In only a few days, the arguments of today will not matter. On Saturday, nine conference championship games will be played, including four featuring two top-11 teams with clear playoff implications. It's the last step before the playoff rankings become official and meaningful.
First, though, the waiting period for Saturday comes with nonstop arguments and speculation about what could happen on Sunday when the College Football Playoff field and bowl matchups are revealed. On Tuesday night, the selection committee released its final incomplete top 25 of the season, with necessary reshuffling after last week's top two teams, Alabama and Miami, lost.
Clemson climbed to No. 1. Auburn climbed to No. 2, thanks to its win over Alabama -- its second over a then-No. 1 team in three weeks -- despite owning two losses. Oklahoma and Wisconsin round out the top four.
No. 5 Alabama will sit home and watch this weekend, as will No. 9 Penn State. The rest of the top 12 will be in action:
ACC: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 7 Miami
Big 12: No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 TCU
Big Ten: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Ohio State
Pac-12: No. 10 USC vs. No. 12 Stanford
SEC: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 6 Georgia
Here's the top 25, followed by what to take away from Tuesday's rankings:
Anyone in the top seven will make the playoff with a win.
Obviously, anybody in the top four will stay in the top four if they add a conference championship game win over a top-eight team to their resume. The mission is clear for Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, because none will drop out of the bracket after a victory on Saturday. They have the ability to make the committee's job easy.
No. 6 Georgia is a lock if it avenges its previous loss to Auburn. The Bulldogs would be 12-1 with an SEC championship and wins over Auburn and Notre Dame. That's a no-doubt playoff resume. They'd be in; Auburn would fall out.
No. 7 Miami is close to a lock with a win. The Hurricanes' resume has holes, especially after the loss to Pitt, but if they beat Clemson, they'd have wins over three top-25 teams (Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech) and an ACC championship. That's not a resume that would get left out.
Again, there's one team in the top seven that doesn't play: No. 5 Alabama. It needs either No. 3 Oklahoma or No. 4 Wisconsin to lose to have a chance. Don't assume that it's the next team up just because it's No. 5 right now.
The Big 12 and Big Ten championship games are responsible for potential chaos.
In 2016, this Oklahoma team would be in the playoff, no questions asked. It's 11-1 with a win at Ohio State and an outright lead in the round-robin Big 12 standings. In 2017, however, the Big 12 has brought back a championship game. That means Oklahoma has to beat TCU for the second time in a month to secure its playoff spot. The Sooners have wins over No. 8 Ohio State, No. 11 TCU and No. 19 Oklahoma State, but the committee has been reluctant to show the Sooners -- and their mediocre defense -- total respect, clearly preferring Clemson … and now a two-loss Auburn.
Wisconsin may be undefeated, but at No. 4 with only one win over a top-25 team (Northwestern), it's not going to get into the playoff even at 11-1. The resume just isn't there to justify it, so the Badgers must beat the Buckeyes. If they lose, they open the door to the Buckeyes getting in for the third time in four years.
The stage is set for an Alabama-Ohio State debate.
If No. 8 Ohio State beats No. 4 Wisconsin, let the debates begin. Ohio State has a 15-point loss to Oklahoma and a 31-point loss to Iowa, but if it beats Wisconsin, it would be an 11-2 Big Ten champion with a win over Wisconsin, a win over No. 9 Penn State and a 45-point win over No. 16 Michigan State. Those three wins -- plus a conference championship -- would all be better than anything that current No. 5 Alabama has accomplished. The Crimson Tide own three top-25 wins over No. 17 LSU, No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 25 Fresno State, which slipped into the top 25 but could fall out if it loses the Mountain West title game to Boise State.
Let's say that Ohio State's loss to Oklahoma and Alabama's loss to Auburn cancel each other out (although Alabama's did happen on the road). The committee is then debating whether Ohio State's clearly superior wins, and a conference championship, outweigh its one bad, blowout loss in a debate with the Crimson Tide. Then again, if both Ohio State and TCU win, perhaps the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide will both make the playoff. Again.
Head-to-head results could complicate matters.
