1. Alabama. Tied with Texas Tech with the best record. Edges out Texas Tech by virtue of Tech's having played Division I-AA Eastern Washington, I-AA UMass, Nevada, and SMU.
I do not begrudge programs with little tradition and located in hinterlands like Lubbock doing what is necessary to build their program. (If Baylor had as much sense as Texas Tech does, they'd have a shot at a bowl game this year and would have certainly gone to one two years ago, and the same goes for Vanderbilt.) So rather than viewing this in terms of punishing Texas Tech, think of it as rewarding Alabama.
2. Texas Tech. If they beat Oklahoma and Missouri, they will have defeated four teams likely to win 10 games or more in five weeks. Based on that, any one loss team's challenge to them would be ridiculous. By the same token, were they to lose a game, EWU and UMass should eliminate them from the title game.
3. Florida. Clearly the worst loss of any team in contention. They are here only because no honest argument can be made for excluding the winner of a regular season ending contest between a 12-0 team and an 11-1 team from the national title game.
Incidentally, their nonconference schedule includes Hawaii, Miami, and FSU, not that any of you SEC bashers care. Florida has the nation's No.2 defense (behind Boise and Utah statistically, but come on they're Boise and Utah) and No.6 offense (excluding Tulsa for similar reasons) and might be the most balanced team with the best group of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
4. Oklahoma. Beat Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Missouri and you are in. Arguments otherwise are absurd as you will have a schedule arguably as tough as Florida's and definitely tougher than Alabama's or USC's.
Now the controversy starts.
5. Penn State. It is unfair to punish the Nittany Lions for the failures of Michigan and Ohio State in big games. The truth is that if things hold to form, Penn State will hold victories over 10-2 Ohio State, 9-3 Michigan State, and to that add Oregon State out of conference.
They are the No.3 defensive team and the No.7 offensive team (again, excluding mid-majors with numbers against weak competition). They are comparable to the other one loss teams.
6. USC. The difference between Penn State and USC is common opponents. Both beat Ohio State, and Penn State beat Oregon State, who beat USC. Other factors seem to favor USC over the Lions, including a better loss and a stronger overall schedule.
USC has the nation's No.1 defense (by a considerable margin) and the No.10 offense (considerably better than is generally portrayed). They are behind Oklahoma and Florida only by virtue of not having a contest against a legitimate contender for the championship game, and also having only one victory against a team that will finish the regular season in the top 20 (Ohio State).
USC fans, none of your annual nonsense about how "USC is obviously the best team that would beat everyone else in a bowl game or win a playoff and everybody else and everybody else they played is overrated except us and everybody that we played." Not only do I have to hear that stuff from USC every year, but it was the exact same nonsense that we heard from FSU fans during the 1990s.
7. Texas. You are stuck in a logjam with Oklahoma and Texas Tech. If all of you finish with a loss, then as stated earlier Texas Tech is eliminated, and it is between you and Oklahoma.
In a fair world, you guys should get to go over an Oklahoma team that you beat by 10 points. This is particularly the case since your best win, Oklahoma, would be more impressive than Oklahoma's best win, Texas Tech, and that the only difference between your schedule and Oklahoma's is their playing a TCU team that you would have blown out just as easily.
But who said that life is fair? I simply cannot reward a team with a bad defense and that is trying to run an option-oriented offense with neither a running quarterback OR a No.1 (or even a No.2!) tailback with a trip to the national title game. Oklahoma's defense is actually worse than yours, but they are a passing oriented team that will finish with 200 more RUSHING yards than your alleged option attack.
Seriously, this is the first Mack Brown Texas team to actually OVERACHIEVE since his early ones. And in this instance, I will abandon my usual standard of leapfrogging teams with victories over plausible contenders over teams that lack them that would normally cause me to favor Texas over USC.
You see, USC would have little problem scoring against Texas' suspect defense, but Texas would certainly be shut down by the USC defense because their personnel doesn't fit their scheme. Meanwhile, USC would be forced to trade points with Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
It wouldn't be a shootout, but I could very much see a 28-24 with who gets the 28 and who gets the 24 would be a function of which team is better coached and performs better. But Texas is the only team in the top seven that would almost certainly lose to a superior defense.
Bottom line: where Oklahoma and Texas Tech can score on anyone because they actually have the talent to fit their scheme, Texas more than anyone else is obviously benefiting from the worst defenses in the history of what used to be a smashmouth Big 8/Big 12 Conference. Mack Brown, please recruit a tailback and a true dual threat QB. Texas high school football has been known to produce both you know.
8. Utah: Don't laugh. Their schedule is actually roughly comparable to what USC's would be had they not played Ohio State, or what an undefeated champion of the ACC or Big East would be.
If Alabama and Texas Tech both lose, they would have a legitimate argument. As a matter of fact, their schedule compares very favorably with USC's 2003 schedule. If they run the table, they will have a better grievance for being left out of the title game this year than USC had in 2003, who had a loss to an 8-6 Cal team that season that lost to...well Utah! Just like Utah beat Oregon State.
An undefeated Utah is more deserving than a one loss USC. They are not more deserving than a one loss Texas, because Texas (unlike USC) has beaten a legitimate contender and does not have a loss to a common opponent. And yes, Utah would have the same issues against an elite defense that Texas would.
So Utah has to be eight because they need to be behind Texas, which in turn needs to be behind USC. Were Texas to lose again, Utah would leap to No.6, knocking PSU to No.7.
Do not mistake me for trashing USC, incidentally. Quite the contrary, USC is still very much in it. USC would go over Penn State, which is unfair, but hey it is still true. All USC needs is for any of A) Florida to lose to South Carolina or FSU beat Florida, B) Alabama to lose to Auburn but beat Florida, or C) the winner of Texas Tech-Oklahoma to lose to Missouri.
Of those, A) is most likely. Most people have no idea how good South Carolina's defense actually is. Their front seven may cause real problems for Florida's offense, plus you KNOW that Steve Spurrier doesn't want interloper Urban Meyer to outdo his legacy by bringing home two national titles (yes, most SEC folks are looking at the defenses in the Big 12 and figure Florida could take them ... they are not as sure about Alabama) and willl pull out all the stops.
Recall that it was South Carolina that nearly knocked Florida out of the title game in 2006. And then there is FSU, which is a road game against an in state rival. B) is somewhat likely. The Alabama game will be their entire season and may even be for Tuberville's job.
And I have long felt that the best defense to stop the spread option is the 3-4, which Alabama runs (although sadly for the Crimson Tide Saban hasn't fully implemented it yet). As for C), well Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin could go nuts. The problem is that Missouri's defense is decidedly worse than that of Texas Tech, Oklahoma, or Texas.
So there you have it: the rankings of the contenders presuming that everything holds to form. But of course, everything won't hold to form.