CFP rankings takeaways: What we learned and what it means for Rivalry Week

A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff, but at No. 5 this week, LSU (9-2) inched one step closer to making history.

In the most notable decision from an otherwise predictable top six, the CFP selection committee deemed the Tigers a notch above one-loss USC, which is coming off its best win of the season, a 48-45 road victory against No. 18 UCLA. The Trojans also have a CFP Top 25 win against No. 21 Oregon State, but the committee bumped LSU up one spot after Tennessee lost 63-38 to still-unranked South Carolina and dropped from No. 5 to No. 10.

The same Tennessee team that beat LSU 40-13 in Baton Rouge.

LSU, though, has wins against No. 7 Alabama and No. 20 Ole Miss, and the 32-31 overtime victory against the Tide on Nov. 5 is clearly carrying weight in the room, along with the fact the Tigers have clinched the SEC West and will face Georgia in the SEC championship game. With LSU on the bubble, there should be little doubt the Tigers can finish in the top four on Selection Day on Dec. 4 if they beat Texas A&M on Saturday and Georgia in the SEC championship.

“It came up over and over again to make sure, and there’s reasons for both teams, but the committee at the end of the day saw the wins over Alabama and Mississippi as stronger than the wins over UCLA and Oregon State,” selection committee chair Boo Corrigan said. “One area we still have questions on is the strength of the defense of USC, and looking at it in its entirety, we believe that LSU deserved to be ranked 5 and SC 6.”

The possibility of LSU winning the SEC should concern every other contender — especially the loser of the Ohio State-Michigan game Saturday — because it sustains the possibility of two SEC teams finishing in the top four.


Here’s what the fourth of six rankings means to the biggest rivalry games of Week 13, ranked in order of their greatest impact:

1. Michigan at Ohio State

If Michigan wins: The Wolverines win the Big Ten East and position themselves as the Big Ten’s top playoff contender. Ohio State would need Georgia to run the table and beat LSU, eliminating the possibility of two SEC teams (it’s happened twice before: 2017 and 2021), and it would help the Buckeyes tremendously if Notre Dame beats USC and knocks out the Pac-12. Ohio State would be banking on wins against Notre Dame and Penn State to impress the selection committee to get in at the expense of a one-loss ACC champion Clemson. Ohio State has five wins over current FPI top-40 teams — by an average of 22.4 PPG.

If Ohio State wins: The Buckeyes would win the Big Ten’s East division and emerge as the league’s top playoff contender. Michigan would need its win against No. 11 Penn State and game film to trump a Power 5 conference champion. Much like Ohio State, Michigan needs Georgia to win the SEC and eliminate LSU and the possibility of two SEC teams, and it needs USC to lose to Notre Dame and eliminate the Pac-12. Michigan’s biggest problem is its nonconference schedule, which is the second-weakest in the FBS (Colorado State, Hawai’i and UConn). Right now, though, Michigan is No. 4 in ESPN’s Strength of Record metric, while Clemson is No. 6. If Michigan loses, it would have four wins against teams ranked currently in the top-40 of FPI (PSU, Illinois, Iowa, and Maryland) and two of those four wins were by one possession.

2. Notre Dame at USC

If Notre Dame wins: The Pac-12 is eliminated from the playoff because its champion would have at least two losses, and USC is already looking up at a two-loss team. A Notre Dame win would also help Ohio State’s résumé, giving the Buckeyes another small boost in case they don’t beat Michigan.

If USC wins: The Pac-12’s hopes would remain strong, and USC could jump LSU and crack the top four in the committee’s fifth ranking after the loser of Ohio State-Michigan falls out. Even if USC wins the Pac-12, though, and ends its season with three straight wins against CFP Top 25 opponents, there could still be a debate. USC needs Georgia to run the table and eliminate LSU, along with the possibility of two SEC teams in the top four. The best-case scenario for USC would be for Ohio State to win the Big Ten, because the Trojans are more likely to win a résumé battle against Michigan as runner-up. With Notre Dame as a common opponent with Ohio State, that could get tricky depending on how the game plays out. If Georgia, Ohio State and TCU are in, one-loss USC seems to have separated itself from one-loss Clemson in the committee meeting room. The question would be if the opponents in their respective conference championship games change that perception, and if the committee is bothered more by Clemson’s average offense, or USC’s porous defense.

“I think we’re looking for a stronger showing by the defense,” Corrigan said. “As a committee, a more dominant win in those situations to continue to move forward.”

