Yes, we’ve learned from the last two years not to take too much stock in the playoff committee’s weekly rankings. We should really only care about what it puts up on the final Sunday.
But this year might be different. There seems to be enough from Tuesday night’s reveal of its penultimate rankings to parse what’s in store for college football’s final regular-season weekend. This much we know:
1. Ohio State is a lock: Despite not playing in the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeye have clinched a playoff spot and can rest up and enjoy a bye week. Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said there’s a wide gulf between Ohio State and Penn State, in spite of the Nittany Lions’ having won head-to-head and claiming a spot in the Big Ten title game.
2. Michigan is much closer than you think: Hocutt must have repeated it a thousand times after Tuesday’s reveal on a conference call that No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Michigan are running neck and neck. In fact, he used “razor thin” to describe the gap between the two teams. The Wolverines throttled Colorado earlier in the season, and if Washington can’t beat the Buffs in similar fashion, it may be in danger of being left out of the playoff.
3. Big Ten title game might be for naught: With Ohio State already a lock and Michigan just outside, are Wisconsin and Penn State really playing for a shot at a playoff spot? Both teams lost to Michigan during the regular season, so would a conference championship trump that? To hear Hocutt talk, it seems that the committee is willing to include multiple at-large teams this year after taking only conference champions in the previous two seasons.
4. Big 12 is toast: By ranking Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at Nos. 9 and 10, respectively, the committee made it clear that neither is getting into the playoff no matter who wins Bedlam and the Big 12 championship. Even with mass chaos ahead of them, these two teams are playing for no more than a Sugar Bowl berth.
5. So just who are still alive?: The committee members will pick four teams out of the pool of the top five plus the Big Ten champion. If both Clemson and Washington win, most likely they’ll stick with the top four. If both Clemson and Washington lose, they’ll take Michigan and the Big Ten champ to join Ohio State and Alabama. They will face a thorny decision if Clemson or Washington loses, but not both. The question comes down to: which Big Ten team takes the last playoff spot?
Game of the Week
Washington (-7) vs. Colorado, Pac-12 Championship, 9 p.m. ET Friday, FOX
It’s the most consequential of the Power 5 championship games this weekend. Washington needs to win, and perhaps impressively, to lock up a playoff spot. Huskies QB Jake Browning will also get one last chance to maybe sway a few Heisman voters, as all the other contenders have the weekend off. For the Buffs, it’s probably Pasadena or bust, as a blowout loss will cause them to cede a Rose Bowl berth to USC.
Also keep an eye on
Wisconsin (-2.5) vs. Penn State, Big Ten Championship, 8 p.m. ET, FOX
Both teams still harbor playoff hopes as the winner may sneak in if things break their way elsewhere. Wisconsin, with losses to both Ohio State and Michigan, and playing in the weaker Big Ten West, may have more to prove. Penn State has made a dramatic turnaround after early season losses to Pitt and Michigan and probably will have a better argument for a playoff spot if it wins.
Clemson (-10) vs. Virginia Tech, ACC Championship, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Despite its No. 3 ranking, Clemson has been the shakiest team among the playoff contenders. The Tigers needed overtime to beat NC State, barely survived both Florida State and Louisville, and lost to Pitt at home. The Hokies are ahead of schedule under first-year coach Justin Fuente and just might have what it takes to pull off a stunner.
Player to watch
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (-12), 12:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Bedlam will serve as the de facto Big 12 championship game this year, but if the scenario repeats itself in 2007, this would be a totally meaningless game as both teams are guaranteed a rematch in the actual Big 12 Championship Game the following week. Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook should receive more recognition as the odds-on favorite to claim the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver after amassing 1,354 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns this season.