There is a sense of temporary calm across college football and at the headquarters of the College Football Playoff, where the selection committee unveiled an entirely expected top four with just two weeks left in the regular season.
Alabama again tops the list, maintaining its quest to become the first start-to-finish No. 1 in the short history of the Playoff rankings. Ohio State follows, and then Michigan and Clemson.
Ohio State held onto the No. 2 seed despite a struggle against Michigan State, while Michigan held fast at No. 3 following a sloppy, 20-10 win against Indiana. Clemson remains in control of its destiny in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with a rivalry date with South Carolina preceding a return appearance in the conference championship game.
This was to be expected. The only other team with a possible case to be had for inclusion in this week’s top four was Washington, which bounced back from its only loss, to Southern California, with a smooth win against Arizona State.
“The committee likes what we’ve seen on the field from Washington,” said selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt. “They are a very talented team. They have two wins against current top-25 teams. Their only loss is to a very talented Southern California team.”
But Washington is short where it counts: in overall strength of schedule and in a meaningful, season-defining victory. While matchups against Washington State and Colorado will provide a boost to the Huskies’ schedule, it’s unlikely that Washington reaches a national semifinal without some help.
“The strength of schedule is still in question,” Hocutt said of Washington. “Their strength of schedule still gives the committee pause at this time from ranking them any higher.”
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Well, help is on the way. Enjoy the relative peace and tranquility, since it won’t last long. This is the brief lull before a make-or-break week — because changes are coming to the Playoff chase, beginning Saturday with perhaps the biggest matchup of the regular season.
This weekend brings Michigan’s trip to Ohio State, and with it a reshaping of the postseason picture.
There are two scenarios that may occur based on the result. The first is an Ohio State win, which would move the Buckeyes to 11-1 and hand Michigan its second loss; the Wolverines would be removed from the Playoff race.
Should Ohio State win and Penn State beat Michigan State, the Buckeyes would not win their own division yet they would remain very much a favorite to reach a national semifinal. Better yet for the Big Ten, the league might send two teams into the field — the Buckeyes and its champion, either the Nittany Lions or Wisconsin.
The second scenario involves a Michigan win, and results in a much clearer and uncontroversial top four. With a victory, the Wolverines are the champions of the East Division and a strong pick for No. 2 overall with a victory against the winners of the West Division in the Big Ten title game.
Based on how the committee views both Michigan and Ohio State — and by extension the entire Big Ten — the ramifications of Saturday’s game will be felt throughout the top six of the rankings, with the exception of Alabama. The Crimson Tide are a lock for No. 1 with wins against Auburn on Saturday and Florida in the SEC title game to end the regular season.
But any number of scenarios might still unfold. If almost unthinkable, Alabama could lose to Auburn or Florida, if not both. Washington will have its hands full with the rival Cougars, with the winner advancing to the Pac-12 championship. Clemson could even stub its toe in the ACC title game, whether facing Virginia Tech or North Carolina.
“We have two weeks left in this regular season,” Hocutt said. “I can’t speculate or look into the future and project what may or may not happen.”
In other words, enjoy the relative peace and serenity. For all of college football, and for the College Football Playoff in particular, it’s the calm before the storm.
Paul Myerberg, USA Today