By Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer
Ohio State held firm at second in the College Football Playoff rankings, putting the Buckeyes in position to become the first team to be selected to the final four without winning its conference.
The second-to-last rankings were released Tuesday night and Alabama was No. 1, followed by Ohio State, Clemson and Washington. The Crimson Tide, Tigers and Huskies all play conference championship games this weekend and presumably would be in good shape to make the playoff if they win. The final rankings and playoff pairings will be released Sunday.
Unbeaten Alabama is probably in good shape to make the playoff even if it loses to Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game Saturday
Michigan dropped to five after losing to Ohio State. Wisconsin was sixth and Penn State was seventh. The Badgers and Nittany Lions will play for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis on Saturday.
HUSKIES vs. WOLVERINES
Assuming the Buckeyes are a lock, and it looks good for them, and Clemson doesn’t get upset by Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, the debate for the committee when it gathers in Texas on Saturday night to watch games and discuss the only rankings that matter will be Pac-12 or Big Ten.
Can Michigan, or maybe the Big Ten champion with two losses, edge a Washington team that would finish 12-1 by beating Colorado Friday night in the Pac-12 title game?
“There is a small separation between these two teams,” selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said of Michigan and Washington. At one point Hocutt added that the difference between the Wolverines and Huskies was “razor thin.”
It looks like not only does the committee not mind putting one Big Ten team without a conference championship in the playoff, but it is also comfortable with two. Michigan at 10-2 has victories against both Penn State and Wisconsin.
PENN STATE’S PLIGHT
A Wisconsin victory in the Big Ten title game would eliminate the controversy. The Badgers lost to Ohio State during the regular season
Penn State fans, however, are already cranking up the complaints. The Nittany Lions beat Ohio State in October. Add a Big Ten title and Penn State is bound to feel slighted.
Conference titles and head-to-head results are essentially used by the committee like tiebreakers when teams are very close. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are not in the committee’s eyes. At least not yet.
“The selection committee recognizes the head-to-head win, but in this particular case, it hasn’t been the distinguishing point in our evaluation of those two teams,” he said.
Assuming Alabama is in the playoff, the Southeastern Conference sends its next highest ranked team to the Sugar Bowl to face the Big 12 champion, which will be decided when No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 10 Oklahoma State play in Norman on Saturday.
No. 14 Auburn is that SEC team right now. Florida is 15th, so a good performance — even in a loss — against the Crimson Tide might get the Gators to New Orleans on a two-game losing streak. A Florida loss would leave every SEC team other than Alabama with at least four losses.
But the contract with the Sugar says the SEC gets the spot mediocre or not.
Louisville beat Florida State by 43 points in September, but the Cardinals have stumbled down the stretch and now the Seminoles are 12th and the Cardinal are 13th.
If that order holds — and there is no reason to think it won’t because neither is playing — and Clemson goes to the playoff as the ACC champion, then Florida State will represent the conference in the Orange Bowl.
Hocutt said Florida State has played one of the toughest schedules in the country while Louisville has beaten only one team with a winning record (Florida State). He said the Seminoles are playing better lately.
GROUP OF FIVE
The highest-ranked conference champion from outside the Power Five is getting a Cotton Bowl bid and at this point it looks as if it will be No. 17 Western Michigan if the unbeaten Broncos defeat Ohio in the Mid-American Conference championship game Friday night.
The next highest ranked Group of Five team is No. 19 Navy (9-2), which will play Temple for the American Athletic Conference championship on Saturday at home.
Don’t consider WMU a lock. Hocutt said the committee is still concerned about the Broncos weak schedule. But it looks promising for coach P.J. Fleck’s team.