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College Football Playoff: Clemson is back where it ended last season

K’Von Wallace
Defensive back K’Von Wallace and Clemson teammates appear to be in the running for a second consecutive national championship.
(Sean Rayford / Associated Press)

Three-hundred-and-twenty-three days later, we’re back to where we started.

Clemson is the No. 1 team in the nation.

The defending national champions climbed back on top Tuesday in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Now they just need to hang on for five more days.

It won’t be easy.

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Before the CFP selection committee names its final four teams Sunday morning, most of the contenders will play in crucial, difficult conference championship games.

“Four quarters away from having a chance to go back to the playoffs,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s what we’re all shooting for.”

The CFP likes to talk about resumes and bodies of work. Nothing will be decided until the members can sit down and chew over every bit of available data.

Still, committee chairman Kirby Hocutt sounded confident Tuesday, at least about the start of the list.

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“We feel like we got that right,” Hocutt said during the rankings announcement on ESPN. “This week, it was clear-cut with the top four teams.”

At 11-1, Clemson recaptured No. 1 by rebounding from a mid-season loss to Syracuse, a game in which quarterback Kelly Bryant had to leave early because of an injury.

“We had that one get away from us,” Swinney said. “But it’s hard to win 11 games out of 12, so we’ve had a good year.”

The next few teams on the list are a reflection of the new era in college football. The CFP was established to put a dozen or so people in a room and have them ponder nuances for which computers cannot account.

Criteria such as schedule strength and conference championships are tangible, but quality of wins and the ugliness of losses can be highly subjective.

So 10-2 Auburn climbed to No. 2 because of impressive wins over Alabama and Georgia, both of whom were ranked No. 1 at the time, in the final, pressurized weeks of the regular season.

A visceral sense that the Tigers might be playing the best football in the country puts them in position to become the first two-loss team to make the playoffs.

At No. 3, Oklahoma also benefits from an intangible sort of momentum. The Sooners are playing lights-out offense with Baker Mayfield, the likely Heisman Trophy winner, at quarterback.

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“I’m confident with where we’re at with this team,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “I’m confident that if we can find a way to win [the Big 12 Conference championship], that’ll take care of itself.”

Undefeated Wisconsin, whose strength of schedule has come into question, rose to No. 4 but has a huge matchup against No. 8 Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference title game Saturday.

Through the first three seasons of the CFP, the penultimate rankings have provided a fairly accurate indication of what will happen on selection day.

In 2014, there was some grousing about No. 5 Ohio State displacing No. 3 Texas Christian on the final weekend, but the Buckeyes had an arguably stronger schedule and finished with a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

The situation was a little clearer in 2015 when No. 4 Iowa faced No. 5 Michigan State for the Big Ten title. The Spartans won 16-13 to grab the playoff spot.

Last season brought a tricky scenario with Ohio State ranked No. 2 but not qualified for the conference championship game. The Buckeyes still made it into the playoffs ahead of Penn State.

This time around, so much remains in flux as teams hovering just outside the top four have an opportunity to play their way in.

No. 6 Georgia gets a shot at Auburn in the Southeastern Conference and No. 7 Miami faces Clemson for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. No. 11 Texas Christian plays Oklahoma in the Big 12.

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The challenge is tougher for Alabama, which dropped to No. 5 after the Auburn loss and has no choice but to sit and wait.

A few days ago, coach Nick Saban insisted his team deserves to contend for the national championship. The Crimson Tide would probably need upset wins by Ohio State and Texas Christian.

No. 10 USC requires even more mayhem, plus a big victory against No. 12 Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference championship Friday night.

“We looked at Southern California as a team that as they have gotten healthier has played better and better, but there again, [there was] the loss to Notre Dame in the convincing manner that happened and the three-point loss at Washington State,” Hocutt said.

Any number of unexpected results would force the selection committee to untangle a close-knit group of one- and two-loss candidates.

All of this should make for highly entertaining television. It will also be the only time this season the CFP selectors convene to watch games together.

“We’ve got some great matchups this weekend,” Hocutt said. “We won’t leave until we’re sure we have the four best teams in the country.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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