The 2019 college football season has already given us a bit of everything, from wild endings to bizarre upsets to some truly unfathomable touchdowns. We've had teams come out of nowhere to enter November undefeated and others go from dark-horse picks to outhouse picks (and a few others that even reverted back into dark horses).
But now it's time for the season within the season to begin. It's time for the national championship chase to really get underway.
With Week 10 in the books, it's time segue into 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 few teams is getting more and more, well, challenging.
Thus, ahead of the rankings release show, here are seven big questions that we're looking for answers for from the committee:
1. Does the committee go eye-test, resume or neither for the No. 1 spot?
The AP and Coaches Polls have been split as to who is the top team in the country, with LSU tops in the former and Alabama taking honors in the latter. That sets up a juicy matchup in Tuscaloosa on Saturday but also underscores the different directions the committee can take as to who occupies the No. 1 spot in their own rankings.
It could be the Tigers if they opt to value resume, with top -25-caliber wins over Auburn, Florida and at Texas on their sheet. Ed Orgeron's crew has improved on defense as they've gotten healthier in the front seven while their offense, which could rightly be considered the talk of the sport at this point in the year, is at or near the top of just about every category nationally.
The Crimson Tide have earned their spot through a combination of sheer dominance and a little dose of simply having the most consistent track record of anybody the past decade. They don't have any great wins — with a victory at Texas A&M perhaps being the best of the bunch — but they have won going away week in and week out. The health of Tua Tagovailoa is obviously in question going into Week 11 but with their Heisman candidate in the lineup, the team has been overwhelming opponents and helped cover up small issues that have developed with things like run defense.
Yet neither of those two might wind up as the consensus inside the selection committee room.
That's the result of this thoroughly dominant run that Ohio State has been on under Ryan Day, which has included giving up more than 10 points just once all year (against Lane Kiffin's FAU of all teams), impressive wins against stout defenses like Michigan State and Wisconsin, plus a better-than-it-looks effort over 7-2 Indiana. The Buckeyes are No. 3 in scoring offense and No. 1 in scoring defense. They have wins, they have numbers, and they have perhaps the fewest flaws of any of the trio of teams that is garnering consideration for the top spot.
We'll find out plenty as to what the committee values in their selection at No. 1 come Tuesday and that will help inform plenty of tea leaf-reading the rest of the month all the way into Selection Sunday as a result.
2. Who are the four and what is the one-loss pecking order?
Those top three seem like locks to occupy the top three spots in some order but who winds up as the all-important No. 4 has a wide and diverse field of candidates.
Among the pool of teams the committee is considering: Clemson, Penn State, Baylor, Georgia, Oregon, Utah, and Oklahoma.
Here's how those teams rank, in order, in a few metrics the committee will use:
— Scoring offense: Oklahoma (49.3 ppg), Clemson (44.2), Penn State (38.5), Oregon (38.2), Baylor (36.1), Georgia (34.5), Utah (33.1)
— Yards per play: Oklahoma (9.54 ypp), Clemson (7.58), Baylor (7.05), Georgia (6.85), Utah (6.71), Oregon (6.46), Penn State (6.18)
— Scoring defense: Penn State (9.6 ppg), Georgia (11.4), Clemson (11.7), Utah (12.2), Oregon (15.8), Baylor (18.5), Oklahoma (23)
— Yards per play allowed: Clemson (3.95 ypp), Penn State (3.98), Utah (4.36), Georgia (4.43), Oregon (4.56) Baylor (4.73), Oklahoma (5.12)
— Wins vs. .500 or better teams: Utah/Oregon (6), Penn State (5), Georgia (4), Clemson/Baylor (3), Oklahoma (1)
Many will pencil in the defending national champions fourth but their case isn't so straightforward. Tigers have gotten things rolling ever since that near upset at UNC but let's face it, the first month-plus of the season this wasn't the sharpest of teams. They don't get the benefit of the doubt with their schedule in particular, which is unlikely to feature a single top 25 team in the committee's rankings on the slate. Much will be made of their 24-game win streak but the CFP is only concerned with 2019 and for as talented as Dabo Swinney's team is overall, it's not been the best of efforts all around despite an increasing number of blowouts.
Their biggest competition might be fellow undefeated Penn State. The Nittany Lions have knocked off Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State in their last three outings and that non-conference victory over Pitt looks more and more solid. Not every contest has been cleanly played on both sides of the ball but they have taken care of business and the talent James Franklin runs onto the field with is pretty obvious.
