This penultimate ranking could arguably be the most compelling, revealing regular-season College Football Playoff top 25.
If there is one upset in this weekend’s conference championship games — most realistically if TCU loses to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship or USC loses to Utah in the Pac-12 title game — it would open the door to controversy, allowing one-loss Ohio State and two-loss Alabama back into the conversation. The scenario in which both TCU and USC lose lends further credence to the possibility, which is why how far Ohio State falls is the biggest question for the committee. If the Buckeyes are at No. 5, they still have a chance to finish in the top four with some help. If the committee drops them below Alabama, their position becomes far more precarious.
Ohio State is already hanging by a thread after it was beaten soundly at home by a Michigan team playing without injured star running back, Blake Corum. Alabama, which has been an afterthought in the playoff race, on Tuesday could be ranked ahead of both teams it lost to — three-loss LSU and two-loss Tennessee.
Alabama and Ohio State’s résumés are complete. So who the committee deems better Tuesday night would seem to have an edge on Selection Day — if there’s an opening. A TCU loss wouldn’t rule the Frogs out, but they would be lumped in with Ohio State and Alabama as teams that didn’t win their conference. A USC loss would be harder for the committee to justify because the Trojans would have lost twice to Utah, creating doubt within the room that they are “unequivocally” one of the four best teams. A three-loss K-State isn’t getting in. A three-loss Utah isn’t getting in.
(Re)-enter Ohio State and Alabama.
According to ESPN’s strength of record metric, Ohio State’s résumé is significantly better than Alabama’s. The average top 25 team would have a 20% chance of going 11-1 or better against the Buckeyes’ schedule and a 29% chance of going 10-2 or better against the Crimson Tide’s schedule. The committee would also consider that the Buckeyes’ loss was to the No. 3-ranked team.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said his conference should “without a doubt” have two teams in the playoff. Alabama coach Nick Saban advocated for his team after its Iron Bowl win, saying, “We’ve lost two games to top-10 opponents, both on the last play of the game and both on the road. We could have easily won both games but didn’t.”
Which is why the Tide still needs help, as does with Ohio State. In addition to determining who’s in the bubble this week, the committee could also consider making a change at the top. Here are three other things to watch Tuesday night (7 ET on ESPN) when the group reveals its fifth of six rankings:
Who’s No. 1?
Both Michigan and Georgia could make a case for the top spot Tuesday night, and while the order could flip now or next week, it ultimately will be significant for seeding purposes. The No. 1 team faces the No. 4 team in one semifinal and the selection committee is careful to avoid putting the top team at a geographic disadvantage. Michigan owns the best win in the country, against the committee’s No. 2 team. The committee does not try to avoid rematches in the semifinals, so it’s possible Michigan could wind up at No. 1 on Selection Day and Ohio State could be No. 4.
The Wolverines outscored Ohio State 28-3 in the second half Saturday. They also have a top 25 win against No. 11 Penn State, and are No. 2 in the country in strength of record. Georgia, though, is close behind them at No. 5, with its best wins against Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have looked sluggish recently in the first half, though, scoring just 10 points against Georgia Tech and 9 the previous week in a 16-6 win at Kentucky. The committee has said in recent weeks that Georgia separated itself from the rest of the country as its No. 1 team. Is that still the case?
Can USC jump TCU?
The easiest move for the committee would be to bump undefeated TCU up to No. 3 following Ohio State’s loss, but USC’s back-to-back wins against ranked opponents UCLA and Notre Dame could give them a bigger boost. Including the Trojans’ Sept. 24 win at Oregon State — the team that just eliminated rival Oregon from the Pac-12 title game — USC has three wins against teams currently ranked in the CFP top 25. No other school has more than two wins against current top 25 opponents.
Which Group of 5 team leads for a New Year’s Six bowl bid?
The highest ranked conference champion from a Group of 5 league is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, and that likely will be decided at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday when No. 19 Tulane hosts No. 22 UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game. According to ESPN Analytics, Tulane has a 59% chance of winning. No. 24 Cincinnati should fall out of the rankings this week following its 27-24 loss to Tulane on Friday. It’s also worth keeping an eye on 10-2 UTSA, which is currently unranked by the committee, but will face North Texas in the Conference USA title game Friday. According to ESPN Analytics, UTSA has a 74% chance of winning.
ESPN reporters’ top-four picks
Andrea Adelson: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Blake Baumgartner: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Bill Connelly: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Heather Dinich: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
David Hale: 1. Michigan 2. Georgia 3. TCU 4. USC
Chris Low: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Harry Lyles Jr.: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Ryan McGee: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. USC 4. TCU
Adam Rittenberg: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Alex Scarborough: 1. Georgia 2 Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Mark Schlabach: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Paolo Uggetti: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Tom VanHaaren: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC
Dave Wilson: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. TCU 4. USC