It’s hard to have asked for a better weekend of college football than the one we experienced in Week 9, with close games, huge upsets and several undefeated teams suffering their first loss. Whether it was Wisconsin holding on against Nebraska, Clemson rallying to beat Florida State or Wyoming shocking Boise State, it was a heck of a slate of games and it couldn’t have come at a more interesting time considering the very first set of rankings from the College Football Playoff Selection Committee come out on Tuesday.
So how do we sort out what’s happened so far this season? We’ll know a lot more come Tuesday night but until then, here are seven burning questions we have for the committee ahead of the rankings release show and what we need to do to interpret the answers.
1. The top four seem pretty clear, but will résumé or the eye test win out for ranking them?
It seems like every time the committee releases a set of rankings, we have to pour over each and every spot and figure out what faux outrage we have to address over the next few days. Sometimes it’s with a team that is much lower than it is in both polls and sometimes it is with who’s in the top four and who’s out. We should get no such major controversy this season as the top four seems pretty clearly established and there should only be minor quibbles with the way the rest of the committee’s poll shakes out.
What will be interesting to see is if the group of 12 puts an emphasis on the eye test over the résumé of certain teams. Take Clemson for example, which has some of the best wins of any contender (Louisville, Auburn, Florida State) but also has struggled to beat everybody but Boston College and its Week 3 FCS opponent. Alabama doesn’t have a whole lot of current top 25 wins aside from Texas A&M but has looked like the best team in the country. Washington has only played two close games and otherwise looked like West Coast world-beaters. Then there’s Michigan, who hasn’t played anybody with a pulse away from Ann Arbor.
How does the committee weigh these factors when ranking teams? Given that everybody’s résumé is incomplete until the final week of the regular season, it should be using a mix of résumé and eye test but the latter shouldn’t be the driving force. That’s one reason to slot Clemson fourth instead of second like many expect. The same should play a factor in Ohio State being behind Texas A&M or Auburn ahead of teams like Oklahoma.
2. Which one-loss team has the best shot of cracking the top four?
There are seven one-loss teams in the top 15 of the rankings and you can bet everybody will be tracking who the top-ranked team is and who else is being viewed as a potential playoff team by the committee. A lot of the focus will likely come down to Louisville but the Cardinals aren’t the only ones in the running, as they could be behind Texas A&M. Also, how low (or high, depending on how you look at it) is Florida?
Go back to 2014 and ‘15 and you’ll note that the first four teams in the rankings are usually not close to the final four teams that make the playoff. Figuring out who among the one-loss teams has a chance to crash the party can be difficult with as much football as there is remaining but a worth exercise — chances are one or more of them will make it into a semifinal.
3. Who has the best shot of surviving a loss?
It’s rare there’s a consensus in college football but it’s just about unanimously agreed that Clemson could still lose one of its last four (Syracuse and Pitt could both be real problems) and still make it into the playoff with the wins they have in the bank already as ACC champs. Who else is in the same boat?
Alabama seems like one obvious choice given the Crimson Tide have done it two years in a row, but tie-breakers in the SEC would probably have to be factored in. Maybe more interesting is to see if Washington has a shot. In order to do so the Huskies would likely need to see Washington State and USC in the initial rankings. You wonder about Michigan too, which likely only has Ohio State left among ranked teams but could be susceptible to taking an ‘L’ for its mid-November trip to Iowa.
4. Is the Big 12 really eliminated from contention?
It wasn’t a great weekend for the Big 12 as the league’s lone remaining undefeated teams both went down in Baylor and West Virginia. The Bears had an uphill battle to begin with given their non-conference schedule so you wonder where they might pop up in the rankings — if at all. Oklahoma looks like the favorite in the league but they have two non-conference losses and gave up an FBS-record number of yards in front of the committee’s chairman, Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt.