Then there's Baylor, who might not crack the top four but could earn more respect from the committee than the pollsters are giving the Bears. They're part of an intriguing set of one-loss contenders who likely will be on the outside looking in but still can play their way into the field. Figuring out the pecking order among the Bulldogs, Utes, Ducks, and Sooners, in particular, is a huge indicator as to which of the group is in best position at the end of the year. The hunch is the improved OU defense and the general play of Lincoln Riley's team will make them the top one-loss team in the top 25 but you are likely to see a surprise or two come Tuesday given how little is separating each contender.
3. Will there be a two-team SEC scenario this year? How about the Big Ten?
This one is simple, are Alabama/LSU in the top three and will Ohio State/Penn State occupy the top five? Then, what does committee chair Rob Mullens have to say about those four teams and how much (or little) separation there is between them and the next tier of candidates?
We'll find out so much more about this potential scenario after Nov. 9 but it's going to be a talking point for many down South and across the Midwest the next four weeks. Also take note of common opponents in each conference too as how high teams like Auburn, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Florida are ranked. This will be a factor in either the SEC or Big Ten doubling up come December.
4. What hope is there out West for the Pac-12?
There's no doubt about it, Week 10 was huge for Larry Scott's league as Oregon dispatched USC to continue their grip on the North while Utah passed their biggest remaining test by pulling away from Washington in Seattle. The prospects for the Pac-12 have improved seemingly every weekend since being written off in the final four chase in late September but is the reality as rosy as recent events suggest?
Keep in mind that Mullens, the Ducks AD, sits outside the room when his program is brought up so it's not like there will be any undue influence on the proceedings. But in terms of balance, the Utah and Oregon have been rolling for the most part the past month and have done so with efforts on both sides of the ball. What kind of gap is there with fellow conference title contenders like Oklahoma (specifically) or somebody like Penn State.
The ideal scenario for Scott and company is that an 11-1 Utah meets an 11-1 Oregon with a berth on the line but the Pac-12 still needs a little help to be on the safe side. Another Sooners loss is what fans out West should really be rooting for (on top of Alabama or LSU winning out) but the Nittany Lions being further down the pecking order in the first rankings would help a ton too.
Of course, it could all be for not too if they place Utah behind teams like Auburn and Florida or have Baylor ahead of Oregon. Then the panic could be a little more real for the folks in San Francisco and beyond.
5. The Group of 5 pecking order is what?
There was a nice clean scenario for the committee to consider had SMU won at Memphis on Saturday night but that's not how events transpired at the Liberty Bowl at all. Now it's up to the committee to sort out all of the options for the Group of 5 bid among a number of notable contenders.
You can probably start with those very same Tigers, who beat the Mustangs and thumped fellow division rivals Tulane and Navy earlier this season. Their win over Ole Miss isn't anything to write home about but a Power 5 victory over an SEC opponent is way better than nothing and they can keep building their resume with that game against Cincinnati looming at the end of the month. Mike Norvell's team has one of the most dynamic offenses in the country with all the playmakers on the roster though their defensive numbers in recent weeks hold them back a bit.
SMU, by the way, isn't out of the running with their first loss either. They can still win the division by running the table and hoping Memphis takes another loss along the way — not a wild scenario in the pretty crazy AAC. Should they eventually win the conference, they can also easily point to the loss of leading receiver Reggie Roberson in their loss too, a pretty big factor in such a back-and-forth game.
Like those two, Cincinnati is also a very strong contender though their play of late since beating UCF has possibly put the Bearcats behind the two squads from the AAC West. They have a win that keeps looking better and better over UCLA on top of topping the reigning conference champ Knights. Luke Fickell's squad has a pretty solid defense to go with some explosive options on the other side of the ball and probably will earn plenty respect as the most complete of options out of the American.
The bigger question is what gap, if any, the Mountain West contenders have with their counterparts. Boise State was thought to be the top selection ahead of even SMU but that was before their puzzling loss to BYU. The circumstances — on the road without starting QB Hank Bachmeier — were a factor but it's not clear what the committee will do with that nugget. The Broncos have been pushed throughout this season and on top of that loss, their big win over Florida State may not wind up being over a team that finishes above .500 either.
