Why the latest College Football Playoff ranking matters

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8:32 PM ET

  • ESPN staff

The College Football Playoff selection committee might not even break a sweat this weekend. No lengthy debates, no Tylenol needed and early hotel checkouts all around.

No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 TCU and No. 4 USC appear one conference championship win away from locking up those coveted four spots. This will be the first time since 2017 there won’t be a top-five matchup during championship weekend, as TCU is the only team facing a top-10 CFP opponent in No. 10 Kansas State. USC has a tricky game against No. 11 Utah, but Michigan is playing unranked, four-loss Purdue.

Georgia is a heavy favorite against three-loss No. 14 LSU.

A win in their respective conference title games would punctuate their résumés with one of the tiebreakers used to separate them from the likes of No. 5 Ohio State (11-1) and No. 6 Alabama (10-2).

Even with a loss, both Georgia and Michigan seem on solid footing for a top-four finish, barring absolute meltdowns. The committee would have to balance Michigan’s win against Ohio State — arguably the best in the country — with the worst loss of any contender. It would still own the head-to-head, though against Ohio State.

The CFP is on the brink of a field that doesn’t include Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson. Let that sink in for a minute: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have claimed 17 of the 32 playoff spots. This season, Ohio State and Alabama didn’t win their respective divisions. Their résumés are complete. At No. 9, two-loss Clemson is a playoff afterthought following its home loss to South Carolina, even if it beats three-loss North Carolina to win the ACC.

Instead of two — or three! — SEC teams, four different Power 5 conferences could be represented, with TCU and USC in position to finish in the top four for the first time in the CFP era. With USC facing Utah on Friday night, the Pac-12 will have the spotlight to itself for the one time the selection committee watches the games in-person together. Undefeated TCU will try to beat K-State for the second time this season, while USC has a chance to redeem itself from a regular-season loss to the Utes.

For the Buckeyes or Tide to creep back into the conversation, they’re going to need some help — and history says they could get it. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information research, 26 of the previous 32 teams in the top four in the second-to-last ranking have made the CFP. Five of the six that didn’t make it lost in the final weekend.

Here’s what the fifth ranking means if there are upsets when it matters the most, and how it will influence the committee on Selection Day:

Jump to:
Anger Index | 12-team bracket | Résumés |

Ohio State is ready to pounce — from their couches — with an upset

With Ohio State and Alabama not playing this weekend, their positions aren’t expected to change Sunday. Since the committee deems the Buckeyes better now, they would be the first considered if a team above them loses. The easiest path would be for USC to lose to Utah, because that would be USC’s second loss to the Utes this year, making it difficult for the committee to justify the Trojans as “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country. They also aren’t going to reward three-loss Utah, even though the Utes just won the Pac-12 title. Instead, the door would be open for Ohio State to move into the fourth spot. It gets a little trickier, though, if the only upset is TCU losing to K-State …

Movement in the top four of the #CFBPlayoff rankings‼️

Alabama is the new No. 6 👀 pic.twitter.com/lomOz1eP2K

— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 30, 2022

What happens if No. 3 TCU loses?

The biggest question looming is what happens if TCU loses? It would depend in part on how the Big 12 championship unfolds — if K-State were to win convincingly with the committee watching together, it makes it harder for them to keep the Frogs in the top four and brings Ohio State back into the conversation. TCU is currently No. 1 in ESPN’s strength of record metric, though, and it would have regular-season wins against K-State and No. 20 Texas. Those would be measured against Ohio State’s wins against No. 8 Penn State and No. 21 Notre Dame. If TCU loses a close game, and USC wins, it’s possible USC moves up to No. 3, and TCU drops to No. 4. TCU’s chances of staying in the top four increase if USC also loses, though, simply by default. That particular scenario would open the door for Alabama to also be considered. And yet …

No. 6 Alabama’s hopes are all but extinguished

Henry To’oTo’o and Alabama have a chance at the CFP, but it’s a longshot at best. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If Alabama’s hopes are going to be resurrected, it would likely take two lopsided losses by both TCU and USC, but that still doesn’t rule out the possibility of TCU and Ohio State finishing in the top four. It helped Alabama that No. 24 Mississippi State popped into the fifth ranking, though it was basically a wash because the Bulldogs beat Ole Miss to get there, which was one of Alabama’s better wins. Alabama’s best win is at No. 20 Texas. The best news for the Tide? They were ranked ahead of both teams they lost to — No. 14 LSU and No. 7 Tennessee.

The American title game as de facto New Year’s 6 play-in game

The highest-ranked conference champion from a Group of 5 league is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, and that will be decided at 4 p.m. ET Saturday when No. 18 Tulane hosts No. 22 UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game. According to ESPN Analytics, Tulane has a 59% chance to win. Cincinnati fell out this week following its 27-24 loss to Tulane on Friday, and 10-2 UTSA remained unranked, leaving the AAC at the top again. — Heather Dinich

Anger index

There’s a particularly poignant scene in a Season 5 episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Homer earns a spot aboard the space shuttle because his only competition for the honor got drunk on non-alcoholic champagne and flew off using a jet pack.

2 Related

NASA boss: Well, Homer, I guess you’re the winner by default.

Homer: De-fault! The two sweetest words in the English language.

Indeed, it must’ve been particularly sweet for the College Football Playoff committee to watch as Ohio State, LSU, Clemson and Oregon each used Week 13 to crack open some Martinelli’s and head off into the wild, blue yonder. It made their job awfully easy.

So, if the top four is all in place by default, there’s little need for outrage, right? Perhaps we just need to dig a little deeper for this week’s Anger Index.

1. USC Trojans (ranked fourth)

Wait, didn’t we just say the top four was clear? What does USC have to be upset about?

