When the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee gathered on Monday to determine their fifth ranking of the season, their longest debate centered around No. 5 Utah and No. 6 Oklahoma.
“We spent considerable time on it, more time than anywhere else on the board,” selection committee chair Rob Mullens said on Tuesday night. “There was plenty of debate.”
It might have been just the beginning.
There are seven undefeated or one-loss Power 5 teams remaining in the FBS, and all seven will be playing for conference titles this weekend. The Pac-12 and Big 12 conference championship games will steer what should be their most difficult discussion this season: Who’s No. 4? That’s assuming, of course, that No. 2 LSU beats No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game and opens the last semifinal spot.
For the first and only time this season, the committee members will watch games together in their conference room at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas, starting on Friday night. Following the conclusion of the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, they will take their seats around the massive table in the adjoining room they call “Selection Central” and begin their deliberations with the games fresh in their minds.
They’ll truly have a lasting impression.
So which game is the most important to the final ranking?
All games Saturday unless otherwise noted
No. 2 LSU vs. No. 4 Georgia (4 p.m. ET, CBS)
Why it’s at the top: Because there is no debate for the fourth spot unless LSU knocks Georgia out of contention. If the Bulldogs pull off the upset, though, the one-loss SEC champs would likely finish in the top four with LSU — eliminating both the Big 12 and Pac-12 champions in the process. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, LSU has an 81.3% chance to make the CFP even with a loss. That would be the easiest scenario for the committee, as the top four would likely be No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 LSU.
What’s at stake: It’s possible for LSU to overtake Ohio State in the final ranking, but without Ohio State actually losing, it’s an extremely close debate. With No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 10 Penn State both in the committee’s top 10, plus No. 14 Michigan and No. 20 Cincinnati also ranked opponents, the Buckeyes’ résumé will be tough to beat. If LSU can win with style — and defense — against Georgia, it would have the best win the country to go along with three other CFP top 25 wins.
“As we’ve talked in past weeks, both really have dynamic offenses, both have good defenses,” Mullens said. “Ohio State’s is just a little ahead at this point.”
So is its résumé. It didn’t help that Alabama sank seven spots to No. 12 after its loss to Auburn, but the committee still holds LSU’s win over the Tide in high regard, since it happened in Tuscaloosa and with star QB Tua Tagovailoa on the field.
“We understand what happened at the time,” Mullens said. “We’re aware of exactly what happened that game, where the teams were going into that game.”
No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Why it’s No. 2: Because if Oregon wins, the Pac-12 is eliminated and the Big 12 champion is likely in, regardless of whether it’s Oklahoma or Baylor. If Utah wins (and Georgia loses), then the debate begins. So much attention has been given to Utah, it’s overshadowed that Oregon is more than capable of winning. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Utes a 51.1% chance to win, essentially a coin-flip game. If it’s close, and Oklahoma beats Baylor soundly, that could influence the committee’s final vote. Remember, Utah is not ahead of Oklahoma right now because of its résumé — it has not defeated a single CFP top 25 opponent yet. The committee likes the Utes because of how consistently well they have played. “When we look at Utah, we see a season-long balance of very consistent play on both sides of the ball,” Mullens said. “Very dominant wins. Their only loss is on a Friday night on the road at a No. 22-ranked team when a key player on offense missed the majority of the game.” If Utah is going to stay ahead of the Sooners, it might have to stay consistently dominant for one more game.
What’s at stake: A win, plus a Georgia loss and an Oklahoma loss. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Utah would have the fourth-best chance of any team to make the CFP under that scenario (33.1%). Utah would probably have a better chance of winning a debate over Baylor than Oklahoma, based in part on how the committee has viewed them to this point, but also how each of them has won this season. Baylor has had some close wins against lesser opponents (TCU, Texas Tech), while Utah has been consistently the better team.
3. Big 12
No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor (noon ET, ABC)
Why it’s No. 3: Because it’s the third piece of the playoff puzzle, and its relevance will be determined by who wins the SEC and the Pac-12. Assuming Georgia loses, the winner of this game enters the debate, but it could be even easier if Oregon beats Utah, as well. Oklahoma stands a better chance at beating Utah in a debate because it would have two top-10 wins, both against Baylor, and another top-25 win against Oklahoma State. Utah’s only win against a ranked opponent would be Oregon, but the Sooners can’t afford to beat Baylor the same way they did during the regular season — needing a 25-point comeback, the largest in school history.
What’s at stake: Utah and Georgia both lose. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Oklahoma has a 53% chance to make the CFP, while Baylor is fifth at 27%.
4. Big Ten
No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (8 p.m. ET, FOX)
What’s at stake: Even if the Buckeyes lose, assuming it’s a close game, they’re probably still in and Wisconsin is out because the Badgers have two losses, one of which was to the Buckeyes on Oct. 26. Ohio State has won seven straight against Wisconsin, including the past two meetings between the teams in the Big Ten title game.
No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 24 Virginia (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
What’s at stake: Because the Tigers are averaging 50.4 points per game since Oct. 12, and Clemson shouldn’t lose to the three-loss Cavaliers, making their first appearance in the ACC title game. If Clemson does lose, the Tigers could miss the playoff because they wouldn’t have a conference title to compensate for an awful schedule. It would be hard for the selection committee to deem Clemson “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country with the No. 85 strength of schedule — and easily the worst loss in the Power 5 title games.
No. 20 Cincinnati vs. No. 17 Memphis (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
What’s at stake: The highest-ranked Group of 5 champion is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, and the AAC has been leading the race all season for a spot in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Memphis has taken the lead after its 34-24 win over Cincinnati on Nov. 29 to end the regular season, but can the Tigers turn around and do it again a week later? ESPN’s Football Power Index says yes, giving Memphis a 69.5% chance to win. While Appalachian State and Boise State are still in the mix, the winner of the AAC will have the best claim based on ESPN’s Strength of Record metric.