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Seven-Step Drop: 7 Burning Questions for the College Football Playoff Selection Committee

Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt

Well, we’ve arrived. Now it’s time to get serious about the national title chase, the Heisman Trophy and even those conference title races.

This past weekend introduced several shakeups to the college football standings across the country, from Ames to Columbus to South Bend. As our eye turns toward November and the home stretch of action, it’s also finally time to feast our eyes on the initial set of College Football Playoff rankings. How will the Selection Committee sort out all this chaos from coast-to-coast?

Here are seven burning questions to keep in mind heading into Tuesday night’s ranking release.

1. Where will the paper tigers rank?

Before we get to the heart of this matter, take a time machine trip and think back to 2015. The Iowa Hawkeyes surprised the entire country by rolling through the regular season undefeated, rising to as high as No. 3 in the polls. They survived close games just about every other week but kept their record perfect mostly by beating up on bad teams — just two wins over ranked teams all year.

While there was continued talk about Iowa making it to the College Football Playoff, it was all taken with a grain of salt the size of a boulder. The Hawkeyes were eventually exposed in the postseason, losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and then letting Christian McCaffrey run all over them in the Rose Bowl.

This year we have two candidates for taking a similar path to being a paper tiger in Wisconsin and Miami. Both are very solid football teams, don’t get me wrong, that play good defense and have good, but not spectacular, offenses. The Badgers romped over Illinois on Saturday to move to 8-0 and it seems likely they won’t have a win over a top-25 team until going to Indianapolis. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, sleep-walked on the road and nearly were upset by a truly awful North Carolina squad. Both can finish with some pretty solid seasons, but based on what they’ve done so far, the undefeated records are quite the mirage.

Which makes it fascinating to see how the committee will treat them both. Will they look at the record more than the effort on the field? Wisconsin moved into the top four on Sunday in the other polls but it seems like a stretch to think the Badgers will be that high in the committee’s top 25. Likewise, the Canes are back in the top 10 but are they really as good as the Oklahoma schools or even Penn State? They have not proven to be yet.

We’ll find out if the committee members have truly been watching games and examining the analytics by seeing how highly ranked Wisconsin and Miami are on Tuesday.

2. What in the world does the committee do with the Big 12 standings?

It seems pretty well established by this point that the Big 12 is the best overall league from top to bottom (well, minus Kansas and Baylor of course). There’s playoff contenders like the Oklahoma schools, dark horses like TCU and giant-slayers like Iowa State. Even the middle-class of the league is a test on each weekend, whether it’s West Virginia, Texas or Kansas State.

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But how do they sort them all out?

Oklahoma has perhaps the best win in the country, going into Columbus and beating the Buckeyes. Even their lone loss has turned out to be better than anybody not named Notre Dame given recent events. Yet the Sooners have been in one-score games in Big 12 play just about every week (and gave up three first-quarter touchdowns in the one exception), including having to hold on at winless Baylor. Baker Mayfield might be the best quarterback in the country but surely the committee is examining just how meh the team has been on defense.

How about their Bedlam rivals? We’ll find out this Saturday just how good or great the Cowboys are but their best win might be at Texas on a fluke play in overtime. Everybody knows they have the horses on offense, but anytime that high-powered attack has played a top-30 defense, points are much harder to come by than when they were rolling over average teams earlier in the year.

Then there’s TCU, which lost by a touchdown to the Cyclones but still seem like it has the most well-rounded team of the bunch in the conference. The Horned Frogs’ resume isn’t eye-popping but it’s solid and they are outscoring opponents by a nearly 3-to-1 margin on average.

Maybe the most telling thing about the Big 12 could be figuring out where Iowa State slots in. Does the committee throw out the name on the front of the jerseys and the preseason misconceptions like they should, and look at the current version of the Cyclones — the one with Kyle Kempt starting at quarterback instead of Jacob Park — and award them accordingly with a top-10 ranking? It will be no easy task but don’t be surprised to see the Big 12 all over the top 25 with a few surprises as to their order come Tuesday.

3. Notre Dame puts which conferences in peril of missing out?

The Irish might be playing as well as anybody who’s not an undefeated SEC team right now. They have one of the most potent ground games in the country and we saw some big-time throws by developing quarterback Brandon Wimbush in that impressive win over NC State. Most folks are talking about the offense at the moment but the defense is very salty too, having given up no more than 20 points in a game all year. Even the current iteration, which has been dealing with some key injuries, looked as fast and as physical any team.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

By virtue of the independent being in the thick of the playoff race, that means two conferences could be in line to get left out. It seems like the Pac-12 is going to be one (see No. 5 below), but who else is on thin ice? Might the Big 12 and ACC be pondering life in the New Year’s Six if another upset happens in the next few weeks and the Irish keep winning? Sure seems like it.

4. Will committee give Clemson a pass for Syracuse loss?

A few years ago, Stanford’s loss at Northwestern was excused due to “body clocks.” Then there was Oregon’s loss at Arizona without several starting offensive linemen being glossed over. We’ve seen a wild variety of stats, theories and plain old excuses used by the committee to justify one team staying in one spot over the other despite a comparatively better resume.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

Which leads us into this past week. After a bye and a bunch of rest, Clemson returned to the early-season form it displayed in wins over Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech in a romp against Georgia Tech. The final score didn’t really convey the fact that the Tigers controlled the outcome throughout and were once again impressive on defense in stopping the Yellow Jackets’ option. Perhaps just as big, the offense looked completely different with a healthy Kelly Bryant running things even as conditions made things less than ideal for operating downfield.

