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

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

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    ESPN staff

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

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.

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

LSU has won 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. LSU is currently on the bubble so it is possible that the Tigers will finish in the top four by Dec. 4, if they beat Georgia and Texas A&M in the SEC championship.

“The question was brought up repeatedly to ensure that both teams were correct, and there are reasons for both, but the selection committee chair Boo corrigan stated that the wins over Alabama, Mississippi, and UCLA were considered stronger than those over Oregon State and UCLA. “One area that we have questions about is the strength and defense of USC. Looking at it all, we believe LSU deserved to rank 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:

Jump to:
Anger Index | 12-team bracket | Resumes |

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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 count on wins against Notre Dame, Penn State and LSU to impress the selection committee and get in at the expense 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 East and emerge as the league’s top playoff contender. Michigan would need to beat 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. The biggest problem for Michigan is its nonconference schedule (Colorado State and Hawai’i, UConn), which ranks second in the FBS. Michigan currently ranks No. Clemson is currently 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.

— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 23, 2022


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 help Ohio State’s resume and give the Buckeyes an additional boost in case they lose to 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 will need Georgia to win the table and eliminate LSU. There is also the possibility of two SEC teams in top four. USC’s best case scenario would be for Ohio State winning the Big Ten. The Trojans are more likely than Michigan to win a resume fight. It could be tricky with Notre Dame being a common opponent to Ohio State. TCU, Georgia, and Ohio State are all in, USC appears to have lost one-loss Clemson in a committee meeting room. It would be interesting to see if the conference champion games of their opponents change that perception. Also, if the committee is more concerned about Clemson’s average offense or USC’s porous defense. Corrigan stated that they are looking for a stronger defense. “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 is lower than No. 7 has made it to the playoff at this point. Clemson’s win over No. 16 Florida State continues to help the Tigers, and North Carolina dropped only four spots after its dreadful loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday. Clemson also got a boost when Louisville climbed up to 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. However, the Tigers’ loss to Notre Dame could be one reason they aren’t in the top four. The committee also compares common opponents and USC and Ohio State 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 questions about Clemson’s offense.

“Will Shipley of Clemson is a very dynamic player for them,” Corrigan stated. “I think they’ve had a few ups and downs in regards to the quarterback position that I’ve discussed in the room. “

If South Carolina wins: The ACC is eliminated. Clemson and Coastal Division winner North Carolina would both enter the conference title games with two losses. Neither of them have played well enough or have the resume to make up for the losses.

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Anger index

During the first few rankings reveals, a common refrain is offered: These rankings don’t really mean anything. This notion is easily forgotten. While there are still many things to decide, there is little precedent for a team that is not in the top four, or just outside of the playoff. And given the lack of significant shake-ups 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 resume 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? Clemson is Team A. USC is ranked at two spots higher than Team A and is better positioned to make it to the playoff, if the status quo holds.

Why are the Trojans being beaten in Clemson? USC lost by one point to Utah, which was ranked at that time. Clemson lost by 21 to a Notre Dame team that was not ranked at the time. Context is important.

Here’s some additional context: Clemson surrendered 21 points to Notre Dame on two turnovers and a blocked punt. Although USC was 1 in turnover margin against Utah, it didn’t turn to points. Turnover margin is a skill that requires a lot more than just skill. However, there are also many luck factors and situations that can affect the outcome. Clemson played Notre Dame in a game that was free from turnovers, much like Utah played Clemson. But, of course, those turnovers happened, and a 21-point loss is still worse than a one-point defeat. However, we shouldn’t be dividing hairs. It’s important to consider all context and not just the top-level metrics.

But there’s a second issue with Clemson, which pundits have already discussed: The Tigers don’t do anything particularly well. Even though the defense is terrible, USC’s offense can be quite impressive. Clemson is fine. There is very little to be excited about, even if there is nothing to criticize.

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? Although there is a slight advantage for Team A, they are both equally balanced. Clemson’s team this year is Team B. Team A is Clemson through 11 games in 2016, when the Tigers went on to win a national championship. Clemson may not be the best at everything at the moment but it is pretty good at almost everything. Clemson’s loss may seem ugly, but the Tigers have handled their competition well when they have avoided turnovers.

Yet, they are ranked No. 8 — this ranking seems to come with a message. Clemson must win, but also have many other things go right in order to qualify for 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 devastating loss for the Volunteers. The committee is supposed not to be biased by recency and instead look at the entire season, not just last week. This brings us to the important point: Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee all have two losses. Both LSU and Alabama have been defeated by Tennessee. LSU and Alabama are both ranked higher than Tennessee.

If the committee is arguing that Tennessee was underrated and that South Carolina showed some flaws, then OK. It makes sense to drop the Vols. However, it is worth reevaluating the losses to LSU and Alabama at Tennessee.

There is no formula or absolute math for creating playoff rankings. Head-to-head performance is the best and most straightforward metric. This is because, for all we know about teams, there is no better metric than what happens on the field. Head-to-head should be the final line of demarcation when all other factors are equal. 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 this 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 resume.

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. The race for a New Years Six bid is still open. The problem is that the committee has decided that whoever wins American Athletic Conference should win the bid. They completely ignore UTSA (8-2, with only a two point loss to Houston and a loss at No. 23 Texas). Perhaps the poor performance of Conference USA explains this oversight. However, the Sun Belt has been quite strong this season. Coastal Carolina (9-1) or Troy (9-2 with a four point loss on a last second Hail Mary to Appalachian State) are still in the lead. 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 you will not be sorry. It’s a simple rule. It’s worth noting that Minnesota is ranked No. 7-4. 17 in SP and No. 21 in FPI. In FPI, no unranked team ranks higher in either metric. Iowa is the winner.

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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 consist of the six highest-ranked conference champions as well as six teams from the next six highest-ranked conferences. The top seeds and a bye to the first round will be awarded to the four highest-ranked conference champions. The eight other teams will play in round one. The higher seeds will host the lower seeds at campus or another location 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 against 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. 4 USC

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Top resumes


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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