina or Virginia Tech in the ACC title game.

Case against: Clemson hasn't always looked good against bad competition. Close wins over Troy and NC State may keep fans nervous with a slate of bad teams coming up to finish the year.    

Consensus: In. Another easy choice for the committee. Clemson's strength of schedule could bump it up to No. 2, but the Tigers don't pass the eye test as well as Michigan, which is why I'd keep them at No. 3.

Washington (8–0)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 69
Last week: Won 31–24 at No. 16 Utah
Next week: at Cal
Best wins: at No. 16 Utah, vs. Stanford
Losses: None

Case for: Coach Chris Petersen has really worked out so far for the Huskies. Quarterback Jake Browning has inserted himself in the Heisman race, and Washington is in line for the fourth playoff spot. An undefeated Power 5 conference champion would be a no-brainer for the committee, and given the lack of good teams on their schedule, that's what the Huskies need to be. The last game of the season against No. 25 Washington State is shaping up to be a thriller. 

Case against: The only team Washington has beaten that is currently ranked is Utah. The non-conference schedule was hot garbage too, which doesn't help. Now, a lot could change; Stanford could find its way back into the ranking, future opponent USC could as well and the regular season finale against Washington State has the potential to remain a ranked matchup. The Huskies should hope they get Colorado in the Pac-12 title game.

Consensus: In. I would be shocked to see anyone else in the No. 4 spot.

Michigan moves into the top three of Power Rankings after Week 9

Ohio State (7–1)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 33
Last week: Won 24–20 vs. Northwestern
Next week: vs. No. 9 Nebraska
Best wins: at No. 12 Oklahoma, at No. 8 Wisconsin
Losses: at No. 20 Penn State 

Case for:  The Buckeyes have two huge road wins but suffered a road loss to Penn State that keeps them out of the top four. However, I would put Ohio State ahead of Louisville at this point. Urban Meyer's squad has a better defense, better coaching and plays in the better conference. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has had a good season, and Ohio State's rushing attack is still very solid. The Buckeyes must take care of business at home against Nebraska, and then The Game against Michigan in the last week of the regular season will likely determine a playoff spot. 

Case against: Ohio State has looked sloppy and beatable the last several weeks. The jury is still out on Penn State, but it was a game the Buckeyes should have won. They better clean up the mistakes quickly or the Cornhuskers will deliver another loss.

Consensus: Out. It would take a loss by one of the top four teams to put the Buckeyes in. 


Louisville (7–1)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 52
Last week: Won 32–25 at Virginia
Next week: at Boston College
Best wins: vs. No. 19 Florida State
Losses: at No. 3 Clemson

Case for: Quarterback Lamar Jackson is running away with the Heisman Trophy, and for good reason. Jackson has thrown for 2,250 yards with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions and has also run for 996 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's unreal. The Cardinals' offense is tough to stop.

Case against: Louisville as a team isn't quite as good as the early season hype made us believe. The one quality win the Cardinals have is over Florida State, the only three-loss team left in the AP Top 25. Their defense is simply not as good as the playoff teams ahead of them, and their schedule is atrocious. Florida State is the lone team with a winning record that the Cardinals have beaten, and the only chance left for a quality win is against Houston, who also has proven itself to be over-hyped. 

Consensus: Out. Don't be surprised if Louisville slowly slips in the rankings, or even is outside of the top six this week.

Texas A&M (7–1)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 23
Last week: Won 52–10 vs. New Mexico State
Next week: at Mississippi State
Best wins: at No. 11 Auburn, vs. Tennessee
Losses: at No. 1 Alabama

Case for: The best chance Texas A&M has of getting in the playoff is if Alabama gets upset (twice). That's the only way the Aggies could get into the SEC title game and then the playoff. Never say never. A road win against Auburn is impressive, and I'll give Texas A&M credit for scheduling what was supposed to be a tough nonconference game against UCLA. It's an easy schedule the rest of the way, as LSU at home is the only quality game left.

Case against: As mentioned earlier, Tennessee and Arkansas don't look that good anymore, which puts a damper on Texas A&M's quality wins. The problem with such a weak remaining schedule (LSU is good, but not THAT good) is that it doesn't allow the Aggies to make their case as the best one-loss team in the country for the committee. Dominant wins will be needed, and some luck.

Consensus: Out. It's going to take several upsets to get Texas A&M in the top four.

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Wisconsin (6–2)

Strength of schedule (via Sagarin): 3
Last week: Won 23–17 vs. No. 9 Nebraska
Next week: at Northwestern
Best wins: vs. No. 9 Nebraska, vs. No. 15 LSU
Losses: at No. 2 Michigan, vs. No. 6 Ohio State

Case for: Wisconsin has faced the gauntlet early in the season, with five opponents ranked in the top 10 at the time they played the Badgers. Wisconsin has shown it belongs and immediately jumped into the national picture after beating LSU in Week 1. A seven-point loss to Michigan and an overtime loss to Ohio State are quality enough defeats to keep them ranked in the top 10. Wisconsin should finish 10–2 with a good shot at playing Michigan or Ohio State again in the Big Ten title game (unless Nebraska beats the Buckeyes on Saturday). 

Case against: Wisconsin would need some major chaos to enter the top four, as a team with two losses would be highly unlikely to be selected. And while the Badgers have good wins, they did whiff on their two biggest opponents, the Wolverines and Buckeyes.

Consensus: Out. It would take an 11–2 finish that included a Big Ten title win over Michigan to give the Badgers a reasonable shot at the top four. 


The road ahead

No. 1 Alabama at No. 15 LSU, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (CBS)

This is LSU's chance to make a statement and keep its season relevant. It's a quality road test for the Crimson Tide, who will have to stop running back Leonard Fournette. If Alabama wins, it stays atop the rankings. If LSU wins, it vaults into the top 10 and knocks the Tide down a few pegs. 

No. 9 Nebraska at No. 6 Ohio State, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (ABC)

This is a huge game for both sides, as Ohio State and Nebraska both must win to keep themselves in the playoff race. Both teams need to reach the Big Ten title game, and with another loss, each would likely not qualify as Michigan and Wisconsin would hold onto the two spots. An Ohio State win would put the Buckeyes at least at No. 5, while a Nebraska win would likely see the two teams switch spots in the rankings.