Who’s No. 4? College football’s best debate for 2020 begins

With all due respect to all those eight-team College Football Playoff apologists out there, a better question applies to the 2020 college football season.

Who is the fourth-best team in the country? At this point, it’s looking even more difficult to figure out a playoff with just four deserving teams.

Three spots are taken. No. 1 Clemson beat Georgia Tech 73-7 and looks primed for a sixth straight ACC championship. No. 2 Alabama knocked out No. 3 Georgia 41-24 and looks poised to the return to the top of the SEC after a strenuous one-year layoff from the Playoff. We’re operating under the assumption that No. 5 Ohio State should be ranked No. 3 when they start a run at a fourth straight Big Ten championship next weekend.

Those three programs, which have combined for 13 of 24 Playoff appearances, will bring a sense of normalcy to the Playoff race in November and December. And college football’s three-team gated community does not appear willing to let anybody else in.

MORE: Alabama’s KO of Georgia shows Tide can answer the bell

Still, somebody gets to put an offer in on a house. Who’s going to join the Tigers, Crimson Tide and Buckeyes? Good luck answering that question.

Could it be No. 4 Notre Dame? The Irish improved to 4-0 on Saturday, but it was a less than impressive 12-7 victory against Louisville. The Irish host Clemson on Nov. 7 and might have to beat the Tigers twice with its one-year ACC membership trial.

Anybody else in the ACC? We thought it might be No. 5 North Carolina, but a stunning 31-28 loss to Florida State put those plans on hold.

What about the Big 12? No. 7 Oklahoma State is the only unbeaten team remaining, but it’s difficult to picture any team from that conference getting through with fewer than two losses.

The Big Ten? Perhaps one of the usual contenders — No. 9 Penn State, No. 16 Wisconsin or No. 19 Michigan — could break up the Buckeyes’ monopoly. Don’t count on it. Those teams are 1-22 against Ohio State since Urban Meyer arrived in 2012. We’ll believe it when somebody beats the Buckeyes.

Could the SEC get two teams in? No. 3 Georgia, No. 10 Florida and No. 11 Texas A&M are the only one-loss teams left after four weeks. The Bulldogs and Gators will play in an elimination game — the winner presumably gets Alabama — and the Aggies already lost to the Tide.

No. 12 Oregon has the best look now, but the Pac-12 doesn’t play until Nov. 7. The Ducks have a six-game regular-season schedule to work with. Can you make a case for No. 25 USC?

MORE: Clemson’s domination of ACC is everyone else’s problem

Let’s not stop stretching there.

Would a season impacted by COVID-19 leave enough for the unthinkable to happen? Would a Group of 5 school, such as No. 8 Cincinnati or No. 17 SMU get that chance with an unbeaten season? What about independent, 14th-ranked BYU? The Cougars do have a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Zach Wilson.

The most compelling piece of drama left in this season — other than whether it will be a complete season — is which team will emerge as that fourth Playoff contender. Perhaps that team will become the first two-loss team to make the CFP.

All of that is still out there for the taking, and the arguments should be fun. Forget about putting eight chairs at the table.

Four is fine, and three are taken.