Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY
Published 8:04 p.m. ET Dec. 3, 2019 | Updated 8:12 p.m. ET Dec. 3, 2019
For all the debate and controversy that has been berthed from the advent of the College Football Playoff, the heavy focus has annually been on the fourth and final spot. Again in 2019, the debate rages on: No. 5 Utah, No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 Baylor are set to go down to the wire in determining the final team in the field, unless one of No. 4 Georgia or No. 8 Wisconsin — if not both — throw the entire enterprise into chaos during this weekend’s slate of conference championships.
The race for No. 4 matters, but so does the chase for No. 1. The latter has always carried some importance due to the ability to land at the semifinal destination closer to home. This year’s competition for the top spot has another layer of intrigue.
With Clemson locked in at No. 3 should No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 LSU win on Saturday, the team atop the final playoff rankings gets to avoid the defending national champions in the semifinals, instead drawing one of the champions from the Pac-12 or Big 12 — tough matchups, sure, but neither potential pairing intimidates quite like Clemson.
PLAYOFF RANKINGS: Ohio State still No. 1, while Utah leads Oklahoma
BOWL PROJECTIONS: Oklahoma passes Utah into fourth playoff spot
In terms of the fourth and final spot, it’ll come down to games on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Utah and No. 13 Oregon meet on Friday to settle the Pac-12. The Sooners and Bears meet in a rematch on Saturday to decide the Big 12. Style points could matter. Here are the winners and losers from the penultimate playoff rankings:
The Utes are ahead of OU, for now, with the potential to make a prime-time statement as the only game on Friday night. Utah’s been dominant since losing to No. 22 Southern California in September, a game that saw the Utes’ top offensive players — quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zach Moss — slowed or sidelined by injuries. After losing that conference opener, seven of Utah’s eight Pac-12 wins have come by at least 18 points. The metrics love Utah, which ranks third nationally in yards allowed per game and ninth yards gained per play.
Marquee wins have been the biggest issue: Utah has several good wins, such as Washington and Brigham Young, but suffers for the overall mediocrity of the Pac-12. On the other hand, Oklahoma has one great win against Baylor and a second high-quality win against No. 25 Oklahoma State, which stuck in the rankings after Saturday’s 34-16 loss to the Sooners.
As noted, being No. 1 this winter comes with its one enormous advantage. There was no way Ohio State was being unseated by LSU in the second-to-last rankings, not when the Buckeyes were fresh off another dominant performance against No. 14 Michigan. (LSU was also very impressive in destroying Texas A&M.) The question is whether OSU can remain atop the rankings after this weekend should LSU beat Georgia, regardless of the final score, or if the Tigers are destined to return to No. 1 with an SEC championship.
The Tigers are up four spots to No. 11 after the Iron Bowl win against Alabama, and in moving to 9-3 and rising in the playoff rankings have made a case for reaching a New Year’s Six bowl. Auburn will join Wisconsin and No. 10 Penn State in battling for an at-large bid, with one of those two Big Ten teams destined for the Rose Bowl with an Ohio State win on Saturday and the other in the mix for the Cotton Bowl against the best team from the Group of Five.
Beating Clemson to win the ACC seems unlikely. But merely by breaking into this week’s rankings at No. 23, Virginia has staked claim to earning a spot in the Orange Bowl as the league’s next-best team. While teams have earned huge bumps for convincing championship-game wins — remember Ohio State beating Wisconsin 59-0 in 2014 — the committee won’t heavily penalize a team for losing, especially as a major underdog. So look for the committee to view the Cavaliers as the second-best ACC team regardless of the final score on Saturday.
In the span of four games — two wins, two losses — No. 12 Alabama has gone from in the playoff field to out of the New Year’s Six picture entirely. That’s what those two SEC losses have done to the Crimson Tide’s postseason hopes: Alabama will play in a non-New Year’s Six bowl for the first time the 2010 season after reaching the semifinals in each of the first five seasons of the playoff format. Instead, Auburn and No. 9 Florida have positioned themselves into contention for two spots in the New Year’s Six. Georgia would go to the Sugar Bowl with a loss to LSU, while the Gators would be an option in the Orange Bowl and Auburn a contender for the Cotton Bowl as an at-large pick.
The vagaries of the American conference schedule will force No. 20 Cincinnati and No. 17 Memphis to meet two weeks in a row. Eight days after losing to the Tigers to fall to 10-2, the Bearcats hope to rally and win the American and become eligible for the access-bowl bid to the New Year’s Six given to the best champion from the Group of Five. But it may not be that simple. While Memphis is absolutely in a New Year’s Six bowl with a win, the Bearcats may end up behind No. 19 Boise State, should the Broncos beat Hawaii for the second time to win the Mountain West, or even No. 21 Appalachian State, which looks to take home the Sun Belt.
This week’s rankings give a clue into the selection committee’s view of these three teams, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. For now, the Broncos can tout more wins against eventual bowl teams, and the Mountaineers can point to two wins against Power Five competition. But it’s impossible to gauge just how much weight the committee will place on winning the American, which has been the best Group of Five league and by some measurements better than the ACC. Will an American title give Cincinnati the final edge, even if the Bearcats have two losses while the Broncos and Mountaineers have one?
Michigan and Minnesota
The two Big Ten teams saw their Rose Bowl hopes take a hit. The Wolverines are down to No. 14, a one-spot drop from last week, after the 56-27 loss at home to Ohio State. Minnesota is down a whopping 10 spots to No. 18 after a loss to Wisconsin that stung on multiple levels: Wisconsin won the Big Ten West, secured a spot in the Big Ten championship, knocked the Gophers out of the playoff mix and took back Paul Bunyan’s Axe. (It might be the latter that’s most important to the Badgers.)
Both teams would’ve had a strong case for the Rose Bowl with wins. While OSU would have still won the East, Michigan would be sitting at 10-2 owning perhaps the best win of any team in the Bowl Subdivision. Minnesota would’ve been 11-1, if heavy underdogs to lose the Big Ten championship, but with having achieved enough to slide into the Rose Bowl berth left to the second-best team in the conference should the Buckeyes make the semifinals. Now, the Rose Bowl race centers on Wisconsin and Penn State.