Dabo Swinney’s team has good wins and may have been even more impressive than Alabama and Georgia prior to that trip to the Carrier Dome. Lots of folks are curious as to who might be in the No. 3 spot and it wouldn’t be shocking if the committee ignored that injury-filled loss against the Orange and, as they should, look deeper into the whole body of work for the Tigers. They do that and it makes sense to give them a pass for their lone blemish and slide them in right behind the SEC teams and ahead of the Big Ten ones.

5. Is the Pac-12 totally and completely dead?

If there’s any conference who would rather avoid the long, agonizing analysis and breakdowns that surround the actual committee rankings release, it’s the Pac-12. That’s because things should be short and sweet: the conference of champions is likely going another year without a title in the marquee college sport.

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Washington would seem to have the best chance of winning out and sneaking into the final four but needs considerable help. The Huskies have a sub-par non-conference slate and have been relatively unimpressive in conference play so far — completing just nine passes in their blowout of a lackluster UCLA side on Saturday. While there are opportunities to state their case against Stanford and Washington State in November, it says plenty that the best win Chris Petersen’s squad has right now is against Fresno State.

If Washington can’t crack the top 10 — or heck top 12 — on Tuesday, that might signal for good that Larry Scott’s league will be on the outside looking in on New Year’s Day. Perhaps the Cardinal, with that game against Notre Dame to end the regular season and the potential for a rematch with USC, stand a chance. But if the committee is skeptical that they’re nothing more than a team who has a Heisman candidate carrying them on offense, they might struggle to crack the top 20. And who knows where preseason favorite USC might land in the top 25 come Tuesday night.

There’s still a lot of football to be played in the next month but we’re almost to the point where we can write the Pac-12 out of the playoff in pen and not pencil.

6. Does the SEC have a shot at two?

Every single year, the first set of committee rankings will inevitably spur the debate: can a conference put two teams in the playoff? Not surprisingly, the debate usually centers around the SEC being the one to do so.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

We’re going to have this debate once again this week, next week and probably right up until the final set of rankings in early December. It’s a product of both the current media environment as well as the fact that Alabama and Georgia are really, really good football teams. So let’s hear what chair has to say about the two SEC front-runners, sure. But that won’t be the key to possibly seeing a rematch of the SEC title game in Atlanta at the same place a month later.

The key will be what other SEC teams are in the committee’s top 25 and how highly regarded they are. Remember this isn’t a case like we had a few years ago where the SEC, led by the Mississippi schools, stuffed the ballot box in the top 10. The middle of the pack in the conference simply isn’t all that great and the Bulldogs in particular need teams like Auburn to come in closer to the top 10 than the 15 or 20 mark. Will Mississippi State and LSU not just be in the top 20, but sneak into the top 15? Could South Carolina turn heads and make an appearance too?

The name of the game is all about racking up top 25 wins by the time those final rankings come out and the SEC will need some help in making sure that’s the case starting on Tuesday.

7. How does the Group of 5 shake out?

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As always, there will be very close attention being paid to the Group of 5 teams in the poll and where they stack up nationally and against each other. It would be a shock to see anybody other than AAC teams in the committee’s top 25, with two — UCF and Memphis — seeming likely to wind up in the top 20. There’s a little less drama going into Tuesday given that USF finally lost after looking mediocre since the beginning of the season but who knows. And given the dearth of issues finding solid teams at the bottom of the top 25, perhaps somebody like Boise State could sneak into the picture in an unexpected way.

College Football Rankings: Memphis Football
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Stat(s) of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

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Best player:J.T Barrett, Ohio State

Heisman five: 1. Saquon Barkley (Penn State), 2. Bryce Love (Stanford), 3. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 4. Josh Adams (Notre Dame) 5. Khalil Tate (Arizona)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Notre Dame, 3. Ohio State, 4. Clemson

Team of the week: UMass

Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Jim McElwain

Quote of the week: “He's a professional. He's a college athlete, but he's a pro.” — Urban Meyer on J.T Barrett.

Play of the Week

Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 10.

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 10.

1. Alabama

2. Georgia

3. Notre Dame

4. Ohio State

5. Clemson

6. Penn State

7. TCU

8. Wisconsin

9. Oklahoma State

10. Iowa State

11. Oklahoma

12. UCF

13. Miami (FL)

14. Virginia Tech

15. Auburn

16. Arizona

Best of the rest: USC, Washington, LSU, NC State, Memphis, Stanford, Mississippi State, Toledo, Navy

Pre-snap Reads

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State

This seems like a Bedlam that really can go either way, as the separation between the two rivals is as close as ever. What’s more is this one is pitting a pair of offensive-minded sides with some defenses that are solid but capable of giving up big plays. I hate to pick against Baker Mayfield given the big stage, but we’ll lean Cowboys at home by a touchdown.

College Football Top 25: Oklahoma State
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oklahoma

Virginia Tech at Miami

It seems like both teams were looking ahead to this one based on the way they played in a pair of lackluster wins against bad teams on Saturday. The Hurricanes have been very beatable the past month but have found a way to remain undefeated every time. The Hokies play too disciplined and too well on defense however, and emerge with a victory that likely comes down to a key play for the visitors in the fourth quarter.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Miami
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Virginia Tech

LSU at Alabama

This isn’t your mama’s LSU-Alabama game. It’s not even you older cousin’s Tigers and Tide matchup. Nick Saban’s side rolls in this one after breaking things open just before halftime at home.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama
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— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.