Who’s No. 5? USC or LSU? Key questions for new CFP rankings


Week 12 was a “gut it out, just get the W” kind of week, with each of the top four teams staring down too-close-for-comfort situations in their respective games.

Because all four won ugly, though, not much, if anything, should change Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET when the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its fourth of six rankings. No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 TCU should hold steady at the top as the nation’s only remaining undefeated teams.

The No. 5 spot will be the most interesting, as one-loss USC and two-loss LSU can both make a case to replace Tennessee following the Vols’ stunning 63-38 loss to unranked South Carolina on Saturday night.

Only one game remains in the regular season before the top contenders have a chance to punctuate their résumés with a conference title. No Week 13 game will have a greater impact on Selection Day than The Game, the annual rivalry matchup between Ohio State and Michigan, which will determine the winner of the Big Ten’s East division.

What the committee reveals Tuesday night, though, will provide more hints at how the group will sort everything out on Selection Day. Here’s what to look for, along with Adam Rittenberg’s case for USC being ranked higher than LSU and the top four picks of ESPN’s college football reporters.

Who’s No. 5?

LSU will remain the committee’s highest-ranked two-loss team, but while the Tigers were beating up on UAB 41-10, USC was clinching a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a 48-45 instant classic against crosstown rival No. 16 UCLA. The Bruins now have three losses and will drop in the new rankings, but they should still be a CFP top 25 win for USC. According to ESPN’s strength of record metric, USC is ranked No. 9 and still looking up at No. 8 LSU.

The selection committee doesn’t look ahead, so while USC still has two opportunities to impress the committee in games against Notre Dame and the Pac-12 championship, the Trojans might not have done enough yet to usurp LSU. USC’s best wins are against Oregon State and UCLA. LSU’s best wins are against Alabama and Ole Miss, which has lost three of its past four. LSU’s 40-13 home loss to Tennessee now looks worse. If USC jumps LSU for that No. 5 spot, the loser of Ohio State-Michigan and Clemson Tigers should be concerned.

Does the loser of The Game really stand a chance?

The climb would appear more daunting if USC lands the fifth spot Tuesday — and if TCU happens to jump Michigan to No. 3. The committee determined last week that Georgia separated itself from the rest of the country, but there was discussion about Nos. 2, 3 and 4 before the committee ultimately settled on the status quo. Will TCU’s second road win change that, even though it wasn’t the Frogs’ best performance? If TCU jumps Michigan, it will put more pressure on the Wolverines to win Saturday. According to ESPN’s analytics, Michigan’s nonconference lineup of home games against Colorado State, Hawai’i and UConn was the second weakest in the FBS.

With Tennessee’s loss, the Big Ten has the best chance to send multiple teams to the CFP. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, the Big Ten has a 67% chance to have multiple teams, while the SEC has a 29% chance. The reality in the committee meeting room, though, is that Ohio State would have a better chance than Michigan as East Division runner-up because of its win against Notre Dame. The Buckeyes’ win against the Irish would have to look better than whatever USC does Saturday to its rival because if the Trojans run the table and win the Pac-12, that common opponent will be a factor in the debate.

Will Clemson finish its season with two Top 25 opponents?

At No. 9, one-loss Clemson is currently stuck behind two-loss teams LSU and Alabama. Will Clemson also be looking up at two-loss Tennessee, too?! That would emphatically indicate Clemson is in a precarious position. In strength of record, Clemson, at No. 7, ranks behind No. 6 Tennessee.

Regardless, the Tigers need help, and they could get it Tuesday if four-loss South Carolina sneaks into the CFP top 25 after its resounding upset of Tennessee. Of course, that helps only if Clemson beats its in-state rival Saturday. Clemson’s best win currently is against No. 19 Florida State, followed by No. 24 NC State, but the Wolfpack lost their second straight game Saturday at Louisville and should drop out of the rankings Tuesday.

That leaves No. 13 North Carolina, which will face Clemson in the ACC championship game.

How far will the two-loss Tar Heels tumble after their embarrassing 21-17 loss to Georgia Tech (5-6)? A win for Clemson over the Tar Heels won’t impress the committee as much as the opportunities TCU and USC will have in their respective conference title games.


What the committee will — and should — do

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Paul Finebaum discusses USC’s path to the playoff after a win over UCLA in Week 12.

The top four teams in the CFP rankings survived Week 12 despite facing varying degrees of adversity. The committee isn’t likely to shuffle the order, so the real intrigue comes down to No. 5 after Tennessee’s historic loss at unranked South Carolina. Other than Georgia, Tennessee seemingly had the most secure path to the CFP until Saturday night. The Vols will be dropping in Tuesday night’s ranking, but which team replaces them at No. 5? That leads to our weekly debate.

What the CFP selection committee will do: Put LSU at No. 5 over USC

What the CFP selection committee should do: Put USC at No. 5 over LSU

The initial rankings had USC ahead of LSU, but the teams flipped after LSU’s dramatic win against Alabama. LSU remained one spot ahead of USC in last week’s rundown and didn’t do anything to hurt its standing Saturday night, pulling away from UAB in the second quarter for a 41-10 victory. The expectation here is that the committee will simply drop Tennessee and move up LSU and USC, in that order.

But how should USC be viewed after its dramatic 48-45 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl? The UCLA game brought out the best in USC’s offense and quarterback Caleb Williams, who strengthened his case in the Heisman Trophy race with 470 passing yards. Until Saturday night, USC’s profile had been defined by wins over mostly bad teams and a respectable road loss to Utah. The Trojans now have two notable road victories, over UCLA and Oregon State, which could enter the committee’s top 20 Tuesday.

To be clear, USC doesn’t have a win that pops as much as LSU’s over Alabama. The Trojans’ best opportunities are ahead, against Notre Dame this week and, ideally, Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. But their top two wins occurred on the road, while LSU’s best road victories have come against Arkansas and Florida, two 6-5 teams that are under .500 in SEC play.

USC’s lone loss, to Utah, is quite similar to LSU’s 24-23 season-opening setback against Florida State, a three-loss team that should be slotted around the same spot as Utah in the new rankings. The only difference is USC’s loss occurred on the road, while LSU fell to FSU in New Orleans, hardly a true neutral site.

USC also doesn’t have a second loss, especially not a 27-point setback at home, like LSU endured against Tennessee last month. Of note: Since dismantling LSU in Death Valley, Tennessee dropped its next two road games by a combined score of 90-51.

LSU’s second-best win, a 45-20 triumph over Ole Miss on Oct. 22, also has been devalued. The Rebels were largely noncompetitive in Saturday’s loss at Arkansas and likely will be slotted around Oregon State in Tuesday’s rankings.

A case can be made that LSU is more balanced than USC, which hasn’t stopped many offenses when it isn’t taking the ball away. LSU has risen to 20th nationally in points allowed, while USC languishes at 68th. But USC boasts a similar edge on offense, especially after Saturday night’s magic.

These are comparable teams, but USC now carries the stronger profile because of what has happened on the road — two good wins and a respectable loss. LSU can’t quite match that. — Adam Rittenberg


ESPN reporters’ top-four picks

Blake Baumgartner: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Bill Connelly: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Heather Dinich: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
David Hale: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Chris Low: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Harry Lyles Jr.: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Ryan McGee: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. USC
Adam Rittenberg: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Alex Scarborough: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Paolo Uggetti: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. Michigan
Tom VanHaaren: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU
Dave Wilson: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan 4. TCU



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