Say TCU beats Oklahoma and Ohio State beats Wisconsin. The Sooners and Buckeyes would both be 11-2 with a loss to a top-10 team and a loss to a 7-5 team. Ohio State would own a conference championship, but Oklahoma decisively beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sept. 9. Head-to-head results and conference championships come into play when resumes are relatively even, and, in that case, resumes would be relatively even. TCU would also be 11-2 with a split against the Sooners and a Big 12 championship.
Also keep in mind that Clemson beat Auburn on Sept. 9, too, and they would have the same records if Clemson lost to Miami and Auburn beat Georgia.
A two-loss Clemson will still be in the conversation.
The possibility of Clemson losing to Miami but getting into the playoff anyway is on the table. The Tigers won't get in over the Hurricanes, but if Wisconsin or Oklahoma loses, Clemson could be part of the conversation with Alabama and/or Ohio State. The committee clearly likes Clemson. The Tigers are viewed as a more complete team than Oklahoma, they beat Auburn and the committee has partially excused the loss to Syracuse because of the injury to QB Kelly Bryant. If Clemson lost a close game to Miami, it would still have three top-25 wins and seven wins against FBS teams that have winning records, keeping open the possibility of two ACC teams getting in.
A two-loss Auburn is two spots ahead of undefeated Wisconsin.
This feels like an especially notable moment, because it's the type of thing that would never happen in national championship conversation before the playoff. Auburn lost to No. 1 Clemson and No. 17 LSU on the road, but it owns double-digit wins over No. 5 Alabama and No. 6 Georgia that are far superior to anything that Wisconsin has accomplished. With a four-team field, the committee has room to act like this. The debate would feel different if only two teams played for the national championship, because there would have been no chance of an 11-2 Auburn getting into the BCS title game ahead of a 13-0 Wisconsin. Now, they'd both get a shot.
No. 10 USC and No. 11 TCU are still hoping to be a part of the conversation.
A win on Saturday would likely vault either the Trojans or Horned Frogs over Penn State. How high could either climb with a conference championship win? A win over Stanford would give USC two wins over the Cardinal. A win over Oklahoma would give TCU a split with the Sooners. The Trojans and Frogs have similar resumes now, and a win over No. 3 Oklahoma might give TCU more ammunition to make a jump. But although the committee starts from scratch every week, going from 10th or 11th to the top four seems too far-fetched, no matter how chaotic things might get.
The Knights just beat South Florida, which had only one loss, but they're 14th in the playoff rankings. The lack of a marquee nonconference win -- their game against Georgia Tech was canceled, although that wouldn't have helped much anyway -- has hurt them, and they're far out of the conversation. The goal for UCF is clear right now, because the winner of the AAC title game against Memphis will secure a New Year's Six bowl spot.
What the New Year's Six would look like now:
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Wisconsin
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Clemson would go to New Orleans because, as the No. 1 team, it would get the most favorable geographic position. That would set up a rematch of last year's Auburn-Oklahoma Sugar Bowl in a playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl. Clemson appears to be a lock to stay No. 1 if it beats Miami in the ACC championship game.
Orange Bowl: No. 7 Miami vs. No. 5 Alabama
Fiesta Bowl: No. 9 Penn State vs. No. 10 USC
Cotton Bowl: No. 8 Ohio State vs. No. 11 TCU
Peach Bowl: No. 6 Georgia vs. No. 14 UCF
The Orange Bowl matches the top non-playoff team from the ACC against the top non-playoff team from the Big Ten, SEC and Notre Dame. Given its location, UCF's most likely destination seems to be the Peach Bowl. Georgia would also make sense for Atlanta, although it would be three straight games in the city. The Fiesta Bowl presents interesting questions: Would Penn State and USC get matched up for the second year in a row (committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said it's possible)? Would Ohio State get sent to a third straight Fiesta Bowl?
Penn State appears to be safely in the New Year's Six at No. 9. The questions come later: After losing to Stanford, Notre Dame dropped all the way to 15th, making a climb into the top 11 nearly impossible. Even with a loss to Oklahoma, TCU could stay in the major bowl mix. No. 13 Washington is also on the radar ahead of the Fighting Irish.