How the New Playoff Rankings Should Set the Table for Rivalry Week

The College Football Playoff rankings won't change at the top—again—so let's figure out what would happen if Ohio State beats Michigan or Notre Dame loses to USC.
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With only one team in the College Football Playoff rankings' top 11 losing this weekend, the playoff picture will remain the same when the new Top 25 is revealed on ESPN on Tuesday night. The projected semifinals will still be No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Michigan and No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Georgia, Oklahoma, Washington State and Ohio State will remain in position to move into a playoff spot if any of the top-ranked teams were to falter down the stretch.

That will be our starting point this week.

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Let's assume Alabama and Clemson keep cruising through their schedule and finish undefeated and Notre Dame does the same by closing out with a win against a crumbling USC squad this weekend.

If Ohio State were to beat Michigan and then take down Northwestern to finish 12–1 with a Big Ten title it would certainly shoot up the rankings. Now let's project Washington State and Oklahoma also winning out to clinch their respective conference championships and finish with the same 12–1 record. This is what the three teams' résumés would look like heading into Selection Sunday:


Even if Oregon and/or Stanford were to finish 8–4 and sneak into the back end of the final Top 25, thus boosting the Pac-12 North, Washington State's résumé is the weakest of the three. This is really a conversation about Ohio State and Oklahoma.

The Buckeyes have the more embarrassing loss (a blowout at Purdue) and likely lose the eyeball test to the Sooners as well, if only by a small margin. (Neither boasts a formidable defense, with Ohio State ranked 85th in yards allowed per play and Oklahoma coming in at 78th in that category.) However, Urban Meyer's group would have the biggest feather in its cap with a late-season win over top-10 Michigan. Would having more quality wins help Oklahoma overcome its deficit in the "standout win" department? That's for the committee to decide, but in our estimation Oklahoma would deserve to reach the playoff again if it came down to this exact scenario.

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Committee members have it relatively easy right now with the top four, specifically with ordering the three undefeated teams atop its rankings. That would no longer be the case if Notre Dame were to lose at USC on Saturday.

What if Notre Dame finishes 11–1 and Michigan wins the Big Ten at 12–1 with its only loss being the season-opener against the Irish? What will the committee value more when deciding the order of the last two playoff spots: Notre Dame's head-to-head win over Michigan or the Wolverines' conference championship? (For matters of simplicity, we'll make the same initial assumption we did in the scenario above that Alabama and Clemson win the rest of their games.)

Through four seasons of playoff football, the committee has placed nearly equal value on conference championships and head-to-head victories. It has also had the luxury of not having to consider independent Notre Dame. Will it go as far as setting the precedent of not rewarding the Irish unless they finish undefeated and instead slide another conference champ like Oklahoma into the final playoff spot? Having already beaten playoff-bound Michigan probably means no, but there is a legitimate debate to be had regarding what to give more weight to: Jim Harbaugh & Co. impressively peeling off 12 straight victories to finish the year vs. Notre Dame beginning 11–0 prior to a season-ending upset loss. Sure, both teams would make the playoff, but being ranked No. 3 to meet Clemson is an entirely different proposition than finishing fourth to be Alabama's semifinal sacrificial lamb.