Will Spartans jump Sooners for No. 3? And do they really want to?

Published Dec. 6, 2015 1:13 a.m. ET

A regular season filled with crazy endings came down to one last dramatic finish Saturday night in Indianapolis — fittingly involving Michigan State. After all that, though, Sunday’s bracket unveiling will be comparatively anticlimactic.

Clemson (13-0), Alabama (12-1), Michigan State (12-1) and Oklahoma (11-1) will be your 2015 College Football Playoff participants. All that’s left is for the committee to tell us the when and where.

The Tigers have held the No. 1 spot for all five weeks the committee has been meeting, so it’d be awfully strange for them to suddenly drop after beating 10th-ranked North Carolina 45-37. Yes, the second-ranked Tide more thoroughly dominated No. 18 Florida, 29-15, in the SEC title game, and yes, chairman Jeff Long said on Tuesday that the committee very nearly moved ’Bama up then.

But this was Clemson’s third victory over a team in the current Top 10 (No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 9 Florida State and No. 10 UNC) while Alabama does not have one. And of course, Clemson is undefeated and Alabama is not. I expect the Tigers to remain No. 1 and head to the Orange Bowl semifinal. The Tide remain No. 2 and head to the Cotton Bowl.

The committee has a tougher decision to make between Oklahoma and Michigan State for the No. 3 seed. And it’s an important one. It will determine whether the Sooners get that convenient three-hour drive to Dallas or fly to Miami. More importantly, both of these teams presumably would rather draw Clemson than Alabama. And the Sooners, with their Air Raid, present a much more vexing matchup for Nick Saban’s team than the pro-style Spartans.

Oklahoma came in to the weekend No. 3, and Long said the committee had not yet given the Sooners credit for winning the Big 12 championship last week. So they did add one item to their résumé even while watching Saturday’s games from the couch.

But Michigan State not only won the Big Ten championship, but also picked up its second win in three weeks over a Top 5 opponent (Ohio State was No. 3 when the Spartans won there Nov. 21) and their fourth win this year over a current top 20 foe, having also beaten No. 15 Michigan and No. 16 Oregon.


You could argue that’s a slightly better résumé than Oklahoma’s, whose four Top 25 wins came against No. 11 TCU, No. 12 Baylor (which lost to 5-7 Texas on Saturday and will drop), No. 17 Oklahoma State and No. 25 Tennessee. Like Michigan State, it won three of those away from home. Like Michigan State to Nebraska, it lost to a 5-7 team (Texas).

But the committee also watched Saturday’s games together. And we know how much they pay attention to “controlling the game.” Whereas Oklahoma won its most recent game 58-23, Michigan State beat Iowa 16-13 on a last-second, go-ahead touchdown — only slightly more comfortably than its Michigan and Ohio State wins.

End of day, if the committee felt Oklahoma was a better team than Michigan State before, I’m not sure what they saw Saturday night would have changed their minds.

The only other big mystery Sunday involves which Big Ten team, Iowa or Ohio State, gets the conference’s Rose Bowl berth opposite newfound Pac-12 champ Stanford. Rose Bowl officials repeatedly have maintained that barring an “extraordinary situation,” the game will take the committee’s higher-ranked team.

Iowa was No. 4 coming in, Ohio State No. 6. Both teams have one loss. Both teams beat one Top 25 foe. But the Hawkeyes played a 13th game and lost by a field goal to a Top 5 opponent. My guess is the committee will be sensitive about punishing the Hawkeyes for playing an extra game that the Buckeyes did not.

I believe the committee will keep Iowa one spot above Ohio State.

Here is my predicted Top 10:

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma

4. Michigan State

5. Stanford

6. Iowa

7. Ohio State

8. Notre Dame

9. Florida State

10. TCU

As for the rest of the New Year’s Six lineup, the Sugar Bowl is contractually obligated to take SEC and Big 12 teams. No. 13 Ole Miss will be the highest-ranked SEC team after Alabama, while the Big 12’s own self-employed tiebreaker puts Oklahoma State in the game over TCU.

No. 19 Houston will finish as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion. It’s expected to go to the Peach Bowl because the Fiesta got Boise State last year.

That leaves at-large berths for Ohio State, Notre Dame and Florida State. The committee will pounce at the opportunity to pit the Buckeyes against the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl, while placing Florida State in the geographically sensible Peach Bowl.

Here’s what that lineup looks like:

Mind you, I’ve got only one year of precedent to go by in making these predictions, so you probably should still tune in to Sunday’s show.


Dec. 31 Peach  Atlanta Florida State (at-large) vs. Houston (Group of 5)
Dec. 31    Cotton Arlington, Texas Alabama (CFP No. 2) vs. Oklahoma (CFP No. 3) 
Dec. 31  Orange Miami Clemson (CFP No. 1) vs. Michigan St. (CFP No. 4)
Jan. 1   Fiesta  Glendale, Ariz. Notre Dame (at-large) vs. Ohio State (at-large)
Jan. 1   Rose  Pasadena, Calif. Iowa (B1G) vs. Stanford (Pac-12)
Jan. 1  Sugar  New Orleans  Ole Miss (SEC) vs. Oklahoma St. (Big 12)

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.