How Tennessee’s Loss Affects the College Football Playoffs

The big bad SEC suddenly looks human again.

No. 5 Tennessee, a team that had made the entire playoff picture more interesting with their potential to topple a Power 5 conference winner on pick day without even winning their division, is done. Broken. An afterthought in the playoff race after the embarrassing 63-38 loss to unranked four-loss South Carolina.

With Tennessee joining Alabama – Alabama! — at the club with two losses and outside of the SEC championship, the chances of the conference reaching multiple teams in the top four have dropped drastically. The most realistic remaining scenario is one team – No. 1 Georgia. If No. 6 LSU manages an upset in their conference title game, the SEC would likely have two teams in it, as LSU would become the first team to finish in the top four after wins against Alabama and Georgia, and with two losses the one-loss Bulldogs would still have a chance as SEC runners-up after being separated from the field as the committee’s No. 1 team in November.

Tennessee’s loss was a big win for USC, Clemson and game-loser Ohio State-Michigan — all contenders who no longer have to worry about fighting for a top-four spot against the Vols on pick day. With the SEC champion, Big Ten champion and undefeated unofficial TCU finishing in the top 4, the last spot remains open.

In addition to the SEC’s shrinking entry field, here are the four key lessons from a wild Week 12 that will impact how the selection committee will cast its final votes on Selection Day:


USC has the Pac-12 in the best playoff position

USC was the largest beneficiary of Tennessee’s faceplant. As the country’s top four teams won in ho-hum fashion on Saturday, the one-loss trojans provided the sizzling and jaw-dropping moments in the most entertaining and meaningful game of the day. USC secured a spot in the Pac-12 title game with its win over crosstown rivals UCLA and added another win over a ranked opponent to its resume. The Trojans were scheduled to replace Tennessee as the committee’s No. 5 team on Tuesday, skipping LSU No. 6, which should hold that spot.

If the Trojans can beat a rising Notre Dame team in Saturday’s regular-season finals and bolster their resume with a Pac-12 title, they could arguably make the best arguments against the other contenders for that fourth place on selection day.

USC’s final résumé in this scenario would trump a one-loss Michigan not winning its division along with a one-loss Clemson who would have defeated North Carolina to win the ACC. USC would also have a win over a common opponent at Notre Dame who thoroughly outplayed Clemson 35-14 on Nov. 5 at South Bend. A debate against a losing Ohio State team that doesn’t beat Michigan could be interesting because both USC and Ohio State will have played Notre Dame, and the selection committee is considering common opponents. USC could ultimately win a debate against Ohio State if the Buckeyes also finish in a loss because they could end up with more wins against CFP top 25 opponents, and a conference title is also used as a tiebreaker.


The Big Ten’s chances of getting two teams into the CFP just got better

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Ohio State comes to Taulia Tagovailoa and picks up loose ball for a touchdown.

No, Saturday wasn’t pretty for Ohio State or Michigan as they both struggled to beat unranked opponents Maryland and Illinois, respectively, but they’re still undefeated and in an ideal position for Saturday’s loser to at least count for one Top place to be considered. four places on selection day.

With Tennessee eliminated, The Game’s loser would have a chance to secure fourth place ahead of ACC Champion Clemson, but will have to be wary of a losing USC (see above). There’s already a significant gap between the top two teams in the Big Ten and No. 9 Clemson.

The best scenario for the East Division runner-up would be for Georgia to win the SEC and eliminate LSU, a multiple-loss Pac-12 winner and a TCU loss in either Saturday’s home to Iowa State or in the Big 12 title Game. If the Pac-12 winner has multiple losses, The Game’s loser could join Georgia, the Big Ten champion, and even TCU with a loss as the Big 12 champion.

The Buckeyes have a better chance without a division title, in large part because they would still have two wins over CFP Top 25 opponents at Penn State and Notre Dame. The win over Notre Dame could be crucial as Ohio State would likely be compared to ACC Champion Clemson, who lost 35-14 at Notre Dame on Nov. 5. The selection committee is comparing results against common opponents as one of the tiebreakers as well as the strength of the schedule, and Ohio State could trump the Tigers in those two categories. It’s also possible that Clemson could lose his regular-season finale to the Gamecocks, especially considering how well South Carolina played against Tennessee on Saturday.

If Michigan loses, its only win against a ranked opponent would be Oct. 15 against Penn State, and the Wolverines’ unconvincing performance in Saturday’s win over Illinois would raise some eyebrows in the room. The committee would consider Michigan’s injuries, particularly with star running back Blake Corum for the second half, but that highlighted some flaws in the passing game, including some falls and drops. However, if the committee thinks Michigan is “clearly” one of the top four teams in the country, it is not committed to the tiebreakers.

After the committee’s third placement, Chairman Boo Corrigan called the states of Ohio and Michigan “two balanced teams.”

“Ohio State has the win over Notre Dame,” he said, “which I think at this point as a committee as we’re talking about this stands out a little bit as we’re going through this.”


Clemson was a winner but still needs help

With the odds of several SEC top-four teams dropping significantly, the Tigers can continue to cling to their hopes of becoming the ACC champion with a loss. Clemson needs a multiple-loss Pac-12 champion and/or three-loss Kansas State to win the Big 12 for a top-4 finish to be more realistic.

It didn’t help Clemson that North Carolina lost 5-6 to Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Tigers face UNC in the ACC championship game, and a win over the Tar Heels won’t impress the committee as much as the opportunities TCU and USC will have in their respective conference title games. The loss to Notre Dame also threatens as a joint opponent with Ohio State and USC.


TCU has more room for error

With the Vols on the bubble, TCU was under pressure to finish as an undefeated Big 12 champion, but the Horned Frogs should have a little more leeway now that Tennessee isn’t hot on their heels. If TCU loses at home in a close game to Iowa State on Saturday but still wins the Big 12 championship, they have a better chance of finishing in the top four on selection day now that they’re not compared to a Tennessee team will, which had impressed the committee with victories against LSU and Alabama.

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