Following an epic battle between Michigan and Ohio State, the College Football Playoff selection committee will have to make several difficult decisions in this week's rankings. Conference championship games will help settle most of the debate, but there are a number of scenarios that could cause movement in the top four.
There are eight teams left with a realistic chance to make the playoff, and two spots are already essentially locked up.
Before the rankings are released Tuesday night, here’s a look at the cases for and against the eight teams in playoff contention, ordered by their likelihood of appearing in the top four this week. (We're using this week's AP Top 25 poll for rankings of opponents, since last week's playoff rankings are now outdated.)
Strength of schedule (via Sagarin ratings): 7
Last week: Won 30–12 vs. No. 18 Auburn
This week: vs. No. 15 Florida
Best wins: vs. No. 10 USC, at No. 21 LSU
Case for: Alabama beat down rival Auburn to improve to 12–0 on the season. A playoff spot is basically guaranteed now for the Crimson Tide, even if there were to loss to Florida. Expect the No. 1 seed to belong to the defending champions.
Case against: None. At worst, Alabama would be the No. 2 seed with a loss to Florida.
Consensus: In. Doesn't get any easier for the committee.
Ohio State (11–1)
Strength of schedule: 15
Last week: Won 30–27 in 2OT vs. No. 5 Michigan
This week: N/A
Best wins: vs. No. 5 Michigan, at No. 6 Wisconsin, at No. 7 Oklahoma, vs. No. 23 Nebraska
Losses: at No. 8 Penn State
Case for: Ohio State has the best collection of wins out of any team in the country. After their comeback victory over Michigan, the Buckeyes clinched a playoff spot. The No. 2 seed should be Ohio State's, even if Clemson and Washington both win their conference championship games. The Big Ten is the best conference in the country, and it's not even close. The Buckeyes have the best resume in the conference despite not playing for the Big Ten title and should be awarded as such.
Case against: Ohio State was not the better team Saturday. The Wolverines outplayed the Buckeyes for three and a half quarters, and I doubt many people came away from the game thinking Ohio State was clearly better. However, a win is a win, and there really is no case to make against Ohio State in terms of where it belongs in the playoff. Sure, the Buckeyes won't be conference champs, but the committee's job is to select the four best teams with the best resumes, and Ohio State is one of those teams.
Consensus: In. It would be a travesty if Ohio State is left out for not being a conference champion.
Strength of schedule: 47
Last week: Won 56–7 vs. South Carolina
This week: vs. No. 19 Virginia Tech
Best wins: at No. 12 Florida State, vs. No. 16 Louisville, at No. 18 Auburn
Losses: vs. No. 24 Pittsburgh
Case for: Clemson routed a bad South Carolina team to warm up for an ACC title game with Virginia Tech. A win against the Hokies will put Clemson in the playoff. What seed is a toss up. Clemson has three solid wins, none all that great, though Florida State has proven to be the best of the bunch. The combined ranked wins by the Seminoles, Louisville and Auburn are: Florida State's win over Florida, Auburn's win over LSU and Louisville's win over Florida State. At the moment, those wins are still better than what Washington has, but that could change next week.
Case against: Clemson is not a lock for the playoff. Its resume has gotten weaker and weaker as the season has gone on. The Tigers' strength of schedule has dropped and is now 14 spots worse than Michigan's. If Washington beats Colorado soundly, it could bump Clemson to the No. 4 seed. The case is even there to say that Michigan and whichever team wins the Big Ten title game are more deserving than the Tigers.
Consensus: In. Expect the Tigers to be the No. 3 seed in this week's rankings.
Strength of schedule: 60
Last week: Won 45–17 at Washington State
This week: vs. No. 9 Colorado
Best wins: vs. No. 17 Stanford, at Washington State, at Utah
Losses: vs. No. 10 USC
Case for: Washington looked good in its pounding of in-state rival Washington State. With Michigan losing, the Huskies are the team expected to benefit by moving into the top four. Just as Clemson won't be denied as a one-loss conference champion, it's hard to believe Washington would be either. A win over No. 9 Colorado might actually boost Washington to No. 3, especially if Clemson doesn't look impressive against Virginia Tech.
