Winners and losers of College Football Playoff rankings: USC can end Pac-12's playoff drought
Last week, it was Tennessee. This time, the biggest winner in the newest College Football Playoff rankings is Southern California, which has filled the Volunteers' shoes as the team poised to join the top four with just a small nudge of help during conference championship weekend.
And the Trojans can thank Tennessee for that — or South Carolina, actually, after the Gamecocks scored 63 points and knocked the Volunteers out of playoff contention.
Now, with two weeks before the postseason, USC is in range of becoming the first Pac-12 team to reach the playoff since Washington in 2016. All the Trojans might have to do is win Saturday against Notre Dame and then beat Oregon, Washington or maybe Utah in the conference championship game.
Up to No. 6 in the new rankings, USC will be challenged by LSU and Clemson. The biggest concern is LSU upsetting top-ranked Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game, which would send two SEC teams to the playoff. Clemson could also move ahead in the final rankings by beating South Carolina and North Carolina, but that seems unlikely to occur if both teams have only one loss.
With the clock ticking on the regular season, the Trojans lead the list of winners and losers from Tuesday night's release:
Being two spots ahead of No. 8 Clemson sends the message that USC would be able to keep the Tigers at bay with wins against the No. 15 Fighting Irish and the second-place team from the Pac-12. To make things as clear as possible, however, there's an argument for USC wanting to face No. 9 Oregon in the conference championship game based on the Ducks' strong reputation with the selection committee and single loss in league play. But there's a benefit to playing No. 14 Utah, too, since a win there would avenge the Trojans' sole loss, and the committee would also look favorably on a win against No. 13 Washington. No matter how you cut it, the Trojans are ahead of Clemson and capable of building that lead with two wins that would carry major weight with the committee. The road to 12-1 won't be easy, but USC is in position to lock things down in the next two weeks.
With No. 22 Central Florida still in the rankings after losing to Navy, the American has three teams in the Top 25 in the Knights, No. 19 Tulane and No. 24 Cincinnati. As if there was any doubt: The AAC is the Group of Five conference to beat for the automatic New Year's Six bid. That's true even as one of the Green Wave and Bearcats will be eliminated after they meet on Saturday; while there are a few scenarios that could unfold, including one that involves computer rankings, the simplest scenario pits the winner against UCF. Based on the remaining schedule, it's very hard to see how the AAC champion isn't in the New Year's Six.
The committee has respected No. 12 Kansas State throughout the ranking process, as shown by raising the Wildcats seven spots in the past two weeks following easy wins against Baylor and West Virginia. This has made the Wildcats the obvious second-place team in the Big 12, which will come into play should No. 4 TCU win the Big 12 championship, go unbeaten and finish in the top four. Even with that loss to the Horned Frogs, the Wildcats would then earn the league's automatic New Year's Six spot.
The loss to South Carolina was too much for the committee to explain away. It wouldn't have been too hard to find the excuse: Tennessee has the same record as No. 5 LSU and No. 7 Alabama and owns the head-to-head tiebreakers against both teams. There's an interesting question related to when losses matter — as in, would the Volunteers be ahead of the Tigers and Crimson Tide had they lost to the Gamecocks in the season opener instead of late November? The 25-point defeat drops Tennessee five spots to No. 10 and out of the playoff picture.
An inexplicable loss to Georgia Tech ends the No. 17 Tar Heels' already slim playoff chances and may have the trickle-down effect of impacting Clemson's hopes, since the ACC championship will no longer be a matchup of one-loss teams. Like the Volunteers, UNC will instead head into the next two games trying to clinch a New Year's Six berth. The easiest way would be to beat Clemson and win the ACC, but the Tar Heels could also follow a similar blueprint to Kansas State and backdoor into the New Year's Six should the Tigers get into the semifinals.