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Poll Problems: Week 9

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We take a look at the College Football Playoff poll each week to see what the committee got right and what it got terribly wrong.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson
Clemson got back on track with a win over Georgia Tech, and the Tigers earned the No. 4 spot in the first CFP poll of the season.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the best time of the year at Poll Problems, when we go from breaking down a poll that means nothing to breaking down a poll that means everything. All in all, the committee did a good job with the first poll. That may be the first time we’ve said that. Let’s dive in.

***“SOR” denotes strength of record
***“SOS” denotes strength of schedule

1. Georgia (8-0; SOR: 1; SOS: 36)

I don’t think anybody outside of Athens is going to tell you they think Georgia is a better team than Alabama, but this is the correct team to have at No. 1 in the rankings at this juncture. Georgia’s profile is just objectively better than Alabama’s right now. Sure, it mostly hinges on the Bulldogs win at No. 3 Notre Dame, but that’s light-years better than anything the Tide can claim right now. Georgia also has the No. 1 strength of record rating, while Bama sits at just No. 4 in the committee’s favorite metric.

2. Alabama (8-0; SOR: 4; SOS: 51)

As stated above, there is just not enough meat on Alabama’s resume right now to objectively rank them above Georgia. Yes, I think the Tide would beat the Bulldogs head to head, and you can bring something like that into the conversation when resumes are similar enough. But the disparity is too great in this instance. Alabama will have plenty of chances to notch consequential wins in the coming weeks, starting this Saturday when LSU comes to Tuscaloosa.

3. Notre Dame (7-1; SOR: 7; SOS: 13)

Three wins against CFP top-25 teams and a one-point loss to the No. 1 team are solid enough credentials to slot the Irish comfortably in the top 4. It’s perhaps feasible that lacking a conference championship could force Notre Dame out of the field in a specific scenario, but odds are the Irish - with four games remaining against quality competition - are a Playoff guarantee if they win out.

4. Clemson (7-1; SOR: 3; SOS: 5)

It was nice from a Clemson perspective to see committee head Kirby Hocutt note that the committee took Kelly Bryant’s situation into account when assessing the Tigers loss to Syracuse, but this spot was merited regardless. Clemson has the No. 3 strength of record, two wins over top-15 teams, and the No. 5 strength of schedule. Aside from Notre Dame (13), no other team close to the Tigers in the poll cracks the top 20 SOS. The Tigers have by far the worst loss of any team in the top-4 conversation, but it simply doesn’t outweigh the other factors at play.

5. Oklahoma (7-1; SOR: 5; SOS: 24)

I’ll preface my thoughts on Oklahoma by saying that I think they will crash and burn sooner rather than later (pun intended). That said, although people may be surprised to see them ranked this highly, it’s about where they should be. A No. 5 strength of record, the nation’s second best win, and a loss that is looking more forgivable with each passing week warrants this kind of positioning as it stands right now. This week’s Bedlam matchup with Oklahoma State will be a Playoff eliminator for one of the participants.

6. Ohio State (7-1; SOR: 9; SOS: 35)

Notions of the Buckeyes jumping into the top 4 in the first poll were unfounded if you removed the recency bias of their win at Penn State this past week. That single victory wasn’t enough to lift up a resume that includes a bunch of meaningless wins and a 15-point home loss to Oklahoma - a team which is rightfully ranked ahead of Ohio State.

7. Penn State (7-1; SOR: 6; SOS: 32)

After falling just one point shy of being in great position to make the Playoff, the Nittany Lions are now in very bad position, largely because they are the only team in the top 15 that doesn’t control its own destiny in a conference championship race. And before you go thinking Penn State could blaze the same non-conference-champion trail Ohio State did last year, consider that the Nittany Lions have no opportunities to earn the kind of high-end wins that helped the Buckeyes get the benefit of the doubt from the committee a season ago.

8. TCU (7-1; SOR: 10; SOS: 48)

The Horned Frogs turned in a terrible performance in their first loss of the season at Iowa State, but they are far from out of the running and can notch a Big XII title if they win out.

9. Wisconsin (8-0; SOR: 11; SOS: 80)

The committee made a clear statement that it will not give you the benefit of the doubt if you are undefeated and haven’t played anybody (unless your name is Alabama). But seriously, Wisconsin is a particularly egregious case of this issue. The Badgers are five games into conference play and still rank just 80th nationally in strength of schedule, with only a home triumph over Northwestern as something you could even remotely describe as a “quality win.” Upcoming games against Iowa and Michigan could help some, but this is a team that basically has to go 13-0 to make the Playoff.