3. South Carolina at Clemson

If Clemson wins: The Tigers will avoid elimination but remain a fringe CFP team in need of help beyond an ACC title. No team ranked lower than No. 7 at this point in the season has ever made the playoff. Clemson’s win against No. 16 Florida State continues to help the Tigers, and North Carolina only dropped four spots after its dreadful loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday. It also helped Clemson that Louisville popped into the ranking this week at No. 25. Clemson could finish the season with three wins against CFP Top 25 teams but will be dinged by the committee for its 35-14 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend. If Clemson finishes in the top four, that 21-point deficit would be the third-largest regular-season loss by a CFP semifinalist. The loss to Notre Dame, though, could be one factor that keeps the Tigers out because the committee also compares common opponents, and USC and Ohio State also will have played Notre Dame. In order to have a realistic chance, Clemson needs to run the table and hope for some combination or all of the following: a TCU loss, Georgia to run the table and win the SEC, and a two-loss Pac-12 champion.

The committee has some questions about what it sees from Clemson’s offense.

“Will Shipley from Clemson is a dynamic player for them,” Corrigan said. “I think they’ve had maybe a little bit of ups and downs with regards to the quarterback position that we’ve talked about in the room.”

If South Carolina wins: The ACC is eliminated. Clemson and Coastal Division champion North Carolina would each enter the conference title game with two losses, and neither of them have played well enough or have resumes to compensate for that.

Anger index

During the first few rankings reveals, a common refrain is offered: These rankings don’t really mean anything.

Well, at this point, that notion can largely be forgotten because while there’s still much to be decided, there’s also little precedent for a team not already in the top four or just outside of it making the playoff. And given the lack of significant shakeups to the rankings without a team losing (see: USC stays behind LSU this week in spite of its big win over UCLA), the committee has largely decided who it thinks is best, and a few teams have a real reason to argue with those decisions.

1. Clemson Tigers (No. 8)

Let’s do a little blind résumé review here.

Team A: 10-1, No. 6 strength of record, No. 56 strength of schedule, three wins by a TD or more over teams ranked in the top half of FBS, two wins vs. currently ranked teams, loss to a top-15 opponent.

Team B: 10-1, No. 9 strength of record, No. 58 strength of schedule, one win by a TD or more over teams ranked in the top half of FBS, two wins vs. currently ranked teams, loss to a top-15 opponent.

Extremely similar profiles, but you’d give Team A the slight edge, right? Well, Team A is Clemson. Team B is USC, ranked two spots higher and far better positioned to make the playoff if the status quo largely holds.

Why is Clemson dinged in a way the Trojans aren’t? Well, USC lost by a point to Utah, which was ranked at the time. Clemson lost by 21 to a Notre Dame team that was not ranked at the time. Context matters.

Here’s some additional context: Clemson surrendered 21 points to Notre Dame on two turnovers and a blocked punt. USC was actually +1 in turnover margin against Utah (though it didn’t turn into points). There’s a genuine skill involved in turnover margin, but there’s also a lot of luck and situational differences involved, too. Play a game free of turnovers and basically Clemson played Notre Dame about the same way USC played Utah. But, of course, those turnovers happened, and a 21-point loss is still worse than a one-point defeat. But if we’re splitting hairs here, it’s worth considering all the context, not just the surface level metrics.

Of course, there’s another issue with Clemson that pundits have discussed: The Tigers aren’t doing anything particularly well. USC’s offense is astounding, even if the defense is a mess. Clemson is… fine. There’s very little to get excited about — even if there’s nothing to specifically critique either.

So let’s look at another comparison:

Team A: 10-1, 5-1 vs. FPI top 50, 36.5 points per game and 19.7 points per game allowed vs. FBS foes, 48.7% offensive success rate vs. FBS, 62.7% defensive success rate, five wins by more than a touchdown.

Team B: 10-1, 5-1 vs. FPI top 50, 34.7 points per game and 20.8 points per game allowed vs. FBS foes, 47.2% offensive success rate vs. FBS, 62.6% defensive success rate, seven wins by more than a touchdown

Who’s been the more impressive team? Maybe a slight edge for Team A, but both pretty evenly matched, right? Well, Team B is this year’s Clemson team. Team A is Clemson through 11 games in 2016, when the Tigers went on to win a national championship.

Clemson may not be great at anything at the moment, but it’s pretty good at nearly everything. And Clemson’s loss may look ugly, but when the Tigers have avoided turnovers, they’ve handled their competition with ease.

And yet, here they are, ranked No. 8 — a ranking that seems to come with a message from the committee. Clemson will not only need to win out, but it needs to have a lot of other things go right if it wants to make the playoff. No team ranked outside the top seven at this point has ever made the final four.

2. Tennessee Volunteers (No. 10)

When South Carolina hangs 63 on you, there’s really no way to put a bow on that and make it look good. It was a brutally bad loss for the Volunteers. But the committee is supposed to avoid recency bias and look at the entirety of the season, not just what happened last week. And that brings us to this important point: Tennessee, LSU and Alabama all have two losses. Tennessee has wins over both LSU and Alabama. Alabama and LSU are both ranked ahead of Tennessee.

If the committee’s point is that Tennessee was overrated before and the South Carolina game revealed some previously unknown flaw, then OK. Dropping the Vols makes sense. But then the losses suffered by LSU and Alabama at the hands of Tennessee should be re-evaluated, too.

