(BVM) — This is only the ninth season of college football’s four-team playoff, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the selection committee is now facing a new scenario.
What’s surprising is the scenario itself.
For the sixth time in nine seasons, the committee’s top four teams will all be in action on championship weekend. But here’s the unexpected part. If the rankings fall the way we expect on Tuesday evening, the committee’s next four teams will all be watching from home.
It seems almost inconceivable that the top of the penultimate rankings won’t be (in order) Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC. The first two of those are huge favorites to win their respective conference championships and would probably still reach the Playoff even if they lose. The teams of most interest this weekend will be TCU and USC.
But before we get to those games, the big drama on Tuesday comes down to one question: Who is Number 5?
We think it’s between Ohio State, which will fall from No. 2 after a 22-point home loss to Michigan, and Alabama, which was ranked seventh last week before beating rival Auburn by the same 22-point margin.
If you look at the resumés, OSU’s is clearly superior based on the committee’s criteria. The Buckeyes have a single loss to Bama’s two. They have a win over Penn State, which will be ranked well ahead of Texas (the highest-ranked team the Tide have beaten). And Ohio State’s loss is to No. 2 Michigan. Both of Alabama’s losses were to teams that (we think) will be ranked in the 7-15 range.
So, why is this even a discussion? It’s because – despite all the things committee members are told to consider – their charge is ultimately to rank the teams in order of who’s best. And even though everything prior to last Saturday suggested that Ohio State is better than Alabama in 2022, that final performance by the Buckeyes certainly left some doubt.
OSU had an opportunity to cement its place in the Big Ten championship game and probably in the Playoff, as well. It was playing at home and had a halftime lead. And with everything riding on that second half, the Buckeyes were outscored 28-3 over those last two quarters.
Their fate may come down to how much that final impression leaves a lasting impression on the committee. How many around that table will just see two really bad quarters out of 48 in the season that must all be considered? And how many others will think that such a closing statement is simply unforgivable?
In contrast, Bama’s losses are arguably the strongest part of its Playoff argument. Both were on the road against good teams with the deciding points being allowed on the final play. But it was a better argument before LSU went down to cellar-dwelling Texas A&M on Saturday. How much might that change the committee’s take on the Tide?
It’s also worth considering that the committee might warm up to Tennessee this week. The Vols fell to No. 10 last week after an embarrassing loss to South Carolina in which QB Hendon Hooker suffered a season-ending injury. But they responded with a 56-0 win over Vanderbilt, alleviating some of the QB concern, while the Gamecocks kept rolling with a victory at Clemson.
With SC likely to appear in the committee’s top 25 this week, will that improve the outlook on Tennessee enough to vault them over Alabama? After all, both teams are 10-2, and UT beat the Tide head-to-head.
More than likely, the 25-point margin of defeat against South Carolina will still be enough to keep the Vols behind Bama, but it’s at least a matter of discussion in the room. And all of those conversations are significant with so much potentially riding on which team is ranked fifth this week and which is sixth.
With USC facing a three-loss Utah team on Friday evening, it seems clear-cut that a loss by the Trojans would elevate this week’s No. 5 team into the Playoff field. In that case, the No. 6 team would have to hope for TCU to also lose, and even then, it might take a loss by a significant margin to knock the Frogs out of the top four.
One final point that must be made is that this week’s order of Ohio State and Alabama doesn’t have to hold just because neither is playing. The committee will go through the same process again after Saturday’s games have ended, and it’s possible that one or two people could change their opinions.
Maybe someone would care that Ohio State’s one loss is to a conference champion (assuming Michigan beats Purdue), while neither of Bama’s losses is (assuming Georgia beats LSU). It would be within the committee’s guidelines for something that trivial to decide a spot in the Playoff.
More than likely, though, the order we see for those two teams on Tuesday will be the same order we see on Sunday.
It won’t matter, of course, if USC takes care of business on Friday, and then TCU follows suit early Saturday afternoon. But what we’ll soon know is which fan base will be rooting the hardest for one of them to slip.