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College Football Playoff Rankings Analysis: Week 12

Gary Patterson

Gary Patterson

The first major dilemmas for the College Football Playoff selection committee may be on the way.

Baylor’s trouncing of Oklahoma in Norman vaulted the Bears into the top 10 of the weekly rankings, but it wasn't enough to push Baylor ahead of TCU, raising questions about head-to-head wins and non-conference scheduling.

Indeed, Baylor may force the selection committee some interesting explanations if the Bears continue to win.

Here's why:

• The question of head-to-head wins: Baylor defeated TCU 61-58 on Oct. 11, but four spots in the rankings separated the two Tuesday. Selection committee chair Jeff Long said head-to-head weighs more as the teams are considered closer in the rankings. Essentially, the committee views TCU’s body of work strong enough at this point to override Baylor's head-to-head win. 

TCU has wins over two top 25 teams (No. 13 Kansas State and No. 25 Minnesota) and a loss to No. 7 Baylor. Meanwhile, the Bears have one top-25 win (TCU), and their loss is more lopsided to an unranked West Virginia.

• One theme in the run up to the playoff was that the system would encourage teams to take on more challenging non-conference schedules. That wouldn’t seem to be valid if Baylor makes the playoff with a non-conference schedule of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo.

• As much as Long wants to say the committee is starting each week with a “clean sheet” evaluating each team’s body of work, that won’t ease the feelings of fans who watch their teams climb into a playoff scenario and then out without ever losing a game. 

With Kansas, Texas and Iowa State remaining, TCU has completed the toughest part of its schedule. Meanwhile, teams like Alabama, Arizona State and Baylor all have opportunities for major wins down the stretch. By the end of the season, Long may have to explain TCU's plight to a horde of angry fans.

Here’s how the second top 25 shook out, followed by our observations.

Notables:

Oregon at No. 2

In reality, Oregon’s move from No. 3 to No. 2 ahead of undefeated Florida State probably doesn’t mean too much. If the season ended today, the two teams would play in the semifinal at the same site, the Rose Bowl. But it does signal that the selection committee won’t necessarily honor the zero in the loss column for the sake of doing so. Selection committee chair Jeff Long explained that Oregon has three top-25 wins (at No. 11 UCLA, No. 12 Michigan State, at No. 23 Utah) whereas Florida State has two (No. 18 Notre Dame, No. 19 Clemson). FSU’s signature win of the season over Notre Dame was devalued by a 55-31 loss at Arizona State by the Irish.

Naming the “Group of Five” contenders

For the second week, the top 25 lacked a team from the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. The highest ranked champion of one of those leagues is guaranteed a berth in the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange or Peach Bowl this season, and now it seems we have a field to consider. Long identified Marshall, Colorado State, Boise State, Northern Illinois and East Carolina as teams in the discussion for the top 25. Only “a little” of that discussion was about ECU, a bad sign for a Pirates team that was the clubhouse leader before a loss to Temple two weeks ago.

Who Shouldn’t Worry:

Alabama

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The Crimson Tide is sitting at No. 5 with games against Mississippi State and Auburn at home, plus a potential SEC championship game. Win, and the Tide are in the playoff, perhaps as a top seed in the Sugar Bowl.

Who Should be Pleasantly Surprised

Arizona State

The Sun Devils continue their rise up the rankings, though the committee is reticent to describe it as such. Arizona State was ranked No. 14 two weeks ago, but wins over Utah and Notre Dame put the Sun Devils at No. 6. Arizona State has the opportunity for two more landmark wins — at No. 14 Arizona to finish the season and potentially No. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. Long said the committee considered that Arizona State’s only loss to UCLA occurred when the Sun Devils were missing starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, another good sign for Todd Graham's team. Arizona State lost 62-27 at home to UCLA, but the committee holds the Bruins in some high regard. UCLA is No. 11 despite one-score wins over Virginia, Memphis, Texas, Cal and Colorado and a loss at home to Utah.

Who Should Worry:

TCU

Certainly, the Horned Frogs would rather be at No. 4 than behind an Alabama team that will face perhaps two more top 10 teams. TCU helped its resume with a 41-20 win over Kansas State, but the Horned Frogs have reason for concern. First, Alabama is at No. 5 with a chance to move up if the Tide are able to beat No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 9 Auburn. Long described the margin between the Frogs and Tide as “extremely thin.” Second, Long indicated that this was the first week that TCU and Baylor were in the same group of six evaluated at a given time by the selection committee. 

In other words, the discussion between TCU and Baylor is getting closer. Should TCU and Baylor be more comparable teams in the committee’s eyes, Baylor’s head-to-head win over TCU may loom large. The Horned Frogs going from No. 4 in the rankings to outside of the playoff even if they don’t lose a game is a possibility.

If the Season Ended Today:

National Semifinals:

Sugar: No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 TCU

Rose: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

Other bowls (projected)

Cotton: No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 8 Ohio State

Fiesta: No. 6 Arizona State vs. No. 10 Ole Miss

Orange: No. 19 Clemson^ vs. No. 5 Alabama

Peach: Marshall* vs. No. 9 Auburn

*automatic Group of 5 bid

^automatic ACC bid to Orange Bowl