The first round of the college football playoff rankings were released on Tuesday night and the committee had Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Alabama pegged as the top four teams in the nation. Of course, we all learned from last year that these rankings are pretty much useless as they had Mississippi State, Florida State, Ole Miss and Auburn as the top four teams last year (only FSU went on to make the playoff). Still, one of the best things about these early rankings is that we can begin to see some of the things that the playoff committee values when they rank the Top 25 teams. Let’s take a look at the top four teams and see what we can learn.
1. Clemson (8-0): The Clemson Tigers easily have the best single win out of any Top 25 team on their schedule after beating Notre Dame (the Fighting Irish are just outside the top four at #5 per the committee). Clemson also destroyed Miami 58-0 in a win that caused Miami to fire Al Golden and last week survived a test from North Carolina State 56-41. In the past couple of weeks, Clemson has easily looked like the best team in the country. Deshaun Watson is playing at a Heisman level and their defense, which lost a ton in the offseason, is ranked 6th in the country in total yards allowed and only surrenders 278 yards per game. This week, Clemson faces Florida State in a game that has been the de facto ACC Championship game for the last couple of years. If they can survive the ‘Noles, Clemson only has Syracuse, Wake Forest, and South Carolina standing in the way of them and an undefeated season. A ranked North Carolina team seems like the likely opponent in Charlotte at this point. If Clemson can beat Florida State, they have a very good shot at running the table and keeping hold of the top seed.
2. LSU (7-0): Due to their season opener being canceled, LSU will only play 11 games this season but have done more than enough to prove their spot in the top four. The win over #10 Florida stands out as the most impressive, but the most impressive factor might be the fact that the Tigers have scored no less than 34 points in their SEC schedule since the beginning of September. LSU also has the benefit of having the single best player in college football on their roster in Leonard Fournette, who is easily on pace to win the Heisman. Brandon Harris might not have the stats, but he is playing turnover free football as well. Much like Clemson, the Bayou Bengals face their toughest test this coming weekend when they travel to #4 Alabama. This has been a major matchup in college football for a while now and is one that usually defines the SEC West. If LSU beats ‘Bama, they will likely jump Clemson for the #1 seed. LSU closes out the season with Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, all winnable games, and will likely see Florida in the SEC Championship. The game at Alabama looms large, as it will define if this LSU squad is playoff-worthy.
3. Ohio State (8-0): The defending national champions have looked anything but impressive so far this season. Their most impressive win is… 49-7 over Rutgers? 42-24 over Virginia Tech? The Buckeyes might be the single most talented team in the country, but they have yet to play a quality game this season. This isn’t really their fault, as they face Michigan State and Michigan in their final two games of the season that will be the toughest end to the season of any team in the country. The committee might be putting a “2014 Florida State” treatment on the Buckeyes: they know that the Buckeyes are extremely talented, but they haven’t really proven it on the field yet. The Buckeyes also have a weird quarterback controversy going on. Cardale Jones was the starter for the beginning of the season, was benched for J.T. Barrett who promptly was cited for drunk driving, forcing Cardale back into starting duties. It was interesting to see how Urban Meyer handles this going forward and what stance the committee takes. If Ohio State can handle Michigan State and Michigan to end the season, they’ll likely face undefeated (!!!) Iowa in the Big 10 championship. It won’t be easy, but the Buckeyes have more talent than anyone else in the country and they deserve a playoff seed at this point.
4. Alabama (7-1): The most controversial of the four teams, the committee decided that, at this point, Alabama was the most deserving to get the last spot. The Crimson Tide lost to Ole Miss early in the season, but have rebounded since then. They destroyed Georgia, beat Arkansas and Texas A&M and then snuck by Tennessee two weeks ago. Alabama might not have the “quality win” on their schedule, but have a chance to prove in this weekend when they host #2 LSU. Other than that, Mississippi State isn’t a big game and Auburn certainly isn’t either. Assuming they beat LSU, they’ll face Florida in Atlanta for the SEC title. Of course, Alabama has something special working in their favor that no other team in the country has. Nobody knows that “it” is, but Alabama has this certain aura around it that no one can explain and the committee is certainly affected by it as well if they’re putting Alabama in over undefeated TCU/Baylor or Notre Dame, who has the best loss in the country. Perhaps this will change this weekend if Alabama loses, but there’s a strong chance Alabama could shoot up these rankings with a win.
The playoff committee had Notre Dame at #5, followed by Baylor, Michigan State at TCU. They’re clearly valuing strength of schedule at this point, which puts the Big 12 at a disadvantage because their schedules are so back-loaded. As a reminder, these rankings mean nothing at this point because so much is going to change over the rest of the season, but we can get a good look at what the committee is valuing at this point in time.