You just knew that college football was going to make it difficult on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. You just knew it was going to be one of those weekends.
And it was.
Ten ranked teams went on the road and seven of them lost. We thinned the ranks of the unbeaten by one. Conference races west of the Mississippi are suddenly closer than ever and we now have a perfect semifinal slate for next weekend in the Southeast. Mix in a wild afternoon and evening of results for teams floating around in that good-to-meh range and there’s precious little separation from one team to the next.
It all makes for a juicy segue to the first set of College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. While the members of the selection committee are set to cobble together their own top 25, the challenge of doing so beyond the top two is getting more and more challenging.
Thus, ahead of the rankings release show, here are seven big questions that we’re looking for answers for from the committee:
1. Who is four, who is five?
At this point, it would be quite a shock if the top two for the selection committee weren't No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson. You can probably go as far as to set those two in stone from here until December. After that, things do get a bit murky but the pool of candidates available is small to begin with. Undefeated Notre Dame figures to be No. 3 but it would not be super surprising if the Fighting Irish slid to No. 4 overall. Either way, they will round out three of the top four.
But who will be the fourth and what fan base will be raising hell as the team slotted in at No. 5 (and No. 6, for that matter)?
The pool of teams the committee is considering: LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma and Georgia.
Here’s how those four rank, in order, in a few metrics the committee will use:
— Scoring offense: Oklahoma (48.9 ppg), Georgia (38.6 ppg), Michigan (36 ppg), LSU (30.4 ppg)
— Yards per play: Oklahoma (8.91), Georgia (7.07), Michigan (6.26), LSU (5.33)
— Scoring defense: Michigan (14.4 ppg), LSU (15.1 ppg), Georgia (16.4 ppg), Oklahoma (25.6 ppg)
— Yards per play allowed: Michigan (3.71), Georgia (4.76), LSU (4.79), Oklahoma (5.20)
— Road/Neutral wins: Georgia (3), Michigan (2), Oklahoma (2), LSU (1)
— Wins vs. .500 or better teams: LSU (6), Michigan (5), Georgia (4), Oklahoma (3)
You’re going to have to be splitting hairs a lot in many cases, keeping in mind that the Tigers are a lock to be ahead of the Bulldogs due to their head-to-head win.
Predicted order: Michigan, LSU, Georgia, Oklahoma.
2. Will there be a two-team SEC scenario this year?
Think back to last Halloween for the committee’s rankings and note how Georgia was No. 1 and Alabama was No. 2. Those two teams wound up suffering late-season losses but still made the playoff. If the SEC harbors any hope of placing two teams in the final four again, there could be indicators from the first set of rankings this season.
You can start with how high Georgia is ranked. If the Bulldogs are in the top four, that’s a good start. A two-teams-in scenario will likely result in Georgia beating an undefeated Alabama in a close SEC Championship Game but the gap between the two should probably be fairly close in this initial ranking.
Also keep in mind where (and how many) other SEC teams are ranked. Where will LSU be slotted (see above)? Maybe just as important will be teams like Mississippi State (No. 21 in the AP), Texas A&M (No. 25), and even Florida (No. 13 in the AP) and Kentucky. Is there even a chance Auburn sneaks into the conversation? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.
3. Where is Ohio State?
The Buckeyes might be the biggest mystery out there considering they were off this weekend after getting blown out at (now) 4-4 Purdue. How much does that one loss weigh on the committee and will they look beyond the final scores to see a team that struggled to also deal with Minnesota, Indiana and Penn State in the weeks prior? OSU’s best win aside from the Nittany Lions — TCU — is looking worse and worse in retrospect.
The offense is good, but the defense remains extremely suspect. Also keep in mind that committee member Gene Smith will have to leave the room when discussing the Buckeyes so any conversation about tweaks Urban Meyer has made the past few days will be limited.
Ohio State still controls their own destiny if they run the table the rest of the way and finish as Big Ten champions. That will be plenty enough to get into the playoff given the combination of resume and passing the eye test by beating good teams like Michigan State and Michigan.
But if there’s any fan base that might not be pleased at seeing their team below their ranking in the human polls, it might just be OSU’s. Don’t yell at us when Washington State is above the Buckeyes according to the committee.
4. Is the Big 12 still in the playoff besides Oklahoma?
There are just two Big 12 teams with one loss after Texas fell at Oklahoma State over the weekend, leaving the conference on thin ice when it comes to making the playoff. While the Sooners still have a good shot at getting in if they keep winning (even that neutral-site loss to Texas at the gun isn’t a terrible blemish), there’s not much after them that will give Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby hope.
Yes, there is West Virginia out there and going on the road to Ames against an improving Iowa State team is not a bad loss by any means. But the Cyclones are the only real team that the Mountaineers have played with a pulse and they had their own issues against Kansas and Texas Tech in the weeks leading up to that loss. Though WVU blew out Baylor — and looked good doing so — there’s not a ton of meat on the bone and that’s the kind of thing that likely leads to the committee undervaluing a program compared to their spot in the human polls.
That can change over the coming weeks with trips to Austin and Stillwater plus home games against TCU and Oklahoma. But if West Virginia is truly a playoff contender out of the Big 12, the committee needs to see them as a top 12 team instead of the 15-25 range they will likely find themselves at on Tuesday.
