College Football Playoff Rankings: Clemson, Auburn move into the top two

The penultimate College Football Playoff Rankings were released Tuesday night, meaning the stage is officially set for conference championship week as the top teams in the nation will vie for the four spots that will be selected on Sunday.

The defending champion Clemson Tigers are the new No. 1 team in the nation, but the ranking that is getting the most attention is Auburn at No. 2. Those Tigers have beaten No. 5 Alabama and No. 6 Georgia, both of whom were previously ranked No. 1, at home over the last three weeks.  They trounced the Bulldogs, who they will play for the SEC title this week in a more neutral Atlanta.  Auburn beat Alabama last week in a game that the Crimson Tide led late in the third quarter before the Tigers turned it on and put Bama away.

At 10-2, Auburn is the first major conference team to be ranked in the top 10 and ahead of another major conference team with fewer losses in the first four years of the CFP Rankings.  Undefeated Wisconsin is No. 4, which begs the question, "If the Bulldogs win the rematch with the Tigers, would Auburn stay ahead of Alabama in the final rankings?"  That could open the door for a team to lose its conference championship game and still make the playoff -- something that may happen eventually, though this is not the circumstance I would have imagined for that to play out.  The guess here is Alabama would be higher ranked in the end, but it is not definite.

Not only might Alabama need an Auburn win on Saturday to have a chance but so might Ohio State.  If there is a chance the committee would keep a losing Auburn team ahead of Alabama, there is probably a greater chance they would keep them ahead of the Big Ten champion Buckeyes.  Ohio State would have some nice wins, including the one over Penn State, but Auburn can better those and they would not have lost to Iowa by 31 points.  Buckeyes fans are probably sick of hearing about that, but it is the most prominent part of Ohio State's resume.

No. 3 Oklahoma was jumped by Auburn after blowing out West Virginia on Saturday.  The Sooners are still in position where a second victory over TCU, this time in the Big 12 title game, will be enough to secure a spot in the playoff. No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 6 Georgia and No. 7 Miami also control their own fate for a playoff spots.  Miami lost at Pittsburgh last Friday and took the biggest hit in the top 10 this week but can rebound with a win over No. 1 Clemson in the ACC title game on Saturday night.

Let's take a look at the top 25. Keep on scrolling for more analysis from CBS Sports bowls expert Jerry Palm.

  1. Clemson (11-1)
  2. Auburn (10-2)
  3. Oklahoma (11-1)
  4. Wisconsin (12-0)
  5. Alabama (11-1)
  6. Georgia (11-1)
  7. Miami (10-1)
  8. Ohio State (10-2)
  9. Penn State (10-2)
  10. USC (10-2)
  11. TCU (10-2)
  12. Stanford (9-3)
  13. Washington (10-2)
  14. UCF (11-0)
  15. Notre Dame (9-3)
  16. Michigan State (9-3)
  17. LSU (9-3)
  18. Washington State (9-3)
  19. Oklahoma State (9-3)
  20. Memphis (10-1)
  21. Northwestern (9-3)
  22. Virginia Tech (9-3)
  23. Mississippi State (8-4)
  24. NC State (8-4)
  25. Fresno State (9-3)

The other undefeated team in college football is UCF.  The Knights stayed at No. 14 this week after beating South Florida to win the East division of the American Athletic Conference.  Washington State dropped below UCF after losing the Apple Cup to Washington, but the Huskies jumped the Knights.  Stanford and Notre Dame also switched sides of the Knights in the rankings.  UCF will get its chance to prove itself in a New Year's Six game if it wins the AAC championship on Saturday against Memphis.

The battle for the final spot or two in the New Year's Six games could be interesting.  Notre Dame was eliminated from contention after the committee dropped the Irish to 15th this week.  With no game to play and too many teams ahead of them in the same boat, the Irish will most likely head to an ACC bowl game instead.

If No. 11 TCU loses, the Horned Frogs could drop out of the New Year's Six entirely and be replaced by No. 13 Washington or No. 12 Stanford, should the Cardinal defeat No. 10 USC and the Trojans not fall behind TCU.  The committee has been relatively kind to conference championship game losers in the brief history of this system.  Last season, Colorado became the first conference title game loser to fall from a position of playing in the New Year's Six, but the Buffaloes were replaced by another Pac-12 team.

No. 25 Fresno State replaced Boise State in the rankings this week.  The Bulldogs beat the Broncos at home on Saturday, and the teams will rematch on the Smurf Turf of Boise this Saturday for the Mountain West title.  The Bulldogs appearance gives Alabama another top 25 win -- for now.

If we do not have a chalky championship weekend, the CFP Selection Committee will find itself dealing with situations it has not before.  That comes with the territory in such a young system, though.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jerry Palm started writing about sports on the Internet right after Al Gore invented it. He was the first to bring RPI out in the open and is one of the pioneers of predicting the March Madness bracket.... Full Bio

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