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Poll Problems: Week 13

We take a look at the College Football Playoff poll each week to see what the committee got right and what it got terribly wrong.

NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina
Clemson ascended to No. 1 in the CFP poll for the first time this season after its resounding win over South Carolina.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Nos. 1 and 2 went down this past weekend, as Alabama (not surprisingly) and Miami (more surprisingly) fell to Auburn and Pittsburgh, respectively, opening the door for Clemson to ascend to its first No. 1 CFP ranking of the season. Those two results led to a shakeup in the top 10 that offers clarity in some ways, but uncertainty still looms if chalk doesn’t hold in the upcoming championship week. Auburn incredibly jumped past Oklahoma after its defeat of previous No. 1 Alabama, becoming by far the highest ranked two-loss team in the history of the poll at No. 2. Despite the two great wins recently over Georgia and Alabama, I find it difficult to justify slotting Auburn ahead of the Sooners, but I would have had Auburn at No. 3, so it may be splitting hairs. With it being our last Poll Problems of the season and just a handful of teams still having a chance to qualify for the Playoff, we will move from a team-by-team analysis to an overview of the potential scenarios that could play out this weekend.

Current CFP Top 11:

1. Clemson (11-1, SOR: 1, SOS: 9)
2. Auburn (10-2, SOR: 5, SOS: 24)
3. Oklahoma (11-1, SOR: 2, SOS: 34)
4. Wisconsin (12-0, SOR: 4, SOS: 65)
5. Alabama (11-1, SOR: 6, SOS: 46)
6. Georgia (11-1, SOR: 3, SOS: 32)
7. Miami (11-1, SOR: 7, SOS: 33)
8. Ohio State (10-2, SOR: 11, SOS: 50)
9. Penn State (10-2, SOR: 12, SOS: 59)
10. USC (10-2, SOR: 10, SOS: 16)
11. TCU (10-2, SOR: 9, SOS: 41)

Because the committee has ruled out the Pac 12 from Playoff contention, we almost have four de facto play-in games to determine the field. I say “almost” because we can assume with some degree of certainty that six of the eight participants in these games face a “win and you’re in” situation on Saturday.

If each member of the current top 4 wins its game this weekend, you’re looking at your Playoff field. If not, things could get interesting...

Penn State and USC are done. The Trojans could move up some with a quality win over Stanford, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough to justify entry into the Playoff conversation.

Either Clemson or Miami will make the field with a win in Charlotte’s ACC Championship Game. While the Tigers obviously want to get the win and secure their second No. 1 seed in three seasons, they are arguably the only team that could have an argument for inclusion even with a loss on Saturday. While Clemson would have two losses and no conference title, it still would possess by far the toughest schedule of any team in the top 10 and perhaps the best overall collection of wins of any team in contention. It may take no more than simply one of the other current top four teams suffering a loss for the Tigers to sneak in under that circumstance, as it’s not unthinkable that they could still compare favorably to Alabama, Ohio State, or TCU. It would be a very tenuous position, however, and Clemson would obviously be better served to just take care of business against the Hurricanes and secure the No. 1 seed.

Oklahoma is solidly in with a win and is the only other team I could see the committee giving any kind of consideration to if they suffered a loss on this final weekend (although a berth would be highly unlikely). Of course, as we predicted from the beginning of the season, the Big XII’s contrived championship game is serving no purpose other than to potentially sabotage the conference’s chance at a Playoff bid. If there were no championship game, the Sooners would have already wrapped up a CFP spot and would just be waiting from the couch this weekend to see which of the four spots they ended up in. Now they risk a loss to TCU and the nightmare result where both are left out of the field. Nice job, Big XII.

On a related note, I’m still frustrated by the lack of respect the committee is giving TCU, and it doesn’t seem like the committee will give the Frogs due consideration even if they beat the Sooners on Saturday. TCU’s resume is as good as or better than that of Ohio State, but that is not reflected in the rankings, and the consensus seems to be that the Buckeyes would have a decent chance at qualifying if they beat Wisconsin, while the Frogs wouldn’t be given as fair a shot if they add a conference title win over Oklahoma.

The undefeated Badgers, meanwhile, are finally making their first appearance in the top 4 with just the final poll remaining, which means they control their destiny but have basically no chance at the top 4 if they lose to Ohio State because of their poor schedule strength.

While the SEC title game between Auburn and Georgia will pretty clearly yield one Playoff participant and one non-participant, the true SEC intrigue lies with Alabama, which has no games remaining and sits at No. 5 at a precarious 11-1 with pretty middling strength numbers and a resume with no high-end wins.

The Crimson Tide need to hope for a situation where they are being compared to one or more two-loss conference champions (i.e., Ohio State or TCU) and get the nod based on having less losses and, quite simply, being Alabama. This would require one or more of the current top 4 suffering a loss on Saturday. An Auburn win over Georgia would also be helpful for Alabama because it needs the Iron Bowl loss to look as forgivable as possible. Even then, they may not have as clear-cut a shot as their current ranking - just one spot outside of the field - would suggest. If it came down to the Tide and Buckeyes - which are nearly a touchdown favorite over Wisconsin in the B1G Championship - for the final spot, the committee would be looking at a pretty tough call.

As off-putting as it sounds to consider a two-loss team that lost by 31 points at middling Iowa, the Buckeyes would possess three wins (Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State) better than Alabama’s best win (LSU). And while Alabama has just one loss, its lack of a conference championship - or even an appearance therein - would be troubling. Sure, the committee put a non-champion Ohio State team facing the same conundrum into the Playoff last season, but the profile of that Buckeyes team was significantly stronger than what this current Crimson Tide team possesses. The precedent that was set in that situation largely doesn’t apply here because the resumes are so dissimilar.

Additionally, while no two-loss team has made the CFP since its inception, the notion that such a team couldn’t make it went out the window when the committee elected to rank two-loss Auburn at No. 2 this week. Plus, if we have learned anything in the four years of the Playoff era, previous trends are being continuously bucked.

In summation: Nothing would make the committee happier than seeing its current top four teams all emerge victorious this weekend. Because if they don’t, the committee will almost certainly have to disappoint somebody when they release their final poll on Sunday.

The Rest of the Poll:

12. Stanford
13. Washington
14. UCF
15. Notre Dame
16. Michigan State
17. LSU
18. Washington State
19. Oklahoma State
20. Memphis
21. Northwestern
22. Virginia Tech
23. Mississippi State
24. NC State
25. Fresno State