Conference championship week is here.
The 2020 college football season stretches into its 16th week and continues amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the final week before the College Football Playoff selection show on Sunday, Dec. 20.
The fourth set of CFP rankings will be unveiled Tuesday, and it should follow a familiar theme: The top six have remained completely unchanged through the first three sets of rankings, and that likely won’t change after Week 15. As usual, the real action is outside the top four, but how much chaos needs to happen for someone other than Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State to get in?
Sporting News breaks down the College Football Playoff picture with four teams heading into the final week of the season:
1. Alabama (10-0)
Up next: SEC championship game vs. No. 6 Florida
Alabama left nothing to the imagination in a 52-3 blowout of Arkansas,completing a perfect regular season under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide, who have outscored their last five opponents by an average score of 50.6-7.2, have multiple Heisman Trophy candidates: quarterback Mac Jones, receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris. Alabama could lose to Florida in the SEC championship and still potentially take one of the four spots — as long as it’s not a blowout.
2. Notre Dame (10-0)
Up next: ACC championship game vs. No. 3 Clemson
The Irish can go 1 for 1 in ACC championship games with a victory against five-time defending champion Clemson. It’s a rematch of the 47-40 double-overtime thriller in South Bend on Nov. 7. It’s also one last chance for Ian Book — who has 2,382 yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions — to make a Heisman Trophy case. Notre Dame could still make the College Football Playoff with a loss, but the score will matter, given some of the Playoff contenders trying to squeeze in.
3. Clemson (9-1)
Up next: ACC championship game vs. No. 2 Notre Dame
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney took a shot at Ohio State’s schedule, but that could be more about politicking for seeding purposes should the Tigers beat Notre Dame in the ACC championship game rematch. Trevor Lawrence will play this time, but the Tigers defense has to be better after allowing 518 total yards in the first meeting. It’s the most intriguing conference championship game, given what’s at stake for the Tigers and Irish. Perception always matters.
4. Ohio State (5-0)
Up next: Big Ten championship game vs. No. 14 Northwestern
It took some tweaking to the six-game rule, but the Buckeyes return to the Big Ten championship game to face the Wildcats for the second time in three years. Ohio State played just two games in the last five weeks, so there remain questions about how they stack up against other teams in the top four. Northwestern remains heavy underdogs against a Buckeyes team that has won the last eight meetings by an average of 26.8 points per game. A Wildcats win would be the biggest shakeup on conference championship weekend.
5. Texas A&M (7-1)
Up next: at Tennessee
The Aggies are the only team among the top eight that won’t play in a conference championship game, but the path to a potential Playoff berth is open — with some help. The Aggies need Notre Dame and Alabama to push Clemson and Florida to the two-loss threshold, and Texas A&M needs to pour it on Tennessee in the regular-season finale. It might not be enough, given the Aggies’ lone loss is a 52-24 blowout against Alabama. But there’s still a chance heading into the final weekend.
6. Cincinnati (8-0)
Up next: AAC championship game vs. No. 24 Tulsa
The Bearcats haven’t played since Nov. 21, and that has led to a corresponding slip in the CFP rankings. Iowa State jumped Cincinnati in the last rankings, an indication the Bearcats won’t get in, even with a victory against Tulsa in the AAC championship. Keep in mind, of the four unbeaten teams left in the eight, the Bearcats have the second-highest margin of victory (25.9 points per game) behind only Alabama (30.9). Cincinnati deserves a chance if the door opens with some chaos.
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7. Florida (8-2)
Up next: SEC championship game vs. No. 1 Alabama
Florida made too many costly mistakes in a 37-34 loss to LSU. The Gators turned it over three times in the first half, and Marco Wilson’s costly unsportsmanlike penalty in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning field goal for the Tigers. The Gators are still in the SEC championship game, but they face the reality that no two-loss team has made the Playoff.
8. USC (5-0)
Up next: Pac-12 championship vs. Washington
How far will the Trojans bump up after a 43-38 victory against UCLA? Do they deserve a chance to get in with an unbeaten record? Quarterback Kedon Slovis passed for 344 yards and five touchdowns in leading a comeback against the rival Bruins, and USC doesn’t have the two-loss blemishes that the Big 12 teams do. The Trojans still need some help, and the CFP rankings should reveal how much ground there is to cover. They should at least be in the top 10 come the next reveal.
— Iowa State (8-2) and Oklahoma (7-2) meet in the Big 12 championship game, but the selection committee has never accepted a two-loss team. There are a few scenarios where the Cyclones or Sooners could get close, but they need a lot of help.
— Coastal Carolina (11-0) remained unbeaten with a 42-38 victory against Troy. The Chanticleers remain one of the best stories of the season, and they deserve consideration for a New Year’s Day 6 bowl. The only other unbeaten teams in the FBS? San Jose State (6-0) and Buffalo (5-0), of course. Those Group of 5 schools will have to settle for lower-tier bowl games. Should they take Cincinnati and go do their own playoff instead?