5 things to watch for in inaugural College Football Playoff rankings

·5 min read

The inventory tied to the College Football Playoff committee’s first meeting of the year will manifest itself on Tuesday night, the first of ESPN’s self-promotional playoff pushes.

The made-for-TV event is more tedious than insightful most seasons. But the compact nature of this year’s rankings release – it arrives about two weeks later than last year’s debut – ratchets up the intrigue.

Here are five things to watch for on Tuesday night.

How will the Pac-12 fare in rankings?

There are four undefeated teams in the Pac-12 – USC (3-0), Oregon (3-0), Colorado (2-0) and Washington (2-0). How the committee judges the limited sample size will be a referendum on the glaring issue that will hover over the league – a lack of games.

The Associated Press voters have Oregon No. 9, and if the CFP has them much lower it’ll be difficult for the Ducks to leap into the playoff conversation. The AP has USC at No. 19 after wheezing past the Arizona schools for two of its three wins.

Strength of schedule is a part of a generations-old college football debate. Well, now we have length of schedule. How that’s judged will be a uniquely 2020 debate. Any comments on the issue by committee chair Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa, will be parsed heavily at Pac-12 headquarters.

Where are the underdogs?

The main focus will be on the location of No. 7 Cincinnati (8-0) and No. 8 BYU (9-0). Their starting positions will be critical in determining what kind of chances they have to crack the top four. It will also be curious where No. 16 Coastal Carolina (8-0) and No. 17 Marshall (7-0) end up.

If the ranking for Cincy or BYU is lacking, it could also incentivize them to play each other. That chatter appears quiet right now. That game would come with risk, as it could cost one school to lose its footing for a New Year’s Six Bowl. For BYU, the potential $4 million payday — plus some for expenses — would be significant. BYU is an independent, so it wouldn’t have to share it with a conference like a typical bowl payment.

If those schools see double-digit seeds next to their name, they’ve got no shot. Perhaps the ranking prompts a shotgun scheduling marriage.

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and offensive lineman James Empey call out signals during a game against Boise State on Nov. 6. (Loren Orr/Getty Images)
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and offensive lineman James Empey call out signals during a game against Boise State on Nov. 6. (Loren Orr/Getty Images)

Who are the top four in the CFP rankings?

No. 1 Alabama (7-0) appears to be the best team by the eye test, even without star receiver Jaylen Waddle. Other than the defensive nap against Ole Miss, this looks like an Alabama team out of the Saban Assembly Line.

No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0) is excellent, and the Irish case over Alabama is that the Irish have the best win in the country. Beating Clemson in overtime to end the Tigers’ 36-game regular season win streak won’t be topped this regular season.

But considering how much the committee has generally valued the eye test with Alabama over the years, it would be a surprise if the Tide wasn’t No. 1. Bama’s win over No. 3 Georgia was impressive, and they have a better second win against No. 13 Texas A&M.

The No. 3 vs. No. 4 debate between Clemson (7-1) and Ohio State (4-0) will be interesting. Clemson’s only loss came in double-overtime on the road without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. (Perhaps we’ll get some insight into how COVID-related chaos will be weighed by the committee.) Ohio State’s résumé will be thin until the Big Ten title game because of the short season. Will that be held against the Buckeyes?

Who could be a surprise team?

The SEC will always be respected by the lords of the sport. Don’t be shocked if Texas A&M ends up far ahead of some of the undefeated Group of Five teams and undefeated programs like Northwestern who have played limited games. Plus, the Aggies have to be ahead of Florida because of a head-to-head win.

Texas A&M’s only loss is to Alabama, and the AP has it at No. 5. It’d be surprising if the Aggies don’t end up in the top five on Tuesday.

Expect Northwestern to be much higher than its No. 11 ranking in the AP poll. The Wildcats (5-0) have road wins against Iowa and Purdue, and beat No. 10 Wisconsin. That’s a résumé the committee should like. It’s better than Ohio State’s.

What about the Big 12?

The Big 12 is the forgotten conference this season. No. 15 Iowa State (6-2) is atop the Big 12 standings, but has a loss to Louisiana of the Sun Belt. No. 14 Oklahoma (6-2) has really come into form winning five in a row, but the Sooners lost to Iowa State in September. Will either team make the top 15?

The Big 12 has zero shot at getting a team in the College Football Playoff, even less than the Pac-12’s long odds. So this will be a gauge of how far behind it stands.

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