The debut of the College Football Playoff poll immediately sparks debate every season, and this year is no exception. As usual, the committee got some things right, and some things wrong. Some decisions defensible, not completely indefensible. We know the drill at this point. But this is where the real fun begins, and where the path to the Playoff truly begins to take shape. Let’s dig in to the first rankings.
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. Tennessee (8-0; SOR: 1; SOS: 18)
There are apparently pundits out there who thought Ohio State or even Georgia would/should be No. 1 in the opening poll, and I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion. Tennessee has earned the top spot on merit, and it’s really not even a discussion. Everyone remembers the big win over Alabama, but they also have blowout wins at LSU and against Kentucky that bolster their case. They have the No. 1 strength of record and by far the best strength of schedule of the remaining undefeated teams. If you think the Buckeyes and/or Bulldogs are better than Tennessee, that’s perhaps a reasonable opinion, but the Vols’ resume is deserving of the top spot at this juncture. Period.
2. Ohio State (8-0; SOR: 2; SOS: 51)
The Buckeyes are a well-rounded team and certainly a national-title contender, but they literally just achieved their first meaningful win of the season this past week at Penn State — and they weren’t exactly dominant until a flurry of points at the very end of the game. Ohio State’s season-opening win over Notre Dame is its only other win of any note, so while the Buckeyes have beat up on a bevy of “decent” teams, there’s really nothing eye-popping about this resume. It all amounts to the second-ranked strength of record, however, and we know the Buckeyes will always pass the committee’s dreaded “eye test.” Therefore, it’s no surprise to see them slotted here.
3. Georgia (8-0; SOR: 5; SOS: 75)
The reigning national champs may feel like they should have the No. 1 spot by default, but it’s a new season and the Bulldogs’ resume simply isn’t worthy at this point. Their opening-week massacre of Oregon is looking better by the week and is arguably the best win in the country all things considered, but they haven’t tacked on a single win of any consequence since then. That could all change this week when Tennessee comes to town, as a win would suddenly give them a very legitimate case for the top ranking. A loss, however, and the Bulldogs would find themselves in a precarious position with basically no shot at an SEC championship berth.
4. Clemson (8-0; SOR: 4; SOS: 72)
The most widespread complaint with the first poll seemed to be Clemson being ranked over Michigan, and this again leaves us wondering if people have any idea how these rankings work. Could you make the argument that Michigan looks like a better team than Clemson right now? Of course you could! Hell, we might even make that argument ourselves. But subjectivity shouldn’t take precedence when you are slotting similar teams based on accomplishment — unless the “eye test” is so overwhelming that it simply can’t be ignored. Clemson strength of record is ranked No. 4; Michigan’s is 7th. Clemson’s strength of schedule is 72nd; Michigan’s is 79th. Clemson has three ranked wins to Michigan’s one. Clemson has four road wins to Michigan’s two. Clemson has four wins over teams with a winning record; Michigan has two. Are we getting the picture yet? Now, we know Clemson’s ranked wins are tenuous, and they could go from three to zero of those in the blink of an eye. The same goes for any other numbers mentioned above. But so many people (and so many purportedly knowledgeable football analysts) acting like there is no justification whatsoever for Clemson to be ranked above Michigan right now is simply asinine.
5. Michigan (8-0; SOR: 7; SOS: 79)
The other, more important part of Michigan’s calculus (i.e., not its sudden beef with Clemson) is still the most relevant factor at play for the Wolverines anyway. It’s the same as nearly every recent season. Beat Ohio State, and you’re in. Lose to Ohio State, see ya! If this team finishes with a Big Ten championship, they will find themselves comfortably inside the top four. If the Wolverines can’t knock off the Buckeyes, they won’t have a legitimate claim to a Playoff spot barring major upheaval around the rest of the country. Lather, rinse, repeat.
6. Alabama (7-1; SOR: 6; SOS: 10)
Here lies our first true issue with the first edition of the rankings, though it’s something we should honestly be accustomed to at this point. It simply doesn’t make sense to have a one-loss team with Alabama’s resume ranked ahead of an undefeated team with TCU’s resume. Other than because, well, its name is Alabama. The Tide’s best win to date is a 20-19 road win at Texas, a team we can readily assume the committee jammed in the back end of the rankings just to give Alabama some kind of resume bullet point. There’s no difference between Texas and, say, Florida State other than one team almost beat Alabama — which is a nice moral victory but shouldn’t earn a team with two additional losses a spot in this poll. But because Alabama is Alabama, we are supposed to just give them the benefit of the doubt because they’re Alabama. And eye test. And recruiting rankings. And talent level. And all the other reasons we are so used to hearing at this point.
