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Breaking down the top 25 in college football ahead of league championships

Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this reception against Javaris Davis #31 of the Auburn Tigers as the play was blown dead at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this reception against Javaris Davis #31 of the Auburn Tigers as the play was blown dead at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The value of a head-to-head victory is about to become a prime topic of conversation.

For a good chunk of the college football season, AP Top 25 poll voters rank teams by leaning on head-to-head results. X beat Y so X should be ahead of Y. Simple. As the season goes on that strategy becomes more complicated.

Teams go in different directions. The September version of X might be very different from the November version. And it could turn out that Y just had a bad day. The College Football Playoff selection committee is about to be confronted with some of those tricky choices, where the winners of games played earlier in the season have seemingly been surpassed by teams they beat.

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No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Penn State are at the epicenter of the value of head-to-head victories, along with division and conference titles, this week. Voters, like the selection committee, are not swayed by the Nittany Lions 24-21 home victory over the Buckeyes in October.

There are other examples: In the latest AP poll No. 5 Michigan is getting the benefit of the doubt in the rankings for its victories against No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 8 Penn State even after the Wolverines lost for the second time this month.

Louisville’s late-season swoon is being more harshly penalized — which might be fair considering the teams it lost to the last two weeks. But are we to act as if the 16th-ranked Cardinals’ 63-20 victory against No. 12 Florida State never happened?

As college football heads toward championship weekend and a resolution to the playoff race, Heat Check assesses how AP voters did this week with an emphasis on those head-to-head results.

No. 1 Alabama (12-0)

With every passing week it looks more like the whole playoff debate is just about which teams will be losing to the Crimson Tide.

Next: vs. No. 15 Florida, SEC championship at Atlanta.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 2 Ohio State (11-1)

If the Buckeyes were just a little better at kicking field goals they would be having a far less stressful week.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 3 Clemson (11-1)

The Tigers at their best are the team most likely to beat Alabama.

Next: vs. No. 19 Virginia Tech, ACC championship at Orlando, Florida.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 4 Washington (11-1)

The Huskies have recovered nicely from the loss to USC, but can’t help but think they caught a break by avoiding a rematch with the Trojans.

Next: vs. No. 9 Colorado, Pac-12 championship at Santa Clara, California, Friday.

Heat check: A touch too hot.

No. 5 Michigan (10-2)

Blaming the officials after your team gets outgained 127-5 in the fourth quarter seems to be at least a small bit of denial.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Too cold. Bump up one spot.

No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2)

The Badgers summed up: They lost to the two best teams they faced and beat everybody else. That is maxing out.

Next: vs. No. 8 Penn State, Big Ten championship at Indianapolis.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 7 Oklahoma (9-2)

Take head-to-head to the next level and add common opponents. The Sooners are behind a team that lost a closer game to Ohio State than they did, but ahead of a team that beat Ohio State.

Next: No. 11 Oklahoma State.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 8 Penn State (10-2)

How much emphasis must be placed on a head-to-head to have it wash away two early season losses, including a 39-point blowout to Michigan? Not sure a three-point win in which the Nittany Lions were outgained by Ohio State is enough. But, sure, ahead of Oklahoma is fine.

Next: vs. No. 6 Wisconsin, Big Ten championship at Indianapolis.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 9 Colorado (10-2)

An amazing turnaround complete and now an outside chance to make the playoff.

Next: vs. No. 4 Washington, Pac-12 championship at Santa Clara, California, Friday.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 10 Southern California (9-3)

USC beat Colorado but lost the division, but look a little deeper. According the Sagarin Computer ratings, the Trojans strength of schedule is fifth toughest in the country. Colorado’s is 23rd.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Too cold. Flip-flop USC and CU.

No. 11 Oklahoma State (9-2)

The Cowboys are 9-2. You can say otherwise, which is a thing now in the Big 12, but that is their record.

Next: at No. 7 Oklahoma.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 12 Florida State (9-3)

This is where it gets tricky, because the Seminoles’ schedule was significantly better than Louisville’s, but 63-20. 63 to 20! Also, both the ‘Noles and Cardinals lost homes games they probably should have won on last-second field goals (FSU to North Carolina and Louisville to Kentucky) and lost competitive games to Clemson. Though Louisville lost at Clemson and Florida State lost at home.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 13 Western Michigan (12-0)

The Broncos deserve a lot of credit for a great season and they can probably play with a lot of teams in the Top 25. But they have not played any team close the Top 25 this season.

Next: vs. Ohio, MAC championship at Detroit, Friday.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 14 West Virginia (9-2)

The Mountaineers don’t have victory to claim as a big one, but there is never any reason to complain about a 10-win season. One more gets them there.

Next: Baylor.

Heat check: A touch too hot.

No. 15 Florida (8-3)

All you can ask for is chance and that’s what the Gators have. Good luck.

Next: vs. No. 1 Alabama, SEC championship at Atlanta.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 16 Louisville (9-3)

63-20. That happened. This season. At the very least the Cardinals should be right behind Florida State.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 17 Stanford (9-3)

The Cardinal were the team the voters forgot after a few bad games early in the season. They rebounded to help Washington’s strength of schedule.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Just right, though from this point down the Top 25 is just a muddle of teams that look about the same.

No. 18 Auburn (8-4) did not play.

These SEC West teams are almost indiscernible, but try using head-to-head to sort it out: Auburn beats LSU. LSU beat Texas A&M. Texas A&M beat Auburn. All have lost four games.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Just right, maybe?

No. 19 Virginia Tech (9-3)

The Hokies went from exceeding expectations to disappointing losses, but all things considered a successful first season for coach Justin Fuente.

Next: vs. No. 3 Clemson, ACC championship at Orlando, Florida.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 20 Navy (9-2)

If there was a list of teams you would not want to deal with because it is just no fun to play them, the Midshipmen would be near the top.

Next: Temple, AAC championship.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 21 LSU (7-4)

The Tigers four losses were by a total of 23 points. The difference between a great season and a coaching change is very small.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 22 Iowa (8-4)

The Hawkeyes took a slightly odd route (lose to North Dakota State and Northwestern; beat Michigan and blowout Nebraska) to get to a record that seems about right for them this season.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 23 Nebraska (9-3)

Lost to Iowa, but had a better record than Iowa. That formula suggest the ‘Huskers could be ahead of the Hawkeyes. But the margin against Iowa and lack of other quality wins leaves Nebraska lacking.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 24 Pittsburgh (8-4)

The Panthers beat Penn State. That should be worth a mention here.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 24 (tie) South Florida (10-2)

The Bulls have Lamar Jackson-lite at quarterback in Quinton Flowers, who has run for 1,425 yards and accounted for 37 touchdowns.

Next: TBD.

Heat check: About time the Bulls were ranked. Too cold.