The Trojans’ ranking is fine. They’re the top-ranked one-loss team. The problem is, with the committee putting Penn State at No. 8, the margin of error for USC in the Pac-12 championship game just shrunk substantially.

Step back and look at the résumés. USC now has wins over No. 15 Oregon State, No. 17 UCLA and No. 21 Notre Dame. Its lone loss came by a point to No. 11 Utah. That’s a really solid sales pitch to the committee.

Ohio State’s sales pitch? A less impressive win over Notre Dame and a road victory over Penn State.

With both teams 11-1, there’s no question who should be No. 4. But assume USC loses again to Utah in the Pac-12 title game, while Ohio State sits home and watches. What happens then? Would the committee really punish the Trojans for playing an extra game and put the Buckeyes into the playoff?

The best case for doing that would be simple: Ohio State beat the No. 8 team in the country on the road. USC wouldn’t have a win that good. And it might be a valid enough argument, except for this one small flaw: Who has Penn State beaten? The answer is… no one in this top 25. The Nittany Lions’ best win came in Week 1 against Purdue in a game in which they trailed into the final minute of action. Every other team ranked in the top nine has at least two wins over other teams in the top 25.

So, if it comes down to Ohio State’s win over Penn State pushing the Buckeyes into the top four next week, it’ll be an awfully thin margin that got them there.

2. Tennessee Volunteers (ranked seventh)

Hendon Hooker’s season-ending injury no doubt played a role in the committee’s ranking. Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee beat Alabama. Tennessee beat LSU by 27 points, and LSU also beat Alabama. Tennessee has the same record as Alabama, and both losses were to teams Alabama didn’t have to play (one to the No. 1 team in the country and one to the No. 19 team in the country). So, why is it that the Volunteers are still ranked behind Alabama? The committee has essentially determined the loss of QB Hendon Hooker requires downgrading the Volunteers entirely. Given that Tennessee might have the best backup QB in the country, that seems like a bold assumption.

3. Troy Trojans (unranked)

The committee has decided the winner of the American Athletic championship game will go to the New Year’s Six, and if the winner is Tulane, it’s tough to argue against it. But UCF? A team that lost to ECU by 21? A team that lost at home to Navy? A team that needed a touchdown with 20 seconds to play last week to beat woeful USF? Why exactly are the Knights in serious contention for a New Year’s Six bowl over a Troy team with a better record, a nine-game winning streak, and far more forgivable losses? The Trojans’ lone defeats came in Week 1 against an Ole Miss team that was ranked all season until this poll, and a road defeat on a last-second Hail Mary at Appalachian State. Meanwhile, Troy has solid wins over Western Kentucky and South Alabama and can add another in the Sun Belt title game against Coastal Carolina this week. That Troy isn’t even in the discussion is a massive oversight. — David M. Hale

How a 12-team playoff would look

Everyone with the power to expand the College Football Playoff wants the field to grow to 12 teams in time for the 2024 season.

But currently, expansion is scheduled to begin in 2026. So while discussions continue on how to move up the timeline, we’re taking a look at how a 12-team playoff would look today based on the already-determined model released by the commissioners and presidents.

The field will be composed of the selection committee’s six highest-ranked conference champions and its next six highest-ranked teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn the top seeds and a first-round bye. The other eight teams will play in the first round, with the higher seeds hosting the lower seeds on campus or at another site of their choice.

Here’s what the playoff would look like if the 12-team format were in place today:

Seeds with byes

1. Georgia
2. Michigan
3. TCU
4. USC

Remaining seeds
(conference champs in bold)

5. Ohio State
6. Alabama
7. Tennessee
8. Penn State
9. Clemson
10. Kansas State
11. Utah
12. Tulane

First-round games

No. 12 Tulane at No. 5 Ohio State
No. 11 Utah at No. 6 Alabama
No. 10 Kansas State at No. 7 Tennessee
No. 9 Clemson at No. 8 Penn State

Quarterfinal games

No. 9 Clemson-No. 8 Penn State winner vs. No. 1 Georgia
No. 10 Kansas State-No. 7 Tennessee winner vs. No. 2 Michigan
No. 11 Utah-No. 6 Alabama winner vs. No. 3 TCU
No. 12 Tulane-No. 5 Ohio State winner vs. No. 4 USC

Top 6 résumés

No. 1 Georgia

Record: 12-0 | SOS: 47| SOR: No. 3
Biggest win: Nov. 5 vs. Tennessee
Last playoff appearance: 2022 CFP National championship, No. 3 Georgia 33, No. 1 Alabama 18

No. 2 Michigan

Michigan’s win over Ohio State, powered by Donovan Edward’s two long touchdown runs in the second half, put the Wolverines at No. 2 in the CFP ranking. Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Record: 12-0 | SOS: 39 | SOR: 2
Biggest win: Nov. 26 at Ohio State, 45-23
Last playoff appearance: 2022 Playoff Semifinal at the Orange Bowl No. 3 Georgia 34, No. 2 Michigan 11

No. 3 TCU

Record: 12-0 | SOS: 35 | SOR: 1
Biggest win: Nov. 12 at Texas, 17-10
Last playoff appearance: Never

No. 4 USC

Record: 11-1| SOS: 57| SOR: 6
Biggest win: Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame, 38-27
Last playoff appearance: Never

No. 5 Ohio State

Record: 11-1 | SOS: 34 | SOR: No. 4
Biggest win: Oct. 29 at Penn State, 44-31
Last playoff appearance: 2021 CFP National Championship: No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 3 Ohio State 24

No. 6 Alabama

Record: 10-2 | SOS: 8| SOR: 5
Biggest win: Sept. 10 at Texas, 20-19
Last playoff appearance: 2022 CFP National Championship: No. 3 Georgia 33, No. 1 Alabama 18