Who’s No. 4? That question is finally about to be answered. There are seven undefeated or one-loss Power 5 teams remaining, and all of them are playing in their respective conference championship games this weekend. Assuming Ohio State, LSU and Clemson take care of business, that leaves the door open for one more team to make a final push and impress the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee.
Let’s take a look at the cases for those teams hoping to take the final CFP spot.
The Pac-12 championship is Friday night. If No. 5 Utah beats No. 13 Oregon, it will then be cheering hard for No. 2 LSU to beat No. 4 Georgia (giving the Bulldogs two losses and ending their CFP chances) and for No. 7 Baylor to beat No. 6 Oklahoma (since the committee seems to favor OU at this point). And if the Utes blow out the Ducks, their case will only get stronger.
Utah is ranked ahead of Oklahoma right now because the committee has been impressed by the way Kyle Whittingham’s team has played. After a loss to then-No. 22 USC on Sept. 20—it was a Friday night on the road and the Utes didn’t have one of their best players in running back Zack Moss—they’ve won eight straight. “When we look at Utah, we see a season-long balance of very consistent play on both sides of the ball,” committee chairman Rob Mullins said.
OU on the other hand, has been a little shaky. Since the Sooners’ lone loss to Kansas State on Oct. 26, they’ve struggled to close out the season. While they had no issues with rival Oklahoma State last week, Oklahoma beat its three previous opponents (Iowa State, Baylor and TCU) by a combined eight points.
Now, if Oklahoma were to blow Baylor out, the committee might be more inclined to reward Lincoln Riley and Co. the fourth spot over Utah because of a better strength of schedule. Per Sagarin, Oklahoma has the 22nd toughest slate, while Utah has the 54th.
Ultimately, if Utah is going to stay ahead of the Sooners it will need to dominate Oregon and hop on the Baylor and LSU bandwagons.
While we all want to see Jalen Hurts make the playoff, Oklahoma needs a few things to go its way first. Oregon has to beat Utah in the Pac-12 championship (since a win won’t put the Ducks in the CFP) and LSU has to beat Georgia in the SEC. Then if the Sooners topple Baylor again, they would take that fourth spot.
But here’s where it gets tricky. What if Utah also wins? Then there would be a debate amongst committee members about whether Utah or Oklahoma is worthier. As noted above, Oklahoma has a stronger strength of schedule, with two top-10 wins (both against Baylor) plus a top-25 win (against Oklahoma State). Utah would have zero top-10 wins, with its only win over a ranked opponent being Oregon on Friday.
And what if Georgia beats LSU? In that case, the committee won’t care what happens in the Pac-12 and Big 12 and could put both SEC teams in. Georgia would be a one-loss SEC champion that just beat the nation’s best team and maybe the Heisman Trophy winner in Joe Burrow.
Regardless, OU needs to win and it needs style points. Oklahoma can’t beat the Bears like it did a few weeks ago when it needed a 25-point comeback to win.
The Bears have a tough road ahead. They need to beat Oklahoma convincingly, root for Oregon and LSU, and hope that’s enough. Even a narrow victory to become a one-loss Big 12 champion might not do it if Utah beats Oregon, since Utah is currently two spots above Baylor. The committee has been docking Baylor for its weak non-conference schedule, which included games against Stephen F. Austin, UTSA and Rice. And the fact that they narrowly beat teams with losing records like West Virginia and needed double overtime to beat TCU is not doing them any favors.
Matt Rhule has done an impressive job turning this program around and Baylor should be undefeated right now. In late October, the Bears let the Sooners come back from a 28-3 deficit to beat them at home, putting a damper on their playoff chances. While they’re still a legitimate candidate, the Bears don’t truly control their CFP destiny.
This isn’t getting talked about enough. There’s not going to be a debate for the fourth spot if Georgia upsets LSU. If the Bulldogs win on Saturday, they will advance to the playoff as a one-loss SEC champion, while the Tigers will also advance as the one-loss runner up.
The Pac-12 and Big 12 champs will be rooting for the Tigers in this one.