The College Football Playoff selection committee will never ask coaches to run up the score, and the protocol specifically states that comparing games against a common opponent is done “without incenting margin of victory.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a good old-fashioned drubbing.
With no changes to the top five of the third ranking on Tuesday night — No. 6 LSU and No. 7 USC earned small promotions at the expense of two-loss Oregon, which sank to 12 — Week 12 will provide several opportunities for the top contenders to leave no doubt they’re the better team.
In the case of No. 7 USC, now the committee’s top-ranked Pac-12 team, the one-loss Trojans can make a statement against a ranked rival in No. 16 UCLA — or eliminate the Pac-12 entirely with a loss. No team is better positioned to finish in the top four than No. 1 Georgia, which clinched the SEC East and will face LSU in the conference title game. A resounding win at Kentucky, though, would be another highlight the committee could point to if Georgia finishes as SEC runner-up.
No. 3 Michigan has a chance to continue to assert itself against unranked Illinois, a three-loss team that dropped out of the CFP Top 25 but could still win the Big Ten West. Tennessee and TCU, meanwhile, should cruise against unranked, unheralded conference opponents.
With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, here’s how Week 12 could potentially influence the committee’s evaluation on Selection Day, ranked in order of biggest impact:
1. USC at UCLA
Why it’s important: USC has no margin for error, and the road game against the ranked neighborhood rival is the next step in padding a résumé that could eventually trump one-loss Tennessee. USC is the Pac-12’s best hope at the playoff, and while many seem to assume No. 5 Tennessee will finish in the top four because the Vols are currently ranked ahead of USC, it will be much more complicated for the committee once the conference titles are added to the résumés and Tennessee doesn’t have one. USC could finish the season with three straight wins against ranked opponents — UCLA, Notre Dame and the Pac-12 title game opponent — which would put it squarely in the conversation for the top four.
2. TCU at Baylor
Why it’s important: No. 4 TCU didn’t get a bump this week, even though it played its best defense of the season, earned a road win against what used to be a CFP Top 25 team in Texas, and clinched a spot in the Big 12 title game. That indicates the Horned Frogs still don’t have much if any margin for error, and a loss on Saturday to an unranked Baylor (6-4) team that K-State just hammered 31-3 would be difficult to overcome on Selection Day. If TCU finishes as an undefeated Big 12 champion, the Horned Frogs will finish in the top four, but a loss to either Baylor or Iowa State along the way will put them in a precarious position. It helped TCU that No. 22 Oklahoma State popped back into the Top 25, giving the Frogs two wins against ranked opponents, along with Kansas State. That would probably match Clemson, if it finishes as a one-loss ACC champ, but they could both be looking up at USC or Tennessee — or both.
3. Tennessee at South Carolina
Why it’s important: If you’re not playing on championship weekend, you’re praying. Without a division or conference title, Tennessee needs to impress the committee every chance it gets, and a road win against a bowl-bound SEC opponent is another boost for the Vols — even if South Carolina isn’t ranked. Assuming the SEC and Big Ten champions are in the top four, Tennessee needs to be concerned about undefeated TCU and one-loss USC. The Vols will need their wins against LSU and Alabama to overcome not having a conference title. Where it could get interesting is if LSU wins the SEC, because Tennessee could then claim a resounding 40-13 win over the SEC champs — in Baton Rouge. The Vols can’t control any of that, though, so finishing the season in style is their best bet.
4. Miami at Clemson
Why it’s important: Clemson and the ACC remain in the worst playoff position of any of the Power 5 conferences, so the Tigers cannot afford to struggle at home against a mediocre Miami team. Clemson hasn’t exactly dominated anyone this season, either. The Tigers are 2-1 against teams currently ranked in the CFP, and have a point margin of minus-5 in those three games (wins against NC State and FSU, loss to Notre Dame). If the SEC, Big Ten and undefeated TCU are in, Clemson needs to worry about one-loss Tennessee. The Vols’ wins against LSU and Alabama would be more impressive than Clemson’s wins against NC State, Florida State and UNC. The Tigers could also lose a résumé debate with one-loss USC. Their bigger problem, though, is that they’re already looking up at two two-loss teams, including Alabama.
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5. Illinois at Michigan
Why it’s important: No, Illinois isn’t ranked, but the three-loss Illini are at least above .500, and that’s more than you can say for most of Michigan’s opponents. Because the only ranked win so far is against Penn State, and only the Nittany Lions, Maryland, Iowa, Illinois and UConn have winning records, Michigan needs to make the most of every opportunity it has against a respectable team in case it doesn’t beat No. 2 Ohio State. It’s not impossible for the loser of The Game to finish in the top four, but it would be more difficult for the Wolverines. The selection committee isn’t thrilled with Michigan’s schedule, which at No. 82 is easily the worst of any CFP contender. Michigan could face Illinois twice if they win their respective divisions and meet in the Big Ten championship game.