Case against: The main case against Washington is the same as it has been all year: The Huskies' strength of schedule is weak. That will get a boost from Colorado on Friday, but the Huskies' wins against Utah and Washington State aren't quite as strong with both falling out of the top 25. Still, those are quality road wins. The biggest worry Washington fans will have is whether the Big Ten champion will get in ahead of the Huskies, even if they beat Colorado. That shouldn't happen, but there is still the possibility. The rankings Tuesday will show us a lot. If I were in charge, Washington would be in with a win.
Consensus: In. Washington's loss to USC doesn't look so bad, especially with the way the Trojans are playing.
Strength of schedule: 33
Last week: Lost 30–27 in 2 OT at Ohio State
This week: N/A
Best wins: vs. No. 6 Wisconsin, vs. No. 8 Penn State, vs. No. 9 Colorado
Losses: at No. 2 Ohio State, at No. 22 Iowa
Case for: Michigan couldn't close the deal on the road against Ohio State, losing in double overtime. However, the Wolverines played better and showed why they were ranked so high all season. Michigan is the team to watch the most when these rankings are released. It's possible that Jim Harbaugh's squad could be anywhere from No. 3 to No. 7, and where it falls will tell us a lot. The smart money is on Michigan coming in at No. 5, ahead of Big Ten foes Wisconsin and Penn State. In fact, Michigan should remain ahead of both the Badgers and Nittany Lions again next week, regardless of which team wins the Big Ten title.
Here is all it should take to get Michigan into the playoff: a Clemson or Washington loss. Michigan beat Wisconsin, Penn State and Colorado—all teams that would have a case should Clemson or Washington fall. That head-to-head tiebreaker would be the deciding factor in each of those comparisons. Michigan also has better wins than each of those teams. Wisconsin beat LSU, Iowa and Nebraska. Penn State beat Ohio State and Iowa. Colorado beat Stanford and would have a win over Washington in this scenario. It's also possible Utah and Washington State could end up being ranked again. Wisconsin or Penn State would also have a win against each other of course, depending on which team is victorious. Michigan would have three top 10 wins, while the next best would be the Big Ten champ with two. Strength of schedule in order currently goes Wisconsin, Colorado, Michigan, Penn State. There is also the eye test, which Michigan passes more so than any of the others and probably hurts Penn State the most. Computers also favor Michigan, as Sagarin has the Wolverines at No. 3, Wisconsin No. 7, Colorado No. 11 and Penn State No. 14. The S&P+ ratings have Michigan at No. 2, Wisconsin at No. 10, Penn State at No. 11 and Colorado at No. 15.
The biggest gripe with placing Michigan ahead of potential Big Ten champion Penn State would be the fact that the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State. My argument to that would be that a Big Ten champion Penn State would only have two top 10 wins compared to Michigan's three and most importantly, got its doors blown off 49–10 by the Wolverines when the two teams met earlier this season. The thing to remember is that you aren't comparing Penn State to Ohio State, you're comparing Penn State to Michigan. The same argument applies for Wisconsin.
The other way Michigan could get in is if both Clemson and Washington lose. Then three (!) Big Ten teams could make the playoff, and better yet, you could draw up a Michigan-Ohio State rematch in the playoff.
Case against: After all of that above, the playoff hopes for Michigan are still small. While I personally would place Michigan ahead of the Big Ten champion, others may not and you can make the case for that. It all depends on how much the playoff committee value conference championships. I value which teams are the best, and what I do know is the Big Ten's best two teams squared off this weekend and won't be in Indianapolis. But if Clemson and Washington win, it won't matter what happens in the Big Ten title game. The field will be set, and Ohio State will represent the Big Ten. Ultimately Michigan had its chances to finish off Ohio State and couldn't.
Consensus: Out. Michigan should be No. 5 this week. The bigger question is where it will be next week if an upset occurs in either the ACC or Pac-12 title games.
Strength of schedule: 20
Last week: Won 31–17 vs. Minnesota
This week: vs. No. 8 Penn State
Best wins: vs. No. 21 LSU, vs. No. 23 Nebraska, at No. 22 Iowa
Losses: vs. No. 2 Ohio State, at No. 5 Michigan
Case for: The Badgers escaped a pesky Minnesota team to keep their playoff hopes alive. Wisconsin has a strong strength of schedule, and with a win over Penn State in the Big Ten championship game, will have a valid case for inclusion in the playoff. To assure itself a spot in the playoff, Wisconsin does need help. Clemson and Washington both need to lose to guarantee the Big Ten champ a spot. If only one of the Tigers and Huskies goes down, the Badgers' playoff hopes depend on how the committee views Michigan. If both Clemson and Washington win and Wisconsin blows out Penn State, there is a slim chance the Huskies or Tigers could get bumped out, but that's not likely. If it does come to that, I'd rather see Clemson get bumped out than Washington.
