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Playoff Rankings Preview: Final Debates as the Field Is Cut to Eight

The penultimate playoff rankings should set up a field of eight teams vying for the final four spots. How can each make it in?

Thanksgiving weekend was not kind to teams atop the College Football Playoff rankings. Things began Friday with No. 2 Miami's loss at Pitt and continued Saturday afternoon when No. 6 Auburn pulled off the upset of No. 1 Alabama.

Other than No. 8 Notre Dame, which was already out of the playoff mix before its loss to Stanford, the rest of the top 10 held serve, meaning the important part of the committee's new rankings should look something like this when it is revealed Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

1. Clemson: Win and you're in
2. Oklahoma: Win and you're in
3. Auburn: Win and you're in
4. Wisconsin: Win and you're in
5. Alabama: Needs a little help while it watches from home this week
6. Georgia: Win and you're in
7. Miami: Win and you're in
8. Ohio State: Needs a lot of help on top of beating Wisconsin this week

Regardless of how accurate the above projections are, the playoff field will be made up of teams in that group of eight. No one else seems to have a realistic chance. Two-loss Big 12 champion TCU, if it beats Oklahoma this week? Nope. That would just mean Oklahoma and TCU split their season series, and the Horned Frogs’ résumé doesn't include the type of quality wins fellow two-loss contender Auburn’s does. An 11–2 Pac-12 champion USC? Even less likely. An idle, two-loss Penn State or a 12–0 UCF wouldn’t make a dramatic jump in the final weekend, either.

With that established, here's what we'll be talking about after Tuesday’s reveal.

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Saturday’s two play-in games

Clemson and Miami face off in the ACC title game with a playoff spot on the line, while Georgia and Auburn meet for the SEC crown with the same stakes. The winners of those two games are virtually guaranteed to make up half of this year’s playoff.

Oklahoma and Wisconsin control their own playoff destiny, but the same can't be said for their conference championship opponents.

The No. 1 debate

Will Clemson or Oklahoma take Alabama’s place atop the rankings? The committee can't go wrong either way.

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Dabo Swinney's bunch has wins over Auburn, Virginia Tech, NC State and South Carolina, with a really bad loss against Syracuse. Meanwhile, Baker Mayfield & Co. boast victories against Ohio State, Oklahoma State and TCU and a not-as-bad loss to Iowa State.

This debate has stakes, too. First off, the No. 1 team gets to play in the national semifinal closer to home, which means any East Coast No. 2 team has to haul itself to Pasadena, Calif., to play in the Rose Bowl. Additionally, a few more upsets on Saturday could result in this week's No. 1 team not falling as far in the final rankings with a loss and possibly sliding into the playoff as a No. 4 seed.

We're getting into some very tall weeds that probably won't have to be whacked, but that's why we watch this silly sport.

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Ohio State or Alabama?

Here's how the debate over the fourth and final playoff spot could give the committee a headache.

With the SEC champ and ACC champ in, let's say Oklahoma wins the Big 12 to stay in the top four and Ohio State doesn’t just win the Big Ten title but throttles undefeated Wisconsin to do so. Those results leave the final playoff spot as a contest between the Tide and Buckeyes.

Alabama finishes 11–1 with no conference or division championship and a loss to Auburn as its last data point, but the Tide have wins over bowl teams LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Colorado State, Fresno State and maybe Florida State. Auburn beating Georgia to reach the playoff would boost Bama's case for a No. 4 spot in this scenario. A Tigers loss in the SEC title game makes things more difficult, but doesn't automatically knock Alabama out of the running.

Ohio State would finish as 11–2 Big Ten champions. The Buckeyes' two losses would be against playoff-bound Oklahoma and an embarrassing, inexplicable dud at Iowa, compared with wins over bowl teams Army, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Alabama only has one loss and ended up playing a slightly tougher schedule in a better conference. Ohio State would be coming off four straight wins and a highly-valued conference championship, but one of its two losses was an unexpected beatdown at the hands of a lesser team.

The educated guess here is the committee would go with the Tide, not unlike its choice of the one-loss Buckeyes last season when Penn State beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. With conference title hardware on its side this year, Ohio State would be able to make a strong case.