If you're a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, you had the easiest job in the world as of last Friday night. That was the final night in which order would prevail, the last night before chaos ensued, one more sleep before three of the top four teams in the committee's rankings would lose in Saturday upsets.
It was all so easy — on Saturday morning, one through four were four undefeated teams from four different Power Five conferences, with the fifth Power Five conference being the consensus red headed stepchild, the Big XII. If Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington won out, they'd be in. Cooperation, apparently, is not their strong suit, though... at least not in the case of Clemson, Michigan, and Washington.
All three lost on Saturday, and among schools in the top nine they were joined by fellow losers Auburn and Nebraska. The end result was likely a very late night of deliberation by the committee on Monday, and a brand new set of rankings that sets up all sorts of questions with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
First, here are the new rankings:
1. Alabama 10-0
2. Ohio State 9-1
3. Michigan 9-1
4. Clemson 9-1
5. Louisville 9-1
6. Washington 9-1
7. Wisconsin 8-2
8. Penn State 8-2
9. Oklahoma 8-2
10. Colorado 8-2
11. Oklahoma State 8-2
12. Utah 8-2
13. USC 7-3
14. West Virginia 8-1
15. Auburn 7-3
16. LSU 6-3
17. Florida State 7-3
18. Nebraska 8-2
19. Tennessee 7-3
20. Boise State 9-1
21. Western Michigan 10-0
22. Washington State 8-2
23. Florida 7-2
24. Stanford 7-3
25. Texas A&M 7-3
And now the questions...
1. Has Alabama basically clinched a playoff spot?
The Crimson Tide have been, far and away, the best team in college football this season, and it's really not even close. The only time they've been under duress this season was for the first half of the Ole Miss game and into the early part of the second half of the A&M game. They have home games remaining with FCS Chattanooga and Auburn (the Iron Bowl!). From there, the Tide will play in the SEC Title game, likely against Florida or Tennessee. They'll be favored by two touchdowns over Auburn and by 17 to 21 in the SEC title game. They could lose one of those two games and still be in the playoff, based on their dominant regular season. So, yes, Alabama is basically in the playoff.
2. What if Ohio State wins its final two games in blowouts, but doesn't go to the Big Ten title game?
Obviously, it will depend on what happened in some of the other conference races. In case you didn't know, if Penn State wins out, it would go to the Big Ten title game over the Buckeyes on the strength of its win over Ohio State in Happy Valley a few weeks ago. The Nittany Lions close out the regular season with games at Rutgers (PSU a 28-point favorite) and home against 3-7 Michigan State, so they're very likely to win out. So the Buckeyes are in a spot where they could destroy Michigan State (their opponent Saturday) and Michigan ("destroy" unlikely, but winning at home, certainly not) and not even win their division of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have back-to-back 62-3 wins over Maryland and Nebraska over the past two weeks. They are Vegas's second favorite team. If they're No. 2 now, how could they fall out of the top four with convincing wins over the two Michigan teams? There's no team in the country for which style points are more important than they are for Ohio State...except maybe...
3. Same thing with Louisville?
...yes, same thing with Louisville. Actually, the Cardinals need style points even more than the Buckeyes because not only are they paddling upstream in their own division — they're tied with Clemson in the loss column, but lost head to head to the Tigers by six earlier this season at Clemson — but they're trying to move up from No. 5 (unlike Ohio State, which is in a pole position right now at second). The Cardinals have the game tonight against U of H right here at TDECU Stadium and an out-of-conference finale at home with Kentucky. Clemson finishes up its ACC schedule at Wake Forest (which led Louisville through three quarters last Saturday) and home with South Carolina, followed (likely) by the ACC title game. Clemson's sitting in front of Louisville right now, given their remaining slates, is very problematic for the Cardinals.
