Michigan moved into the fourth spot of the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night, behind Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame.
Georgia was next at five, followed by Oklahoma.
The playoff picture cleared up after a weekend where several contenders asserted themselves. The top-four teams in the final rankings Dec. 2 will play in the national semifinals.
The Crimson Tide easily dispatched LSU from the top four, beating the Tigers 29-0. LSU, though, only dropped to No. 7 after its second loss, ahead of Washington State, West Virginia and Ohio State — all with only one loss.
Selection committee chairman Rob Mullens noted LSU’s three victories against teams the committee has ranked this week (Mississippi State, Auburn and Georgia).
“Their defense is extremely strong,” said Mullens, the Oregon athletic director. “Their two losses come against No. 1 Alabama, on the road to Florida.”
Unbeaten Notre Dame moved up one spot to No. 3, and Michigan jumped a spot after a 42-7 victory against Penn State.
With four weeks left in the season, nine of the top 10 teams are serious contenders. LSU is basically out, because the Tigers have no chance to win a conference title.
Assuming the top three unbeaten teams would get in by winning out, here are the paths to the playoff.
No. 1 Alabama (9-0)
The Tide is already locked into the SEC championship game and has built up enough equity that even a regular-season loss to Mississippi State or Auburn won’t keep Tua Tagovailoa and Co. out of the playoff. Now if they lost twice … yeah, that’s probably not happening. The only intrigue involving Alabama is whether the Tide could lose the SEC championship game, finish 12-1 and still get in? The chances are probably decent.
No. 2 Clemson (9-0)
Like Alabama, the Tigers have some room for a regular-season misstep, but their position is not a strong as the Tide’s. With a loss to ACC Atlantic rival Boston College on Saturday, Clemson would be at risk of being shut out of the conference title game. Ohio State and Alabama both made the playoff at 11-1, without even playing for a league title the last two seasons. The Tigers could, too, but it is no slam dunk.
No. 3 Notre Dame (9-0)
The Irish finish with three winnable games, but no locks. Notre Dame fans believe their team holds a trump card against Michigan, with that season-opening victory in South Bend. That could buffer the Irish against one loss in their final three games, but with no conference title and some struggling marquee teams on their schedule such as Virginia Tech and Stanford, Notre Dame is not a lock if it gets into a resume contest with other one-loss teams. Even one it beat.
No. 4 Michigan (8-1)
The Wolverines have to feel good about controlling their path to the playoff. Winning out, including at Ohio State, puts Jim Harbaugh’s team at 12-1 with a Big Ten title. That’s a resume with victories against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State, and a seven-point road loss to Notre Dame. One loss and Michigan is out, right? Not so fast. Take a quick glance at the rankings and notice how many highly ranked teams still have to play each other. It won’t take more than one or two mild upsets to have the selection committee sifting through a bunch of two-loss teams to fill the final playoff spot. Figure the ones with conference championships will have the edge.
No. 5 Georgia (8-1)
Simple: Win out, get in. Oh, and beat Alabama. The good news for the Bulldogs is beating Alabama to win the SEC championship would almost certainly make up for a second regular-season loss. Georgia has got a little leeway when it faces Auburn and Georgia Tech.
No. 6 Oklahoma (8-1)
UCLA did the Sooners no favor by being terrible and depriving Oklahoma of a quality nonconference victory. Still, the Sooners are probably the Big 12′s best bet to win an argument against a one-loss Big Ten champion or Notre Dame with one loss. Maybe.
No. 8 Washington State (8-1)
The Cougars could finish as 12-1 champions of the weakest Power Five conference and no notable nonconference victories. The most realistic scenario to put Mike Leach’s Washington State team in the playoff involves Big Ten and Big 12 implosions.
No. 9 West Virginia (7-1)
The weather did the Mountaineers no favor by forcing the cancellation of West Virginia’s game at North Carolina State in September. The Mountaineers do have a victory against Tennessee on a neutral field. Not terrible. To get to 11-1 and a Big 12 title could mean two victories over Oklahoma in consecutive weekends.
No. 10 Ohio State (8-1)
The Buckeyes found out last season that getting hammered by a team that finished the regular season 7-5 is deal-breaker with the committee when it comes time to make a tough choice. Ohio State could win out — beating Michigan State and Michigan along the way — and get in. But that’s a long way from certain considering the Buckeyes are the lowest ranked one-loss team.
No. 12 UCF (8-0)
The Knights stayed at No. 12 after beating Temple 52-40 last week.
“Strong offense, struggling on defense,” Mullens said.
Athletic director Danny White and the Knights fans certainly don’t want to hear this, but another perfect season probably won’t even get UCF seriously considered for a spot in the semifinal — unless things get really weird.
So let’s think weird: Northwestern wins the Big Ten, Arizona State wins the Pac-12, Iowa State wins the Big 12, Pitt wins the ACC, Notre Dame losses two of its final three and Georgia losses to both Auburn and Alabama. That’s extreme, but if three of those six things happen, UCF probably gets a look.