With the unveiling of the fourth set of College Football Playoff rankings only hours away, we wanted to dive once again into which team is most deserving of that coveted fourth spot. With the assumption that Oregon, Alabama and Florida State will take the top three spots, SEC reporter Alex Scarborough, Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter debate which team has earned the final berth to this point.
Is it Mississippi State? Ohio State? Or Big 12 contenders Baylor or TCU?
Take 1: Scarborough -- Mississippi State
It was odd looking back on Saturday's loss at Alabama. Down 12 points with around three minutes remaining, Mississippi State's offense wasn't moving with a sense of urgency. Granted, getting the initial touchdown to make it a one-score game was important, but what was the point if there wasn't enough time left to attempt an onside kick and make another run at the end zone?
But today I'm reminded of the final score, 25-20. After thinking about it, a five-point loss on the road to the No. 5 team in the country isn't that bad. It might sound good enough to be deemed a "quality loss," whereas a double-digit defeat might not be looked upon so kindly.
In fact, seeing as Ohio State and Baylor both fell to unranked opponents, I would say that Mississippi State and TCU have the clear edge in the "best loss" debate -- even though it's hard for me to stomach TCU giving up 61 points to anybody.
I'll concede that Mississippi State's nonconference schedule is weak, but so is Baylor's, and is that really enough to make you ignore three straight wins against top-10 teams? If you're going to move past the losses Baylor, Ohio State and TCU suffered in September and October, why should Mississippi State be penalized for a loss in November? Why is that any worse?
If Mississippi State beats Ole Miss and finishes with four wins against ranked opponents, that would be more than Baylor and Ohio State and tied with TCU. If you want a tiebreaker for later, there's still the possibility that Mississippi State makes it to the SEC championship game with an Alabama loss to Auburn.
Take 2: Ward -- Ohio State
The flaw in the résumé isn't hard to find, and there's no question Ohio State figures to have the ugliest blemish of any one-loss team vying for the final spot in the College Football Playoff.
But that's not the only factor the selection committee will be considering when the field is set. If it focused only on the early misstep, the committee would be overlooking a truly impressive body of work and a compelling case that the Buckeyes are currently playing the finest football in the nation.
For starters, if winning a conference championship is going to be valued, claiming the crown in the Big Ten is nothing to be scoffed at, particularly in a league that had five teams in the top 25 a week ago, a total topped only by the SEC. Over the past two weeks, the Buckeyes have knocked off a pair of ranked opponents on the road in poor weather, showing off a high-powered offense that is complemented by an opportunistic, aggressive defense, with both units showing marked improvement since that loss in Week 2 to Virginia Tech. At that time, J.T. Barrett was making just the second start of his career after being thrust into action in place of Braxton Miller, and neither the redshirt freshman nor a handful of other new starters was ready for the big stage.
Look at the Buckeyes now instead of where they were then and it's easy to see they have earned one of the last tickets to the playoff.
Take 3: Trotter -- Baylor or TCU
After the SEC, the Big 12 has been as good as any conference in the country this season. After the SEC, only the Big 12 still has two teams alive in the playoff chase. The Baylor vs. TCU debate can be saved for another time, but whoever emerges from that conversation deserves playoff inclusion. Neither team has a bad loss, especially TCU. And both teams have great wins, especially Baylor.
Ohio State has surged in recent weeks, but the Buckeyes lost their only nonconference bout with a Power 5 opponent. Ohio State also has only two wins against top-25 teams, which is sure to be trimmed to one win tonight when Minnesota is bounced from the top 25. With only one noteworthy win and the horrible loss in Columbus to Virginia Tech, Ohio State's overall résumé doesn't stack up.
Mississippi State's body of work is only slightly better. The Bulldogs opened SEC play by toppling LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Those wins looked impressive then. They don't look so impressive now. Those three teams have a combined 11 losses. Only Auburn figures to remain in the top 25 when the selection committee updates its rankings. The loss at Alabama carries no shame. But Mississippi State's nonconference schedule of Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and Tennessee Martin should. Much has been made of Baylor's soft nonconference schedule, and rightfully so. But Mississippi State's is even worse because it includes four cream puffs as opposed to three.
Unlike Mississippi State or Ohio State, Baylor defeated a team up for the playoff debate in TCU. The Bears also handed Oklahoma its worst home loss of the Bob Stoops era.
The only flaw on TCU's résumé, meanwhile, is a disastrous fourth quarter on the road against another playoff contender. The Horned Frogs otherwise have mostly been stout, with a victory over Minnesota that trumps anything Ohio State or Mississippi State accomplished in the nonconference slate and wins against Oklahoma and K-State.
The TCU vs. Baylor debate will rage on. But for now, one of the two should be in the committee's top four.