The first edition of the Playoff poll has finally arrived, and now speculation gives way to concrete rankings for us to debate and complain about. To add to the intrigue, Saturday presents us with the first top-5 matchup of the season — an Alabama-LSU game that should have long-lasting effects on this season’s field. The winner will be extremely well-positioned for a potential Playoff berth at season’s end, while the loser figures to find itself in a more precarious position. Let’s get to the poll.
NOTE: We will only provide individual breakdowns for teams that have a reasonable shot to make the Playoff.
***“SOR” denotes strength of record
***“SOS” denotes strength of schedule
1. Ohio State (8-0; SOR: 3; SOS: 20)
It was perhaps a bit surprising to see the Buckeyes top the rankings, not because they’re undeserving, but because we had basically resigned ourselves to LSU occupying that spot with their list of “impressive” wins. But Ohio State has quality wins too, and the Buckeyes have been the most consistently dominant force in college football against a schedule that ranks stronger than that of any other undefeated team. It’s hard to see Ohio State finishing any lower than No. 2 in the rankings if it finishes the season undefeated.
2. LSU (8-0; SOR: 1; SOS: 31)
The Tigers boast the nation’s No. 1 strength of record — traditionally a focal point for the committee — so there is certainly a case to be made for them to rank at the top of this poll. LSU has been largely impressive throughout the season and has home wins over Florida and Auburn (ranked Nos. 10 and 11, respectively), giving it the kind of high-end wins the committee values. What arguably held the Tigers back from the No. 1 spot is the deterioration of their road win at Texas, which was once held in high regard but has lost a ton of luster with the Longhorns’ poor play as of late. Regardless, a win at Alabama on Saturday would undoubtedly boost LSU over Ohio State in next week’s rankings.
3. Alabama (8-0; SOR: 4; SOS: 53)
It comes as no shock that Alabama once again appears to be playing by a different set of rules when it comes to the Playoff committee. How the Tide can rank ahead of Penn State while Clemson sits behind the Nittany Lions is hard to make much sense of, outside of the dreaded “Because Bama.” Is Alabama one of the three best teams in the nation? Possibly. They’ll certainly have the chance to prove it this weekend when LSU comes calling. But when the resumes of Alabama and Clemson bear very little difference, we’re not sure how you can put one team ahead of a team like Penn State and the other behind. The Tide’s matchup with LSU will sort things out one way or another, but it’s always amusing to see Bama get the benefit of the doubt time and time again.
4. Penn State (8-0; SOR: 2; SOS: 42)
Penn State has emerged as maybe the most unexpected Playoff contender (not including dark horses like Baylor and Minnesota) and certainly has a resume worthy of a top-four slot to this point. They get an immediate shot at another quality win when they travel to Minnesota this weekend, and a future meeting with Ohio State gives the Nittany Lions even more upward mobility. Time will tell whether this team is truly Playoff-caliber, but they’ve done what’s necessary so far.
5. Clemson (9-0; SOR: 8; SOS: 65)
There’s not much to the Clemson resume; we’re all pretty familiar with that. The Tigers have posted eight dominant wins and one too-close-for-comfort win against a pedestrian schedule. Ranking Clemson fifth at this juncture is not egregious in and of itself. Even if you want to have the Tigers behind Alabama, that’s fine. What is hard to reconcile (at the risk of beating a dead horse) is such a decided distinction between the two teams. Forgive us for using Penn State as simply a pawn in this Bama-Clemson chess game, but it’s almost impossible to justify not either ranking BOTH teams either ahead of or behind the Nittany Lions. Penn State inarguably has a better resume than both teams, but would almost certainly fail the almighty “eye test” when stacked up against either team. No neutral observer would take Penn State over Clemson on a neutral field, for example. So how do you split the teams up? Easy: Say that you used the eye test when comparing Alabama and Penn State, but used resume when comparing Clemson and Penn State — as the committee essentially did. It’s these kinds of maddening inconsistencies that can make you question the committee’s integrity — specifically when it comes to the Crimson Tide. If Clemson wins out, the Tigers will make the Playoff. We all know that. Kirk Herbstreit, et al. can save their patronizing comments. Nobody is crying foul because Clemson isn’t in the current top four. People are concerned about the committee once again forgoing consistent criteria in favor of pure subjectivity, and they should be concerned.
