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Ranking 131 college football teams before bowls: What do conference title games mean?

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A longtime problem of the college football postseason model for the past three decades is the idea that making your conference championship game can hurt you.

Entering this past weekend, USC was in the College Football Playoff field. Then the Trojans lost to Utah and missed out on the CFP, while Ohio State was able to move in despite not playing. It’s the second time the Pac-12 has missed out on the CFP because its top team lost on championship weekend. This sort of thing happened in the BCS days, too, as Kansas State missed a chance at the national championship in 1998 when it lost to Texas A&M, and Florida State got a title shot after an idle week.

There is a flip side, of course. Some teams have won their way into the CFP, like Ohio State in 2014. The good news about the upcoming 12-team playoff in 2024 is that conference championships will have more stakes, without penalizing the top teams for playing in them.

In the end, the final four selections this year were easy, as they are in most seasons. This year has lacked dominant teams. Even Georgia and Michigan don’t feel as good as last season. But with the way USC fell apart against Utah, giving the Trojans a second loss to the Utes, the committee had no choice but to drop it out of the top four and go with Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State.

In the penultimate The Athletic 131 of the 2022 season, I mostly didn’t penalize teams for playing in a conference championship game, but I did reward those that won. Teams that dropped after a loss this weekend only did so because they were jumped. (Ohio didn’t fall and stayed ahead of Toledo because of the injury to QB Kurtis Rourke, for example.) The exception was USC, which had to fall behind Utah with its two losses to the Utes.

After the season, we’ll compare the final rankings to the preseason rankings. Before bowl season begins, here is this week’s edition of The Athletic 131.

1-10

Rank Team Record Prev

1

13-0

2

2

13-0

1

3

12-1

3

4

11-1

5

5

10-2

6

6

10-3

10

7

11-2

4

8

10-2

7

9

10-3

14

10

10-2

8

Michigan moved ahead of Georgia to No. 1 here last week, but I said it could change a week later. Georgia’s dominant win against LSU moves the Dawgs right back to No. 1. TCU doesn’t move despite the loss to Kansas State, as the Frogs have still defeated every team they’ve played.

Watching Nick Saban pitch his team on Fox and ESPN on Saturday was bizarre if only because the Alabama program feels above that. His arguments were lame. Ole Miss was once a top-10 team? Bryce Young was once hurt? The Tide closed strong with wins against Austin Peay and Auburn with an interim head coach? Vegas betting lines? The bottom line is Alabama just hasn’t accomplished anything notable. The Tide didn’t beat a team with more than eight wins and went down to the wire with Texas, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. They lost to Tennessee and to an LSU team that Tennessee whipped in Baton Rouge. That Alabama is ahead of Tennessee in the CFP is frankly ridiculous. In a season in which the committee valued big wins, Alabama got the benefit of the doubt because of its past, not its present. Close losses are not a resume.

Kansas State’s Big 12 championship win, meanwhile, moves the Wildcats into the top 10.

11-25

Rank Team Record Prev

11

11-2

15

12

10-2

9

13

11-2

18

14

9-3

11

15

9-3

12

16

9-3

13

17

9-3

16

18

11-2

22

19

11-2

21

20

9-4

17

21

8-4

19

22

8-4

20

23

8-4

23

24

9-4

24

25

8-4

25

Penn State is an example of a team jumped by teams that won conference championships. Though the Nittany Lions’ two losses are to Michigan and Ohio State, they did not beat a Power 5 team with more than eight wins. That left them prone to be jumped by Utah, K-State and Clemson.

Tulane’s AAC championship win against UCF moves the Green Wave up. Tulane has wins against K-State, Cincinnati and UCF, with those first two on the road. You can make the case they should be ahead of K-State. I didn’t because I think the Wildcats are a different team than in Week 3, and Tulane’s loss to Southern Miss is also taken into account.

Troy and UTSA move up after their conference championship wins. The Trojans moved slightly ahead of the Roadrunners because they beat Coastal Carolina on Saturday.

26-131

Fresno State makes a big jump after beating Boise State in Boise for the Mountain West championship. The Bulldogs lost to Boise State earlier this year, but QB Jake Haener didn’t play in that game. He did play Saturday. Fresno State has won eight games in a row after the 1-4 start around Haener’s injury.

(Top photo: David Becker / Getty Images)



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