Al Goldis/Associated Press
If all goes according to plan, which is a dangerous assumption given the volatility of both college football and the year 2020, the College Football Playoff committee will likely be left with a decision.
Perhaps, they will have more than one to make. This group of human beings is now just weeks away from delivering us the four-team College Football Playoff. And while this decision is normally ripe with challenges, the discrepancy in total games played, scheduling, cancellations, player absences and other variables—COVID-related or otherwise—makes this year particularly intriguing.
Here is what we know—or what we think we know. If undefeated Alabama wins out, it will likely be the No. 1 seed. If Clemson beats currently unbeaten Notre Dame after losing to the Irish earlier in the year, this time with a healthy Trevor Lawrence, Clemson and Notre Dame have a strong case to both be included.
Disclaimer: This can all change in about 60 minutes. Less, even. Maybe a single throw. Clemson could lose. Alabama could lose (although it would still probably be in). Things can happen.
But for the sake of expediting the argument over the current race for the final playoff vacancy, let’s explore. The arguments are mounting. And the potential for outrage from fan bases is building.
John Raoux/Associated Press
Current College Football Playoff Ranking: No. 7
The Argument for No. 4: This is a fun, really good football team. And entering Week 14, the second week in a row Cincinnati did not play, the Bearcats had the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense and the No. 11 scoring offense. Their most recent win, a 36-33 victory over Central Florida, is the most impressive on the resume. Cincinnati is 8-0, first in the American Athletic Conference and one of the most balanced teams in all of football. The victory over Central Florida is the only game this year Cincinnati won by less than 14 points. This has been a dominant football season in just about every way.
The Argument Against No. 4: This is not a Power Five football team, and the College Football Playoff committee has made it clear over the years that it doesn’t much care for teams that play outside Power Five conferences. Whether that’s right or wrong—and it feels plenty wrong—it’s the reality as it stands now. Simply by its conference affiliation, Cincinnati is at a massive disadvantage. Luke Fickell’s team is scheduled to play Tulsa next weekend and then potentially Tulsa again the following week in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Will that change? Will the conference adjust current rules like others are doing at the moment? A lot to be determined, although it might not matter for Cincinnati barring a massive amount of help.
John Raoux/Associated Press
Current College Football Playoff Ranking: No. 6
The Argument for No. 4: For starters, Kyle Trask. Florida’s starting quarterback, with his array of amazing weapons on offense, makes for a quality watch and a matchup nightmare. The Gators had the No. 2 passing offense heading into Week 14, which is why Trask is firmly in the Heisman discussion. Currently 8-1, Florida’s only loss this year came to Texas A&M—more on the Aggies in a moment. Dan Mullen’s team also played well in its two biggest games of the year, Ole Miss and Georgia. On Saturday, the Gators handled Tennessee after a bit of a sluggish start. While this kind of first half would hinder pretty much any other team on this list, that is not the case for the Gators. Here’s why…
The Argument Against No. 4: It probably won’t come down to this. If Florida takes care of business next week—with a rescheduled game against LSU on tap—the Gators will likely play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. If that scenario unfolds, Florida has a classic win-and-it’s-in scenario. (That’s likely also the case for the Heisman for Trask.) A win, and the Gators could move even higher in the playoff. A loss, albeit a great loss, and it’s difficult to see Florida limping in. The good news? Florida controls its destiny. While some on this list could make that same argument, this one we know for sure. Win out, and they’re in.
Sam Craft/Associated Press
Current College Football Playoff Ranking: No. 5
The Argument for No. 4: Plenty. Outside of bizarre close win over woeful Vanderbilt in the opener, Jimbo Fisher’s program has been excellent. The victory over Florida is one of the year’s biggest resume boosts. An 11-point win over at Auburn in Week 14 certainly doesn’t hurt the Aggies argument. The lone blemish? A 52-24 loss at Alabama. Outside of the score of that game, A&M presents a fascinating argument for the committee. Ranked in the top four in both offense and defense in the SEC entering the week, the Aggies appear to be improving as the season progresses. The committee tends to obsess over quality of resume, momentum and general optics. This team checks all of those boxes, has played eight games and has two more currently scheduled. This last part is important.
The Argument Against No. 4: Having a loss hurts—even if it’s a good loss. Losing by nearly 30 points is another knock the committee has obsessed over at times. It’s not just when and who you lose to; it’s how you lose. The real issue that A&M faces, however, is that it is unlikely to be included in the SEC Championship Game if the season wraps up as planned. That honor in the SEC West would go to Alabama. The other issue? The unknown. With Ole Miss dealing with COVID issues, the Aggies’ chances of playing Week 15 is probably iffy at best. And the best argument for this team is its resume. Any potential lost game could loom large.
Al Goldis/Associated Press
Current College Football Playoff Ranking: No. 4
The Argument for No. 4: It starts with what happened on Saturday. The Buckeyes, a week removed from having to cancel its game against Illinois due to COVID issues in the program, down head coach Ryan Day and multiple starters, thumped Michigan State on the road 52-12. Whether the Buckeyes were playing for style points or not, they got them. They’re now 5-0 with a win over Indiana—a win that feels pretty solid weeks later after Indiana beat Wisconsin. The best news for the Buckeyes? Despite its lack of games played, the Big Ten is considering lowering the number of games required to compete in the Big Ten Championship Game, according to Stadium’s Brett McMurphy. With Michigan dealing with COVID issues and next week’s game in question, this potential news is A) significant and B) not too surprising given what the Buckeyes mean to the conference. The other aspect working in Ohio State’s favor? The name. The logo. The history. Make no mistake about it; if this were Iowa or Northwestern or Michigan State, we would be having a much different argument.
The Argument Against No. 4: Five games played. That pretty much says it all. When dissecting the Ohio State resume, it starts there. The Big Ten put together a schedule with no room for error or cancellations, and Ohio State has already lost two games and has another in jeopardy next weekend. It’s possible the College Football Playoff committee will have to evaluate a Buckeyes’ team with only six games played compared to others with three, four or even five games more. Here’s another potential knock, albeit one that likely won’t come into play. The Buckeyes blew a massive lead against Indiana and were iffy against Penn State and Rutgers. That’s certainly a bit overly critical, although that’s the way it has to be with so few games to analyze.
It’s worth noting yet again that this perfect blueprint will potentially be obliterated in short order. The talking points and positioning could change. Perhaps even a team like Iowa State could wiggle their way into the picture moving forward.
But right now, this is Ohio State’s spot to lose. Even with the lack of games played, the Buckeyes, assuming they win out, will be a tough team to leave out. Branding matters. Ratings matter. Human beings that grew up with Ohio State are inherently biased toward a program with this kind of history, no matter how much they try to remove these biases from the discussion.
Texas A&M presents a fascinating argument. But it was telling in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings when A&M didn’t jump Ohio State despite the Buckeyes being idle the week before. And if the Big Ten ultimately alters its rules and provides the Buckeyes with another game against a ranked team, the allure and the buzz that surrounds this program will likely prevail as long as the team does.
Then again, this is college football. The only constant is change. Especially this season. And chaos, even with timing slipping away, might have something to say about it.