No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State are the closest things to locks for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Should all three of those teams win out -- which, of course, is no guarantee -- they should finish the season in the top four of the selection committee’s rankings.
It’s that coveted fourth spot that remains the greatest debate.
“It's also fair to say the differences between teams four through seven -- Mississippi State, TCU, Ohio State and Baylor -- are narrow, very narrow,” committee chair Jeff Long said Tuesday. “There are more games to play and these teams are knocking on the door, and they're not the only ones.”
Here’s a closer look at those teams still “knocking on the door” and how Week 13 affected their playoff chances:
Pros: Although many other top teams struggled against lesser competition, the Bulldogs took care of business in a 51-0 dismantling of Vanderbilt. Mississippi State needed to win with style, and the game was never in doubt. “If you don't think we controlled that game,” quarterback Dak Prescott told The Associated Press, “then I don't know what you're looking for."
Cons: Ole Miss self-destructed in a 30-0 loss to Arkansas, the second straight opponent the Razorbacks have shut out. That doesn't bode well for Mississippi State, which is teetering on the edge of the bracket and has just one win over teams currently ranked in the selection committee’s top 25 (Auburn). The Bulldogs finish the season on the road against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and their résumé could have used another boost, but the Rebels should drop out of the top 10 after suffering a third loss.
Pros: The Horned Frogs were off to prepare for Thursday night’s Thanksgiving game at Texas, but they were still helped by K-State’s Thursday night win in Morgantown and Minnesota’s 28-24 win over Nebraska. For the fourth straight week, TCU was ranked ahead of Baylor, and Long said it was because “strength of schedule is an important factor that came into play, and [Baylor's] body of work is not quite comparable in the view of the committee.” That Minnesota win has a lot to do with it, and it keeps looking better. Until Baylor adds a convincing K-State win to its résumé, there’s no reason to think the committee will reward Baylor's head-to-head win over TCU.
Cons: Ohio State won again. The Buckeyes were pushed by an unheralded Indiana team, but they clinched the Big Ten’s East Division and earned a spot in the conference title game. Ohio State is one team both Baylor and TCU need to be worried about, as the Buckeyes jumped Baylor in the committee’s rankings last week.
Pros: The Bears beat Oklahoma State and have now won three straight since their Oct. 18 loss at West Virginia, which is one result the committee has held against Baylor in its comparison to TCU. Baylor also benefited from K-State’s Thursday night win in Morgantown. The Bears need to punctuate their playoff résumé with a season-ending win against a highly ranked K-State team at home Dec. 6. If Baylor and TCU both win out, the Bears should wind up on top.
Cons: Ohio State, which jumped Baylor in the rankings last week, won again and clinched the Big Ten’s East Division in the process. Baylor also didn’t beat Oklahoma State as convincingly as TCU did, but that's splitting hairs: Baylor won 49-28, while TCU beat the Cowboys 42-9. The committee will compare results against common opponents. Baylor's biggest problems are its nonconference schedule and the loss at West Virginia.
Pros: The Buckeyes beat Indiana to clinch the Big Ten’s East Division, and Wisconsin also won at Iowa, putting the Badgers one victory from clinching the West Division. Ohio State should be able to avoid an upset against a middling Michigan team this coming week. There’s certainly no margin for error after the Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech, but if Ohio State can pull off an impressive win against a ranked Wisconsin team to win the Big Ten title, that loss to the Hokies just might be forgiven.
Cons: It was an underwhelming first three quarters against the Hoosiers for the Buckeyes, who had three turnovers and continue to struggle with ball security. Every other bubble team the Buckeyes are up against found a way to win, too.
Pros: After an impressive 38-20 win against USC, the No. 9-ranked Bruins are now in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 South Division. UCLA can clinch the division with a win against Stanford on Friday. If the Bruins lose to Stanford, Friday’s Arizona/Arizona State winner would win the division. UCLA remains the Pac-12’s best hope at getting a two-loss conference champ in the playoff. If the Bruins can beat Oregon in the conference title game, they should have at least three wins over teams still ranked in the committee’s top 25.
Cons: Those two losses. The Oct. 4 home loss to Utah took another hit this weekend when Arizona trounced the Utes 42-10, dropping Utah to four losses and out of the division race. Utah will also likely drop out of the committee’s top 25.
Group of 5
Pros: Marshall, Memphis, Northern Illinois, Colorado State and Boise State all continued to win. Undefeated Marshall didn’t win any style points against UAB, but the Thundering Herd remain the only undefeated Group of 5 team.
Cons: The selection committee hasn’t ranked a Group of 5 team for three weeks, citing strength of schedule as the main reason. There’s nothing left on Marshall’s -- or any other Group of 5 front-runner’s -- schedule likely to change that reasoning.
“Again, Marshall's body of work, their strength of schedule, what they've done to this point in time, the committee does not feel that they warrant being ranked in the top 25,” Long said last week. “Again, they're very close. We've talked a lot about Marshall, we've talked about Boise State, Colorado State, Memphis, Northern Illinois -- all Group of 5 teams that are good teams and that we've certainly discussed.”