Another set of committee rankings means another week parsing them for clues. Here are my five biggest takeaways from Tuesday night.
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Ohio State is (most likely) one win away
No. 2 Ohio State will not reach the Big Ten championship game if No. 7 Penn State handles Michigan State on Saturday, but the Buckeyes are still likely playoff-bound if they win their showdown with No. 3 Michigan.
That may seem a risky statement given the Nittany Lions could own both a conference title AND a head-to-head win over Ohio State. But those criteria were always intended as essentially tiebreakers between two teams the committee views as being very close. Penn State’s and Ohio State’s potential resumes aren’t particularly close, as committee chair Kirby Hocutt affirmed Tuesday night.
"Does the Selection Committee see a small margin of separation this week between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State?" said Hocutt. "We do not."
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Washington should breathe easier
For a few weeks there I thought a 12-1 Pac-12 champ Washington might still get passed by 11-2 Big Ten champ Wisconsin or Penn State for the fourth spot. But the Huskies, despite their weak non-conference schedule, remained ahead of both this week at No. 5.
"There's a lot to like about Washington," said Hocutt. "Their strength of schedule still gives the committee pause at this time from ranking them any higher."
It helps the Huskies that No. 22 Utah (8-3), whom they beat, and No. 23 Washington State (8-3), whom they play next, remained in the rankings coming off losses, along with No. 24 Stanford (8-3), which they clobbered. Meanwhile, Wisconsin lost one of its two Top 25 wins to date with LSU (6-4), No. 16 last week, dropping out.
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That Central Michigan fiasco is killing Oklahoma State
As you may recall, back in September, Oklahoma State lost a game on a Hail Mary play that officials afterward admitted never should have been allowed. Every week on his teleconference, someone asks Hocutt how the committee views that result, and every week, he reaffirms they consider it a loss.
"I would say the Selection Committee looks at Oklahoma State as a 9-2 football team," he said Tuesday.
That controversy looms large now that the Cowboys have cracked the Top 10 and can win the Big 12 championship by beating No. 8 Oklahoma in two weeks. Were Oklahoma State a 10-1 team, it’d be right in the mix for the top four.
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USC is not getting special treatment
ESPN’s analysts spent what seemed like 20 minutes debating whether the 8-3 Trojans, winners of seven straight, should be ranked higher than 12th. I myself had them ninth in my own rankings Sunday. But I’m not obligated to follow the committee’s protocol. Clearly, the committee is still holding the Trojans accountable for those three early-season losses, regardless of who the quarterback was.
USC’s not going to the playoff regardless, but its ranking could still have major bowl implications. Colorado (9-2) is currently three spots ahead of USC. If the Buffs beat Utah this week to win the Pac-12 South but lose in the championship game, the Pac-12’s Rose Bowl berth could come down to whoever’s higher-ranked between CU or USC (if Washington is in the playoff).
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Navy is sneaking around
There are now four Group of 5 teams ranked between Nos. 19-25, but one of those, No. 20 Houston, did not reach its conference title game, and another, No. 19 Boise State, does not control its own Mountain West divisional fate. No. 21 Western Michigan at 11-0 remains the clubhouse leader for a trip to the Cotton Bowl, but it must beat 9-2 Toledo on Friday to win its MAC division.
However, 8-2 Navy, which debuted at No. 25 this week, has already clinched a spot in the American Athletic Conference’s championship game. Worth noting: If the Midshipmen do in fact emerge next Sunday as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champ, the committee would hold off finalizing the Cotton Bowl matchup until after the Dec. 10 Army-Navy game.