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Playoff Picture: Week 9

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We take a look at the College Football Playoff poll each week and break down the path to the Playoff.

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Michigan State debuted at No. 3 in the CFP rankings after notching a signature win against Michigan last week.
Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The first edition of this season’s Playoff poll has arrived, and we have plenty to discuss, criticize, and assess. Alabama once again gets a free pass, while Cincinnati is left wondering what more it can do. And that’s just the beginning of the controversy...

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. Georgia (8-0; SOR: 1; SOS: 27)

No surprise here, as Georgia is certainly deserving of the No. 1 spot with its undefeated record, top SOR number, and a solid collection of wins. While the Bulldogs still appear far from bulletproof, they have won every game since the opener against Clemson by at least 17 points and should have no trouble finishing the regular season undefeated.

2. Alabama (7-1; SOR: 4; SOS: 13)

If you know anything about the committee’s relationship with Alabama on a year-to-year basis, it shouldn’t be particularly shocking that Alabama was slotted at No. 2 in the opening poll despite its October loss to Texas A&M. The fun part is to observe the new ways they are able to justify ranking Alabama — and by consequence, the rest of the SEC — higher than it may deserve. The only worthwhile win the Tide really possesses at this stage is its home win over Ole Miss, though I’m sure the committee would tell you a road blowout of Mississippi State is a great resume building block, because the Bulldogs are ranked No. 17 for ... reasons. Could you convince us that Alabama is one of the two best teams in the country on a neutral field? Sure. That’s certainly the case more often than not. But for a team that shouldn’t be in position for a Playoff spot unless it beats Georgia in the SEC Championship, this initial ranking just doesn’t feel exactly right.

3. Michigan State (8-0; SOR: 2; SOS: 50)

Sparty orchestrated a comeback win over Michigan that left them as the sole undefeated team in the Big Ten, and they have been justly rewarded with a top-3 spot in the poll. Michigan State has done well to achieve a bit of a built-in margin for error at 8-0, and it’s as simple as this: You can afford a loss, as long as it’s not to Ohio State. That Nov. 20 trip to Columbus currently stands as the game that will decide the Big Ten East division, and if the Spartans could win that game in addition to a Big Ten Championship, they could even afford a loss to a Penn State or Purdue along the way. A loss to Buckeyes, however, would put them behind the 8 ball.

4. Oregon (7-1; SOR: 10; SOS: 22)

The committee got one thing right when it came to ranking the Ducks, and that was putting them above Ohio State, whom they beat on the Buckeyes’ home field the second week of the season. What they got wrong is the Ducks — as well as the Buckeyes — are simply ranked to highly when there are undefeated teams that can stake a more legitimate claim to these coveted spots at this juncture. That being said, Oregon can prove itself a deserving Playoff team if it wins out and secures a PAC 12 championship at 12-1, as that would mean a 5-0 stretch to finish the season against teams that are .500 or better.

5. Ohio State (7-1; SOR: 14; SOS: 74)

The Buckeyes are a group that is probably getting lots of the infamous “eye test” points from the committee as they have spent most of the last month and a half beating up on terrible teams. The win over Penn State last week may objectively be Ohio State’s resume bullet point, and it wasn’t exactly a convincing one. Now, much like Alabama, you could convince us that Ohio State is one the best teams in the country player-for-player, but there has to be some sort of value placed on results and resumes when you are slotting these teams at a given time. Ohio State has no business being ranked any higher than perhaps No. 8 right now, but name brand and offensive outbursts against the Rutgers and Marylands of the world have clearly served to boost their image.

6. Cincinnati (8-0; SOR: 6; SOS: 100)

The Bearcats have asserted themselves as this season’s Group of Five team determined to put pressure on the Playoff Committee, and their debut spot in the CFP poll is a bit precarious. On one hand, it’s hard to not cry “Disrespect” when you see them behind a team like Ohio State, which has a similar resume but has suffered a home loss. At the same time, did we really expect anything different from this committee? The Bearcats certainly didn’t do themselves any favors the last two weeks by posting less-than-dominant efforts against one-win teams Navy and Tulane, and that may have left the door open for the committee members to question their legitimacy — a door which we know needs only the smallest crack to invite criticism of Group of Five teams. Cincinnati’s road triumph at Notre Dame is one of the better wins in the country, but it isn’t getting any mileage out of its win at Indiana because the Hoosiers have fallen completely on their face. Ultimately, it seems we are at the same place we have been in years past when it comes to a team like Cincinnati. If there are four Power Five teams with one or less losses, going undefeated probably won’t be enough to break into the field. The Bearcats would need to be stacked up against two-loss teams to have a true opportunity. Here’s hoping that happens, because this team is getting the short end of the stick right now.

