College Football Playoff chair explains why Michigan is still alive for a spot

Welcome to a scenario where the Big Ten could send two teams to the College Football Playoff without either playing for its conference title.

CFP committee chairman Kirby Hocutt won't say it, but Ohio State remaining at No. 2 confirms the Buckeyes are a lock. Meanwhile, Michigan is not dead. The Wolverines, ranked fifth during Tuesday's final mock selections, certainly need No. 3 Clemson and/or No. 4 Washington to lose this week.

But the biggest takeaway Tuesday is how much Hocutt stressed that the gap between Washington and Michigan is "very, very small" and it's the committee's job to pick the four best teams. Hocutt said the committee spent about two hours comparing Washington and Michigan.

"I know there were a number of selection committee members that were really struggling between who was the better team," Hocutt said.

Why does this matter? Because the window seems to be left wide open for Michigan, whose regular season is over, to get into the playoff. Hocutt said the Wolverines played an "impressive" game by losing in double-overtime at Ohio State.

Let's be clear: If Washington beats Colorado for the Pac-12 championship, the Huskies presumably will be in the playoff. They would have a top-10 win after already being ranked fourth, plus a conference title.

But what if Colorado wins? Michigan would have beaten the Pac-12 champ (Colorado) and the Big Ten champ (No. 6 Wisconsin or No. 7 Penn State). What if Clemson loses to Virginia Tech? Michigan is still sitting at No. 5 to possibly stay ahead of the Big Ten champion.

The committee doesn't add whatever value it deems appropriate for winning a conference title until it happens so that's an X-factor. Hocutt continued to stress that when there's little to no separation when comparing teams, the committee looks at four metrics: conference champions, strength of schedule, head-to-head matchups and results against common opponents. Each member decides which criteria to emphasize more or less.

So how close are Wisconsin and Penn State to Washington and Michigan? Hocutt's answer boiled down to this: "But I think the separation from four to seven is not a wide margin of separation, but specifically between Washington and Michigan, it's razor thin."

Let's look at resumes, shall we?

No. 4 Washington (11-1)

vs. CFP Top 10: 0-0

vs. CFP Top 25: 2-1 (beat No. 18 Stanford, No. 20 Utah; lost to No. 11 USC)

Sagarin strength of schedule: 60th

Remaining game: vs. No. 8 Colorado for Pac-12 title

No. 5 Michigan (10-2)

vs. CFP Top 10: 3-1 (beat No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Penn State, No. 8 Colorado; lost to No. 2 Ohio State)

vs. CFP Top 25: 3-1 (same as above; also lost to unranked Iowa)

Sagarin strength of schedule: 33rd

Remaining game: None

No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2)

vs. CFP Top 10: 0-2 (lost to No. 2 Ohio State, No. 5 Michigan)

vs. CFP Top 25: 1-2 (same as above plus beat No. 21 LSU)

Sagarin strength of schedule: 20th

Remaining game: vs. No. 7 Penn State for Big Ten title

No. 7 Penn State (10-2)

vs. CFP Top 10: 1-1 (beat No. 2 Ohio State, lost to No. 5 Michigan)

vs. CFP Top 25: 1-2 (same as above plus lost to No. 25 Pittsburgh)

Sagarin strength of schedule: 39th

Remaining game: vs. No. 6 Wisconsin for Big Ten title

The committee has never been tested like this because of the Big Ten conundrum. Hocutt laughed when asked if there's any part of him that wishes for smaller conferences or just scrapping divisions. The wildly entertaining Big Ten has done no favors for the committee.

It's worth remembering that two years ago TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 on the last week after a 55-3 victory over Iowa State. So things can happen. But 2014 doesn't feel like 2016. The Ohio State-Penn State debate seems to be over in the committee's mind, despite the Nittany Lions having won on the field and possibly claiming the Big Ten championship.

Hocutt said the committee is aware of Penn State's win over Ohio State, "but it is not the distinguishing metric in the evaluation of those two teams." Hocutt cited Ohio State's three top-10 wins (No. 5 Michigan, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 9 Oklahoma) and its "strong" quality of play as to why the Buckeyes remain No. 2.

Wilson Bell and the Seminoles jumped ahead of Louisville despite a 43-point loss to the Cardinals in September. USATSI

There's another key head-to-head result not factoring into the rankings. The committee moved Florida State to No. 12, one spot ahead of Louisville. That's important because if Clemson beats Virginia Tech at the ACC title game, it's now the Seminoles -- not Louisville -- who would go to the Orange Bowl as the ACC's second highest-ranked CFP team.

Louisville destroyed Florida State 63-20 on Sept. 17. Both teams have 9-3 records. But Louisville has lost two straight to Houston (36-10) and Kentucky (41-38). Hocutt cited Florida State's better strength of schedule -- the Seminoles are 13th in Sagarin, Louisville is 66th. Also, Hocutt said Louisville has beaten only one team with a winning record and the Florida State-Louisville game was early in the season.

"We talked about it in the eyes of the selection committee who is the better football team at this particular time, and that is Florida State," Hocutt said. "Strength of schedule was a factor there but also as to how those two teams have played in recent weeks."

Meanwhile, Western Michigan is No. 17 and Navy is No. 19 in the race for the Group of Five bid for the Cotton Bowl. The highest-ranked Group of Five champion gets the bid. Western Michigan (12-0) plays Ohio in the MAC championship on Friday, and Navy (9-2) hosts Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship on Saturday.

Western Michigan's strength of schedule "continues to be a concern, something that the selection committee is aware of," Hocutt said. "It's a Western Michigan team that is very successful on the offensive side of the ball. At the same time, they've only beaten two FBS teams with a winning record." Hocutt said Navy has three quality wins (Houston, Memphis, Tulsa).

If Navy and Western Michigan both win this week, the Group of Five decision would be delayed until after the Army-Navy game on Dec. 10. Hocutt noted that the selection committee has a teleconference on its calendar scheduled for Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. ET.

By then, we'll know who's in the playoff, of course. The weekly drama of mock rankings are finally over. Next week it finally counts -- and Michigan is still breathing.

"We talked about Michigan's additional loss to an unranked team [Iowa] sitting there on their resume," Hocutt said. "So again, can't look forward and anticipate what may or may not happen this weekend, but Michigan does have an impressive resume in the eyes of the selection committee."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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