6. Ohio State at Maryland
Why it’s important: The Buckeyes haven’t clinched the East yet, and if they don’t beat Michigan in the regular-season finale, there’s zero chance Ohio State will finish in the top four if it can’t win in College Park. Ohio State has already struggled this season in bad weather against 1-9 Northwestern. Another ugly win could raise some eyebrows in the committee meeting room if Ohio State doesn’t win its division. Saturday will also give a glimpse into the health status of their two star running backs, TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, who have been injured and will be key to making a serious playoff run. Ohio State coach Ryan Day told reporters he wouldn’t know their statuses until Thursday. The selection committee considers injuries to key players, but so far, the Buckeyes have continued to piece it together but have relied heavily on their passing game.
7. Georgia at Kentucky
Why it’s important: What if LSU wins the SEC? It’s likely Georgia also finishes in the top four, but it’s not a guarantee — especially with Tennessee sitting there with a win over the SEC champs. The selection committee considers common opponents, and there is no example more critical than this one. Would the committee put in the team that lost to the SEC champs, and not the one that beat them? It’s not the only component, though. Head-to-head results also matter, and Georgia owned Tennessee in a game that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated. Georgia could continue to boost its case with a road win against a division opponent, and wouldn’t be a great look if the Bulldogs struggled against a team Vanderbilt just found a way to beat.
There are just two weeks remaining in the regular season, which means we’ve got just three more sets of rankings to go before the committee retires to its underground lair to begin plotting against the Group of 5 for another offseason. This week’s CFP Top 25 offered few surprises. If anyone expected the committee to challenge conventional wisdom, they were sorely disappointed. But that doesn’t mean no one has cause for frustration in the aftermath of the release. This is college football, after all. Anger is the default setting. So, let’s get to this week’s Anger Index.
1. Washington Huskies (8-2)
We talk a lot about résumé when it comes to the College Football Playoff rankings, but we rarely define what exactly a good résumé looks like. So, here’s one suggestion:
• At least one win vs. a very good to great opponent (in the top 10% of FBS teams) to prove you can play with the best of the best.
• Three or more wins against good teams (in the top one-third of FBS teams) to prove you can survive the week-in, week-out grind.
• Two or more wins in true road games to show you can go into a hostile environment and hold your own.
Add those three things up, package them with a sterling win-loss record, and you’ve got a resumé worthy of playoff consideration.
So, who fits that bill right now?
As of this week, there are nine teams. Eight of them are ranked among the top nine teams in the country (No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 TCU, No. 5 Tennessee, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Alabama and No. 9 Clemson).
The ninth team? That’d be the Washington Huskies, who check in at a less-than-exciting No. 17 in this week’s rankings, behind four other Pac-12 teams, including two-loss Utah at No. 10 and two-loss UCLA at No. 16 as well as two-loss Oregon, ranked five spots higher, despite losing last week at home to… Washington!
So, why does the committee dismiss the Huskies? It’s all about style points.
Washington led Michigan State 39-10 in the second half, but the game finished 39-28.
The Huskies were up 30-7 on Stanford at the end of the third quarter, but the Cardinal rallied late for a 40-22 loss.
They were up 42-24 on Arizona in the second half, too, but that game ended 49-39.
Essentially, Washington has gone up big then gone on autopilot, and the end result is a handful of wins against lackluster opponents that look entirely mediocre.
Well, that and the loss to Arizona State. How can anyone explain that one? A pick six? Three turnovers on downs? Some sort of voodoo curse? Your guess is as good as ours.
The first eight teams we included here are 23-0 against the bottom half of FBS teams (per FPI) and have an average margin of victory of 40 points.
Washington is 4-1 and has won by an average of 10 points.
But is it reasonable to judge Washington by what it did against Arizona State when we’ve witnessed the Huskies toppled Oregon in Eugene?
The Pac-12 is essentially a five-team stalemate right now, so a lot can change. But there’s really very little case for Washington as the fourth of those five teams, and if we simply look at the credits rather than the debits on the Huskies’ resumé, there’s actually a fairly strong case for putting them at the top of the heap.
2. The ACC
Clearly the committee is not a fan of the ACC, despite the league’s nine teams with six wins or better already. That pesky Notre Dame deal, which keeps leading to ugly losses for the league and no salvation from realignment from the Irish is a real problem.
This week’s rankings put the ACC in a bit of a bind. Clemson is ranked No. 9, the lowest by any of the supposed playoff contenders, a spot behind two-loss Alabama. Yes, Clemson’s résumé is far superior to, say, No. 7 USC. And yes, Clemson beat a Florida State team that beat two-loss LSU (ranked three spots higher). And yes, the Tigers rebounded nicely from the Notre Dame loss last week with an emphatic win over Louisville. But the committee isn’t buying, which means the Tigers can win out and still be at the bottom of the conference champion pecking order.
