After a wild rivalry week that saw the top two teams in the country fall, the College Football Playoff selection committee released its penultimate rankings on Tuesday.
Clemson moves into the top spot for the first time all season and is followed by Auburn—which jumped four spots after beating Alabama—Oklahoma, and Wisconsin with the Crimson Tide and Georgia sitting just outside of the playoff. Former no. 2 Miami falls to seventh after losing to Pittsburgh, and Ohio State climbs one spot into eighth.
As it stands, there are eight teams that still have a chance to make the College Football Playoff: Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Miami, and Ohio State. Six of those teams play each other this weekend, but in an unprecedented turn of events, Alabama is not one of them. After losing the Iron Bowl, the 11-1 Crimson Tide don’t control their own fate and are on the outside looking in.
For six of the teams—Clemson, Miami, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—the path is simple: Win the conference championship game and get a stamped ticket to the playoff. The winner of the ACC championship—whether it be Clemson or Miami—is a lock for the final four, while the loser will slide comfortably into a New Year’s Six game. The same goes for the winner and runner-up in the SEC. Oklahoma and Wisconsin are in, too, if they win, but a surprise loss could make things interesting.
A few teams have more complicated paths. Ohio State, for instance, is 10-2 with losses to (likely) playoff-bound Oklahoma and (likely) Music City Bowl participant Iowa but will play in the Big Ten title game. Before Alabama lost, a win over Wisconsin would have put them in the playoff. But the impact of the Tide’s failings stretch beyond Tuscaloosa: The loss eliminated fringe playoff candidates like USC and TCU but added another powerhouse—Auburn—to the mix.
Entering this week’s ranking at no. 8 is a tough beat for the Buckeyes. Even with a win over no. 4 Wisconsin, they might not have enough steam to pass no. 5 Alabama for the final spot in the playoff. Ohio State is a quality football team, and the first unofficial rule of playoff selections says that Ohio State gets the nod over any other similarly qualified contender. It was true last year, when the Buckeyes edged out Penn State for the final spot, and in 2014, when Ohio State was selected over TCU and Baylor. This week, we’ll find out what happens when that edict contradicts the second unofficial rule of playoff selections: Alabama always gets in.
Auburn meets Georgia in the SEC championship this weekend, and the last time the two teams played, the Tigers pulled off a 40-17 upset of the then-top-ranked Bulldogs. After beating another no. 1 team last weekend, Auburn controls its destiny. A win puts them squarely in the top four, and maybe even as high as no. 1. The same goes for Georgia—they may not see the top ranking again, but a 12-1 record with an SEC championship and a revenge victory over Auburn is as good a résumé as any in the country. The SEC is guaranteed at least one team in the playoff, but there’s a chance it could get two.
If no. 11 TCU beats Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, or if Ohio State beats Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, Alabama could climb into the top four despite its best wins coming against 9-3 LSU and 8-4 Mississippi State. The Tide’s odds get a little longer if Georgia beats Auburn, though. Selecting Alabama over a conference champion Ohio State is tough, but picking them over OSU after the team they lost to gets shellacked is even tougher.
Lower down the rankings, two rematches will determine which teams make New Year’s Six bowls, as no. 10 USC takes on no. 12 Stanford for the Pac-12 title and no. 14 UCF puts its undefeated season on the line against no. 20 Memphis in the AAC championship game.
Nearly every game this weekend will have an impact on how this season is remembered. By Saturday night, we’ll have champions from every major conference. And on Sunday morning, we’ll have our playoff field.