College Football Playoff takeaways: How Oregon’s loss changes everything

It’s time for a shake-up.

No. 3 Oregon will tumble out of the top four on Tuesday after getting blown out Saturday night at Utah — its second Pac-12 loss of the season — and open the College Football Playoff race to a handful of teams that were just waiting and hoping for yet another upset at the top.

Undefeated Cincinnati. One-loss Notre Dame. One-loss Oklahoma State — and Oklahoma. A two-loss Alabama that loses to Georgia in the SEC title game.

Their chances of entering the debate on Selection Day, Dec. 5, just got better now that the Pac-12 and ACC champions are both guaranteed to have at least two losses.

The immediate impact of Oregon’s loss could be glaring on Tuesday when the selection committee releases its fourth of six rankings. While No. 1 Georgia holds steady, Ohio State could rise to No. 2 after hammering Michigan State, Alabama could sink one spot to No. 3 after a close win against Arkansas and No. 4 could be historic — or wildly unpopular — for Cincinnati fans.

It’s very possible Cincinnati becomes the first Group of 5 team ranked in the selection committee’s top four — both because Oregon lost but also as a reward for an undefeated season that still includes a win at Notre Dame. Or, the selection committee could put Michigan at No. 4 because it considers the Wolverines to be the better team against a more difficult schedule.

It could ultimately be a moot point for Cincinnati, because Ohio State and Michigan still have to play each other on Saturday in what has become one of the most important games of the season. If the committee ranks Michigan ahead of Cincinnati now, though, that further legitimizes the possibility it could happen again with another Power 5 contender on Selection Day.

Cincinnati was certainly helped by Oregon’s loss, but the Bearcats weren’t the only ones. Here’s a look at how they, along with the Fighting Irish, a one-loss Big 12 champion and even two-loss Alabama could benefit from Oregon’s defeat.

Cincinnati Bearcats

The best thing Cincinnati has working in its favor is its Oct. 2 win at Notre Dame, which has helped separate the Bearcats from Power 5 contenders and continued to resonate with the committee each week as the Irish also keep winning. It also makes it more difficult (though certainly not impossible) for the committee to justify ranking Notre Dame ahead of Cincinnati. The question will be if that’s enough to finish in the top four when the one-loss Big 12 contenders and even a two-loss Alabama could boast a better final résumé.

The Bearcats entered Week 11 with the nation’s No. 103 strength of schedule. Saturday’s 48-14 win against unranked SMU — as convincing as it was — isn’t going to change that, and it will remain a sticking point in the committee meeting room. So will Cincinnati’s pedestrian performances in wins against Navy, Tulane, Tulsa and USF, four teams under .500. If the Bearcats win at East Carolina on Friday, they will clinch home-field advantage for the conference championship game against No. 24 Houston on Dec. 4. It helps that Houston was ranked last week, and should stay in the top 25 following Friday’s 31-13 win against Memphis.

Cincinnati’s final opportunity to impress the selection committee is better than Notre Dame’s final game against 3-8 Stanford. Winning a conference championship and the head-to-head result are two of the committee’s tiebreakers if it deems teams to be comparable, and the Bearcats would check both of those boxes.

The ultimate gut punch would be for Cincinnati to be ranked No. 4 on Tuesday only to be snubbed on Selection Day in favor of one of the teams ranked behind it. In order to help avoid that, the Bearcats should hope for a two-loss Big 12 champion and an ugly performance or a loss by Notre Dame against Stanford.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Irish are playing their best when it matters the most, and they are one of the most improved teams from September to November. The defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in three games. Notre Dame has outscored its past three opponents (Navy, Virginia and Georgia Tech) 117-9.

“For those that are interested in style points … I covered that one too,” coach Brian Kelly said following his team’s 55-0 drubbing of Georgia Tech. “I’ve got to be popular today.”

The loss to Cincinnati, though, is a problem — and the independent Irish don’t have a conference championship game to help compensate for it. If the Bearcats were to lose to Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game, though, it would be easier for the committee to justify ranking Notre Dame higher in spite of the head-to-head.

They might just do it anyway.

The committee likes Notre Dame’s wins against Purdue and Wisconsin, and while UNC and Virginia are both unranked, they’re also both over .500. Overall, Notre Dame entered this week ranked No. 33 in strength of schedule, significantly better than Cincinnati.

Still, Notre Dame should also be concerned about being leapfrogged by a one-loss Big 12 champion, especially Oklahoma State. The Cowboys could punctuate their résumé with back-to-back wins against a top-25 Oklahoma team. The Sooners could do the same.

Notre Dame always has to hope its 11-1 résumé is better than the Power 5 conference champions. This year, it has to hope it’s better than Cincinnati’s, too.

One-loss Big 12 champ

Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State won in Week 12, setting up a Bedlam showdown in the regular-season finale. While they have identical records, Oklahoma State remains the more realistic contender at this point because the Sooners sank five spots following their Week 11 loss to Baylor and are now looking up at two-loss Ole Miss (and two-loss Baylor). Oklahoma has also had some narrow wins this fall against unheralded opponents, starting with a 40-35 win against now 2-9 Tulane in the season opener and more recently, a 35-23 win against Kansas on Oct. 23. The Sooners trailed the now 2-9 Jayhawks twice by double digits.

If Oklahoma finishes as a one-loss Big 12 champion, it would at least be considered, but it’s hard to imagine the Sooners catapulting from No. 13 ahead of Notre Dame and Cincinnati and into the top four.

This week, Oklahoma State should climb as high as the No. 7 spot, which is a more feasible leap into the playoff, especially considering two teams ranked ahead — Ohio State and Michigan — will play each other. If the Cowboys finish as one-loss champs, and Cincinnati loses, they still have to worry about Notre Dame. Oklahoma State would have the conference championship, plus its two wins against ranked opponents Baylor and Oklahoma — and a third in the Big 12 title game. The Cowboys’ résumé would have a slight edge over the Irish, along with its Big 12 title, but it would have to hope the committee doesn’t think Notre Dame is “unequivocally” better.

Two-loss Alabama

Even if the Tide drops one spot this week, this remains a very real possibility, assuming Alabama loses a close game to Georgia in the SEC championship game. Entering Week 11, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, there is a 70% chance a 13-0 Georgia AND an 11-2 Alabama would finish in the top four. Alabama continues to be helped by the number of SEC teams ranked in the CFP Top 25, as it has wins against No. 12 Ole Miss, No. 25 Mississippi State and now No. 21 Arkansas. Even without a conference title, that’s more wins against CFP Top 25 teams than Cincinnati and Notre Dame will finish with combined.

In order for a team to finish in the top four without winning a conference title, the selection committee would have to consider it “unequivocally” one of the four best teams. The committee would have to justify a two-loss Tide ahead of a one-loss Big 12 champion, one-loss Notre Dame and undefeated Cincinnati — along with any two-loss Power 5 conference champions. Their résumé, statistics and so-called eye test just might be enough to do it.