As always, we begin with a very important public service announcement: The College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday evening are meaningless. The selection committee says so, right up front. That will be true next week, and the next, and the next, and so on. Committee members can travel to Grapevine, Texas, and meet every week and create reality TV — filled with controversy, just because! — but until the final Top 25 is revealed Dec. 4, these are just exercises for fun and profit.
The CFP rankings are nice windows into what the committee is thinking each week, though. New chairman Kirby Hocutt’s explanations of what the members valued, what factors they considered important — those matter, or at least provide insight into the kinds of things that might actually matter when they’re finally assessing complete bodies of work and filling in the real Playoff bracket.
But each week’s ranking — and Hocutt’s answers — inevitably raise more questions. We’ll answer some of them.
Which two-loss team has the best chance to reach the College Football Playoff?
Buried beneath the faux controversy from the initial rankings (Texas A&M is No. 4? Washington is No. 5? What? Cue the glee or outrage, depending on where you’re coming from) was this little nugget: A pair of two-loss teams inhabit the Top 10.
No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 9 Auburn are ranked ahead of several one-loss teams (and 8-0 Western Michigan), an indication, according to Hocutt, that “strength of schedule plays an important role in the committee’s rankings.”
Both Wisconsin and Auburn are in prime position to continue to move up. And despite the two losses, there’s not a ceiling for either. Both would have to win out, obviously. But here’s how either (or both!) could crack the bracket, becoming the first two-loss team(s) in the Playoff:
Wisconsin already has a nice résumé with wins against No. 10 Nebraska and No. 13 LSU and competitive losses to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan. If the Badgers won the Big Ten West and then the Big Ten championship game (presumably against either Michigan or Ohio State), they’d own a conference championship and a résumé that would be at least as good and probably better than almost every one-loss team.
It’s similar with Auburn, which owns a win against LSU, a competitive loss to No. 2 Clemson and a loss to No. 4 Texas A&M. If the Tigers won out, they’d upend No. 1 Alabama, too — and given how the Crimson Tide has dominated the first two months of the season, that would resonate with the committee perhaps louder than any other win by any other team.
Winning the SEC with that résumé would put Auburn in the Playoff.
The bigger problem with that scenario would be if Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M finished tied in the SEC West. They’d have to dip deep into the league’s tiebreaker rules, all the way to the combined records of their SEC East opponents. In that scenario, it appears based on current records that Alabama would get the nod.
Is Louisville in trouble?
The quick answer: Yes. It wasn’t that long ago that the prospect of two ACC teams in the Playoff seemed plausible. And the No. 7 spot is not a bad place to be in the initial ranking. But a look inside the rankings shows why Louisville has a problem if it doesn’t win the ACC (and unless Clemson loses twice, it won’t).
Louisville is only the third one-loss team in the rankings, behind Texas A&M and Ohio State. Hocutt cited Louisville’s lesser strength of schedule and the fact the Cardinals have beaten one team (No. 22 Florida State) with a winning record.
“The committee just did not believe at this time that their schedule is as strong as those other two one-loss teams,” Hocutt said.
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That’s bad news, because although the ranking is a the committee’s evaluation of the season so far, the upcoming schedule doesn’t appear to provide much help for Louisville. It’s clear the committee likes the Aggies more than a little bit. Ohio State will get its shot against Michigan.
Meanwhile, Louisville’s remaining regular season schedule includes Boston College, Wake Forest and Kentucky. And a Nov. 17 Thursday night matchup at Houston won’t provide the pop it could have because of Houston’s rapid fade.
The takeaway: Louisville needs help, and maybe a lot of it.
Should Washington fans be worried?
No. Period. Full stop.
This was the big controversy from Tuesday’s reveal, but it’s basically a non-story. Oh sure, it was a big deal, the initial ranking having one-loss Texas A&M ranked No. 4, ahead of No. 5 Washington. The order should have been reversed.
We got another indication that the committee’s midseason love for the SEC West will never, ever end. It’s also clear A&M is getting a lot of credit for beating Auburn early, before the Tigers had morphed into formidable. The Aggies’ 19-point “good” loss to No. 1 Alabama was not terribly competitive.
Washington, meanwhile, has played only two teams with winning records. The Huskies blew out Stanford and Oregon, but it has become obvious the Pac-12’s usual powers are a shadow of their recent selves.
But if both the Aggies and Huskies win out, an unbeaten Pac-12 champion would leapfrog a once-beaten SEC non-champion. It’s very possible the switch would happen before the final ranking, as Washington’s résumé grows stronger down the stretch. But whether earlier or later, the Huskies would eventually move past the Aggies.
So Washington fans can go ahead and howl about the injustice of it all, if they’d like. But if the Huskies keep winning — and again, that’s the biggest “if” in all of this, all the way until the end — they’ll be fine.
Which team from the teens gets in?
In both of the first two seasons of the Playoff, an eventual participant started well back in the initial Top 25. In 2014, Ohio State was ranked 16th. Last season, Oklahoma started 15th.
Oklahoma is No. 14 in this season’s first ranking, but this time it looks and feels different, both for the Sooners and the other teams around them.
It’s hard to see a team from the teens with the schedule to shoot up the rankings in the season’s final month.
Where a year ago, you could project the potential for Oklahoma to move up because of its remaining schedule against highly ranked teams, the Sooners also had only one loss. This time, Oklahoma already has losses to Houston and Ohio State. At least as important, and perhaps even more crippling to the Sooners’ hopes: The current perception of the Big 12 is such that it’s hard to forecast anything that would really impress the selection committee.
No. 12 Penn State, No. 13 LSU, No. 15 Colorado and No. 16 Utah each has two losses, as well, which is probably too many — unless, that is, we get complete chaos. Not a little chaos, complete chaos.
With a win against Alabama, LSU would become a catalyst for that kind of total entropy — and the Tigers could perhaps move into the category of two-loss teams with at least a (long) shot.
No. 17 Baylor (6-1), No. 20 West Virginia (6-1) or No. 18 Oklahoma State (6-2 but Mike Gundy wants to talk about that controversial loss to Central Michigan) would fit the profile of 2014 Ohio State or 2015 Oklahoma if they won out — except for the aforementioned perception of the Big 12.
We probably have to move all the way up to No. 11 Florida to find something that’s even faintly similar to 2014 Ohio State or 2015 Oklahoma. If the Gators win out, there’s no doubt they’ll be in the Playoff — but as unlikely as that scenario seems (Florida would have to beat the SEC West champion in the SEC championship game), it’s not even close to the kind of long shot we saw in 2014 and 2015.