7. TCU (8-0; SOR: 3; SOS: 63)
We may not be quite as enamored with the Horned Frogs’ accomplishments as some seem to be, but the fact remains they have a decent collection of wins and have yet to suffer a loss this season. Paired with a No. 3-ranked strength of record, that’s good enough to be slotted ahead of Alabama in our eyes. Does that mean we think TCU would beat Alabama if they played tomorrow? Not necessarily! But again, that’s not what this is about, despite what pundits may tell you. Incidentally, the more interesting question regarding the Frogs for us is why the committee treated them so differently from Clemson. The teams have incredibly similar resumes, yet they chose to rank the Tigers noticeably higher. The big knock against TCU is its need to overcome three-score deficits in multiple games, but it’s not like Clemson hasn’t had to come back and escape in a couple of close games. Just an interesting inconsistency that is hard to explain.
8. Oregon (7-1; SOR: 8; SOS: 20)
We all know what happened to the Ducks in Week One against Georgia, but since then they have run roughshod over their conference slate and positioned themselves better than any other west-coast team to crash the Playoff party. The Pac 12 is fifth in the conference pecking order right now, but if the Ducks could run the table and secure a league title, that Georgia game would feel like a long time ago and perhaps be just a blip on an otherwise impressive resume. There’s no margin for error here, but Oregon is definitely not out of the Playoff race.
9. USC (7-1; SOR: 10; SOS: 59)
Southern Cal may be positioned right behind Oregon in the poll but has a lot less working in its favor than the Ducks. Not only is the Trojans’ collection of wins inferior, but they also have fewer upcoming opportunities for potential wins that could move the needle. They also don’t control their own destiny for a Pac-12 title the way Oregon does. So while we can’t rule USC out completely, this team needs some help before it can be considered a serious Playoff threat.
10. LSU (6-2; SOR: 16; SOS: 29)
It’s frankly ridiculous to have LSU ranked this highly in the poll. We know the committee loves ranking teams directly ahead of teams they have beaten head to head, but that should really only happen when the resumes are otherwise equivalent. The Tigers’ win over Ole Miss was dominant, to be sure, but they also lost to Florida State to open the season and got blasted at home by Tennessee. The win over the Rebels is literally the only thing of any note that LSU has accomplished. Beat Alabama this week? Then we’ll talk.
11. Ole Miss (8-1; SOR: 9; SOS: 54)
Not that we are out there stumping for the Rebels by any means, as they have somehow amassed eight wins without beating anyone of consequence. Their best win was a horseshoe-aided home triumph against Kentucky, and the second-best team they have beaten is… Troy? We suppose? Ole Miss is still alive for a berth in the SEC Championship, so plenty of opportunity still lies ahead, but the Rebels still have a ton to prove.
12. UCLA (7-1; SOR: 12; SOS: 64)
UCLA certainly has its back against the wall when it comes to a dark-horse Playoff berth, but it’s technically in better position than crosstown rival USC at the moment. The Bruins will make the Pac 12 Championship Game if they win out — where a hypothetical win over, say, Oregon would leave Chip Kelly’s squad with a resume that would at least be worth a serious look from the committee. If there’s a team outside the top 10 to keep an eye on, this may be it.
13. Kansas State (6-2; SOR: 18; SOS: 39)
14. Utah (6-2; SOR: 19; SOS: 52)
15. Penn State (6-2; SOR: 11; SOS: 8)
16. Illinois (7-1; SOR: 15; SOS: 83)
17. North Carolina (7-1; SOR: 14; SOS: 84)
18. Oklahoma State (6-2; SOR: 13; SOS: 23)
19. Tulane (7-1; SOR: 17; SOS: 89)
20. Syracuse (6-2; SOR: 21; SOS: 45)
21. Wake Forest (6-2; SOR: 23; SOS: 61)
22. NC State (6-2; SOR: 20; SOS: 37)
23. Oregon State (6-2; SOR: 22; SOS: 53)
24. Texas (5-3; SOR: 28; SOS: 17)
25. UCF (6-2; SOR: 40; SOS: 103)
GAMES TO WATCH:
Texas Tech @ No. 7 TCU - Noon
No. 17 North Carolina @ Virginia - Noon
No. 1 Tennessee @ No. 3 Georgia - 3:30 p.m.
No. 6 Alabama @ No. 10 LSU - 7 p.m.
No. 4 Clemson @ Notre Dame - 7:30 p.m.