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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Michigan and Washington are in a tight battle
Selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt seemed to have a specific message he wanted to put out there Tuesday night.
Five times over the course of his post-rankings teleconference with reporters he mentioned either the “small margin” or “small separation” between No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Michigan. At one point he estimated that over the course of two days, the committee spent nearly two hours (!) debating between the 11-1 Huskies and the 10-2 Wolverines.
“There were a number of Selection Committee members that were really struggling with who was the better team there,” he said.
On the surface, that seems like a colossal waste of two hours. Washington plays a top-10 Colorado team on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game. Michigan’s regular season is over. The question of which team should be higher than the other figures to be resolved one way or the other in a few days.
But Hocutt does not throw this stuff out there by accident. He’s carefully coached by P.R. professionals before going on ESPN and talking with media. He has talking points prepared. Why, then, make such a big deal out of Washington vs. Michigan?
I have two theories.
One is that he’s hinting at possible disappointment ahead for fans of Washington, which has since the first rankings on Nov. 1 consistently been the lowest-rated of its peer group (first as an undefeated, then as a one-loss). The Huskies’ poor strength of schedule “continues to be a concern for the Selection Committee,” said Hocutt.
Michigan is not going to pass Washington if the Huskies beat Colorado, but perhaps whoever wins Saturday’s Big Ten championship game between No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Penn State could?
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Could two from the Big Ten be playoff bound?
Is he opening the door for the possibility that both No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan could be playoff-bound before the Big Ten champ? Because another message Hocutt emphasized Tuesday night was to remind us of the committee’s “core purpose and mission … to identify the four very best teams in college football” – regardless of whether they won their conference.
Based on the committee’s rankings, it believes the two best teams in the Big Ten are not the ones playing in Indianapolis. And maybe that won’t change after one beats the other, as we’ve long been assuming. After all, Michigan, which he says was already thisclose to being No. 4, beat both Wisconsin and Penn State.
In some ways, it feels like Hocutt is contradicting the message of predecessor Jeff Long, who sure made it seem like winning a conference championship was arguably the most important criteria for reaching the playoff. However, in the first two years, there was never a viable non-champ to emerge as a realistic candidate.
When it comes to the Ohio State-Penn State conundrum in particular, Hocutt’s message continues to be that, “Only when the Selection Committee deems those teams to be [so] comparable that the margins are razor thin, do we then go to those four measurements that we've talked about” as tiebreakers – those being conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and common opponents.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – Ohio State is going to the playoff regardless of Saturday’s outcome. The Buckeyes’ resume is too strong to be left out. That doesn’t mean Penn State can’t join the field, too. But now, you have to wonder whether the Nittany Lions are in danger of also finishing behind a Michigan.
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The Big 12 is officially out
What little chance remained for Saturday’s Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner finishing in the top four likely went out the window when Colorado moved ahead of the 9-2 Sooners for the No. 8 spot. Oklahoma State is No. 9. Those teams’ best hope was for both Washington and Clemson to lose this weekend and for the committee to choose them over both Michigan and Pac-12 champ Colorado. It doesn’t appear like that’s happening.
Louisville’s two-game skid cost it a New Year’s Six berth
Literally all season I’ve been projecting the Cardinals to the Orange Bowl, but the committee dropped 9-3 Louisville to No. 13, one spot behind fellow 9-3 ACC member Florida State. If Clemson goes to the playoff, the Orange Bowl takes the next highest-ranked ACC team, which means Louisville likely drops to the Citrus Bowl.
Once again, that shows how close the teams need to be in the committee’s eyes for a head-to-head result to carry weight, because in this case, the lower-ranked team beat the higher-ranked team … um, 63-20. Hocutt cited Florida State’s much-tougher schedule, dinging Louisville for beating just one team with a winning record.
“Louisville does hold the head-to-head, but that was early in the season, Week 3,” Hocutt said. “So we talked about in the eyes of the Selection Committee who is the better football team at this particular time, and that is Florida State.”
But hey, now you can see both Lamar Jackson and Mickey Mouse on the same New Year’s vacation.
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Auburn will be spending New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street
Unless Florida stuns Alabama in the SEC championship game, the Sugar Bowl automatically gets the next highest-ranked SEC team – and this year that team is going to be 8-4.
Despite losing its past two SEC games to Georgia and Alabama, Auburn checked in at No. 14 on Tuesday, already one spot higher than the Gators. So the only way Florida is going to New Orleans is if it’s SEC champ. And that’s not happening unless Alabama’s entire front seven gets kidnapped in Atlanta.