Case against: If Wisconsin loses to Penn State, it's all over for the Badgers, who would then likely settle for the Cotton Bowl. They don't have a win over an elite team, despite playing a more challenging schedule than Penn State. Wisconsin should beat the Nittany Lions, but as mentioned above, a win doesn't automatically equal a playoff berth; it simply means the winner won't finish worse than No. 6 in the final rankings. In this case, the Badgers would head to the Rose Bowl. Something to keep an eye on is the status of Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who is questionable for the Big Ten title game with a head injury.
Consensus: Out. Win and hope Clemson and/or Washington loses.
Penn State (10–2)
Strength of schedule: 39
Last week: Won 45–12 vs. Michigan State
This week: vs. No. 6 Wisconsin
Best wins: vs. No. 2 Ohio State, vs. No. 22 Iowa
Losses: at No. 24 Pittsburgh, at No. 5 Michigan
Case for: The singular reason Penn State is anywhere near the playoff is because of its win over Ohio State. That victory also gives the Nittany Lions a shot at a Big Ten title. Penn State's playoff scenario is very similar to Wisconsin's. It needs to win and get help from Virginia Tech and Colorado. It again will come down to whether an upset happens and how the committee views Penn State's resume in relation to Michigan's and Colorado's.
Case against: The bad news for Penn State is that even if it gets the help it needs from Colorado, you can make a reasonable argument that the Buffaloes have a better resume than the Nittany Lions. Colorado would have wins over Washington, Washington State, Stanford and Utah, a better strength of schedule and better losses (at Michigan and at USC). I don't know if the committee would actually place Penn State behind Colorado, but it's not as simple of a decision as many people assume. Penn State was dominated by Michigan, which hurts that head-to-head comparison, and it struggled mightily against Indiana and trailed miserable Michigan State at halftime before pulling away in the second half. Conference championships are important, but it doesn't completely outweigh a blowout loss, no matter how early in the year.
Consensus: Out. Penn State needs to beat Wisconsin handily and get help.
Strength of schedule: 23
Last week: Won 27–22 vs. Utah
This week: vs. No. 4 Washington
Best wins: at No. 17 Stanford, vs. Utah, vs. Washington State
Losses: at No. 5 Michigan, at No. 10 USC
Case for: Colorado continues to quietly impress as the season moves along. A tough win over Utah after they knocked out Washington State the week before gave the Buffaloes a chance to face Washington in the Pac-12 championship game. A Rose Bowl berth is guaranteed with a win; a playoff spot, however, will be tougher to come by. Colorado makes it into the playoff if: it beats Washington, Clemson loses, the committee drops Michigan farther than expected, Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma or the committee decides Colorado's resume is simply better than Big 12 champ Oklahoma and the Big Ten title game is sloppy. The real problem for Colorado is that even with a win and a Clemson loss, Michigan and the Big Ten champion could get the nod. Even if the committee places Wisconsin or Penn State ahead of Michigan, it would then come down to Michigan vs. Colorado vs. potentially Oklahoma. Michigan beat Colorado, which would be the tiebreaker. Oklahoma doesn't have a real chance to make the playoff, and while the Sooners very well might be ranked ahead of Colorado this week, that would be doubtful next week if the Buffaloes beat the Huskies (despite Oklahoma State also being a strong opponent).
Case against: Colorado drops out of contention with a loss to Washington. It also doesn't make the playoff without a lot of help. While strength of schedule is good for Colorado, it doesn't yet have that top-tier win that several other teams fighting for a playoff spot have (Penn State over Ohio State, Michigan's three top 10 wins, etc.). Beating Washington would give the Buffaloes one. The Pac-12 hasn't exactly been the most impressive conference this year, but it's still better than the Big 12 and ACC. However, it would take the committee ranking Pac-12 champion Colorado over the Big Ten champion to give the Buffaloes a reasonable path to the playoff.
Consensus: Out. Colorado has been a great story, but it needs a big win and plenty of help to reach the playoff.