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College Football Playoff Picture after Week 12: Four in and four out ahead of first rankings

The first set of College Football Playoff rankings will be released Tuesday, meaning the four-team race is about to escalate for the final four weeks of the 2020 season.

Let the debates begin. Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame likely will hold the top three spots in those rankings, but in what order? The Buckeyes won a top-10 showdown with Indiana 42-35 on Saturday, and Alabama remained unbeaten in the SEC with a convincing 63-3 victory against Kentucky. The Irish were idle.

Who will be No. 4? Which other teams have a chance to stay in the mix? That’s the subject of even more debate, given the number of games played and the number of games that could be canceled because of COVID-19 over the final month of the season. Below are the dates for each of the rankings:

With that in mind, Sporting News breaks down the College Football Playoff picture with four teams in, four teams out and four teams to watch heading into the second week of November:

Four In

1. Alabama (7-0)

Remaining schedule: vs. Auburn, at Arkansas

Lowdown: It remains to be seen whether the LSU game will be rescheduled, but the Crimson Tide showed no rust in a 63-3 victory against Kentucky after three weeks off. Mac Jones (16 of 24, 230 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), Najee Harris (110 total yards, two touchdowns) DeVonta Smith (144 yards, two touchdowns) have formed a dominant trio, and the defense has shaped up after some early-season struggles. Next up is the Iron Bowl, and Nick Saban is 5-1 against the Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The last four home victories preceded SEC championships.

2. Ohio State (4-0)

Remaining schedule: at Illinois, at Michigan State, vs. Michigan

The Buckeyes beat Indiana 42-35 in a top-10 showdown that gives the Buckeyes control of the Big Ten East division. Justin Fields passed for 300 yards, and Master Teague rushed for 169 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The defense allowed 491 passing yards, however, and allowed the Hoosiers to rally in the second half. The Buckeyes have issues on the back end of the defense, but that won’t be seriously challenged until the Big Ten championship game.

3. Notre Dame (8-0)

Remaining schedule: at North Carolina, vs. Syracuse, at Wake Forest

Notre Dame will be ranked higher in the initial rankings based on the victory against Clemson. The Irish enjoyed a bye week, which sets up a Black Friday thriller on the road at North Carolina. The quarterback matchup between Ian Book and Sam Howell should be fun, and the Irish are 18-2 all time against the Tar Heels. Both losses, however, were in Chapel Hill, N.C. Get your online shopping done before kickoff.

4. Clemson (7-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Pitt, at Virginia Tech, at Florida State

The Tigers’ matchup with Florida State was unexpectedly postponed Saturday, and Dec. 12 is now a potential rescheduling date. Clemson hasn’t played since the 47-40 loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7, and the three-week layoff theoretically ends against Pitt on Saturday. Clemson has been out of sight, but the Tigers likely will land in this spot in the first CFP rankings.

Four out

5. Florida (6-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Kentucky, at Tennessee, vs. LSU

The Gators were locked in a tight game with Vanderbilt in the first half before scoring 24 unanswered points between the second and third quarters for a 38-17 victory. Kyle Trask didn’t throw for his four-touchdown minimum for the first time all season, but finished with 383 yards. The Gators will make the College Football Playoff if they win out, and there are three more chances on the regular-season schedule to build toward that long-awaited shot at Alabama.

6. Cincinnati (8-0)

Remaining schedule: at Temple, at Tulsa

The Bearcats beat former Group of 5 darling UCF in a 36-33 shootout after battling back from a 14-3 deficit. Desmond Ridder put on a show with 338 passing yards, 57 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. Cincinnati has road trips with Temple and No. 25 Tulsa left on the schedule before a potential American Athletic Conference championship. The Bearcats need help to get in, but this looks like the best chance for a Group of 5 school to do it in the Playoff era.

7. Oregon (3-0)

Remaining schedule: at Oregon State, at Cal, vs. Washington

The Ducks need more style points, but the unbeaten record stands. Jordan Happle’s interception return for a touchdown to end the half gave the Ducks the lead for good in a 38-35 nailbiter against UCLA. Oregon hasn’t dominated the competition, and its remaining opponents have dealt with COVID-19 cancellations. The Ducks might have to be creative with the scheduling the rest of the way, but an undefeated season and Pac-12 championship would still be a Playoff-worthy case.

8. BYU (9-0)

Remaining schedule: vs. San Diego State

The Cougars throttled North Alabama 66-14 on Saturday, which isn’t much of a surprise. BYU has one game left on the schedule, and it should explore every possible scheduling option for the other three weeks to beef up the resume. The Cougars have an exciting offense, a huge point differential and a potential Heisman finalist in Zach Wilson. Will the CFP recognize that in the first set of rankings?

Anyone else?

Texas A&M (5-1) had back-to-back canceled games and will hope to resume action against LSU. The Aggies are hampered by the head-to-head loss to Alabama and need the four teams ranked ahead of them on this list to lose.

Northwestern (4-0) took control of the Big Ten West with an impressive victory against Wisconsin, and that puts the Wildcats on track to reach the Big Ten championship game for the second time in three seasons. Who knew that would be the best competition for Ohio State in the Big Ten? The Wildcats should vault into the top 10, but the biggest hurdle is the Buckeyes.

Miami (7-1) also had to postpone this week’s game against Georgia Tech, but still has a possible path to the ACC championship game. The Hurricanes face long odds with the head-to-head loss to Clemson.

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