Time is running out for the two-loss College Football Playoff contenders not named Auburn to make their moves.
The latest committee rankings suggest it might already be too late.
It’s not simply that undefeated teams Alabama and Miami now lead the rankings, as the Hurricanes leapfrogged their future ACC championship game opponent, Clemson, for the No. 2 spot. The committee also showed that it views both Alabama’s and Miami’s profiles in a very favorable light. Mississippi State, which gave Alabama all it could handle two weeks ago in Starkville, vaulted two spots to No. 14, ahead of undefeated UCF. Virginia Tech, which Miami beat by 18 on Nov. 5, re-entered the rankings despite needing a goal-line stand to beat 4-6 Pitt at home.
Alabama seems increasingly likely to remain in or just outside the top four even with a road loss to No. 6 Auburn in the Iron Bowl. A win against Auburn and a loss to No. 7 Georgia in the SEC title game would virtually assure the Tide of a top-four spot. Selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt repeatedly said Tuesday that not much is separating the top five teams, but it would be hard to see the Tide tumbling if they fall short against a team — Auburn or Georgia — that the committee holds in high regard.
The more interesting scenario could be if Miami pushes Clemson to the brink before dropping its first game of the season. The Canes would have an undeniably impressive win over No. 8 Notre Dame, as well as the Virginia Tech win that resonates with the committee even if the Hokies’ overall profile seems weak. Although Miami has been less than dominant against a group of decent to below-average ACC teams — Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia — the committee thinks the Hurricanes are an improving, championship-caliber team.
It isn’t good news for potential two-loss conference champions such as No. 9 Ohio State, No. 11 USC and No. 12 TCU. Those three teams didn’t budge in the latest rankings. All three should root for Alabama to win out, as none seems likely to jump a one-loss Tide team. All three also might want Miami to win out, eliminating Clemson and ensuring that the SEC and ACC are one-bid leagues. If Clemson loses to newly ranked South Carolina but beats Miami, the Tigers could get a nod over the Buckeyes, Trojans or Horned Frogs.
Ohio State and TCU both have opportunities for top-five wins in their respective league title games. The Buckeyes can take out undefeated Wisconsin, but they might not have a spot if one-loss Alabama or one-loss Miami is lingering around the top four.
TCU’s prospects are even dimmer. Other than perhaps UCF, no team should have a bigger beef with the committee than the Frogs, who beat Texas Tech on the road by 24 despite not having quarterback Kenny Hill or several other key starters. Hocutt is Texas Tech’s athletic director, but TCU’s win didn’t sway the committee to move the Frogs, who beat Oklahoma State on the road, any higher than No. 12.
USC would really need a chaos scenario, including No. 8 Notre Dame losing this week at No. 21 Stanford, to have any chance at the top four. Washington State also can win the Pac-12 with two losses, and the Cougars would have five wins over teams currently ranked by the committee (USC twice, No. 17 Washington, No. 19 Stanford and No. 23 Boise State). But Mike Leach’s team likely would have too much traffic in its way.
The Big 12 once again should feel a bit nervous about these rankings. Oklahoma has wins over Nos. 9, 12 and 19, two of them on the road, yet sits behind three teams that each have only one win against the current top 20. Would a conference title that includes another top-12 win over TCU be enough to punch Oklahoma’s playoff ticket? It absolutely should. But the committee might debate one-loss OU vs. one-loss Miami.
Wisconsin remained at No. 5 despite arguably its most impressive win over previously ranked Michigan. The Badgers’ profile still includes only one win over a currently ranked team (No. 22 Northwestern), but beating Ohio State should be enough to punch their playoff ticket.
The committee kept 11 teams in the same spots after Cupcake Week, and UCF might have been the most disappointed, as the Knights linger at No. 15 despite a 10-0 record. Although Scott Frost’s team will earn a New Year’s Six berth if it wins out, it might not ever approach the committee’s top 10, even if it beats 9-1 South Florida, which is not ranked by the committee, on Saturday.
The penultimate rankings next Tuesday will be much more revealing, especially if Alabama falls on the Plains. But the top five — and really top seven — look at rigid as ever, which isn’t good news for those on the outside.