The story at the end of the past two college football seasons revolved around Alabama and Clemson, who each won a national championship against the other. The story of the beginning of this season was Alabama and Clemson, again, as early dominance by both made it look like the season was on a path toward Tide-Tigers III.
As usual, the season has taken many turns since then. Alabama is still undefeated, but Clemson lost on a Friday night at Syracuse and hasn't necessarily looked like one of the two or three best teams since then. Nevertheless, after No. 1 Georgia was blown out at Auburn and No. 3 Notre Dame was blown out at Miami on Saturday, the selection committee reverted to familiar territory with its third top 25 of the season on Tuesday night:
No. 1 Alabama
No. 2 Clemson
Those two are joined in the top four by Miami, which moved up from seventh, and Oklahoma, which jumped a spot after blowing out TCU. Alabama and Miami are both undefeated. The third Power Five undefeated, Wisconsin, moved up from eighth to fifth after holding Iowa to 66 total yards. The other FBS unbeaten, UCF, continues to sit outside the conversation, moving up from 18th to 15th.
This week's top 25:
1. The committee starts from scratch every week, and resumes change in many ways. This is an important point to remember when some teams seem to haphazardly move from one week to the next. There can be a very small margin between one team and the next, and how the committee views similar teams can change based on how those teams' quality wins change. For example: Clemson's win over Louisville lost luster in October, but its win over Auburn is picking up steam again after Auburn crushed Georgia. Of all the teams ranked in this week's top 25, Clemson now has the highest-ranked win, with Auburn moving up to No. 6. Georgia sort of lost twice last weekend: It was blown out by the Tigers, and its best win, by one point over Notre Dame, took a hit when the Fighting Irish were routed by Miami.
Penn State moved up from 14th to 10th after beating Rutgers. Part of that is because teams ahead of it lost, and a small part of it is that its most impressive win, by 29 points over Michigan, is now viewed as a "top-25 win," as the Wolverines have climbed to 24th.
2. Both Miami and Oklahoma deserve to be ranked ahead of Clemson. Like the committee, my ballot in the AP top 25 this week had Alabama No. 1. We also agreed on teams ranked No. 5 through No. 9. However, my top four was: Alabama, Miami, Oklahoma, Clemson. Yes, Clemson beat Auburn, but its loss to 4-6 Syracuse is not "better" than Oklahoma's loss to 6-4 Iowa State (although Clemson's did happen on the road), and Oklahoma owns three double-digit wins over teams ranked in the current top 13: Ohio State, TCU and Oklahoma State. Clemson is far better defensively than Oklahoma, but Oklahoma is first nationally in yards per play on offense; Clemson is 54th. Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said that the injury to Clemson QB Kelly Bryant is taken into account when evaluating the Syracuse game, but that's murky territory.
As for Miami? It's undefeated (even if it did play a bunch of tight games) and beat Virginia Tech by 18 and Notre Dame by 33 in the past two weeks. Hocutt accurately said that Miami doesn't have an impressive road win -- sorry, Florida State -- but the Canes are developing into a complete team that has improved over the course of the season and ranks in the top 15 in yards per play on both sides of the ball.
3. There's a solution to the Clemson-Miami "problem." It's not really a problem, either, because Clemson deserves its top-four spot. Whether it's second, third or fourth isn't a big deal right now. But: On Dec. 2 in Charlotte, Clemson and Miami will play each other for the ACC championship. If the two make it through the next two weeks unscathed, the winner of that ACC title tilt will be in the playoff, no questions asked. Clemson and Miami will solve the Clemson-Miami debate on the field in what will likely amount to a playoff quarterfinal.
4. An undefeated Wisconsin won't be left out. The Badgers are fifth, and their two biggest games are still left: Michigan this Saturday and the Big Ten East champion (the favorite currently being Ohio State) in the conference championship game. With either Clemson or Miami guaranteed to lose a game, there's little chance that the committee would leave out an undefeated champion from the Big Ten. If Wisconsin loses to Michigan but wins the Big Ten title game? That's a much tougher question, one that would put the Badgers at the mercy of results elsewhere.
5. Auburn is the best two-loss team, but don't sleep on Ohio State. If Auburn were to win out, beating Alabama in the Iron Bowl and Georgia again in the SEC title game, it would have a strong argument for inclusion. Another two-loss scenario could be more likely, however: Ohio State winning out and getting into the field. After the Buckeyes lost by 31 at Iowa, it's hard to have total confidence in them playing up to their talent level, but they just blew out Michigan State, they already beat Penn State and they have games left against Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Win out and get a little help, and the Buckeyes will have a solid chance (see below).
What the New Year's Six might look like today
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Miami
We can safely say that this won't happen. Alabama-Oklahoma would be excellent, but there will be no rematch of the ACC title game in Pasadena.
Orange Bowl: No. 19 N.C. State vs. No. 6 Auburn
Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 11 USC
Cotton Bowl: No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Ohio State
Peach Bowl: No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 15 UCF
N.C. State would need a miracle here: Unless the ACC gets two teams in the playoff because of some chaos, the loser of the Clemson-Miami ACC title game appears destined for the conference's Orange Bowl spot, pushing N.C. State out of the major bowl mix.
Predicting what the New Year's Six will look like
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Let's say undefeated Alabama beats one-loss Georgia in the SEC title game. Let's say undefeated Miami beats one-loss Clemson in the ACC title game. Oklahoma gets in at 12-1 after winning the Big 12 title. Who's the fourth team? If Ohio State ran the table, it would add wins over Michigan and Wisconsin and a Big Ten championship to its resume. The path is there.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Wisconsin
Fiesta Bowl: USC vs. Oklahoma State
Cotton Bowl: Penn State vs. Notre Dame
Peach Bowl: Georgia vs. UCF