Ranking 131 college football teams after Week 12: TCU keeps proving it belongs

There has been a general sense around the College Football Playoff conversation that TCU is lucky to be there and that one loss will knock the Horned Frogs out. But that shouldn’t be the case.

No doubt, TCU has needed a number of second-half comebacks to win, none more notable than the fire drill game-winning field goal to beat Baylor on Saturday. But this goes back further. Last week, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith dismissed the Frogs and said they hadn’t played anyone and that “competition matters.” He read off the schedule and said it isn’t deserving of a top-four ranking, even if undefeated.

It got a lot of reaction, because that’s the point, after all. But Smith was not alone. Paul Finebaum, in the same segment, agreed and downplayed the quality of the Big 12.

What Smith, Finebaum and others missed is that the Big 12 is the deepest conference in the country. Eight of 10 teams are bowl-eligible. There are no pushovers, and the nine conference games are more than the SEC or ACC. Among the CFP top four, TCU has the strongest strength of schedule in multiple ratings, including ESPN’s FPI and Sagarin. The Horned Frogs are No. 1 in ESPN’s strength of record, which evaluates the chances the average top-25 team would have that same record against the same schedule.

An undefeated TCU will make the CFP. We know that. The conversation we should be having is whether or not a one-loss TCU should get in.

All of that said, the place where you can ding the Frogs is they lack a true marquee win. Georgia beat Oregon and Tennessee. Ohio State and Michigan beat Penn State. Every team TCU has defeated has at least three losses. That’s in part due to the depth of the conference. But if you want to prove you can beat a top-tier team, TCU hasn’t done that and won’t have a chance to. (Michigan and Ohio State will try to prove it against each other.) That ultimately could be what keeps TCU out if it doesn’t win the next two games.

But what you can’t say is that TCU hasn’t played anyone. You can’t say it hasn’t deserved these victories. After a weekend in which Georgia, Ohio State and Michigan all struggled against far inferior opponents, maybe pulling out a late November comeback at Baylor proved the Horned Frogs do belong.

Here is this week’s edition of The Athletic 131.

1-10

Rank Team Record Prev

1

11-0

1

2

11-0

2

3

11-0

3

4

11-0

4

5

10-1

7

6

9-2

6

7

10-1

9

8

9-2

5

9

9-2

8

10

9-2

11

There is no change in the top four, and the moment of truth is here. After Michigan escaped Illinois, I thought I would finally put Ohio State ahead. Then the Buckeyes had to escape against Maryland. Every argument you can make about these two teams has its points. Ohio State has a better second win (Notre Dame), while Michigan didn’t play anyone in nonconference. Michigan flattened Penn State, while Ohio State needed a fourth-quarter comeback. Ohio State’s struggles in certain conditions make me think this could be a replay of last year, when Michigan’s toughness in the trenches won out. But now Wolverines running back Blake Corum may be hurt, and quarterback J.J. McCarthy has not been very good. I’m not sure if Michigan can win a big game with his arm.

I still lean toward Michigan slightly, but now it will finally be settled on the field and we can move on to arguing if the loser should be in the CFP.


Michigan held onto an undefeated record before the Ohio State game. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

USC finally got a marquee win, beating UCLA 48-45, which moves the Trojans ahead of LSU. The Tigers do have wins against Alabama and Ole Miss and the schedule is tougher. But USC doesn’t have a lopsided loss, and the Oregon State win on the road is valuable. Either way, both of these teams still control their destiny for the CFP, I believe.

Clemson jumps up to No. 7 due to Tennessee’s lopsided loss to South Carolina. The loss to Notre Dame still holds Clemson down, but the Florida State win has gotten better with time.

Tennessee’s 63-38 loss to South Carolina makes the Vols a very difficult team to place. They’re out of the CFP race, but wins against LSU and Alabama keep them from dropping further. The only other change is Washington moving into the top 10 after Utah’s loss to Oregon.

11-25

Penn State is an odd team to judge as well. The 9-2 Nittany Lions have seven blowout wins, but they’re against relatively weak competition. None of the wins stand out. They got manhandled at Michigan but played Ohio State tough. Oregon stays ahead of Penn State because it has two marquee wins against Utah and UCLA. Notre Dame continues to inch up and up, and Clemson’s move back up makes that Irish win even better. The Irish also moved ahead of Florida State because of the Clemson results between them.

