Oklahoma is No. 3 in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, putting the Sooners safely in position to be in the final four with their season completed.
The Sooners locked up the Big 12 championship with a blowout victory at Oklahoma State last week.
Committee chairman Jeff Long refused to speculate Tuesday night whether the Sooners could be moved out of the top four by Saturday’s results when the final rankings come out Sunday. But it’s plain to see Oklahoma should be OK. Of the four teams directly behind Oklahoma, two are playing each other (No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State in the Big Ten title game for a spot in the playoff), one isn’t playing and can’t win a conference (No. 6 Ohio State) and another has two losses (No. 7 Stanford).
No worries of a repeat of last year for the Big 12, when it was the Power Five conference left out of the playoff.
"The fact that I think that most of the discussion and debate was above them and below them would indicate that their position at three was pretty solid with the committee" this week, Long said of the Sooners.
Clemson is still No. 1 and Alabama remained No. 2. Both the Tigers (12-0) and Crimson Tide (11-1) head into their conference championship games Saturday needing a victory to lock up a playoff spot.
"The committee debated long and hard about the No. 1 and No. 2 teams," said Long, who is the Arkansas athletic director.
The top seed gets to play closest to home, so for Clemson a semifinal game at the Orange Bowl in Miami is also on the line against No. 10 North Carolina (11-1) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Alabama at No. 2 and Oklahoma at No. 3 would give the Sooners a short trip to the Cotton Bowl in North Texas for the other New Year’s Eve semifinal. Long said the committee would not manipulate the rankings, possibly dropping Oklahoma to No. 4, to avoid giving a lower seeded team the advantage of playing close to home.
"Our charge is clearly rank those top four teams, one, two, three and four, and we’re going to do that by who we think are the best teams, and that will be how they end up one through four," he said.
Hoping for an upset by the Tar Heels against Clemson or Florida against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game are No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) and No. 7 Stanford (10-2).
The Cardinal can win the Pac-12 championship by beating Southern California.
WHAT HAPPENS IF …
— Clemson loses to North Carolina and Stanford wins?
The most intriguing possible debate for the selection committee. It would put Ohio State back in play. The committee would have to slice and dice the resumes of the Tar Heels, trying to make a huge jump after winning a conference, the Cardinal, a two-loss conference champion with a top-10 win against Notre Dame, and the defending national champion Buckeyes.
The committee protocol calls for it to emphasis conference championships when teams are comparable. Basically, it’s a tiebreaker. That puts the Buckeyes in a tough spot.
A win over No. 1 and a conference championship would drastically alter the Tar Heels’ resume, but they have a lot of ground to make up. Long said the Tar Heels, with two games against FCS competition, no wins against teams currently ranked and a loss to 3-9 South Carolina, have a strength of schedule issue compared to even Ohio State.
"There’s multiple things in there that have held North Carolina back, their overall strength of schedule is not strong, again, depending on the metrics we look at, they’re very high in their strength of schedule, which is not a positive for them," Long said.
The guess here is Stanford makes the playoff in this scenario.
— Alabama loses to Florida?
The SEC is out. The Gators dropped to No. 18 after losing 27-2 to Florida State and an upset will almost certainly reflect poorly on the Crimson Tide, even though `Bama nearly moved into the top spot this week. That would open the door for Stanford or Ohio State, and again the guess here is the conference championship tips the scales to the Pac-12 winner.
If Stanford loses, the Buckeyes get a shot to repeat as playoff champs.
LOSE AND IN?
It’s worth asking: Could Clemson get in with a loss?
Maybe, especially if Alabama losses, too, and Stanford loses. Now it becomes a North Carolina, Clemson, Ohio State debate. The Tar Heels conference title would give them a huge boost and then it becomes a resume test between the Tigers and Buckeyes.
Clemson has wins against two teams in the committee’s top 10, Notre Dame at 8 and Florida State at 9. The Buckeyes best win is at No. 15 Michigan.
GROUP OF FIVE
The American Athletic Conference championship game between Houston and Temple should also send the winner to a New Year’s Six bowl game, probably the Peach Bowl.
The Cougars (11-1) will host the AAC title game and are No. 19 in the new rankings. The Owls (10-2) are No. 22.
The only other team from the Group of Five conferences — Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American and Conference USA — is Navy at No. 23, which is also from the American.
— Mississippi at No. 13 should be in good shape for a bid to the Sugar Bowl as the next best ranked SEC team if Alabama wins.
— The Big Ten representative in the Rose Bowl will be either the loser of Michigan State-Iowa or Ohio State. The highest ranked team gets the spot.
— If Stanford were to make the playoff, the Pac-12 rep would likely be Oregon, ranked No. 16.