Central Florida might have been able to envision a path to the College Football Playoff had the Knights been ranked seventh in the latest rankings, behind a trio of one-loss teams set this weekend to play for their respective conference championships. The odds remained between slim and none, but here was the road map: UCF ends its regular season with a convincing win against Memphis while No. 6 Ohio State loses to No. 21 Northwestern, No. 5 Oklahoma loses for the second time to No. 14 Texas and No. 4 Georgia falls to No. 1 Alabama.
Even then, however, UCF would have to deal with another pair of issues. One is the injury to quarterback McKenzie Milton, which ended the junior’s season during last weekend’s win against South Florida. And the other is the fact that the Knights’ strength of schedule simply doesn’t match up with any top contender from a Power Five league — and might in fact fall short in comparison to a two-loss Georgia, for example.
But it’s a moot point. The penultimate rankings issued Tuesday night had UCF in eighth, behind not only the threesome listed above but also No. 7 Michigan, which fell three spots after its horrendous rivalry loss to the Buckeyes. There’s just no realistic form of chaos — or any way, period — that UCF moves into the four-team field. There is a chance for some movement, however, as the Knights should leapfrog the Wolverines with a win against Memphis to take the American Athletic Conference.
Now the debate centers on just two teams, Oklahoma and Ohio State, with the potential for added debate should the Bulldogs upset Alabama. If that happens, the committee will be faced with honoring a one-loss Power Five champion or one-loss Alabama, the second-place team from the SEC. That the committee included the Tide a year ago doesn’t hold weight this season: Alabama in 2017 was competing with two-loss conference winners.
That the Tide have been so dominant may settle the debate before it even begins. By any objective measurement, Alabama has been the nation’s best team since the first weekend of the season. It might be hard to put that idea aside. With the final rankings coming this weekend, here’s what the committee got right and wrong on Tuesday night:
Georgia ahead of Oklahoma. It might not seem like a difficult decision when weighing the eyeball test, at least, which Georgia has aced with flying colors since a midseason loss to LSU while Oklahoma has struggled defensively for much of conference play. The Sooners have allowed at least 40 points in each of their past four games, all wins, including 56 in last weekend’s win at No. 16 West Virginia. Meanwhile, Georgia has won five in a row — two against teams currently ranked by the selection committee, No. 9 Florida and No. 15 Kentucky — by at least 17 points. While double-digit underdogs heading into the SEC title game against Alabama, the Bulldogs have looked the part of a top-four team for much of the regular season’s second half.
However slight, there was still a case to be made for Oklahoma to leapfrog ahead of Georgia based solely on the quality of that shootout win against the Mountaineers. It came on the road, for one, against a team the committee had viewed as one of the nation’s best since the first rankings of the season in October. And while Oklahoma’s defense was predictably woeful, there’s something to be said for the strength of Kyler Murray and the Sooners’ offense — the nation’s best by a distinct margin. Essentially, there was an argument for Oklahoma to at least come into consideration for the fourth spot vacated after Michigan’s loss to Ohio State. Georgia was still the committee’s pick, and it was a wise one.
Washington ahead of Washington State. You can understand why the committee might have ranked No. 13 Washington State ahead of No. 11 Washington, since the simplest math is in the Cougars’ favor: Washington State has two losses to Washington’s three. Then again, the Huskies did just win in Pullman, 28-15, and own that head-to-head tiebreaker. In addition, UW holds a clear edge in overall strength of schedule.
In cross-divisional play, the Cougars drew Utah and Arizona at home and Colorado on the road. The Huskies played Utah and UCLA on the road and Colorado at home. In non-conference action, the Huskies lost to Auburn on a neutral site and beat North Dakota and Brigham Young at home. Washington State won at Wyoming and at home against San Jose State and Eastern Washington State. When considering the head-to-head edge, the Huskies have a stronger resume. So despite the difference in the standings, the committee rightfully seeded Washington ahead of the Cougars. The gap will grow should UW beat No. 17 Utah to win the Pac-12.
Texas is ranked too low. The Longhorns deserve to be higher than No. 14 in these rankings, and if you think it’s a meaningless distinction consider the role this team will play in deciding the field: Oklahoma’s ability to remain ahead of Ohio State hinges on how well the Sooners play against Texas. Style points will matter — don’t forget how Ohio State soared into the inaugural playoff in 2014 after destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game — but not as much as how the committee perceives Texas, and how the committee gauges the quality of a potential Oklahoma win.
Texas has two very high-quality wins, against Oklahoma and Iowa State. It has one bad loss, to Maryland in the opener, but the Terrapins eventually came within a win of bowl eligibility and nearly beat Ohio State in this month’s overtime loss. The Longhorns have another pair of narrow loss: to Oklahoma State, which would go on to beat West Virginia and lose to Oklahoma by a point, and to the Mountaineers, which won on a late two-point conversion. The resume is better than No. 14.