The College Football Playoff committee met in recent days to determine the initial rankings for the top teams in the country. The first task was simple: confirm undefeated Georgia, who has beaten all comers, as No. 1.
You could have filled in the rest, especially the three remaining playoff spots, by using a confetti gun to fire names. The exercise tested the limits, strength of schedule comparisons and statistics. It even revealed the existence of an infallible arbiter: a head-to–head competition.
So it was Tuesday night that the first rankings were released. Georgia, one-loss Alabama and unbeaten Michigan State were the top three spots. Oregon was fourth. Ohio State was fifth, after it lost at home to Oregon in September. Cincinnati was sixth, trying to be the first team outside of the five power conferences to make the playoff.
Oklahoma, undefeated and unimpressive after a series of narrow wins against middling opponents, was dropped to eighth — one step behind Michigan, which blew a 16-point second-half lead at Michigan State on Saturday.
In all, there would seem to be at least a dozen teams with a chance to reach the four-team playoff, which — with the absence of Clemson, which has already lost three times, and Alabama and Ohio State in precarious positions with one loss each — is shaping up as one of the most wide-open fields since the format began in 2014.
If the rankings regularly agitate college football fans — and, of course, that’s the point — this edition comes amid wrangling about what the future of the playoff will be.
When three conference commissioners — Greg Sankey of the Southeastern, Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12, Craig Thompson of the Mountain West — and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick revealed earlier this year their secretly hatched plan for a 12-team playoff, it set off another turf war over automatic berths and whether schools outside the Power 5 would have a shot.
When Texas and Oklahoma’s intentions of jumping to the SEC from the Big 12 were made public, it created greater suspicions that the proposed format would be set up as an SEC invitational.
Schools outside of the power conferences have been arguing for more than 20 years that they should be able to compete for a championship. If there have been other minnows with strong résumés — Central Florida won 25 consecutive games in 2017 and 2018 but was never ranked higher than eighth by the committee — Cincinnati, another American Athletic Conference program, may provide a particularly strong case.
The decisive win by the Bearcats (8-0), at No. 10 Notre Dame (7-1) — one of the best road wins on any team’s ledger — but the committee’s chairman, Gary Barta, who is the athletic director at Iowa, said that lackluster wins over Navy and Tulane the last two weeks left a poor impression.
“It’s essentially a P-5 invitational,” Mike Aresco, the A.A.C. Tuesday night’s phone interview with Mike Aresco, the A.A.C. commissioner, spoke of the Power 5 conferences. “If Alabama was in our conference and won all their games, do you think they would be ranked sixth? I don’t think so.”
However, the committee did sanction Oklahoma (9-0), which had won wins over Texas, Kansas State and West Virginia and has trailed Kansas in the fourth quarter.
Pac-12 members were relieved for the moment. Since 2016, the conference has been eliminated from the playoff. Now, there is only one hope: Oregon (7-1). The Ducks have played uneven football for most of the season, but they have what stands out as a giant rose on their résumé — a 35-28 victory at Ohio State, which was achieved even without their star defensive end, Kayvon Thibodeaux, who did not play because of an injury.
If the Buckeyes were getting credit for bouncing back after shaking up their defensive coaching staff, the Ducks received an allowance for their unsightly overtime defeat to 3-5 Stanford — it came with the offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead, in the hospital after emergency surgery.
“At the end of the day, that’s why they’re one spot behind Oregon because of the head-to-head,” Barta said.
To emphasize that point, it awarded head-to-head winners wherever it could. No. 17 Mississippi State was one spot ahead Kentucky, which it lost on Saturday. 21 Wisconsin is one slot ahead Iowa, which it also beat Saturday.
As it often does, the schedule will smooth out some of the kinks. On Nov. 20, Ohio State and Michigan State will play each other in Columbus. The Buckeyes then play at Michigan one week later. These games will decide the winner of Big Ten East. They also provide the conference a strong contender for a playoff spot.
Alabama, after being upset last month by Texas A&M, ranked 14th on Tuesday, may not be able to afford another slip up, either at No. 13 Auburn on Nov. 27, or in the SEC championship game against Georgia, if that matchup is held.
Oklahoma, which has managed to beat almost everyone on its calendar, still has to play at one lost Baylor, ranked 12th and one-loss Oklahoma State ranked 11th. It will likely meet one more time for the Big 12 title.
Oregon must play Utah, which has won 17 out of 18 home games on Nov. 20, and will likely be seen again by the Utes in Pac-12 championship game.
Long shot No. 9 Wake Forest must win No. 19 North Carolina State and a trip to Clemson are necessary to ensure that the team’s hopes of an unbeaten regular season as well as a spot in this year’s playoff will be alive.
Source: NY Times