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What is TCU’s margin for error? Key questions before latest CFP rankings reveal

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The top four teams in the country — Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU — all won on Saturday to remain undefeated, so there shouldn’t be much, if any, change Tuesday night when the College Football Playoff selection committee unveils its third of six rankings at 9 p.m. ET.

No. 5 Tennessee also should hold its spot following its lopsided win over Missouri, giving the Volunteers an opportunity to finish in the top four on Selection Day without winning their league or division.

It gets more interesting after that, but not unpredictable. No. 7 LSU should remain the committee’s top two-loss team, and USC will replace Oregon as the Pac-12’s top playoff contender after the Ducks and UCLA both lost. With Oregon dropping, LSU should move up one spot to No. 6, followed by a promotion for USC to No. 7.

While things might seem simple at the top, the impact on Selection Day gets a bit more complicated. Here’s your guide to interpreting what the committee is thinking behind closed doors, along with Adam Rittenberg’s case for Clemson being ranked higher than USC and the top-four picks of ESPN’s college football reporters:

1. How much margin for error does TCU really have? The Horned Frogs clinched a spot in the Big 12 title game on Saturday night, and if they finish as undefeated conference champions, TCU will be in the playoff. If the selection committee bumps TCU ahead of Michigan on Tuesday night, it could indicate the Frogs have a little more leeway, but the strength of the entire conference is a question. Except for TCU, every team in the Big 12 has at least three losses, guaranteeing the Frogs will face a lower-ranked opponent in the conference title game. (The winner of Ohio State-Michigan will face a similar scenario in the Big Ten, but wins in that rivalry game and over Penn State will trump anything TCU has on its résumé). Pay attention to where TCU’s opponents are ranked, starting with Texas, which now has four losses. If the Frogs stumble at Baylor (which they shouldn’t, given how the Bears have spiraled), their schedule could cost them.

2. Is LSU the only two-loss team with a chance? Alabama avoided disaster with its win on Saturday at Ole Miss, but by beating the Rebels, the Crimson Tide ensured LSU’s spot in the SEC championship game as winner of the West Division. Alabama should remain behind LSU in the rankings because of the head-to-head result, but it also could seem deceivingly close at No. 8. There will be movement ahead of the 8-2 Tide going forward, as Ohio State or Michigan will lose in the regular-season finale, and it’s possible TCU loses and/or Georgia knocks LSU out of the conversation. The CFP rankings don’t follow the Associated Press poll mentality; it’s not as simple as teams lose and others move up. Without a conference or division title, Alabama would face much higher scrutiny in the selection committee meeting room. The group has written protocol it must adhere to, and Alabama would come up short in three critical areas: championships won, strength of schedule and head-to-head results.

3. How dire is the Pac-12’s situation? With USC still a top-10 team, the conference is still in the mix, but keep an eye on how far Oregon and UCLA fall — and where two-loss Utah fits in. The good news for the league is that Washington should move up, giving the conference five ranked teams, which is impressive. Without divisions, the Pac-12 also is in better shape than the Big Ten and Big 12 in terms of its title game matchup (at least for now), as both of those leagues will have a team with at least three losses playing for its championship. If USC runs the table and finishes as a one-loss conference champion, it most likely will have defeated three straight ranked opponents along the way: UCLA, Notre Dame and its title game opponent. That could be the boost the Trojans need to get in, perhaps ahead of Tennessee. It also could give them the edge over TCU as a one-loss Big 12 champion. The one message that should be clear: It’s USC or bust in the Pac-12.

4. Does one-loss North Carolina have a shot? Tar Heels fans want to know why their team isn’t generating serious discussion. It’s a fair question with two straightforward answers: a lack of statement wins and defense. North Carolina’s regular-season schedule doesn’t feature one ranked opponent or one Power 5 nonconference win. An upset of Clemson in the ACC title game isn’t going to compensate for that, especially with how poorly the Heels’ defense has played, allowing Appalachian State 61 points and at least 24 points in every win this season, except against Virginia Tech (41-10). UNC is a gutsy team that is undefeated in conference play, but when the conference is struggling, it’s more difficult to make the case.


What the committee will — and should — do

I had far less beef with the second CFP rankings than the initial version, but it wouldn’t be a Tuesday in November without something to complain about. The top six spots in Tuesday night’s rankings shouldn’t generate too many surprises, but it could get interesting at No. 7 and lower, especially with a new Pac-12 front-runner and the teams lurking just behind.

What the CFP selection committee will do: Rank USC ahead of Clemson

What the CFP selection committee should do: Rank Clemson ahead of USC

When nine of the top 10 teams in the rankings win, the temptation is to not mess with the order. Oregon undoubtedly will tumble after its home loss to a good but not elite Washington team. USC is now the only one-loss team left in the Pac-12. The Trojans did nothing to necessarily lose their position, overcoming a sluggish first quarter Friday night to thump Colorado 55-17. USC eclipsed 40 points for the eighth time this season, tied with Oregon for the most in FBS.

But USC, to no fault of its own, beat another bad team, which the Trojans have spent most of the season doing. As the great Jon Wilner pointed out, USC’s seven Pac-12 wins have come against teams with a combined league record of 14-36. Only two of those teams, Oregon State and Washington State, have winning records. Oregon State should reenter the committee’s rankings Tuesday night, but USC’s best win was a 17-14 squeaker over the Beavers despite a 4-0 edge in takeaways.

Right now, the Trojans are buoyed more by a great loss — they fell 43-42 at Utah after the Utes scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the final minute — than anything else in their profile. The Pac-12 is a much-improved conference, but USC has played only one of the league’s truly strong teams, Utah, and lost. The Trojans finally get profile-boosting opportunities this week against UCLA and next week versus Notre Dame.

But at this moment, Clemson has the stronger overall résumé. The Tigers are undefeated in ACC play with five victories against teams with winning records. Clemson has three wins against teams that were ranked in the AP poll when it faced them, and it just beat surging Louisville by 15 on Saturday. There’s no doubt Clemson has an uglier loss than USC, as the Tigers never challenged Notre Dame in a 35-14 road setback, leading coach Dabo Swinney to admit, “This was an ass-kicking, period.” But the Tigers have more solid wins, including an Oct. 15 triumph at Florida State that looks better each week.

Both teams have had some narrow victories. Clemson has won three games by six points or fewer, but all were against teams either ranked at the time or ranked now. USC has three wins by eight points or fewer but only one against a currently ranked team. The Trojans struggled to pull away from Arizona and Cal, allowing a total of 72 points and 1,012 yards in those wins.

There’s not a massive gap between these teams, but CFP rankings are snapshots of the current landscape. USC is being rewarded more for a loss and dominating bad teams, while Clemson has compiled a bigger and better group of wins. USC has the closing stretch to cement itself above Clemson, but that time isn’t now. — Adam Rittenberg


ESPN reporters’ top-four picks

Andrea Adelson: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Blake Baumgartner: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Kyle Bonagura: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Bill Connelly: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Heather Dinich: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
David Hale: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Chris Low: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Harry Lyles Jr.: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Ryan McGee: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Tennessee
Adam Rittenberg: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Alex Scarborough: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Mark Schlabach: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Paolo Uggetti: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Tom VanHaaren: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Dave Wilson: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan





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