6. Georgia (7-1; SOR: 11; SOS: 28)
You’ll have a difficult time convincing us that Georgia should be ranked ahead of the two PAC 12 teams you see behind it. The Bulldogs have far and away the worst loss of any of contender - a complete flop at home against South Carolina - and yet the loss is apparently “BALANCED OUT” by one-score victories over Florida and Notre Dame - neither of which has looked particularly impressive this season. We really try not to scream “SEC bias” at every turn, but then there are times when it’s hard to think of any other explanation. Georgia controls its own destiny regardless of ranking, but this was another disconcerting move by the committee.
7. Oregon (8-1; SOR: 6; SOS: 27)
We’ve maintained for much of the season now that the PAC 12’s margin for error as a conference was dangerously low, and that still remains the case. But we’ve also refused to count out Oregon and Utah, which both find themselves within striking distance in the first CFP rankings — notably ahead of one-loss Big XII hopeful Oklahoma. It’s going to be difficult for the committee to keep out a 12-1 PAC-12 champion if that scenario comes to fruition.
8. Utah (8-1; SOR: 10; SOS: 37)
The Utes, like Oregon, have been playing great football and appear to be a true Playoff threat. What makes the PAC 12’s situation interesting is that both teams should be pulling for each other until they meet up in the conference championship game. It could set up as a play-in game for the Playoff if both are still on the periphery.
9. Oklahoma (7-1; SOR: 15; SOS: 61)
The Sooners’ loss to Kansas State has proved quite damaging as they find themselves at the back of the one-loss pack. It’s with good reason, though, as Oklahoma has basically nothing going for it aside from all the feel-good Jalen Hurts clippings from earlier in the season. There will be chances to improve the resume (for instance, they want Baylor to keep winning to present them with a quality win opportunity), but we’re not sure they could overtake a one-loss Oregon or Utah. It’s not over for the Sooners, but they’re not in an ideal situation.
10. Florida (7-2; SOR: 9; SOS: 6)
We’ve made it clear we were never high on the Gators, and any realistic hope for a top-4 spot likely evaporated with their uninspiring loss to Georgia. Florida would need utter chaos to have any remote chance to make the field.
11. Auburn (7-2; SOR: 7; SOS: 4)
Ditto for Auburn, which can still cause plenty of chaos of its own but likely can’t benefit from any of it when it comes to making the top four.
12. Baylor (8-0; SOR: 5; SOS: 74)
The committee is clearly slow playing Baylor, and with good reason — the Bears weren’t expected to be in the mix at all coming into the season. A No. 5 strength of record and a pair of road wins against top-25 teams could justify higher positioning, but Baylor has also played with fire in several games. We would at least like to see them rank ahead of the two-loss teams that precede them, but they will have a chance to prove themselves in the coming weeks.
17. Minnesota (8-0; SOR: 14; SOS: 89)
We’ll skip down to No. 17, as that’s where we find our last team that’s still alive for a berth. Minnesota is an interesting case — a team that has amassed an 8-0 record by way of three nail-biting wins over bad non-conference opponents and five straight wins over some of the worst teams the B1G has to offer. It’s rare to see an undefeated team this far into the season with so little substance to its resume, but here we are. Things change quickly, however, as the Gophers host fourth-ranked Penn State this weekend with the opportunity to prove they are more than just a pretender.
The rest of the poll:
13. Wisconsin (6-2; SOR: 19; SOS: 45)
14. Michigan (7-2; SOR: 13; SOS: 25)
15. Notre Dame (6-2; SOR: 16; SOS: 32)
16. Kansas State (6-2; SOR: 20; SOS: 41)
18. Iowa (6-2; SOR: 17; SOS: 54)
19. Wake Forest (7-1; SOR: 25; SOS: 93)
20. Cincinnati (7-1; SOR: 12; SOS: 58)
21. Memphis (8-1; SOR: 23; SOS: 91)
22. Boise State (7-1; SOR: 22; SOS: 90)
23. Oklahoma State (6-3; SOR: 27; SOS: 16)
24. Navy (7-1; SOR: 26; SOS: 109)
25. SMU (8-1; SOR: 18; SOS: 72)
GAMES TO WATCH:
No. 4 Penn State @ No. 17 Minnesota - Noon
No. 12 Baylor @ TCU - Noon
No. 2 LSU @ No. 3 Alabama - 3:30 p.m.
No. 18 Iowa @ No. 13 Wisconsin - 4 p.m.
Iowa State @ No. 9 Oklahoma - 8 p.m.