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College Football Playoff Rankings and New Year's Six Bowl Projections: It Could Still Get Messy

There are only a handful of games that have an opportunity to shake up the college football playoff picture this week. But they could really shake it up

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

With the release of the next-to-last edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, we now have a pretty good idea on what might happen given the most likely scenarios. There are only a handful of games next week that will have a real impact on the final seedings for the New Year's Six bowls -- including the ACC Championship Game, the B1G Championship Game, the Pac-12 Championship Game, the SEC Championship Game and Baylor-Texas.

College Football Playoff Rankings, Week 14
Team LW
1 Clemson Tigers 1
2 Alabama Crimson Tide 2
3 Oklahoma Sooners 3
4 Iowa Hawkeyes 4
5 Michigan St. Spartans 5
6 Ohio St. Buckeyes 8
7 Stanford Cardinal 9
8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 6
9 Florida St. Seminoles 13
10 North Carolina Tar Heels 14
11 TCU Horned Frogs 19
12 Baylor Bears 7
13 Ole Miss Rebels 18
14 Northwestern Wildcats 16
15 Michigan Wolverines 10
16 Oregon Ducks 17
17 Oklahoma St. Cowboys 11
18 Florida Gators 12
19 Houston Cougars --
20 Southern Cal Trojans --
21 LSU Tigers --
22 Temple Owls 25
23 Navy Midshipmen 15
24 Utah Utes 23
25 Tennessee Volunteers --

Ooh. Tennessee.

The main SEC takeaway from this was to confirm something that was already possible before Saturday's results and almost certain afterward: Alabama is the SEC's only chance to place a team in the playoff, and Ole Miss is likely to get the Sugar Bowl berth if that happens. And that will be it for the conference this year. If Alabama loses, the Tide are probably out of the playoff (not certain, but most likely), Florida will get the Sugar Bowl berth and Alabama will go jaunt to another location, likely the Peach Bowl.

Setting aside the conditionals, here what the bowls would probably look like if they were going to be played tomorrow. Which, again, they will not be.

New Year's Six Bowl Projections
Orange Bowl (Dec. 31) (4) Iowa (1) Clemson
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31) (3) Oklahoma (2) Alabama
Peach Bowl (Dec. 31) Florida State Ohio State
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1) Ole Miss Baylor
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1) Houston Notre Dame
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1) Stanford Michigan State

Technically, TCU is ranked ahead of Baylor right now, but the Big 12's spot in the Sugar Bowl would go to the Bears if they beat Texas on Saturday, because the Big 12 is insane. There are two ways in which this helps Baylor. First their Sugar Bowl replacement for Oklahoma would not be decided by the rankings, which would be so like every other conference in America. It would be decided by the conference tiebreakers. And the second part of the insanity comes in the next-to-last of those tiebreakers:

Scoring differential among the tied teams. The team with the lowest difference between points scored and points allowed in games vs. the tied teams are eliminated from consideration.

Aside from the lack of subject-verb agreement, the most glaring issue with this tiebreaker is that point differential among a small set of games is a weird way to tell which team is better. I'm not as anti-results-based-statistics as some people are, because sports are actually all about results. But I do think that advanced statistics have their place and that dumb statistics are dumb statistics. And when it comes to telling teams apart, point differential is a dumb statistic, with point differential in only certain games being dumber. But you do you, Big 12.

In any case, if Baylor wins Saturday as pretty much universally expected, the Bears and Oklahoma State have a better point differential than TCU in games among the three teams, and Baylor goes to the Sugar Bowl. If Baylor loses, Oklahoma State -- currently ranked six spots behind TCU by the committee -- will go. That seems fair, right?

A couple of other decision points: Does Michigan State follow below Ohio State, a team the Spartans just beat two weeks earlier? I don't know. But for now, I'm going to go on the theory that the committee will respect head-to-head in a situation like this, and Michigan State will be the higher-ranked team. Even if not, it might not matter:

The Rose Bowl Game has sole discretion on a replacement team, and will generally select the highest‐rated available team, but will take into consideration final College Football Playoff rankings, head‐to‐head competition, division champions and most recent Rose Bowl Game appearances.

Michigan State has been to the Rose Bowl more recently, but the head-to-head competition and the division championship criteria both go to the Spartans. Even if Michigan State loses this weekend, as long as there are no other upsets, they probably end up in the Rose Bowl.