That’s doubly true for North Carolina. Here’s a quick comparison:
Team A: 9-1, No. 11 strength of record, No. 75 strength of schedule, road loss to ranked team, Heisman contender QB, shaky defense, former Big 12 coaching great at the helm, sort of a wine-and-cheese fan base.
Team B: 9-1, No. 10 strength of record, No. 65 strength of schedule, road loss to a ranked team, Heisman contender at QB, former Big 12 coaching great at the helm, sort of a wine-and-cheese fan base.
Not much separating the two, right? And yet, six spots separate Team A (North Carolina) from Team B (USC) in the rankings.
3. Everyone outside the Big Ten
Ohio State is No. 2. Michigan is No. 3. Both, by any eye test or statistical metric, are very good teams.
And yet, look at the résumés.
Michigan beat Penn State. It’s next best win is by a touchdown at home vs. Maryland. Seven of its 10 wins are against teams .500 or worse (and the other is Iowa, which… sorry, we fell asleep while typing Iowa.)
Ohio State beat Penn State. It’s next best win was a rather unimpressive affair in the opener against Notre Dame. In Big Ten play, the best team the Buckeyes have beaten is… sorry, we nodded off again thinking about Iowa.
So the lynchpin for both teams to be ranked in the top three is Penn State. And yet, Penn State’s best wins are Purdue, Auburn and Minnesota — all unranked.
None of this is to suggest Michigan and Ohio State aren’t two of the three best teams in the country. They may well be. But even before the season began, it was obvious the path to get here was just a two-step process: Beat Penn State, meet up in Columbus on Nov. 26.
Must be nice.
How a 12-team playoff would look
Everyone with the power to expand the College Football Playoff wants the field to grow to 12 teams in time for the 2024 season.
But currently, expansion is scheduled to begin in 2026. So while discussions continue on how to move up the timeline, we’re taking a look at how a 12-team playoff would look today based on the already-determined model released by the commissioners and presidents.
The field will be composed of the selection committee’s six highest-ranked conference champions and its next six highest-ranked teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn the top seeds and a first-round bye. The other eight teams will play in the first round, with the higher seeds hosting the lower seeds on campus or at another site of their choice.
Here’s what the playoff would look like if the 12-team format were in place today:
Seeds with byes
2. Ohio State
(conference champs in bold)
11. Penn State
No. 12 UCF at No. 5 Michigan
No. 11 Penn State at No. 6 Tennessee
No. 10 Utah at No. 7 LSU
No. 9 Clemson at No. 8 Alabama
No. 9 Clemson-No. 8 Alabama winner vs. No. 1 Georgia
No. 10 Utah-No. 7 LSU winner vs. No. 2 Ohio State
No. 11 Penn State-No. 6 Tennessee winner vs. No. 3 TCU
No. 12 UCF-No. 5 Michigan winner vs. No. 4 USC
Record: 10-0 | SOS: 44 | SOR: 2
Biggest win: Nov. 5 vs. Tennessee 27-13
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Saturday at Kentucky
Last playoff appearance: 2022 CFP National championship, No. 3 Georgia 33, No. 1 Alabama 18
No. 2 Ohio State
Record: 10-0 | SOS: 60 | SOR: 4
Biggest win: Oct. 29 at Penn State 44-31
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Nov. 26 vs. Michigan
Last playoff appearance: 2021 CFP National Championship, No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 3 Ohio State 24
No. 3 Michigan
Record: 10-0 | SOS: 82 | SOR: 5
Biggest win: Oct. 15 vs. Penn State 41-17
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Nov. 26 at Ohio State
Last playoff appearance: 2022 Playoff Semifinal at the Orange Bowl, No. 3 Georgia 34, No. 2 Michigan 11
No. 4 TCU
Record: 10-0 | SOS: 38 | SOR: 1
Biggest win: Oct. 22 vs. Texas 17-10
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Saturday at Baylor
Last playoff appearance: Never
No. 5 Tennessee
Record: 9-1 | SOS: 3 | SOR: 3
Biggest win: Oct. 8 at LSU 40-13
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Saturday at South Carolina
Last playoff appearance: Never
No. 6 LSU
Record: 8-2 | SOS: 11 | SOR: 7
Biggest win: Nov. 5 vs. Alabama 32-31
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Nov. 26 at Texas A&M
Last playoff appearance: 2020 CFP National Championship: No. 1 LSU 42, No. 3 Clemson 25
No. 7 USC
Record: 9-1 | SOS: 65 | SOR: 10
Biggest win: Sept. 24 at Oregon State 17-14
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Saturday at UCLA
Last playoff appearance: Never
No. 8 Clemson
Record: 9-1 | SOS: 55 | SOR: 8
Biggest win: Oct. 1 vs. NC State 30-20
Biggest remaining regular-season game: Nov. 26 vs. South Carolina
Last playoff appearance: 2021 Playoff Semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, No. 3 Ohio State 49, No. 2 Clemson 28