There’s no absolute math, no perfect formula for creating playoff rankings. But the most obvious and easiest metric is head-to-head performance, because for all we can say we think we know about teams, nothing matters more than what actually happens on the field. So when all else is equal, head to head should be the ultimate line of demarcation. Instead, the committee has decided that one bad loss to South Carolina is more significant than head-to-head wins over two teams it ranks higher.

3. Washington Huskies (No. 13)

That case we just made for Tennessee? Copy and paste that here. Washington has the same record as Oregon, beat Oregon head to head, and while it also has a worse overall loss, it has the better overall résumé.

4. Coastal Carolina, Troy and UTSA (all unranked)

There’s no good argument for a Group of 5 team to make the playoff this season, as there has been in most past years. But the race for a New Year’s Six bid remains wide open. The only problem is, the committee has basically decided that whoever wins the American Athletic Conference deserves the bid, wholly ignoring UTSA (8-2 with only a two-point loss to Houston and a loss to No. 23 Texas).

Perhaps the lackluster performance of Conference USA explains that oversight, but the Sun Belt has actually been quite good this season, and yet Coastal Carolina (9-1) and Troy (9-2 with a four-point loss on a last-second Hail Mary to Appalachian State and a road loss to No. 20 Ole Miss) get no love either. There’s no clear-cut best team outside the Power 5 this year, but it feels like what could easily be a six- or seven-team race for the New Year’s Six spot is being boiled down to a couple of games deciding the American instead.

5. Minnesota (unranked)

We’re shedding no tears for the Gophers. Lose to Iowa, and earn no pity. That’s a simple rule. But it’s worth pointing out that Minnesota is 7-4, ranked No. 17 in SP+ and No. 21 in FPI. No unranked team in either metric ranks higher. Then again, don’t lose to Iowa.

How a 12-team playoff would look

Everyone with the power to expand the College Football Playoff wants the field to grow to 12 teams in time for the 2024 season.

But currently, expansion is scheduled to begin in 2026. So while discussions continue on how to move up the timeline, we’re taking a look at how a 12-team playoff would look today based on the already-determined model released by the commissioners and presidents.

The field will be composed of the selection committee’s six highest-ranked conference champions and its next six highest-ranked teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn the top seeds and a first-round bye. The other eight teams will play in the first round, with the higher seeds hosting the lower seeds on campus or at another site of their choice.

Here’s what the playoff would look like if the 12-team format were in place today:

Seeds with byes

1. Georgia
2. Ohio State
3. TCU
4. USC

Remaining seeds
(conference champs in bold)

5. Michigan
6. LSU
7. Alabama
8. Clemson
9. Oregon
10. Tennessee
11. Penn State
12. Tulane

First-round games

No. 12 Tulane at No. 5 Michigan
No. 11 Penn State at No. 6 LSU
No. 10 Tennessee at No. 7 Alabama
No. 9 Oregon at No. 8 Clemson

Quarterfinal games

No. 9 Oregon-No. 8 Clemson winner vs. No. 1 Georgia
No. 10 Tennessee-No. 7 Alabama winner vs. No. 2 Ohio State
No. 11 Penn State-No. 6 LSU winner vs. No. 3 TCU
No. 12 Tulane-No. 5 Michigan winner vs. No. 4 USC

Top résumés

No. 1 Georgia

Record: 11-0 | SOS: 43| SOR: No. 2
Biggest win: Nov. 5 vs. Tennessee
Last playoff appearance: 2022 CFP National championship, No. 3 Georgia 33, No. 1 Alabama 18

No. 2 Ohio State

Record: 11-0 | SOS: 54 | SOR: No. 3
Biggest win: Oct. 29 at Penn State, 44-31
Last playoff appearance: 2021 CFP National Championship: No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 3 Ohio State 24

No. 3 Michigan

Record: 11-0 | SOS: 74 | SOR: 4
Biggest win: Oct. 15 vs. Penn State, 41-17
Last playoff appearance: 2022 Playoff Semifinal at the Orange Bowl No. 3 Georgia 34, No. 2 Michigan 11

No. 4 TCU

Record: 11-0 | SOS: 35 | SOR: 1
Biggest win: Nov. 12 at Texas, 17-10
Last playoff appearance: Never

No. 5 LSU

Record: 9-2 | SOS: 15 | SOR: 8
Biggest win: Nov. 5 vs. Alabama, 32-31
Last playoff appearance: 2020 CFP National Championship: No. 1 LSU 42, No. 3 Clemson 25

No. 6 USC

Record: 10-1| SOS: 58| SOR: 9
Biggest win: Nov. 19 at UCLA, 48-45
Last playoff appearance: Never

No. 8 Clemson

Record: 10-1| SOS: 56| SOR: 6
Biggest win: Oct. 15 at Florida State, 34-28
Last playoff appearance: 2021 Playoff Semifinal at the Sugar Bowl: No. 3 Ohio State 49, No. 2 Clemson 28

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