5. Where does UCF fall in the pecking order and do the Knights have competition for the New Year's Six bid?
There are several committee members who use social media like Twitter and let’s just say that they all better be muting/blocking the word "UCF" on Tuesday night.
Yes, the Knights are undefeated at 7-0. Yes, their win streak is now at 20 in a row. Yes, the offense is pretty good with McKenzie Milton (if healthy) and others. But let’s face it, they have not played anybody and are unlikely to get taken as seriously by the committee as they have been by the AP and Coaches Polls.
UCF has not beaten a single team over .500 on the season and their best victory is a home win over Pitt. They had a close call against a Memphis team that was taken to the woodshed the week prior by Tulane and their other marquee non-conference game against FAU is not looking great at all. More to the point, this year’s edition of the Knights simply hasn’t played up to the level of last year’s group, even though the 2017 team will gather not one iota of discussion in the room by the committee.
In fact, it would not at all be surprising to see UCF ranked outside the top 16 or even top 20. Just to cherry pick a few ratings, Sagarin has the Knights at No. 29, S&P+ places them 11th and Massey’s composite has them at No. 16.
What might be more interesting is what kind of competition they might have for the Group of 5 bid. The bottom of the polls is really... meh so even the committee members will be reaching trying to find good teams. Will Houston make an appearance in the top 25? Potentially. What about Fresno State or Utah State? Perhaps.
Historically the committee has shied away from putting a good number of Group of 5 teams in their top 25 but they should have at least two on Tuesday. Whoever that might be will give us a good idea at how close the CFP views the race for one of those New Year’s Six bowl bids.
6. Will the optics look even worse for the Pac-12 on Tuesday?
If you can make sense of the Pac-12 on a week-to-week basis, you probably should make your way to the Nevada desert and try to earn a little extra cash on the side.
Washington, despite losing to Cal in an absolutely dreadful performance, still controls its own destiny somehow. Oregon was once a top 12 team after beating those same Huskies but was drubbed in the desert at Arizona. Washington State (picked fifth in the division in the preseason) and Utah (second) are the current pace-setters. There’s just one other team over .500 in the South and that program (Colorado) just lost at home to a 1-6 team after blowing a 28-point lead.
While we know there’s no elite team out West, are there any good ones? That’s up for debate beyond the Utes and Cougars and the optics on Tuesday might be even worse for the Pac-12 than they are in the eyes of many fans across the country at the moment. The over/under on conference teams in the top 25 is set at 2.5 and it might be wise to take the under.
It has been an awful few weeks for Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott and, somehow, it could get worse if the committee keeps Washington State/Utah in the late teens of their top 25 and doesn’t rank Washington at all. Optics matter at this point of the season and the Pac-12’s couldn’t be worse.
7. Who has any cushion for another loss?
We’re already down to four undefeated teams and there’s a further 16 left in the country. Can any of them afford a loss and still make a playoff game or New Year’s Six bowl?
Keep an eye on how the committee ranks conferences overall and how many teams have top 25 wins according to the committee. Clemson may very well be No. 2 on Tuesday but if their best win (Texas A&M) is unranked or the Tigers don’t have a team left on their schedule like Virginia or Boston College in the top 25. Alabama has proven it does get some leeway in terms of resume because the Crimson Tide have been so dominant but they’ll need potential SEC East champion Georgia to be close to the top four too.
Then, how thin is the margin for others like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan or Oklahoma? Would it theoretically be possible to see the one-loss Irish in the final four ahead of either the Sooners, Wolverines or Buckeyes?
There’s still a long ways to go before Selection Sunday but that doesn’t mean we can’t read a few tea leaves when the selection committee releases their first set of playoff rankings.
The only certainty on Tuesday? Everybody will be mad.
Stat of the Week
Iowa scored all 24 points without the benefit of an offensive touchdown against Penn State — two safeties, two field goals, a pick-six and one touchdown on special teams via a fake field goal. The Hawkeyes lost for the first time in 13 games when scoring at least 20 points.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Matt Colburn, Wake Forest
Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 3. Gardner Minshew (Washington State), 4. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State), 5. Travis Etienne (Clemson)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Michigan
Team of the week: Oklahoma State
Honorary Les Miles Goats of the week: Mike MacIntyre, Gary Patterson and Barry Odom
Quote of the week: “We’re a mentally weak football team.” — Florida State head coach Willie Taggart
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 Week10.
3. Notre Dame
8. Ohio State
12. Washington State
13. Penn State
16. Iowa State
Best of the rest: Texas A&M, Florida, West Virginia, Army, Boston College, Virginia, Utah State, Fresno State, Oklahoma State
Alabama at LSU
The Tigers' defense plus a night game environment in Baton Rouge is worth at least one turnover and one fluky play that goes LSU’s way. We’ll see if the Crimson Tide want to play this one a little more conservatively or if they’ll continue to take shots downfield but something says they win by a comfortable 17 points after pulling away in the second half.
Georgia at Kentucky
The other SEC semifinal game on CBS will be one to keep an eye on throughout. Both teams love to run the football so possessions will be limited and big plays will be at a premium. The crowd in Lexington should be bonkers but something says the Bulldogs keep rolling and win by at least a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Penn State at Michigan
Can the Wolverines limit the Nittany Lions in the second half? That’s the big question because both of these two teams have had some big runs after emerging from the locker room. We’ll lean Michigan since this is at the Big House and it feels like a special season brewing for Jim Harbaugh, but this could be a close one.
— 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.