It’s finally here: the first set of College Football Playoff rankings. After 9 weeks of awesome, crazy, unpredictable games, we get a chance to see what the committee thinks are the best 25 teams in college football. Even though these weekly rankings during the season are clearly a ratings grab, it’s still going to be fun to analyze and argue about (and frankly overthink) these rankings. First let’s take a quick look at the Coaches and AP polls to set the table.
Week 9 Coaches/AP Polls
|3||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|7||Penn State||Penn State|
|13||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
- The AP and Coaches Poll were largely similar; the biggest differences of relevance were Notre Dame and Miami. The AP really rewarded Notre Dame for their strong strength of schedule and their quality loss (to undefeated #2 Georgia), putting them as the 2nd highest 1-loss team behind Ohio State. Undefeated Miami was all the way at #10, indicating the AP voters were clearly unimpressed with who Miami beat and how they always managed to play their opponents closely no matter the quality.
- On the other hand, the Coaches were clearly less impressed with what Notre Dame had done through 9 weeks and still rewarded Miami for staying undefeated. I don’t want to be caught defending Notre Dame but to me there really is no reason Notre Dame should’ve been that low.
- Just compare them to Penn State: Notre Dame lost by a point to unbeaten #2 Georgia, while Penn State lost by a point to 1-loss #3 Ohio State. Notre Dame blew out 2 ranked teams in USC and NC State, while Penn State blew out Michigan, who’s rated lower than both USC and NC State. Perhaps the Coaches, who had Notre Dame unranked in the preseason, were reluctant to move Notre Dame so highly, which honestly doesn’t make sense.
- Stanford was 18th in both, going up from 20th in both after their lackluster win against Oregon State. That was a godawful game, but hey, not gonna complain that the Cardinal went up despite their performance.
Now let’s take a look at the CFP rankings, with the AP and Coaches included for comparison.
Week 9 Rankings
|3||Notre Dame||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|7||Penn State||Penn State||Penn State|
|11||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Washington|
|13||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
|16||Mississippi State||Auburn||Iowa State|
|20||NC State||NC State||LSU|
|24||Michigan State||Michigan State||Michigan|
|25||Washington State||Washington State||Arizona|
- Who you beat is still the biggest factor. Your first reaction is probably “wait what? A team is ranked ABOVE an undefeated Alabama?!” But if you keep on looking you’ll see that the CFP rankings diverge significantly from the other polls just about everywhere, but especially at the top. You know my rant about Notre Dame being so low in the Coaches Poll? Well, seems the committee agrees, because Notre Dame is THIRD. It’s very clear that the committee is still highly valuing who you beat. Comparing the unbeatens, Georgia clearly has the best singular win over Notre Dame, while Miami and Wisconsin have played extremely weak schedules and were massively penalized for it. Alabama’s schedule is also comparatively weak, but perhaps the committee is rewarding them for beating Florida State when they were at their best.
- Quality and quantity of wins are key, but it’s unclear which is more important. We know who you beat is important, but you can beat extremely good teams (quality) or you can beat a lot of pretty good teams (quantity). Notre Dame and Clemson’s rankings may suggest that having a quantity of good wins is more important than having a singular big win: both have multiple wins over good teams (which in the past the committee has defined as teams better than .500). Oklahoma and Ohio State both have huge singular wins (Ohio State and Penn State respectively) but the rest of their schedules are only decent.
- Who you lose to doesn’t matter. We’ve always known this, but it couldn’t be clearer than with Clemson at #4. None of Clemson’s wins match up with wins over Ohio State, Notre Dame, or Penn State, and the loss to Syracuse is worse than any other team’s loss until Washington’s to Arizona State...yet despite all this, Clemson is still #4. Stewart Mandel has been beating this drum for a while: the committee doesn’t care who you lose to, they care who you beat. That’s been pretty clear since the beginning, and was probably the most evident in 2015 where both Michigan State and Oklahoma made the playoff despite both losing to 5-7 teams.
- Two-loss teams may still be in it. This may not be super scientific, but if we take a look at past years’ initial rankings, teams ranked as low as #16 have made the final four. This year, we have Auburn as the highest ranked two-loss team at #14. Unlike polls in the past, the CFP rankings aren’t really “sticky” so mobility is definitely possible. If we’ve seen past teams jump 10+ spots into the final four, that potentially means that this season we could see two-loss teams making that jump by the end of the season. And that leads to...
- Stanford may still be in it. Yes, I know, just writing this out basically jinxed the Cardinal, but hear me out. Despite the fact that Stanford is much lower in the CFP rankings than the AP/Coaches (probably due to poor strength of schedule and no real marquee victory), the fact that two-loss teams appear to have a shot gives me a little bit of hope. Unfortunately the Pac-12 as a whole seems to be unremarkable in the eyes of the committee, with Washington as the highest at #12. However, Stanford’s biggest tests are ahead and give them a chance to impress the committee. The Cardinal would have to win the conference, so that would be 5 more games including the Pac-12 Championship Game. Of those teams, 4 would be against teams that are bowl-eligible and above .500 and possibly even ranked, with Cal being the only team that may not be bowl-eligible. Wins over Washington and Notre Dame would be highly regarded especially if the two teams win the rest of their games. Depending on how Washington State plays down the stretch, that could still be seen as a decent win. At this point I’m pegging the Pac-12 South winner to be either Arizona or USC: if Arizona keeps winning, they could be a highly ranked two- or three-loss team, and same with USC. Stanford would either beat a highly-ranked Arizona team that’s playing lights out, or perhaps “avenge” their loss to USC. It’s honestly not all that likely and would require a lot of chaos in the other conferences and a lot of beneficial results to keep their opponents highly ranked, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. We know that the committee doesn’t really care who you lose to, so potential wins over 10-2 Washington and 10-2 Notre Dame in November would more than certainly wipe out all memories of a loss to San Diego State.