Let's try a couple of permutations, though, just to show how those final games might mess with things. Michigan State is a slight favorite over Iowa in the B1G Championship Game, so let's take have the Hawkeyes lose. My bet is that Michigan State takes Iowa's place in the Top 4, and that the Hawkeyes probably drop past Ohio State as well. That gives us something like this:

New Year's Six Bowl Projections (Michigan St. wins B1G Championship)
Orange Bowl (Dec. 31) (4) Michigan State
(1) Clemson
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31) (3) Oklahoma (2) Alabama
Peach Bowl (Dec. 31) Florida State Iowa
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1) Ole Miss Baylor
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1) Houston Notre Dame
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1) Stanford Ohio State

That's not a ton of movement, but it is a bit. The reason I'm resisting putting either Ohio State or Iowa in the Fiesta Bowl -- even though it makes a great deal of sense in the case of Iowa -- is that I doubt the committee will want to pair Florida State and Notre Dame. The Irish are a quasi-member of the ACC and played the Seminoles just last year.

Now, let's go back to our original set of rankings, but this time have Alabama lose to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. (Please, stop laughing, we're just having fun here.)

New Year's Six Bowl Projections (Florida wins SEC Championship)
Orange Bowl (Dec. 31) (4) Stanford
(1) Clemson
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31) (3) Iowa (2) Oklahoma
Peach Bowl (Dec. 31) Notre Dame
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1) Florida Baylor
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1) Houston Michigan State
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1) Oregon Ohio State

Now, I'm going with Ohio State over Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. What gives? One thing the committee has been pretty consistent about (in its brief existence) is considering conference titles. My guess is that if Stanford wins the Pac-12 Championship Game and one of the non-B1G teams loses and drops out of the bracket, the Cardinal will move into the Top 4 as the Midwest burns. That sends Oregon -- remember them? -- to the Rose Bowl, which will want to avoid a Michigan State-Oregon rematch. So the Buckeyes go to Pasadena.

Meanwhile, Florida goes to the Sugar Bowl and loses something like 38-4 to Baylor. Alabama and Notre Dame is about as good as ratings gold, so the Spartans go out to the desert to face Houston.

Let's consider another one that I really like: Clemson loses. I'll repeat that, because I like it: Clemson saves its Clemsoning for the very last game of the year and loses to UNC.

New Year's Six Bowl Projections (Clemson loses ACC Championship)
Orange Bowl (Dec. 31) (4) Stanford
(1) Alabama
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31) (3) Iowa
(2) Oklahoma
Peach Bowl (Dec. 31) Michigan State
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1) Ole Miss
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1) Houston
North Carolina
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1) Oregon Ohio State

Notre Dame gets bumped in this scenario, because I doubt Clemson falls below the Fighting Irish and I'm not sure the Spartans do, either. But there's another mouth to feed in the form of North Carolina. One of the ACC teams has to go out to the Fiesta Bowl to avoid an all-ACC Peach Bowl; best send the team that's more excited rather than the one that's just experienced a soul-crushing loss.

But let's do chaos theory. All the lower-ranked teams win the conference championship games. Michigan State, as expected, beats Iowa in Indianapolis. Florida defeats Alabama. North Carolina knocks off Clemson. Southern Cal upsets Stanford. (There's a sentence you couldn't have written a decade ago.) And just for fun, Temple beats Houston.

New Year's Six Bowl Projections (Chaos Theory)
Orange Bowl (Dec. 31) (3) North Carolina
(2) Michigan State
Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31) (4) Ohio State
(1) Oklahoma
Peach Bowl (Dec. 31) Notre Dame
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1) Florida
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1) Temple
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1) Southern Cal

This is where it gets harder to predict, because there's more opportunity for mischief by the selection committee. On an objective basis, they would probably put Ohio State ahead of North Carolina. But that would set up a rematch in the Orange Bowl, and no one wants that, so Jeff Long says blah blah blah conference championship and give UNC the higher seed to play Michigan State. I also think that Notre Dame could get moved past the Buckeyes on some specious grounds, but the Fighting Irish won't have a conference championship trump card to play on Ohio State. Clemson, I think, gets punished for losing late -- but they could be a No. 4 seed as well. In all likelihood, some conference is going to end up with two in the playoff under this scenario.

Stanford gets bumped because Southern Cal gets the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl and the Cardinal probably end up below Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame when the dust clears. The Owls still end up in the Fiesta Bowl, because rematches between Clemson and Notre Dame on hand and Temple and Notre Dame on the other both need to be avoided. This is the only way to do it.

Yes, if everything goes according to plan, it's pretty easy at this point to map out which teams will end up where. But if things go sideways on Saturday, the process could end up being pretty messy. And things always go sideways on the last weekend of college football.