Who Has Inside Track To Playoff?
By RJ Young
FOX Sports college football reporter
Heading into conference championship weekend and for the fourth consecutive week, the top four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings remain unchanged.
- Alabama Crimson Tide (10-0)
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-0)
- Clemson Tigers (9-1)
- Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0)
Alabama, though, is perceived to be far and away the best team in the sport (again) following another outstanding performance last Saturday.
"You know they beat Arkansas 52-3. Offense, defense, special teams (dominated) there,” said Playoff chairman and Iowa athletic director Gary Barta. “From top to bottom there, they’re a fantastic team.”
Notre Dame can survive a loss in the ACC Championship and, as long as the Irish don’t lose in a blowout, will likely earn a spot in the national semifinals.
Clemson could use a win in the ACC title matchup against the Irish to leave no doubt that it will be selected. It's possible the Tigers could again lose a close game to unbeaten Notre Dame and still earn an invitation as perhaps the first two-loss semifinalist in the Playoff Era.
“Notre Dame (is) also undefeated,” Barta said, “and you know their defense has really impressed the committee. Ian Book got better and better as the year went along. And so watching the ACC Championship, watching that game between Notre Dame and Clemson, I know I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure the committee is as well.”
Ohio State must win against No. 14 Northwestern (5-1) to remain one of the four best teams in the country in the eyes (test) of the Playoff selection committee.
Ohio State and Clemson will go into this weekend believing each must win to get in.
Barta cited the lack of games to evaluate as one reason why the committee did not see reason to adjust its rankings at the top. He called last week’s slate of games “unique,” mentioning that five of the top six and 12 of 25 ranked teams did not play.
“So, when it comes to Ohio State and Texas A&M,” Barta said, “there was some discussion in that one through five, but really not a lot of discussion of moving anybody.”
If Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State win their respective conference title games, expect the teams ranked inside the top four on Tuesday evening to be the same four ranked, albeit differently, on Selection Sunday.
The Tide and Irish are playing for league titles and seeding. But that’s the boring scenario. The more fun one begins with an Irish victory.
That might be asking a lot, though, as most feel Clemson will pull out all the stops to be sure it gets into the Playoff. Clemson also is a 10.5-point favorite in a conference title game it has won for the last five years in a row.
Still, if the Irish manage to sweep Clemson this season, ND could leap-frog Alabama as the No. 1 team in the country on its strength of schedule.
The Irish already boast the best win in college football, too. ND beat then-No. 1-ranked Clemson 47-40 in a double-overtime classic in South Bend, Ind., last month.
Another victory against Clemson, in a conference championship setting, to end an undefeated season, would present a robust case to the committee.
If Notre Dame wins the ACC, it would leave open the possibility No. 5 Texas A&M or No. 6 Iowa State could slide into the fourth spot.
The Aggies’ (7-1) only loss is to consensus No. 1 Alabama, but it was a bad loss. The Tide beat A&M 52-24 in Tuscaloosa while churning out 544 yards of offense Oct. 3.
However, the Aggies did put up 450 yards, including 335 passing yards, against Nick Saban’s defense. That defense has looked as formidable as Voltron over the last two months.
A&M is a 14-point favorite in its regular-season finale against Tennessee (3-6). With a strong showing in that game and a loss by Clemson or Ohio State, the Aggies could slide into the Playoff.
Iowa State (8-2) has a tougher road than A&M, though the Cyclones rank just one spot behind the Aggies at No. 6.
With twice as many losses, albeit to ranked opponents, the Cyclones also could become the first two-loss team admitted into the Playoff if they can secure a third Top 25 victory and first Big 12 Conference Championship ever by beating No. 10 Oklahoma.
The Cyclones stunned the Sooners once this season in Ames, Iowa, but enter the title game in Dallas as a five-point underdog to the defending league champions.
To make the Playoff, ISU needs to beat OU decisively and root for Clemson and Texas A&M to lose at minimum. An Ohio State upset at the hands of Northwestern wouldn’t hurt either.
A two-loss Clemson versus a two-loss Iowa State league champion is a pick ‘em on paper to some. Most would opt for the team that has demonstrated it can win the national title with Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and barely lost a double-overtime game against ND on the road without him.
This scenario leaves no room for error for the Cyclones and leaves so much up to chance. However, the Big 12 — more specifically, Oklahoma — has made the Playoff in four out of the last five years.
And don't forget two-loss Florida is still playing for an SEC Championship against Alabama. After losing to LSU in the Shoe Game last Saturday at the Swamp, Florida fell just one spot in the rankings to No. 7 demonstrating how much the committee values Dan Mullen’s team.
With an upset of Alabama, the Gators can take the lid off of Pandora’s box and unleash the suffering and pain for at least one deserving team among five or possibly six potential Playoff teams.
Until the loss to LSU, it was reasonable to believe Florida would each make the Playoff if the Gators managed to beat the Tide in Atlanta.
Now, would the committee leave out a two-loss SEC Champion with the best victory of any team all year? At the expense of a one-loss Nore Dame? What about a one-loss Alabama?
Florida probably needs upsets in the Big Ten and ACC Championships, along with an ISU loss in the Big 12 title game, to help their case.
As brilliant as Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina have been in 2020, this does not look like the year when a Group of 5 team finally breaks into the Playoff.
The ninth-ranked Bearcats will play for the American Athletic Conference title Saturday against No. 23 Tulsa. But even an undefeated season is unlikely to impress the committee.
“When it comes to Cincinnati,” Barta said, “the committee has shown appreciation for Cincinnati from the beginning. We haven’t had a chance to watch them play since November 21st. And the teams around them, the teams ahead of them, have played two or three games that we've been able to evaluate. And one of the things that holds Cincinnati back again, a great team, they don't have a win against a Top 25 [opponent].”
While Coastal Carolina boasts two wins against top 25 opponents and is the only 11-0 team in the sport, its No. 13 ranking means the Chanticleers are not only out of the Playoff picture, but could lose out on the only spot in the New Year’s Six bowls guaranteed to a Group of 5 team if Cincinnati beats Tulsa.
Barta refused to be so cut and dry. Instead, he deflected the number of high-level games yet to be played during championship weekend.
“It's ranked teams against ranked teams,” he said. “And so we're going to have 10 new games to put into the mix and to evaluate. I'm not going to speculate on how it all might come out.”
Hear that, Bearcats and Chanticleers? He’s telling you there’s a chance. A chance as good as a deal on ocean-front property in Tulsa, Okla.
RJ Young is a national college football reporter for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to The RJ Young Show Podcast on YouTube. He is not on a step mill.