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TCU must maximize CFP hopes on make-or-break Saturday

A spot inside the College Football Playoff’s projected four-team bracket is available this week, and No. 5 TCU (10-1) looms as the most likely team to grab it when the fresh rankings are revealed Tuesday.

The Horned Frogs climbed two spots in Sunday’s updated Associated Press poll, to fourth, on the strength of their 48-10 rout of Texas. No. 7 Baylor (10-1) remained fifth with AP voters following a 48-46 escape from Texas Tech.

But you can expect both Big 12 schools to climb in Tuesday’s CFP rankings after No. 4 Mississippi State (10-2) joined the group of two-loss teams for selection committee members to place in their updated Top 25.

That leaves six movers and shakers, all with one or zero losses, in the mix for the four playoff berths. TCU and Baylor are two of the six.

How much they move Tuesday is open to debate. But Tuesday’s perch will be irrelevant by Sunday, Dec. 7, when the final CFP rankings are revealed and the four participants are placed in the inaugural playoff bracket.

What matters most this week, for all six of the CFP playoff hopefuls, is sending a strong closing message in Saturday’s games to members of the selection committee. That message must include tangible proof of a conference championship.

From the outset, committee chairman Jeff Long has stressed two basic tenets in this process: Expect changes in the rankings each week. Understand that a premium will be placed on conference championships.

As Long said in his most recent teleconference, “If two teams are comparable, a conference championship would be a tiebreaker.” He stressed that committee members will place equal weight on a conference title won in a league championship game or via round-robin play, which is the Big 12 method. Under league bylaws, a set of Big 12 co-champs would be viewed equally by committee members for playoff purposes.

That sets up six make-or-break games this week for playoff hopefuls. Expect one or two to fail. It happened last week to Mississippi State, a 31-17 loser to No. 19 Ole Miss in its regular-season finale. It happens every year at this juncture.

So, which playoff front-runners should be placed on upset alert? We’ll rank them below, starting with the most likely suspect:

• No. 6 Ohio State: The Buckeyes (11-1) lost starting quarterback J.T. Barrett to a broken ankle during a 42-28 victory over Michigan. Replacement Cardale Jones, a sophomore, will make his first career start in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game against No. 14 Wisconsin (10-2). Even with Barrett at full speed, Ohio State figured to be hard-pressed in this matchup in Indianapolis (7 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4).

• No. 7 Baylor: The Bears close the season Saturday against No. 12 Kansas State (8-2, 7-1), the third school in a three-team tie with TCU and Baylor atop the league standings. Baylor must wait for medical clearance before quarterback Bryce Petty (concussion) and tight end Tre’von Armstead (concussion), two starters injured in the Tech game, can return to action. A third injured player, running back Devin Chafin (dislocated elbow), is out for Saturday’s game in Waco (6:45 p.m., ESPN).

• No. 2 Oregon: The Ducks (11-1) have lost their past two games against No. 11 Arizona (10-2), Friday’s opponent in the Pac-12 championship game. Oregon fell 31-24 in the teams’ Oct. 2 meeting in Eugene, Ore. Arizona claimed last year’s meeting 42-16 in Tucson. Friday’s title game will be played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4).

• No. 3 Florida State: Despite a 28-game winning streak, the Seminoles (12-0) have lived on the edge in most of their games this season. They will meet No. 16 Georgia Tech (10-2), a team with an option-based ground game, in Saturday’s ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C. (7 p.m., WFAA/Ch. 8).

• No. 1 Alabama: The Crimson Tide (11-1) faces No. 17 Missouri (10-2) in Saturday’s SEC championship game in Atlanta (3 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11). Of the four Power 5 leagues that hold championship games, this one projects as the biggest mismatch on paper.

• No. 5 TCU: The Frogs seek to clinch at least a share of their first Big 12 title by knocking off Iowa State (2-9, 0-8 in Big 12) in Saturday’s contest in Fort Worth (11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8). TCU looms as a prohibitive favorite against the Big 12 cellar-dweller, which makes it imperative that the Frogs send a scoreboard message to selection committee members, along with a championship-clinching victory, in Saturday’s contest. With other playoff hopefuls facing ranked opponents this week, the Frogs need to make sure their final triumph before Selection Sunday is an eye-catching one.

Key number

100 FBS teams with fewer interceptions this season than Louisville free safety Gerod Holliman, who grabbed No. 14 in Saturday’s 44-40 victory over Kentucky. Holliman tied the NCAA single-season record set by Washington’s Al Worley in 1968.

Moving up

Free agent coaching talent: Two former head coaches who won national championships as defensive coordinators are available for hire, as of Sunday: Florida’s Will Muschamp and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini. Either could help a talented team with defensive deficiencies in 2014 become a conference or national title contender in 2015. Either could be an asset in rebuilding a downtrodden program with a head coaching vacancy (hello, Kansas).

Moving down

Home-field advantage: With their dual losses on Thanksgiving, Texas A&M (7-5) and Texas (6-6) established unwanted precedents in front of their home crowds. The Aggies, with a 23-17 loss to LSU, fell to 4-7 at Kyle Field against SEC opponents in three seasons as a league member. Texas’ 48-10 loss to No. 5 TCU marked the Longhorns’ most lopsided loss in Austin since falling to UCLA 66-3 in 1997.

Key games this week

No. 12 Kansas State at No. 7 Baylor: The winner secures at least a share of the Big 12 title, likely in tandem with No. 5 TCU (10-1). If Baylor (10-1) wins, there could be CFP playoff implications.

Big Ten championship game: No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) seeks to build its case for a playoff berth by knocking off No. 14 Wisconsin (10-2).

Pac-12 championship game (Friday): No. 2 Oregon (11-1) meets No. 11 Arizona (10-2) in a game with major playoff implications.

Playoff projections

Here’s a projected playoff bracket, based on games played thus far and Tuesday’s anticipated rankings (including playoff seeds):

Semifinal: Alabama (No. 1) vs. TCU (No. 4)

Semifinal: Oregon (No. 2) vs. Florida State (No. 3)