Last chance to impress CFP for ‘Power 5’

On Sunday (early afternoon – 12:30 P.M. on the East Coast; late morning everywhere else), the College Football Playoff selection committee will announce the four schools who will qualify for the first CFP semifinals, to be played at the Rose and Sugar Bowls. Shortly thereafter, the pairings will be announced for the other four bowls – the Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, and Peach – that have come together to be collectively known as the Big Six.

Since last week, there have been some significant changes in the landscape: undefeated Florida State continues to underwhelm the selection committee; Ohio State rises to No. 5 after a rivalry win in which their starting quarterback is lost to injury; the Texas Christian and Baylor conundrum. With some help from a respected source, the folks at FiveThirtyEight, we take another look at the possibilities.

Win and you’re in

Obviously, this group includes the current top four placeholders in the latest CFP rankings: Alabama, Oregon, TCU and Florida State.

FSU’s fall is puzzling, indeed, since they are undefeated this season. However, the Seminoles have found themselves needing to rally from behind on multiple occasions this season, a performance which has seen FSU fall from second in the initial CFP poll, to fourth in the current one. Their opponent in the ACC championship game, in Charlotte, N.C., is Georgia Tech, who runs a spread option offense which frequently proves difficult to defend. The Ramblin’ Wreck are expected to pose Florida State’s stiffest test this season, and the Noles need to win – 538 rates their chances of making the final four at just 3% should the Yellow Jackets prevail.

TCU, along with Alabama, have the clearest paths forward of the top four. The Horned Frogs are rated by 538 as a stone cold, lead pipe lock to make the playoff if they defeat Iowa State this weekend. Actually, change that “if” to “when”; the Cyclones are winless in Big XII play and just 2-9 overall (interestingly, they lost to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, but two weeks later knocked off their in-state Big Ten rivals on the road at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City).

As for Bama, it is conceivable (but not likely; 538 gives the Crimson Tide an 82% chance of winning) that they could absorb a loss to Missouri in Saturday’s SEC title game in Atlanta. In the past, a No. 1 team who lost their conference championship was generally still ranked in the top for or five of the polls afterward; once again, reviewing 538, they have the Tide a 68% favorite to advance even if they lose – but if teams 2 through 5 all win, their chances fall to just 39%.

Finally in the top four, there’s Oregon, who presents an interesting case in that their conference championship opponent is a rematch with Arizona, who beat the Ducks in Eugene, Ore. 31-24 earlier. On top of that, the Wildcats blasted Oregon the season before, 42-16 in Tucson, Ariz. This matchup, at a neutral site (Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.), could be the best game of the weekend, even though Oregon seems to be a strong favorite.

Still need help

Ohio State, at No. 5 the next likeliest team to get in, presents an interesting situation: that of relying on their third starting quarterback of the season, third-year sophomore Cardale Jones, to pull the strings in the conference championship against a very strong Wisconsin squad, who features a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon. Jones became “next man up” for the Buckeyes after their own Heisman potential, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, fractured an ankle in the fourth quarter of the Bucks’ last game of the season – and Barrett himself was a replacement for a Heisman candidate…none other than Braxton Miller (remember him?), who underwent shoulder surgery before the start of the season.

Barrett has told reporters that there would be no dropoff from his performance, though Jones clearly has a steeper learning curve at this point in the season. Jones has never started a game for Ohio State, but has seen game action this season in blowout mop-up duty; he also saw significant action last season in the 76-0 demolition of FCS cupcake Florida A&M. While Wisconsin is no FAMU, the Buckeyes to a man have their full faith and confidence in the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones – and they’ll have to.

No. 6 Baylor also poses an interesting story. The Bears handed TCU their only loss of the season in a 61-58 shootout, but have never been ranked above the Frogs since the CFP started their rankings. That could change if Baylor knocks off their weekend opponent, Kansas State, another CFP Top 25 team. (The Big XII, at just 10 teams, is the only “Power 5” conference to not have a championship game, unlike the 12-team Pac-12, or the 14-team Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, and Southeastern conferences). It remains to be seen how the Big XII’s lack of a conference championship will affect their standing in the CFP, which is ironic when the conference is basically allowing the CFP to determine their hierarchy should both TCU and Baylor win.

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