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Five things we learned from the College Football Playoff rankings entering championship weekend

Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) celebrates with his teammates after their victory over Colorado during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) celebrates with his teammates after their victory over Colorado during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) (Rick Bowmer/AP)

From debate over the final playoff spot to Alabama’s shocking tumble to more questions surrounding the Rose and Cotton bowls, here are five things we learned from Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff rankings:

Utah has the upper-hand over Oklahoma and Baylor … but this weekend will decide everything.

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The most-anticipated reveal Tuesday night was the No. 5 spot, which went to Utah after its third straight blowout victory.

No. 6 Oklahoma climbed a spot for beating then-No. 21 Oklahoma State, 34-16, in Bedlam, and Baylor rose two spots after thrashing Kansas, 61-6.

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Playoff committee chair Rob Mullens said the debate between Utah and Oklahoma for No. 5 was the “most rigorous” discussion this week, and it’s easy to see why. Oklahoma has more impressive wins than Utah, which hasn’t beaten an opponent currently ranked in the Top 25, but the Utes have been more consistent, winning by an average score of 36-11. (Baylor, meanwhile, while looking vulnerable at times, has only lost to Oklahoma and can avenge that defeat this weekend in the Big 12 title game.)

The committee smartly has never revealed what it values more — quality wins, strength of schedule, eye test, etc. — because each season is different. But it’s safe to say that it strongly values game control, meaning how dominant a team looks on the field and on the scoreboard. Utah clearly has the edge there.

What the committee is really waiting for, though, is conference championship weekend. The Big 12 is guaranteed a 12-1 champion that will be in the discussion for the final playoff spot, but Utah might lose to Oregon. And if Georgia beats LSU, this whole debate is irrelevant, because both the Bulldogs and Tigers would get in.

This weekend will shape the debate. By putting the top contenders for the final spot at Nos. 5, 6 and 7 in the penultimate rankings, the committee has declared that all three teams are of equal merit, and the worthy team must prove itself on the field. That’s just how it should be.

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Alabama head coach Nick Saban signals to his team before a game against Auburn, Saturday.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban signals to his team before a game against Auburn, Saturday. (Vasha Hunt/AP)

Alabama might have fallen out of contention for a New Year’s Six bowl.

Seriously. This could be the first time since 2010 — the last time Alabama lost two games in the regular season — that the Crimson Tide don’t play in a BCS, College Football Playoff or New Year’s Six event.

The committee dropped Bama all the way to No. 12 — its lowest ranking since 2008, coach Nick Saban’s second season in Tuscaloosa — after its loss to then-No. 15 Auburn, 48-45, in the Iron Bowl. The Tide dropped seven spots, surpassed only by Minnesota — which fell from No. 8 to No. 18 after losing to Wisconsin — for the biggest fall this week.

The Orange Bowl in Miami (against the ACC’s top non-Clemson representative) or the Cotton Bowl in Dallas (against the top Group of 5 team) were the two presumed destinations for the Tide after that Iron Bowl loss. They lost to a top-15 team, on the road, with their backup quarterback in a strange game, after all. Surely they wouldn’t fall that far.

Now, we could see Alabama play a Big Ten team such as Michigan or Minnesota in the Citrus or Outback Bowl. These are surely the end times.

It comes down to Wisconsin vs. Penn State for the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl bid — and Ohio State could decide it.

With their 38-17 win over Minnesota, the Badgers rose to No. 8, two spots ahead of the Nittany Lions, who remained at No. 10 after letting Rutgers hang around in a 27-6 win.

With Ohio State expected to beat Wisconsin handily for the Big Ten title this weekend, the Badgers would likely drop a few spots in the rankings, probably behind Penn State. That opens the door for the Nittany Lions to head to Pasadena.

Penn State quarterback Will Levis in action against Rutgers on Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Will Levis in action against Rutgers on Saturday. (Barry Reeger/AP)

But if Wisconsin keeps it close, perhaps putting the game in doubt in the fourth quarter — the way Penn State did against the Buckeyes a few weeks ago in Columbus — it likely stays at No. 8 or drops just one spot. (If Wisconsin wins, it’s definitely heading to Pasadena, since Ohio State would likely remain in the playoff field.)

With Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor all fighting to get in over Georgia, and Penn State hoping for an Ohio State blowout win, margin of victory has never been more important on championship weekend.

The American Athletic Conference champ is likely headed to the Cotton Bowl … but Boise State and Appalachian State are still lingering.

If Memphis, which came in at No. 17 this week, beats Cincinnati this weekend in a rematch for the AAC title, there is no discussion for the Group of 5 bid to the Cotton Bowl. It would go to Memphis, no questions asked.

But if Cincinnati wins? Then things get interesting.

After holding off Colorado State, 31-24, Boise State moved up one spot to No. 19, jumping ahead of Cincinnati, which fell to No. 20. Right behind the Bearcats is No. 21 Appalachian State, which rose four spots after routing Troy, 48-13.

Even with two losses (one of which came at Ohio State), Cincy is probably headed to the Cotton Bowl with a win Saturday, especially since the AAC has rated well this season, even better than the ACC in some metrics. Winning that conference at 11-2 is more impressive than getting through the Mountain West and Sun Belt at 12-1.

But Boise State and App State each have a chance to punctuate their resumes this weekend. The Broncos host 9-4 Hawaii for the Mountain West title, while the Mountaineers host 10-2 Louisiana. Not to mention, Boise (over Florida State) and App (over South Carolina) both have road victories over Power 5 teams this season.

Western Michigan (in 2016) and Boise State (in 2014) have been the only non-AAC Group of 5 teams to crack the NY6 since the playoff began. With convincing wins this weekend, the Broncos and Mountaineers have put themselves in position to be the next one.

Navy safety Noruwa Obanor (15) celebrates his fumble recovery during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Navy safety Noruwa Obanor (15) celebrates his fumble recovery during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith) (Eric Christian Smith / AP)

Navy is quietly putting together its biggest single-season turnaround in program history.

The Midshipmen jumped back into the rankings this week at No. 24, a nice reward for a program preparing to face its archrival Army in two weeks — and perhaps make history.

With his triple-option offense, Paul Johnson took the Mids from 2-10 his first season in 2002 to 8-5 the next, becoming bowl-eligible for just the second time since 1982 and ushering in a new era of Navy football. That six-win improvement has already been matched by this year’s Navy team, which sits 9-2 with two more games to go after finishing 3-10 last season.

If Navy can beat Army and win its bowl game (perhaps the Military Bowl in Annapolis), it would match the program record for wins, set by the 2015 team under star quarterback Keenan Reynolds. With the way he’s playing, Malcolm Perry will be remembered just as fondly as Reynolds for what he’s done this season.

This year won’t be considered a complete success unless Navy beats its archrival, but it deserves to be celebrated nonetheless.

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