In most seasons, the biggest gap in college football comes between the No. 4 and No. 5 ranking in final College Football Playoff standings. That’s because No. 4 means the glory of the College Football Playoff, and the No. 5 slot means a near-miss.
In this year’s edition of the College Football Playoff, it’ll be a different type of drama in the final CFP selection show. As this year’s CFP field began to take shape, the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 has long loomed as one of the most significant rankings of this season. With No. 3 Clemson presumed to land in that spot because of their light schedule, both No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 LSU have been vying to avoid them.
The biggest mystery that remains in this college football season is which team will end up No. 1 when the field is unveiled on Sunday. No. 2 LSU put on an authoritative performance to win the SEC title on Saturday, thumping No. 4 Georgia, 37-10.
As No. 1 Ohio State trailed No. 8 Wisconsin 21-7 at halftime on Saturday night, the notion of the Buckeyes getting jumped seemed a real possibility. Ohio State stormed back in the second half to win comfortably, 34-21, but looked vulnerable for a half on a day when LSU looked invincible.
There’s a strong argument for each side of the No. 1 debate. For Ohio State, they’ve beaten three consecutive top-15 teams by double-digits. For the season, Ohio State will finish with five victories over teams that will finish in the CFP Top 25. (That’s assuming No. 20 Cincinnati hangs around the Top 25 after losing to Memphis in the final moments of the AAC title game.) The Buckeyes also entered the game ranked in the top three in scoring offense and defense.
The argument for LSU comes with more quality victories, but less statistical dominance based on a defense that’s looked mortal at times. The Tigers have four victories over teams that will finish in the top 15 – Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn. (There’s an interesting argument about who has the better non-league win, as LSU’s victory at Texas likely shouldn’t count as much as Ohio State’s home blowout over No. 20 Cincinnati.)
The argument against LSU being No. 1 comes with their scoring defense ranking No. 31 entering the day and their pass defense ranking No. 56. Some of those passing numbers come from LSU beating teams so badly that opponents need to pass the ball to attempt to come back. But LSU’s defense has been gashed at times, including the Texas pass game (401 yards) and the Ole Miss run game (402 yards).
Clemson reinforced the reality that it’ll be the most feared No. 3 seed in the six-year history of the College Football Playoff. They finished the season 13-0, have a 28-game win streak and blasted No. 23 Virginia 62-17.
This marauding Clemson team’s only deficiency is their lack of quality wins, as the Tigers’ demolition of Virginia may mean that they finish the season with no wins over teams that finish in the Top 25. (They likely knocked the poor Cavaliers out of the rankings.)
But that doesn’t make the Tigers any less menacing than the team that blew out both Notre Dame and Alabama last year in cruising to the national title. The Tigers have an elite quarterback (Trevor Lawrence), a high-end collection of receivers and a versatile scheme on defense that’s compensated for the talent drop-off with the three first-round picks that departed the defensive line.)
Playing presumptive No. 4 Oklahoma won’t be easy, as the Sooners have Lincoln Riley calling plays, Jalen Hurts playing quarterback and have a roster accustomed to the bright lights of the playoff. But Alex Grinch’s defense has appeared increasingly vulnerable, and whichever team plays the Sooners will likely be two-touchdown favorites.
Who is No. 4?
The only drama on Sunday promised to be who end up No. 4, but the day’s most dramatic game eliminated that. No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 Baylor played a classic in the Big 12 title game that threaded the delicious possibility that Baylor – two years removed from a 1-11 season – could reach the College Football Playoff for the first time.
Instead, Oklahoma essentially clinched its third-consecutive playoff spot with a 30-23 overtime victory.
The Sooners outlasted the Bears, even after Baylor’s third-string quarterback, Jacob Zeno, completed his first two passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Baylor tied the game with 3:25 remaining on a 27-yard field goal from John Mayers.
Oklahoma’s 12-1 record and conference title makes them an easy choice for the No. 4 spot. But its light schedule and lack of quality wins – outside of the pair of victories over Baylor – creates quite a distance between the Sooners and the three teams that will end up ahead of them.
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