Also keep in mind about the committee itself. Former writer Steve Wieberg and ex-Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez are both assigned to monitor the Big 12 and the latter has reportedly been a very influential voice in the room. If there’s a general feeling that the Big 12 just doesn’t have the horses to make the playoff this year, that will be reflected in the rankings. If West Virginia or even Oklahoma is sitting in the top 12 though, the league might not be completely out of the running.
5. What does the rest of the bowl picture look like?
Remember that for as much focus as there has been on the top four, there are some other big bowl bids that are going to come from the committee rankings at the end of the year. Is there anybody in line for those? Obviously with Clemson going to the playoff, Louisville is all but assured of a berth in the Orange Bowl. But what about the Rose? Does Washington State or potential Pac-12 South champion Utah or Colorado have the leg up? If all three are closely bunched, perhaps it’s anybody’s game entering November.
6. Which team will be the biggest surprise in the rankings?
It happens every year with the initial set of rankings, there’s one team that is in a wildly different spot than it is in the polls. Who might that be on Tuesday? Could it be No. 9 Nebraska, which didn’t look great in the overtime loss to Wisconsin and haven’t had the strongest of schedules either. Might Baylor be lower than the No. 13 spot the Bears occupy in the AP Poll or will a team like Virginia Tech wind up closer to the top 12 than barely in the top 25? It will be somebody for sure that causes social media to erupt.
7. Will there be a Group of Five team or teams ranked?
With Boise State’s loss to Wyoming, the Group of Five bid truly is up in the air. We’ve seen in the past where the committee has simply waited until the very last minute to rank a team from outside the Power Five and that might be the case in 2016. Western Michigan is undefeated and could crack the rankings but teams like USC, Pitt and others might be able to beat the Broncos from the MAC out for one of the final few spots. At the same time, if Boise State remains in front of Western Michigan or San Diego State is the highest ranked team, it should make for a fun debate over the next few weeks with a lot of money at stake.
Stat of the Week
Out on the West Coast, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey scored his first-ever touchdown in a true road game this week at Arizona (he found the end zone three times). On the East Coast, Antonio Callaway became the first Florida Gator ever to score a receiving, passing, punt return, kick return and now rushing touchdown in his career when he took an end around across the goal line in the third quarter against Georgia.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player:Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Heisman five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan), 3. Jake Browning (Washington), 4. Donnel Pumphrey (San Diego State), 5. Saquon Barkley (Penn State)
Team of the week: Wyoming
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Butch Jones
Quote of the week: Steve Levy on the Texas/Baylor broadcast: "Charlie Strong told us no matter who's coaching Texas next year, they're going to be a 10-win team."
Play of the Week
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.
5. Texas A&M
8. Ohio State
11. Penn State
13. Oklahoma State
14. West Virginia
Best of the rest: Virginia Tech, Colorado, North Carolina, Pitt, USC, Nebraska, Western Michigan, Washington State, Temple
Alabama at LSU
There’s not quite a “Game of the Century” feel to this one but it’s certainly much more of an evenly matched game now than it was a month ago. LSU’s defensive line has enough pass rushers to make freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts nervous in the pocket and Leonard Fournette looks like he’s ready to mount another run at the Heisman Trophy. You still have to lean Alabama and for its defensive scoring streak to continue but this might be a tad closer than the Crimson Tide’s recent SEC games.
Nebraska at Ohio State
Everybody’s still wondering how good these two teams are and the calendar has turned to November. The Cornhuskers managed to overcome a bad game from Tommy Armstrong to force overtime against Wisconsin but just couldn’t quite get over the hump. Now they’re back on the road in yet another tough environment. That’s a lot to ask so expect the Buckeyes to get things going in this one and finally have all that talent come up big.
Florida at Arkansas
The Razorbacks needed a bye week in the worst way after losing two of their last three, including getting run right over by Auburn in a game that was over in the first quarter. The rest should do them good as players like quarterback Austin Allen have simply been beat up. At home in early November has typically been a spot when Arkansas surprises teams and that could be the case once again if they stop Florida’s run game and make Luke Del Rio throw the football.
— 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.