The door to No. 4 is open for undefeated TCU ... or is it?
There have been three times in the CFP era that a team has lost in the regular season and remained in the selection committee's top four the following week. It happened in 2014 when No. 1 Mississippi State lost and dropped to No. 4, in 2016 when No. 2 Clemson lost and fell to No. 4 and in 2016 when No. 3 Michigan lost but held strong at No. 3 the next week.
While we'll be watching to see how far Tennessee tumbles after its loss to Georgia, no team or conference should take a bigger hit when the new rankings are released Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) than the ACC and Clemson, which lost in embarrassing fashion at Notre Dame on Saturday.
Here are the key questions the committee will answer Tuesday night. Additionally, Adam Rittenberg looks at what will happen as opposed to what should happen, and our college football reporters weigh in with their picks for the top four.
Six key questions to watch for
1. Will Georgia be the undisputed No. 1? Well, the Bulldogs certainly should be -- and this decision became much easier for the group, which struggled last week to separate Tennessee, Ohio State and Georgia at No. 1. There were committee members who felt strongly about all three teams for the top spot, but there should be more consensus after Georgia thoroughly outplayed the Vols, the committee's No. 1 team from a week ago, in a 27-13 win. Georgia has supplanted Tennessee for the top spot in ESPN's Strength of Record metric, as the Bulldogs also have a dominant win against No. 8 Oregon.
"Georgia is an exceedingly solid team that the committee really likes and felt good about who they are," selection committee chair Boo Corrigan said last week. "Obviously the dominant win at the beginning of the season against Oregon turned a lot of heads."
Saturday's win should only create further separation between Georgia and the rest of the contenders.
2. Can TCU top Tennessee? With the losses by Tennessee and Clemson, the timing is right for the committee to reward the undefeated Frogs, who were No. 7 last week, and slot them in the top four. It's not a given, though, because Tennessee still trumps TCU with its high-quality wins over LSU and Alabama, and the selection committee had questions about TCU's defense, which Corrigan said "struggled to keep points off the board at times." (The same could be said for Tennessee, however.)
On Saturday, TCU once again had to come from behind -- this time against a Texas Tech team that fell below .500 with the loss. TCU has also been hurt by a downward spiral in the rest of the Big 12, as the Frogs' run of four straight wins over potentially ranked opponents (vs. Oklahoma, at Kansas, vs. Oklahoma State and vs. Kansas State) now looks less impressive. All of those opponents have at least three losses, and only K-State figures to be in this week's top 25. The committee doesn't just look at wins against top-25 teams, though. It also sees wins against opponents above .500 as respectable, and all four of those teams still have winning records.
Tennessee, meanwhile, hasn't lost what impressed the committee enough to earn the No. 1 spot in the first place: its wins against Alabama and LSU, and the latter looks better than ever.
3. Speaking of LSU, how high will the two-loss Tigers be? LSU should be hovering around No. 7 as the highest-ranked two-loss team, but still behind Tennessee because the committee will honor the head-to-head result. That wasn't pretty for the Tigers, as the Vols pummeled LSU 40-13 in Baton Rouge on Oct. 8. Even with LSU seemingly out of the picture for now, don't discount the Tigers from ultimately finishing in the top four if they can run the table and win the SEC. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. If LSU wins out, it would have defeated Alabama and SEC East champion Georgia along the way, helping to compensate for its season-opening 24-23 loss to Florida State (which could now be a CFP top-25 team) and that ugly loss to Tennessee.
LSU should win its final three regular-season games at Arkansas, vs. UAB and at Texas A&M, who are a combined 12-13. Any Power 5 team that can punctuate its résumé with a conference title will have the committee's attention, and it's one tiebreaker the group will use when choosing between teams they think are otherwise comparable.
4. Who has the edge, Tennessee or Oregon? This is an under-the-radar storyline that could be critical on Selection Day. If the Ducks run the table and finish as a one-loss Pac-12 champion and the Vols finish 11-1, this could be a huge debate in the committee meeting room. Where these teams are ranked Tuesday will be the first clue, as they both have suffered their only loss of the season to Georgia. The Vols and Ducks combined to score 16 points in their games against the Dawgs -- and they've scored at least 30 points against everyone else they've played this year. Oregon has won eight straight games since that season-opening debacle, and the committee has noticed.
"I think the win over UCLA has gone a long way," Corrigan said last week. "They've scored at least 41 points since that game and ... Bo Nix has had a great season. As we looked at it, obviously that initial game, what they've been able to do since that time, I think, has really turned the committee's head."
Here's the potential headache for the committee: LSU wins the SEC, but Tennessee is sitting there with a convincing win over the SEC champion despite not even playing for the title. And one-loss Oregon wins the Pac-12 title. Who gets the nod?
