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Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff's Top Four is Clear-Cut but Questions Remain for Selection Committee

Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff's Top Four is Clear-Cut but Questions Remain for Selection Committee

Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff's Top Four is Clear-Cut but Questions Remain for Selection Committee

Between MACtion, Tulsa's walk-off pick-six, the blown call to decide to the Minnesota/Purdue game, and a new record — if you want to call it that — for games postponed/canceled, the early action this week in college football gave us every indication that we would have one of those wild Saturdays.

Deliver on that premonition Week 12 did. Everywhere you flipped on the dial, there was something bizarre, unheard of, or unexpected. Clemson-Florida State was... axed on three hours' notice and spawned an ACC back-and-forth where nobody won. Ohio State looked like it was going to run away from Indiana but the Hoosiers clawed their way back and into the hearts of yet more fans.

Northwestern's defense suffocated Wisconsin, Cincinnati held off UCF, Georgia's passing game came alive to escape a short-handed Mike Leach, and Chip Kelly nearly pulled off the improbable in his old haunt of Eugene. Add in a few boat-races (Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Pitt and... Illinois?) and some Big Ten After Dark action for Michigan-Rutgers too. Oh, and Utah finally kicked off their season just days before Thanksgiving to become team No. 127 in FBS to join the pandemic party that is 2020.

The week also marked the culmination of a series of strange data points that will now be discussed ad nauseam by experts and novices alike as our first insight into the postseason can be gleaned from the College Football Selection Committee finally arrive. Yes, those top 25 rankings you never knew you needed on Tuesday evening are back and ready to dominate the conversation of the sport for the remaining four Saturdays left in the "regular" season.

The good news for the committee is there's a pretty clear-cut top four that will garner little controversy from fan bases near and far. The bad news? That's not the only question we'll (possibly) get answered on Tuesday night as new chairman Gary Barta releases the rankings and gets peppered with questions from the media.

With that in mind, here are seven key questions for the committee with an eye beyond just the College Football Playoff's top four:

1. The biggest difference between the polls and the committee will be...?

Every year at the onset of the release of the rankings, there are at least three or four teams that vary significantly from their spot in the AP and Coaches Polls and where they're placed by the committee. Sometimes it's an undefeated program left 10 spots lower than where they show up on Sunday and sometimes it's a two-loss team that is several spots ahead of a one-loss one ranked ahead of them in the other polls.

Several teams that have been off or escaped some close calls might fit this bill, such as Miami, in the top 12 of both polls but could have a case for the committee to both bump them up or drop them down below their current spot. How does one treat an Auburn or the cardiac cats of USC? Teams may have only played three or four games and yet will come in two spots ahead of ones approaching double digits.

As there always are, there will be some re-shaped opinions about several big names that the average Joe college football watcher probably wasn't expecting.

2. The CFP pecking order behind Alabama and Notre Dame is...?

It seems pretty clear that Alabama and Notre Dame will be locked into the top two in some order after passing the eye-test and assembling a quality resume. Perhaps Ohio State will break up their fellow blue-blood duopoly but the close call from the Hoosiers against their best opponent of the year so far likely rules that out as they slip to three or four.

The real takeaway from those final few spots can instead best be boiled down into how much weight the committee will give to Clemson's loss without Trevor Lawrence and which of the one-loss SEC teams is best positioned to hold off the undefeated challengers from beyond the Power 5.

If the committee decides the Tigers get a mulligan for the overtime loss in South Bend (without Trevor Lawrence) two weeks ago, they very well figure to be No. 3, and former semifinal opponent Ohio State would bring up the rear at No. 4. If the committee doesn't, they could flip them. This year that positioning holds real value too in avoiding Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for a tougher semifinal path to the title.

After the expected can come the unexpected. Protocol dictates head-to-head results so Texas A&M would likely be penciled in ahead of Florida. Does undefeated Cincinnati bump both, split the difference, or come in behind the SEC pair? Are the Bearcats even in the top six with an outside shot at the really big game on New Year's Day? How does BYU factor in given their impressive on-field performance against a weak slate.

One easy prediction to make: Cougars fans will take to social media angry and upset at where they are ranked even if it's in the single digits.

3. Does this group weigh resume or eye-test more in this uneven 2020 campaign?

This is a splitting hairs kind of decision just about every year for the final spot or two and the very nature of this season will mean there's an oversized reading into just how the committee treats eye-test vs. resume of teams from one to 25.

Just about every metric has to be weighted with such a huge disparity between the number of games being played among conferences. The fancy software the committee manipulates to compare teams really isn't built for making it clear-cut between A, B and C anyway and that's doubly true when even defensive yards per play or ESPN's own proprietary QBR metric could swing wildly from one week to the next.

It may simply be that Barta, the chairman, will have to just go, "We just think this team is better," and leave it at that. Cite all the stats you want but the old Supreme Court line of "You know it when you see it" is basically what we're going to have to go on at the moment in college football. That's true of us at home and for the men and women in a room in Texas trying to sort out all that has happened in college football this uneven season.

4. Can Northwestern, Indiana, Georgia and others still snag at-large bids?

Mind you that for all the attention the first four spots in the rankings get, the committee also is in charge of the rest of the New Year's Six. Given that the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl are also set to host the semifinals this season, that means the committee is not as locked into matchups as they normally are and have more freedom to set the remaining four major bowls.

The Pac-12/Big 12 and Group of 5 champions will all get access and it's a good bet to see the SEC one-loss teams like the Aggies and Gators above the cut line. But who else has a shot at joining them?

Will it be a two-loss Georgia team that struggled to put away Mississippi State but may have suddenly found a quarterback to breathe life into a paltry offense? Does Indiana's close loss to Ohio State keep the door open to an at-large if they wrap up at 8-1? Is the same true of Northwestern if the Wildcats win the Big Ten West but fall in Indianapolis?