7. Michigan (7-1; SOR: 9; SOS: 44)

The Wolverines were painfully close to finally kicking in the “big game” door under Jim Harbaugh as they led rival Michigan State by 16 in the third quarter in East Lansing, but Kenneth Walker III’s three-touchdown second half fueled a comeback that, once again, left Michigan wondering what could have been. Michigan clearly has one of its better teams in recent memory, but it will now take winning out and some help (or some well-placed chaos) to position them for a route to the Playoff.

8. Oklahoma (9-0; SOR: 3; SOS: 69)

We have to admit, although we believe Oklahoma is a ticking time bomb, it was surprising to see the undefeated Sooners slotted this low in the rankings. This team has looked questionable at times, but a No. 3 strength of record seems like something that could have helped this team’s case more than it did. On the flip side, the Sooners have yet to face any of the Big XII’s other top four teams, so there’s not exactly any resume-making wins in that 9-0 mark. We will get clarity on this one way or another, as closing the season with a stretch of Baylor, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State will either expose Oklahoma or build a bulletproof Playoff case.

9. Wake Forest (8-0; SOR: 5; SOS: 98)

The Deacons are the dark-horse team of this season’s Playoff race, and as long as they stay undefeated, we feel they will have at least some say in the proceedings. Wake’s strength of schedule is obviously quite poor to this point (on par with Cincinnati’s), and its best win is perhaps a three-touchdown road victory over Virginia (meh...), so this really feels more like your typical Group of Five undefeated resume than that of a power-conference team. However, the Deacs have some chances to impress down the stretch, as road dates with North Carolina and Clemson and a home matchup with No. 19 NC State could give the committee more to consider if they all fall in the win column.

10. Notre Dame (7-1; SOR: 7; SOS: 39)

The Irish are lurking on the periphery with their only loss being the aforementioned one against Cincinnati, but there’s just not a ton of meat on this resume. Notre Dame has essentially beaten No. 20 Wisconsin at a neutral site and a bunch of average teams. The strength of schedule number is decent because they haven’t played any objectively bad teams, but the Irish are essentially in “win out and pray” mode.

11. Oklahoma State (7-1; SOR: 8; SOS: 33)

The Cowboys are a close loss at Iowa State away from being right in the thick of the Playoff hunt, but they are far from out of this thing. They still control their own destiny for a Big XII title and would have a Playoff-worthy resume if they could get to 12-1. It’s the “getting there” part they are now tasked with.

12. Baylor (7-1; SOR: 12; SOS: 56)

Baylor is often a forgotten team, but the Bears are once again hanging out in the weeds with a reasonable Playoff path in front of them. Their head-to-head loss with Oklahoma State has them a notch behind the Cowboys right now, but such trivial things can easily be overcome by a chaotic week between now and season’s end.

13. Auburn (6-2; SOR: 15; SOS: 11)

The Tigers have put together back-to-back solid wins and are managing to keep their Playoff hopes on life support. They control their own destiny for an SEC Championship, starting with this weekend’s de facto elimination game against Texas A&M.

14. Texas A&M (6-2; SOR: 25; SOS: 40)

The Aggies don’t control their own destiny the way Auburn does, but they can take a big step toward crashing the party if they can knock off the Tigers at home.

15. BYU (7-2; SOR: 20; SOS: 61)
16. Ole Miss (6-2; SOR: 13; SOS: 5)
17. Mississippi State (5-3; SOR: 31; SOS: 15)
18. Kentucky (6-2; SOR: 16; SOS: 9)
19. NC State (6-2; SOR: 19; SOS: 55)
20. Minnesota (6-2; SOR: 24; SOS: 47)
21. Wisconsin (5-3; SOR: 30; SOS: 30)
22. Iowa (6-2; SOR: 17; SOS: 43)
23. Fresno State (7-2; SOR: 32; SOS: 77)
24. San Diego State (7-1; SOR: 26; SOS: 118)
25. Pittsburgh (6-2; SOR: 22; SOS: 59)

GAMES TO WATCH:

No. 9 Wake Forest @ North Carolina - Noon
No. 3 Michigan State @ Purdue - 3:30 p.m.
No. 13 Auburn @ No. 14 Texas A&M - 3:30 p.m.
No. 11 Oklahoma State @ West Virginia - 3:30 p.m.
No. 4 Oregon @ Washington - 7:30 p.m.