5. How far do Clemson, Wake Forest and Syracuse sink? This is the nightmare scenario for the ACC, which is easily in the worst playoff position of any Power 5 conference. Wake Forest and Syracuse, which are two of Clemson's best wins, should drop out of the committee's top 25 after suffering their third losses. Clemson can't be dismissed from the conversation entirely, as it could still finish as a one-loss ACC champion, but it's clear the Tigers aren't playing like a top-four team.
The ACC would need absolute chaos in the other conference title games to garner serious consideration, but the committee liked something about Clemson, enough to have the Tigers at No. 4 last week. Its best justification for that move was that Clemson was the only team to have three wins against CFP top-25 opponents, and that went out the window Saturday with the performances by Wake Forest and Syracuse.
6. Is Notre Dame ranked? If the Irish make their first appearance in the top 25, it could help Ohio State and one-loss USC. Oregon is the Pac-12's best hope at a playoff team, but it's not the only one-loss team still in the mix. Both USC and UCLA would be considered if they can add the Pac-12 title to their résumé. USC hosts Notre Dame on Nov. 26 in its regular-season finale -- right after a road trip to UCLA. Those could be back-to-back games against ranked opponents that either catapult USC into the top four or derail its hopes entirely.
Ohio State's win against Notre Dame in the season opener has helped separate the Buckeyes from Michigan, which has been criticized in the committee meeting room for its weak strength of schedule. While the selection committee holds the Wolverines in high regard, it's clear that if Michigan doesn't beat Ohio State in the regular-season finale, it probably won't have enough on its résumé to finish in the top four. Its best win would be against Penn State. Should Ohio State lose to the Wolverines, though, it would have at least a slightly better chance of consideration in part because of its win against the Irish, especially if Notre Dame can find a way to win out.
What the committee will -- and should -- do
I warned them last week. The selection committee members could have read right here why ranking Clemson ahead of TCU carried risk. They did it anyway, slotting the Tigers three spots ahead of the Horned Frogs, and paid the price. Maybe they'll listen this time.
What the CFP selection committee will do: Leave TCU out of the top four
What the CFP selection committee should do: Include TCU in the top four
NC State athletic director Boo Corrigan, and every CFP selection committee chair before him, has a mostly thankless job. Every week until the final ranking, Corrigan must justify the committee's reasoning for slotting teams in certain places, even if the rationale is different and arguably hypocritical.
Last week, the committee ranked TCU at No. 7 because of its slow starts and perceived lack of overall dominance.
"You look at TCU, and again we're looking for a balanced team, offense and defense, they have gotten behind in some games," Corrigan said.
Never mind that LSU, ranked No. 10 in the initial top 25, had started slowly in almost every game: Florida State, Mississippi State, Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss. Like TCU, LSU had found ways to rally and post come-from-behind wins. Unlike TCU, LSU had lost two of those contests.
The Horned Frogs on Saturday played right into the selection committee's perception of them, trailing 4-4 Texas Tech at the end of the first and third quarters before pulling away in the fourth. TCU has trailed in the second half in four of its six league wins. Even though two undefeated top-four teams lost last week (No. 1 Tennessee and No. 4 Clemson), the committee has leeway to leave out TCU again. You can hear it now: Tennessee had been more dominant until it faced Georgia; Oregon has been more dominant since it faced Georgia.
But TCU absolutely deserves top-four inclusion after its first 9-0 start since 2010, when the team ran the table and won the Rose Bowl. The reason? Few FBS teams are better finishers.
TCU has outscored opponents 180-102 in the second half and 104-48 in the fourth quarter. The Frogs won by only 10 Saturday, but had a drive stall at Texas Tech's 4-yard line with 3:34 left, which allowed the Red Raiders to score once more. The final easily could have been 41-17 instead of 34-24.
Teams should get credit for in-game adjustments and dominating the most critical quarter. TCU also has the balance Corrigan wants, even if it's not always displayed in traditional ways. The Frogs have scored 30 or more points in every game (UCLA is the only other FBS team to do so). They've allowed a total of 30 points in the second half in their past four games combined.
TCU likely needs more complete performances to remain undefeated, beginning this week at Texas. But rallies and resiliency can't be selective traits when evaluating teams. They've become TCU's identity this season. At this moment, the Frogs absolutely belong in the top four. -- Adam Rittenberg
Staff picks for top four
Here's a look at how ESPN's college football reporters see the current playoff picture.
Andrea Adelson: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Blake Baumgartner: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Kyle Bonagura: 1. Georgia 2. Michigan 3. Ohio State 4. TCU
Bill Connelly: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Heather Dinich: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
David Hale: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Tennessee 4 TCU
Chris Low: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. Michigan, 4. TCU
Harry Lyles Jr.: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Ryan McGee: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Oregon
Adam Rittenberg: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Alex Scarborough: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Mark Schlabach: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Paolo Uggetti: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Oregon
Tom VanHaaren: 1 Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Dave Wilson: 1 Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU