Fear not, Big Ten, your College Football Playoff hopes are not lost

NCAAF


It’s supposed to be about the teams — not the conferences — but the latest CFP rankings left certain leagues giddy and others gloomy.

(We’ll get to the SEC, which continued to top the rankings, albeit now with Alabama instead of Georgia, in a bit.)

The ACC and Big Ten toasted CFP chairman Kirby Hocutt and the selection committee Tuesday night. The ACC is almost assured of a playoff spot, and the Big Ten, which many wrote off two weeks ago, is barely on the outside. The Big 12, meanwhile, can’t feel overly secure about its position, while the Pac-12, as expected, should start looking ahead to next season.

Let’s start with the ACC, which has enhanced its rep during the playoff era and now boasts two of the top three teams in No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Miami. It’s a bit surprising that the Hurricanes, still perfect on the season and coming off their best performance against Notre Dame, didn’t leapfrog Clemson, which struggled to put away 3-5 Florida State before pulling away late.

Clemson’s overall profile clearly resonates with the committee, especially its Week 2 win over now resurgent Auburn. Although victories over Virginia Tech (no longer ranked) and Louisville (never ranked) aren’t as helpful, Clemson’s overall schedule strength, which includes a win over No. 19 NC State, kept it ahead of Miami. But if both teams win their remaining games — Clemson faces The Citadel and rival South Carolina; Miami has Virginia and Pitt — it sets up a playoff play-in in the ACC championship.

Could Miami still get in as a one-loss at-large with a close defeat to Clemson? That seems possible, but the Canes shouldn’t bank on it.

The SEC still seems likelier than any league to get two teams into the final top four. Although Georgia fell six spots to No. 7, it controls its own fate. Barring slip-ups against Kentucky or Georgia Tech, Kirby Smart’s team has a playoff play-in opportunity in Atlanta, where it will face Alabama or a rematch with Auburn, which is up to No. 6 after its 40-17 win. Alabama and Auburn seem to have clear paths to the top four by winning out, and Alabama’s rise to No. 1 increases the possibility that it cracks the top four even with a close loss at Auburn in the Iron Bowl or, most likely, to Georgia in the SEC title game following a win at Auburn. Gus Malzahn’s team can’t afford any missteps, but it remains far and away the most realistic two-loss playoff candidate.

The Big Ten is simply trying to have one entrant in the playoff for the fourth consecutive year. By rising three spots to No. 5, Wisconsin has put itself in a solid position. The Badgers host No. 24 Michigan this week and likely will face No. 9 Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin’s win over No. 23 Northwestern, which is favored to win out and finish 9-3, will help its profile.

Ohio State amazingly is not out of this thing, despite two double-digit losses, including a historic defeat at now-unranked Iowa. Not only did the Buckeyes move up five spots after crushing Michigan State, but also the Spartans fell only five spots to No. 17, despite a 45-point defeat. Ohio State is helped by its win over Penn State, which inexplicably rose four spots to No. 10 after beating Rutgers. Look, I like Penn State, and the Lions haven’t absorbed a bad loss, but what changed so much in their profile from last week? A win over 4-5 Rutgers shouldn’t transform the committee’s view so dramatically.

The committee soured on the Big 12 this week. Oklahoma’s 38-20 win over TCU, its second consecutive signature win, resulted in an only one-spot rise. Why is Oklahoma’s profile — wins over Ohio State (road), Oklahoma State (road) and TCU (home) — weaker than Clemson’s? Does the Auburn win really resonate so much? Oklahoma even has a more excusable loss (an Iowa State team with two AP top-five wins) than Clemson’s (4-6 Syracuse). The gap is a bit baffling.

TCU tumbled six spots to No. 12 after its loss in Norman, and Oklahoma State moved up just two spots after a win at Iowa State, which is no longer ranked. While Michigan entered the rankings with no quality wins, West Virginia remained out.

Oklahoma will be fine if it runs the table. The Sooners will face TCU or Oklahoma State in the league title game. But any slip-up could put the entire Big 12 on very thin ice.

The Pac-12’s slim playoff hopes seemed to die Friday night at Stanford Stadium, as Washington absorbed its second loss, which resulted in a nine-spot drop to No. 18 on Tuesday night. USC seems like the league’s only remaining candidate, but at No. 11, the Trojans would have to climb over so many teams to reach the top four. Washington State has wins over USC and No. 22 Stanford and still can beat Washington and USC again, but at No. 14, Mike Leach’s team needs a miracle.

Speaking of miracles, Notre Dame had to avoid a second loss to keep its playoff quest going, and a no-show in South Florida resulted in a five-spot drop to No. 8. There’s too much traffic for the Irish to get through, especially without a conference title to display.

UCF got a bit more respect this week, moving up three spots to No. 15. The Group of 5’s spot in the New Year’s Six likely will go to the winner of the AAC title game, which will likely be No. 21 Memphis against UCF or still-unranked South Florida. But don’t forget about Boise State, which sneaked into the rankings at No. 25.

With Notre Dame out of the way and the Pac-12 essentially joining the Irish in the cold, that leaves four leagues, each featuring multiple candidates, competing for four spots. The Week 12 slate doesn’t offer many playoff-shaping games other than Wisconsin-Michigan, as it’s tune-up time in the SEC and elsewhere.

But leagues should know where they stand after Tuesday night, setting up a mad dash to the finish line on Dec. 3. Buckle up.



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