College Football Playoff rankings winners and losers: Big Ten lands six teams; Cincinnati lands with thud

The big takeaway from the first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2021 season is that head-to-head results matter, whether you're in the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 or even the Group of Five.

That's the case for now, at least, since the history of the playoff format tells us that what's important one week may carry less weight one week later with the selection committee.

Across the board, the committee leaned on tiebreakers to compile the debut top 25, in some cases overlooking overall records in favor of this single result. For example:

  • No. 23 Fresno State (7-2) ahead of No. 24 San Diego State (7-1) after beating the Aztecs this past Saturday.

  • No. 21 Wisconsin (5-3) ahead of No. 22 Iowa (6-2) after Saturday's win in Madison.

  • No. 17 Mississippi State (5-3) one spot in front of No. 18 Kentucky (6-2), again after a win this past weekend.

  • No. 11 Oklahoma (7-1) in front of No. 12 Baylor (7-1) after beating the Bears in early October.

  • And last but not least, No. 4 Oregon (7-1) ahead of No. 5 Ohio State (7-1) thanks to the Ducks' impressive win in Columbus in September.

The initial top 25 lays out a blueprint for what games will matter before the final rankings are issued on the first Sunday of December. Here are the winners and losers from the debut release:


Big Ten

Nearly a quarter of the top 25 comes from this one league: No. 3 Michigan State, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan, No. 20 Minnesota, No. 21 Wisconsin and No. 22 Iowa. During the history of the playoff format, this is a level of respect for a Power Five conference only afforded to the SEC. Rightly, the committee values the Big Ten's unmatched depth of New Year's Six contenders while still anointing Georgia and Alabama as the nation's best individual teams.

There's even admiration among committee members for the maligned Big Ten West, which for years has taken a back seat to the East division but has three teams on the back end of the top 25.

Clearly, an unbeaten or one-loss Big Ten champion is getting into the top four, and likely landing at No. 1 or No. 2 depending on what happens in the SEC. Does the committee's respect for the Big Ten mean the conference could join the SEC in offering up two legitimate contenders for the top four in early December?

IT'S A TRAP: Don't fall for the committee's meaningless rankings, writes Dan Wolken


It turns out that winning at Ohio State is a big deal. Who could've thought? Despite the train of thought that dismissed Oregon's chances of being ranked ahead of the Buckeyes due to a disappointing loss to Stanford, the Ducks are sitting in terrific position heading into the home stretch of the regular season. And while not able to completely exhale, the Ducks can be confident in the idea that 12-1 gets them into the playoff for the first time since 2014.


Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle (right) celebrates with  wide receiver Tre Tucker after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the Midshipmen.
Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle (right) celebrates with wide receiver Tre Tucker after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the Midshipmen.


Not just because the Bearcats landed with a thud at No. 6, trailing three one-loss Power Five teams. That's a huge deal, obviously, and speaks to the road ahead for the best team from the Group of Five. We can boil it down to this: Cincinnati is not getting into the playoff if the status quo holds — if one-loss or unbeaten teams come out of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, the Bearcats are going to be on the outside looking in.

One huge concern is the lack of American teams in the playoff rankings, though two in particular had a case: SMU, No. 24 in this week's USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, and Houston, No. 19. Both teams are 7-1.

It's not hard to come to the conclusion that Cincinnati is starting in poor position. The Bearcats are already sitting in sixth. Looming is Oklahoma, which has multiple games against ranked teams to close the regular season. If unbeaten, the Sooners are absolutely leapfrogging ahead of the Bearcats. Cincinnati isn't moving ahead of the current top five, either, should a variation on that group hold serve the rest of the way.

Let's say Georgia beats Alabama in December, eliminating the Crimson Tide. Ohio State beats Michigan State, wins out and takes home the Big Ten. Oregon also wins out and claims the Pac-12. How does Cincinnati get into the top four? In this scenario, only if Oklahoma stumbles. And if Alabama beats Georgia, sending two SEC teams into the semifinals, a thin path for the Bearcats disappears almost entirely.


You'd call it disrespectful except for, you know, the close call against Kansas. (And Nebraska, for that matter.) The eye test doesn't favor the Sooners, who weren't just dismissed from the top five but knocked all the way down to No. 8, behind four fellow Power Five teams with one loss. The argument for being ranked higher cites Oklahoma's seven wins against Power Five competition and the Sooners' overall performance since Caleb Williams took over at quarterback. These factors clearly didn't carry much weight.

The good news: OU is about to beef up that strength of schedule. Up next is Baylor. After facing Iowa State, the Sooners take on rival Oklahoma State. Then there's another game against a ranked opponent in the Big 12 championship game.


Two ACC teams landed in the top 25: Pittsburgh at No. 25 and Wake Forest at No. 9. The two-loss Panthers are playing for a New Year's Six bowl, and will only get there by taking home the Coastal and winning the conference championship game. The Demon Deacons could sneak into the top four should absolute chaos unfold, but barring an explosive last month — not impossible, but not probable — they're going to be stymied by an ACC that is otherwise devoid of teams worthy of being in the national conversation.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Playoff rankings show Big Ten love, not Cincinnati