The college football playoff selection committee planned to sip champagne and celebrate one of the easiest and least controversial deliberations in the history of the format before Southern California lost 47-24 to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.
Add in Kansas State’s win over TCU in the Big 12 championship and you suddenly have a contentious debate involving at least five and up to six contenders, depending on Alabama’s place in the conversation.
Two places are occupied. Georgia ended an undefeated regular season by beating LSU 50-30 for the program’s second SEC championship under Kirby Smart. A week after Ohio State’s convincing win, Michigan defeated Purdue 43-22 for a second straight Big Ten championship.
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There is no question that the Bulldogs will be the top seeds, followed by the Wolverines. Then it gets tricky.
At the very least, there are limited ways in which the committee can reach the last two spots in the semifinals, even if any potential playoff agreement will snag at least one high-profile program.
With the regular season wrapped up and final rankings just hours away, here’s our best guess as to how the selection committee will rank the six teams still under consideration.
1. Georgia (13-0)
Motivated Georgia is no one’s fun, as LSU discovered in Saturday’s loss. The Bulldogs seemed bored by the caliber of the competition at times, including more than once in the SEC game. When Georgia is on, it’s an overwhelming combination of raw power and athleticism that’s just too much for most teams. While that theory could be tested should they face Ohio State in the semifinals, the Bulldogs would be a significant favorite against TCU.
Behind the Bulldogs in the penultimate ranking, Michigan’s only chance to secure first place required an LSU win. That can be a good thing should the committee end up keeping TCU at No. 3, which would then tie Ohio State with Georgia in the Peach Bowl. If not, the Wolverines and Buckeyes will face off for the second time in just over a month in what will mark playoff-era history as two teams that played in the regular season meet again in the semifinals.
3. TCU (12-1)
The Horned Frogs’ argument to remain in 3rd place could be dismissed by the committee in favor of the more compelling, eye-popping matchup between two Big Ten heavyweights. If so, it makes for an intimidating pairing with Georgia that would present a significantly tougher test than the TCU they face in Big 12 play. No matter how you cut it, there’s no legitimate argument for placing the Horned Frogs behind Alabama, and if the committee chooses to do so, it would constitute the greatest travesty in the format’s history — and the decision to remove TCU from the program strike, eclipsing the top four in the final 2014 rankings in favor of the Buckeyes.
4. Ohio State (11-1)
A team’s reputation counts. What losses at the hands of USC and TCU will do for the committee is an excuse to ignore a terrible loss to Michigan and instead focus on Ohio State’s fine qualities: wins over Notre Dame and Penn State, an offense that perhaps the nation’s best, a dominant run for most Big Ten games and a talented roster capable of flipping the switch and winning the national championship. The last point pushed OSU in 2016 and Alabama in 2017: Given the chance, they could justify the committee’s trust by winning the whole thing. Whether that’s enough to get the Buckeyes ahead of TCU is another matter. It’s also interesting to think about how the committee would view a potential rematch with Michigan in the semifinals and if that would be something they would want to avoid.
5. Alabama (10-2)
Where the Trojans and Crimson Tide rank on Sunday doesn’t matter — neither will be in the playoffs, but both will be in the New Year’s Six regardless of which team finishes fifth and which sixth. Having Alabama ahead of USC would illustrate the committee’s respect for the SEC, which might end up being the deciding factor. But could the committee take Alabama to No. 5 without knocking out Tennessee to No. 6 as the Volunteers won the straight fight this season? And even if it were meaningless, how could the committee explain it dropping the Trojans at No. 7 behind two SEC teams? In the end, the committee could move Alabama ahead of USC to signal the strength of the SEC and reflect the Trojans’ lopsided loss to Utah.
6. Southern California (11-2)
The Trojans, who are in the top four with a win Friday night, will instead receive an at-large offer for the New Year’s Six and a matchup with Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. A loss to the Utes would have been easy to miss; two defeats, the second with 23 points, will not be ignored. There’s also the potential ramifications of Caleb Williams’ fall for the Heisman Trophy, who seemed invincible after leading USC to a win over Notre Dame. Though he didn’t play badly against Utah, the sophomore could finish in second place behind TCU quarterback Max Duggan.