The Group of 5’s New Year’s Six spot is still likely to go to the American Athletic Conference champ, but it’s about time Coastal Carolina, UTSA and Troy are recognized for the seasons they’re having as well.

26-50

Illinois stays put after the narrow loss at Michigan because of the effort and because of other results around the country. UCF drops out of the top 25 after a loss to Navy but remains ahead of Cincinnati because of the head-to-head. That could change when Cincinnati and Tulane meet this week. Iowa is back, controlling its destiny in the Big Ten West after beating Minnesota. Kirk Ferentz keeps doing just enough.

South Carolina is another tough team to place. The blowout win against Tennessee is one of the most impressive of the season, but the Gamecocks also got trounced by Florida last week and lost to Arkansas earlier in the season. The Razorbacks stay behind Liberty because of the head-to-head loss.

Oklahoma moves ahead of Oklahoma State after Saturday’s 28-13 Bedlam win. Boise State’s win at Wyoming clinched the Mountain West’s Mountain division and home field in the league championship game. The Broncos are 6-1 since a 2-2 start, when they fired their offensive coordinator and QB Hank Bachmeier entered the transfer portal. They’ve figured things out, but losses to UTEP and BYU still keep them behind other Group of 5 teams.

51-75

Wisconsin sneaked into bowl eligibility for the 21st consecutive season with a 15-14 comeback win against Nebraska. It hasn’t been pretty, but it looks like Jim Leonhard will probably get the full-time job. Houston demolished East Carolina 42-3 and continues to be one of the most inconsistent teams in the country. James Madison is 7-3 in its first FBS season, but it is not eligible for the postseason as a transitioning FCS team. However, the Dukes can still win a share of the Sun Belt East if they beat Coastal Carolina this week.

Iowa State lost 14-10 to Texas Tech and will miss a bowl game. The Cyclones are 3-11 in one-possession games over the past two seasons. SMU has allowed 145 points over the past three games, including 59 in Thursday’s loss to Tulane. Wyoming’s narrow loss to Boise State doesn’t drop the Cowboys far. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will play for bowl eligibility in their rivalry game next week, as App State is not yet eligible because it has two FCS wins. Texas A&M got past UMass in another uninspiring performance. How about Vanderbilt? The Commodores have defeated Kentucky and Florida in consecutive weeks.

Fresno State turned around its season in a big way and clinched the Mountain West’s West division with a 41-14 win against Nevada, its sixth consecutive win. San Diego State has won five of six (the loss coming to Fresno State) and quarterback Jalen Mayden has given that offense a boost for the first time in a long time.

76-100

Miami had nine yards at halftime against Clemson and lost 40-10. The Canes must beat Pitt to get to a bowl game. Georgia Tech beat North Carolina 21-17, and Brent Key is 4-3 as interim head coach with two Top 25 wins. Ohio’s bounce-back continued with a 32-18 win against Ball State, and the Bobcats are one win away from winning the MAC East, but the status of injured quarterback Kurtis Rourke is key.

Cal beat rival Stanford 27-20. UConn lost to Army 34-17 and must wait and hope for a bowl selection. FAU lost 49-21 to Middle Tennessee with bowl eligibility on the line and must beat WKU next week. Rice (at North Texas) and UTEP (at UTSA) also need upsets next week to get to bowl games and perhaps save their coaches’ jobs. Indiana beat Michigan State 39-31 in double overtime despite being heavily outgained and completing just two passes. Virginia Tech ended its long losing streak with a 23-22 win at Liberty. UNLV began the season 4-1 but has lost six consecutive games after a 31-25 loss at Hawaii, ending its bowl hopes.

101-131

Bowling Green got bowl-eligible with a last-second touchdown at Toledo in the snow in a wild finish. The Falcons are still in the mix for the MAC East title if they can beat Ohio. Buffalo’s game against Akron was snowed out and could impact that MAC East tiebreaker. Navy beat UCF and Army beat UConn, and both did so without completing a pass. Neither academy will have a bowl game or the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy to compete for (because Army has two FCS wins and Air Force clinched the CIC), but that rivalry game is always special. The middle of the MAC continues to have a lot of parity. UMass fought valiantly against Texas A&M and covered the spread in a 20-3 loss, but it’s not enough to move out of the bottom spot.

(Top photo:  Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

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