The use of the word "penultimate" rapidly goes from zero to 60 on the Tuesday leading into conference championship weekend, when the playoff selection committee releases the next-to-last — otherwise known as penultimate — rankings of the regular season.
That's just about the only interesting footnote to another predictable Top 25. (Take a sip of the drink of your choice every time one of your Twitter follows uses the word.)
As expected, the top four of Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State remains the same leading into conference championship games. The Crimson Tide are heavy favorites against Florida. Ohio State is similarly favored against Northwestern.
Clemson and Notre Dame will meet Saturday in a rematch for the ACC championship, in the only game of the weekend that can plausibly add chaos to this year's smooth and uneventful playoff debate.
The scenario has been hashed and rehashed: Notre Dame winning might knock Clemson out, allowing Texas A&M to sneak into the top four and draw another shot at the Crimson Tide. Clemson winning would only rearrange the order of the current top four, with the Irish likely sliding to fourth and Ohio State climbing into third.
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Here are the winners and losers of the penultimate playoff rankings:
The Gators fell just one spot to No. 7 despite losing at home as a 23-point favorite to three-win LSU. Unfortunately, that game put the committee in a bind: Florida beat No. 8 Georgia earlier this season, so the Gators really couldn't fall too far down the rankings. The slight drop keeps UF in the conversation for the top four should the Gators win the conference title and get some help from Northwestern and Notre Dame. It will probably all be for naught: Alabama is favored by more than two touchdowns in the SEC championship game. Still, the Gators are in the mix — not something that was expected after Saturday night's ugly loss.
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask is tackled during the first half of the Gators' game against LSU. (Photo: Brad McClenny, Gainesville Sun)
While Coastal would struggle to move ahead of Cincinnati for the Group of Five's automatic bid to the New Year's Six should the Bearcats beat Tulsa to win the American, the Chanticleers sit at No. 12 in Tuesday's rankings and are in position to grab a second spot for the Group of Five in these major bowls. First off, Coastal needs to beat No. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette in this week's Sun Belt championship, a rematch of a 30-27 win earlier this season. With No. 11 Indiana not playing Saturday due to COVID-19, No. 6 Iowa State and No. 10 Oklahoma meeting to decide the Big 12 and the possibility that Florida adds a third loss to Alabama, the Chanticleers are in pretty good shape to secure a spot in the top 12 in the final rankings.
The No. 15 Tar Heels moved ahead of No. 18 Miami (Fla.) in the ACC pecking order, and rightfully so: UNC racked up approximately four miles of yardage in Saturday's 62-26 thrashing of the Hurricanes. This is important for the Heels' postseason destination, since being the top-ranked ACC team outside of Notre Dame and Clemson would ensure a New Year's Six bowl should the Tigers win the rematch and both teams reach the semifinals.
Those who fear change
The first playoff rankings, issued on Nov. 24, began with Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State. Same with Tuesday's Top 25. It's nice to have something reliably consistent during a season when nothing has gone according to plan, let alone as scheduled. And it's definitely true that this quartet has separated itself from the rest of the pack, leaving no realistic case for any other team. For the first time in playoff history, could we have a wire-to-wire top four?
The Bearcats continue to fall down the rankings despite not playing, let alone losing. Down another spot to No. 9, the Bearcats are in no position to take advantage of even the most ridiculously wild scenario to end the regular season. Despite being unbeaten, Cincinnati sits behind three two-loss teams (Iowa State, Florida and Georgia) while Coastal continues to make up ground. Is Cincinnati in a guaranteed New Year's Six game with a win? Yeah, beating Tulsa would very likely fend off the Chanticleers. But after flirting with the top four earlier this season, that the Bearcats have fallen back is demoralizing for the entire Group of Five.
Moving up to No. 13 is a solid reward for USC's status as the lone unbeaten in the Pac-12. (The Trojans and No. 24 San Jose State are the only undefeated teams west of the Rockies.) Still, nine spots is a ridiculously large gap to close in a one-week span, especially since the Trojans are playing an unranked Oregon team for the Pac-12 championship and were unable to play this year's scheduled game against No. 25 Colorado, the only other Pac-12 team in the penultimate Top 25.
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