4. Does Washington still control its own destiny?
Well, let's see what they have on the schedule first — home game Saturday vs. Arizona State, and then the Apple Cup a week from tomorrow at Washington State, and if they win those, a Pac-12 title game against Colorado, USC or Utah. That'd be two wins over ranked teams, something the Huskies need desperately as they've played one of the worst schedules in college football. So would that be enough for them to creep into the fourth spot of the playoff? The Ohio State-Michigan loser likely falls behind the Huskies. That gets the Huskies up to five. The problems are Ohio State (if they beat Michigan) and Louisville, both with one loss. Alabama and Clemson are likely getting in, if they take care of their business. Also, the Big Ten champ, even if it's Wisconsin or Penn State, is likely going to the playoff and would leap-frog Washington. The Big Ten conference has been too good for its champ to miss the playoff, even if they have two losses. So does the committee see one-loss Ohio State and/or one-loss Louisville as better than a one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington? Style points matter GREATLY for the Huskies. They are actually far from controlling their own destiny.
5. Speaking of which, check out the Pac-12 round robin going on here late in the season...not bad, huh?
Check out these race-shaping Pac-12 games in the final two weeks:
ORE at No. 12 UTAH
No. 22 WSU at No. 10 COL
ASU at No. 6 WASH
No. 13 USC at UCLA
No. 6 WAS at No. 22 WSU
No. 12 UTAH at No. 10 COL
Dark horse team to look out for — No. 10 Colorado, which controls its own destiny in the Pac-12 South, and with games against two ranked teams, plus a Pac-12 title game against possible top-five-by-then Washington, the Buffaloes could benefit from some chaos in front of them in the rankings.
6. Is the Big XII officially dead yet?
Well, it has three teams that are above the line of "having a pulse" — No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 11 Oklahoma State, and No. 14 West Virginia. Here are their games the rest of the way:
No. 11 OKST at TCU
No. 9 OU at No. 14 WVU
No. 14 WVU at ISU
BAY at No. 14 WVU
No. 11 OSU at No. 9 OU
Of the three Big XII teams left in the mix, Oklahoma has easily the best chance of crashing the party. I can't see a two-loss Big XII champ with an out-of-conference loss to Central Michigan (Oklahoma State) or a one-loss Big XII champ whose best out-of-conference win is a 35-32 home win over BYU (West Virginia) getting in, so that leaves the Sooners.
They have two Top 15 schools remanning on the schedule, would be an undisputed Big XII champ (9-0 in conference), and have two out-of-conference losses that (for now) are not unforgivable, although both were blowouts — Houston in Week 1, and Ohio State in Norman two weeks later. The Cougars' beating Louisville tonight actually helps the Sooners on two fronts, knocking off a team in front of them in the rankings right now AND helping the Sooners' strength of schedule. The Big XII isn't dead, but is probably making funeral arrangements.
7. What do we make of Washington State and Florida?
Both still control their own destiny in their conference title races...and that's about the best both can hope for. No. 22 and No. 23 is just too much ground to make up.
8. What's a reasonable armageddon scenario?
I've racked my brain on permutations for the most chaotic scenario, and here's the thing — I don't know that there is a reasonable scenario in which we wind up with a quartet of teams that lacks in star power in any way. Start with the fact that there is no reasonable scenario in which Alabama isn't in. And if Ohio State beats Michigan, they're pretty much chaos-proof. In fact, an 11-1 Ohio State can only be helped by chaos. If Michigan beats Ohio State, then a Big Ten champ from Michigan-Wisconsin is probably fine with the committee. The ACC and Pac-12 are probably the most susceptible to conference cannibalism over the last few weeks. In the ACC, Louisville's losing a game down the stretch to UH or Kentucky, and Clemson's losing in the ACC title game to, say, Virginia Tech would be likely death blows to an ACC playoff berth. In the Pac-12, Washington State's going all Pac Man on Colorado, Washington and USC/Utah (Pac-12 title game) would plunder the Pac-12. So even in a world where there are a ton of upsets, we probably still wind up with some combination of four from these schools — Alabama, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and possibly Clemson still, even if they lost a close one in the ACC title game.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.