10. Miami (8-0; SOR: 2; SOS: 38)

In a reasonable assessment, Miami should be treated about the same as Wisconsin, as their undefeated record doesn’t include any great win(s) to hang that their hat on. The anomaly regarding the Hurricanes, however, is their strength of record (which is incredibly No. 2 behind only Georgia). Now, the committee obviously didn’t put much stock in that ranking, and rightfully so, because of the aforementioned lack of substantive wins and the consideration that the SOR metric doesn’t take into account how a team actually looks on the field. That is, any impartial observer could tell you Miami is a ticking time bomb.

11. Oklahoma State (7-1; SOR: 8; SOS: 23)

The Cowboys have enough chances left to get themselves into the thick of things if they can finish the season without losing another game. A home date with archrival Oklahoma presents a great opportunity to start the push.

12. Washington (7-1; SOR: 20; SOS: 62)

Apparently Washington coach Chris Petersen is not pleased with his team’s position in the first CFP poll, but I’m not exactly sure what he was expecting. A strength of record of No. 20 suggests they are actually overrated, and it makes sense frankly. They have a bad loss to Arizona State and not even a single good win that could offset it at all. They are basically Wisconsin, but with a loss. Unfortunately for the Pac 12, the Huskies are the conference’s last hope for a Playoff participant, and winning out wouldn’t even make the Huskies a sure thing.

13. Virginia Tech (7-1; SOR: 14; SOS: 73)

The Hokies could add a nice notch on the belt this week with a road win at Miami, but they still need a decent bit of chaos to truly get into position to threaten the Playoff field. This is mostly due to an out-of-conference schedule that does them no favors despite a decent win over West Virginia.

14. Auburn (6-2; SOR: 18; SOS: 37)

Auburn’s lone quality win is a blowout of No. 16 Mississippi State, but its understandable road losses to Clemson and LSU (although the latter was in excruciating fashion) give it some credence as a top two-loss team.

15. Iowa State (6-2; SOR: 16; SOS: 25)

Oddly enough, no team in the nation owns a pair of wins better than the Cyclones’ victories over Oklahoma and TCU. That alone keeps them from being completely out of the Playoff picture, despite two middling losses to Iowa and Texas.

16. Mississippi State (6-2; SOR: 15; SOS: 33)

This ranking seems odd to me, if for no other reason than that in the Bulldogs two biggest opportunities to truly assert themselves as a good team, they were blasted by an average of 33.5 points against Georgia and Auburn.

17. USC (6-2; SOR: 12; SOS: 9)

You could certainly argue the Trojans deserve to be higher, but it’s hard to forgive the 35-point beatdown they suffered at Notre Dame.

18. UCF (7-0; SOR: 13; SOS: 105)

The Knights are in great position to grab a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, but this spot still feels too low for a team that has largely destroyed all comers.

19. LSU (6-2; SOR: 22; SOS: 50)

This seems too high for the Tigers, which are the only team that possesses a Troy-level loss on its resume. Beat Alabama? I’ll gladly apologize.

20. NC State (6-2; SOR: 17; SOS: 19)

While all but out of the Playoff race, the Wolfpack still have plenty to play for as Clemson comes to town this week to battle for first place in the ACC Atlantic.

21. Stanford (6-2; SOR: 25; SOS: 39)

If you needed proof why Bryce Love should be the Heisman frontrunner, you needed look no further than the Cardinal’s performance without him in an incredibly fortunate 15-14 win over 1-7 Oregon State.

22. Arizona (6-2; SOR: 35; SOS: 65)

Speaking of Heisman ... Khalil Tate, anybody? The Wildcats’ quarterback has rushed for 840 yards and 8 touchdowns in the last four games. Move over, Lamar Jackson.

23. Memphis (7-1; SOR: 21; SOS: 84)

If Memphis can win out, it could get a shot at revenge (and a New Year’s Six bowl) against UCF in the AAC Championship.

24. Michigan State (6-2; SOR: 19; SOS: 20)

A heartbreaking loss at Northwestern put a serious damper on any Playoff hopes Sparty may have had.

25. Washington State (7-2; SOR: 24; SOS: 59)

Ditto for the Cougars, who were blasted by Arizona.