If undefeated Pac-12 teams meet in the league title game, does the loser remain in the hunt? How might Miami fare if the Hurricanes wind up at 10-1?

Just based on the initial top 25, we'll have some sort of insight as to which teams have a path to wrapping up the year in a big-time bowl.

5. Are the Pac-12 and Big 12 firmly eliminated from the playoff chase?

Based on what we've seen so far out of Oregon, USC and... Colorado (!! and ??) plus the shortened slate out West, it seems like a stretch to say that the Pac-12 has a playoff-caliber team. Does the committee agree? If neither the Ducks nor Trojans make the top 10, the uphill road is probably too steep to climb for Larry Scott's league once again. Seeing Colorado and Washington pop up in the rankings somewhere could help keep the Pac-12 alive.

The same can be said of the Big 12, which does not have a single one-loss team plus the distinction of being a conference that went 0-3 against the Sun Belt (in what feels like a lifetime ago but was really two months prior). Oklahoma and Iowa State have both come on strong as of late, but will it matter one iota?

6. Is an at-large within reach for BYU?

Perhaps the biggest tea-leaf reading that will have to happen is going to be surrounding BYU. The Cougars are 9-0 and easily handled everything thrown their way this season as they've cobbled together a schedule from pretty much nothing. There's just one date left on the docket against San Diego State but the Aztecs face a tall order preventing a running of the table for Kalani Sitake's group.

Will that all be enough to finish in the top eight or so and earn an invite to the Fiesta Bowl? That is very much going to be a pressing question that folks in Provo and beyond want to know. If BYU checks in outside the top 10 that might be a signal that those open dates still remaining need to be filled by somebody with a pulse.

Remember, it's also at-large or bust for BYU. The Independent Cougars do not have access to the Group of 5 bid. The committee does like to remind people that they start fresh each week with their rankings but the Cougs' case is almost complete already so the read on them Tuesday will be pretty revealing.

7. Does anybody other than Cincinnati have a shot at the Group of 5 bid?

The fact that we're talking about the Bearcats on the fringes of the actual playoff discussion tells you there's a clear front-runner for the Group of 5 bid. But if Luke Fickell's team were to slip up or even lose the AAC title game, does that allow somebody else to take their spot in a big-time NY6 bowl?

That could wind up being Tulsa, who has truly turned in a dream season even amid all the chaos of 2020 and is well-positioned to win the league. As improbable as it sounds, the Golden Hurricane are in the running at the moment just as much as Cincy is.

Then there's undefeated Coastal Carolina sitting atop a very competitive Sun Belt and a Marshall squad that may have the best path of any team in the nation of winding up undefeated after the final whistle. Is either team ranked at all by the committee and if so, how much of a gap is there between them and the AAC?

And don't forget about the Mountain West either. Boise State can at least claim their lone loss to BYU was the product of having a third-string QB in most of the night. Nevada and San Jose State each are undefeated though fit the bill more as teams surviving and advancing as much as anything. Is there a path for those beyond the Rockies?

As with everything in this crazy campaign, "to be determined" is not just the operative words of the 2020 season but the motto everybody has to go on right up until kickoff.

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Tweet of the Week

Play(s) of the Week

Stat of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Best player(s): Zaven Collins, Tulsa/David Bell, Purdue/Breece Hall, Iowa State

Team of the Week: Northwestern

Goat of the Week: Dino Babers, Syracuse

Heisman Five: 1. Zach Wilson (BYU), 2. Kyle Trask (Florida), 3. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 4. Zaven Collins (Tulsa), 5. Justin Fields (Ohio State)

Projected Playoff: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Ohio State, 4. Notre Dame

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Clemson vs. Ohio State, Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Fiesta Bowl — BYU vs. Oregon, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma, Peach Bowl — Cincinnati vs. Indiana

The 25

Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:

1. Alabama

2. Notre Dame

3. Clemson

4. Ohio State

5. Cincinnati

6. BYU

7. Texas A&M

8. Florida

9. Indiana

10. Northwestern

11. Miami

12. Iowa State

13. Oklahoma

14. Wisconsin

15. Georgia

16. Coastal Carolina

17. Oregon

18. Marshall

19. Tulsa

20. USC

21. Texas

22. Auburn

23. Nevada

24. San Jose State

25. Kent State

Pre-Snap Reads

Auburn at Alabama

What a strange sight to see the Iron Bowl, in a traditional spot on the calendar that simply doesn't feel traditional this truncated and delayed season. The Crimson Tide looked phenomenal again on Saturday in thumping Kentucky but the Tigers are a rivalry game and nobody knows better how to beat Nick Saban than Gus Malzahn. The line is basically if you think Bama is four TDs better than their in-state foes and, thanks to turnovers, that is indeed the case on Saturday. The Pick: Alabama -25

Notre Dame at North Carolina

Interesting Black Friday contest that should allow the Irish to all but clinch a spot in the ACC title game as their last remaining test of the regular season. Both teams will be rather fresh and what might have been a letdown spot for Notre Dame now can see the team get fully excited to play this one. UNC's defense isn't able to do enough in what should be a high-scoring affair that moves Brian Kelly one step closer to the playoff. The Pick: Notre Dame -4

Colorado at USC

Who saw this coming as the likely deciding game in the Pac-12 South? Betting against USC has been a wealthy proposition but the way they gutted out a game in Salt Lake City on Saturday night could prove to be a turning point for Clay Helton's crew. The Buffaloes are a good story but the step up in competition combined with going on the road leads to their first loss of the short season. The Pick: USC -11

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

(Top photo by Logan Riely/Texas A&M Athletics, courtesy of 12thman.com)