College Football Playoff rankings prediction: Top four is easy, but rest of order more difficult

·5 min read

The final decision now rests in the hands of the College Football Playoff selection committee. It won't be hard to settle on this year's top four.

It'll be Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and Cincinnati, likely in that order, after Saturday's run of conference championships simplified a playoff chase that seemed destined for chaos as recently as late November.

The more difficult choices will come in filling out the slate of New Year's Six games, which are influenced by where the committee ranks teams outside the top four.

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WHO IS IN: College Football Playoff field takes shape

BOWL PROJECTIONS: Will Alabama or Michigan be the No. 1 seed?

Here's how the top of the final playoff rankings should look:

1. Alabama (12-1)

The Crimson Tide will take over the top spot from Georgia after handing the Bulldogs a 41-24 loss in the SEC championship game. The win redraws our expectations for what to expect in the playoff and should make the Crimson Tide the clubhouse favorite to take home another championship under coach Nick Saban.

Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Jordan Battle (9) celebrates with tight end Jahleel Billingsley (19) after an interception return for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs in the second half during the SEC championship game.
Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Jordan Battle (9) celebrates with tight end Jahleel Billingsley (19) after an interception return for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs in the second half during the SEC championship game.

2. Michigan (12-1)

Michigan will have a case for No. 1, but don't forget about how the committee will approach seeding with this top four. Putting Alabama No. 2 would demand that Georgia fall to No. 4 so as to avoid a rematch in the semifinals. That's possible but not probable; the committee would still want to reward the one-loss winner of the SEC, especially after locking down the strongest victory by any team this season.

3. Georgia (12-1)

The chorus of calls for JT Daniels to take over at quarterback certainly won't get any quieter after Stetson Bennett averaged 7.1 yards per throw and tossed two interceptions in the Bulldogs' loss. Is it too late to make a move? After rolling with Bennett through the regular season, it seems very unlikely that Kirby Smart makes a change at this point. But if Daniels is healthy, it's not off the table by any means.

4. Cincinnati (13-0)

It was 14-13 at halftime before Cincinnati pulled away from Houston with three quick touchdowns, the second gifted to the Bearcats via an interception deep in his own territory by Houston quarterback Clayton Tune. The 35-20 win makes Cincinnati finishing in the top four an easy decision for the selection committee.

5. Notre Dame (11-1)

The Fighting Irish came close but just missed on a third playoff berth in four years. The miss comes down to that loss to Cincinnati, which boosted the Bearcats' hopes at Notre Dame's expense. The Irish were rolling in November and are energized by the decision to name Marcus Freeman as the next head coach, replacing Brian Kelly, and will be an imposing opponent in a New Year's Six bowl.

6. Baylor (11-2)

Baylor's conference championship is the most unexpected in the Power Five, dwarfing the surprise over Pittsburgh's win in the ACC. Like many teams, the Bears struggled during the pandemic season but rallied behind second-year coach Dave Aranda, whose stoic steadiness has clearly impacted a team that was never rattled even as Oklahoma State made a second-half charge.

7. Ohio State (10-2)

Michigan's win will send Ohio State back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 2018 season. The Buckeyes will be favored against Utah, but the Utes' style of play seems to represent the Achilles heel for a defense that wilted under the Wolverines' onslaught of running plays in the rivalry win to end November.

8. Ole Miss (10-2)

One of the top regular seasons in recent program history will lead to a spot in the New Year's Six. That'll be the last ride for star quarterback Matt Corral, a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who already announced this would be his final season in Oxford. But it won't be the end of the road for coach Lane Kiffin, who was inked to a contract extension on Saturday that takes him out of the running for other Power Five opportunities.

9. Oklahoma State (11-2)

No team in playoff history had come this close to the semifinals only to come up short — in the Cowboys' case, a matter of inches meant the difference. The fourth-down play will be what's replayed all offseason, but the bigger play might've come one snap earlier: Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders had a teammate open in the end zone but was late with the throw, allowing a Baylor defender to close the gap in space and break up the pass.

10. Michigan State (10-2)

There may be a slight feeling of disappointment in having a shot at the Big Ten championship slip away in November. This is still a hugely successful regular season for the Spartans and second-year coach Mel Tucker, who pulled down a contract worth $95 million for quickly reversing the program's recent slide.

11. Utah (10-3)

Look for the Utes to leap six spots after manhandling Oregon for the second time in three weeks. Friday night's 38-7 win hands Utah the program's first Pac-12 championship since joining the conference and sends the program to the Rose Bowl for the first time. Getting there after a brutal September will go down as one of the remarkable accomplishments of coach Kyle Whittingham's career.

12. Pittsburgh (11-2)

Pittsburgh was an independent for its first century of existence, which helps explain why this is just the third conference championship in program history. (It's also the first unshared win; teams in 2004 and 2010 won through tiebreakers.) Beating Wake Forest to claim the ACC will push the Panthers up a few spots in the final playoff rankings and help quarterback Kenny Pickett earn his share of Heisman votes.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff rankings: Final guess at committee's order