Boise State isn't the only contender out West either and it will be fascinating to see if fellow 7-1 squad San Diego State cracks the top 25 as well. The Aztecs are regulars with the number of one-score or close games they play in but they win them more often than not with their combination of running the ball and playing stiff defense. Their closing flourish of Fresno State, at Hawaii, and home against BYU is tougher than Boise State's but an early appearance on Tuesday could help the Mountain West's case for the Cotton Bowl bid tremendously.
The committee at least caught a little break on Halloween when Georgia Southern upset Appalachian State to eliminate another contender but the order the Group of 5 teams occupy in the committee's minds will be of big interest to many with the first set of rankings.
6. Who are the surprises in the top 25?
Every year the dichotomy between what we see in the AP/Coaches Polls and the committee's rankings produces plenty of shocking results and double-takes. Who might be candidates to come in much higher (or lower) than what the pollsters have?
Two potential candidates that have a chance to be particularly divisive are undefeated Baylor and Minnesota. It wouldn't be shocking if both came in several spots below their current numbers in the AP Poll and it's bound to elicit plenty of social media angst if the Gophers wind up behind somebody like Notre Dame or even Wisconsin.
The same is true on the other end of the spectrum as the bottom five of the top 25 is typically filled with teams the pollsters leave out. Could Texas A&M still find a spot or does somebody like Indiana make an appearance? Maybe Iowa State and Texas find themselves in the first slide unveiled while somebody like Boise State is left off to the dismay of many. This is an area that really can provide some insight as to how the committee generally views conferences as a whole and often provokes as much debate as the top of the poll does.
7. Is there any cushion for a loss by the undefeated teams?
How thin a margin is there really for teams with a zero in that right column? That's particularly pressing for programs like the ones in last year's title game as the strength of schedule is just not there to help split hairs in the case of Alabama and Clemson.
Maybe Mullens will say there's a clear gap between the top group and the next set of teams, which might make it easy for somebody like the Tide to survive a loss with their best player injured while it could be tougher for somebody like the Tigers. Maybe it's Penn State that has leeway if the Nittany Lions lose a close one to the Buckeyes or somebody else. Maybe Baylor is in win-or-bust mode... or not even in the conversation at all.
Or maybe there's just no margin at all given the number of contenders at the moment and just those four precious spots. There's plenty of football left to be played but the committee's tall task from Tuesday onwards will prompt plenty of questions — and answers — from here out until Selection Sunday rolls around.
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
Stat of the Week
Northwestern will go at least 34 days — and 44 offensive drives — without a touchdown (four games and counting).
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Antonio Gibson, Memphis
Team of the Week: Utah
Goat of the Week: Dino Babers, Syracuse
Heisman Five: 1. Chase Young (Ohio State), 2. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 3. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 4. Joe Burrow (LSU), 5. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)
Projected Playoff: 1. Ohio State, 2. LSU, 3. Clemson, 4. Alabama
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Penn State vs. Oregon, Sugar Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Georgia, Orange Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Baylor vs. Boise State
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
1. Ohio State
5. Penn State
15. Wake Forest
Best of the rest: SMU, Iowa, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Kansas State, Boise State, Indiana, Cincinnati, Navy
Alabama at LSU
Obviously so much of this one revolves around the health of Tua Tagovailoa's ankle. It seems doubtful that he'll be at or close to 100 percent no matter how much Nick Saban insists otherwise. Even with things in Tuscaloosa, I'm inclined to lean Tigers given the way they've been able to run the football in recent weeks but this one seems like it will be tight throughout and come down to turnovers even if Alabama manages to get the dub. The Pick: LSU +7
Penn State at Minnesota
Most view this one as pretty one-sided but the styles of both these teams should help keep it close and low-scoring. The Nittany Lions are by far the better squad overall but something says P.J. Fleck will have a few trick plays and wrinkles sprinkled in to score a few touchdowns. A fun one in the Twin Cities will hopefully ensue before James Franklin gets some breathing room in the fourth quarter. The Pick: Penn State -7
Iowa at Wisconsin
Everybody's attention Saturday will be on the top-13 battles above but this might be the most intriguing game because it really sets the tone in the final stretch for both sides. A win means you're in firmly the division chase and a loss means a season filled with hope is a bit of a disappointment. Feels like the Badgers will get back on track in this one despite the Hawkeyes keeping it close until a late turnover allows UW to cover. The Pick: Wisconsin -8
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of @KStateFB)