Predicting the top 10 in College Football Playoff rankings for 2021 debut

·5 min read

That Georgia will be No. 1 is the only sure thing heading into Tuesday night's release of the debut College Football Playoff rankings.

Where will Cincinnati fall? The top team from the Group of Five has climbed to No. 2 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll but could be pushed out of that spot by Alabama, Oklahoma or Michigan State.

And what does Cincinnati's debut ranking mean for the Bearcats' chances of reaching the national semifinals? That's something no Group of Five team has ever done, though the Bearcats have the reputation, record and resume to buck tradition. Landing outside the top four or even outside the top three on Tuesday could mean trouble, however.

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III makes a catch against Michigan.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III makes a catch against Michigan.

What does the playoff selection committee do about Oregon and Ohio State? The Buckeyes have moved up in the Coaches Poll despite losing to the Ducks in September. At least in the early rankings, the committee has historically valued that tiebreaker more than voters in each of the major polls.

Those questions and more will define the debut rankings, which will set the tone for the final weeks of the regular season. Here's how the top 10 could look:

1. Georgia (8-0)

To have this sort of no-brainer at No. 1 is a nice gift to the committee, which is almost certain to come under fire for how it treats the next six teams on this list. But there is no question that Georgia is a lock for the top spot after cruising through eight games.

2. Alabama (7-1)

Alabama has five Power Five wins, with all five against opponents with non-losing records and three coming on the road. The lone loss, to Texas A&M, is no longer an eyesore based on the Aggies' recent surge up the SEC standings. The idea that Alabama is the biggest threat to Georgia — whether right or wrong — also has the potential to influence the committee's thinking.

3. Michigan State (8-0)

This is the only Power Five team with four road wins and the only team in the crowded Big Ten East to still be unbeaten in games against ranked competition. Two potential sticking points: MSU had close calls against Indiana and Nebraska, two teams sitting at a combined 1-10 in conference play, and ranks last in the Big Ten in pass yards allowed per game after giving up 406 yards in Saturday's win against Michigan. (Though the defense ranks sixth in yards allowed per attempt.) Like several other teams on this list, the Spartans could land anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6.

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4. Cincinnati (8-0)

Cincinnati will always be working uphill with the committee. The Bearcats can offer two Power Five road wins; beating Notre Dame is one of the best wins from any team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But there will be questions raised about what it means to be 8-0 against opponents with a combined record of 27-29.

5. Oklahoma (9-0)

Being unbeaten in the Power Five matters, even if several of those wins (Nebraska, Kansas, West Virginia) haven't painted the Sooners as one of the best in the country. However, keep in mind how the committee might view this as a team on the rise under young quarterback Caleb Williams while putting stock into OU's seven wins against Power Five competition. It's hard to picture a team that struggled against Kansas, for example, landing as high as third. But that's definitely on the table.

6. Oregon (7-1)

The Ducks beat Ohio State on the road. Is that enough? At some point, the quality of the Big Ten relative to the Pac-12 would give OSU a leg up in the comparison. For now, though, the head-to-head win and a possible Top 25 win against Fresno State are assets in Oregon's corner.

7. Ohio State (7-1)

The Buckeyes are the biggest wild card in the top seven, with the potential to land anywhere from No. 3 to No. 7 based on how the committee balances an outstanding offense against the loss to the Ducks. Landing in this spot isn't a tough break: OSU still gets Michigan State and Michigan in November, along with a potential Big Ten championship game, so running the table and going 12-1 will very likely get the Buckeyes into the top four.

8. Wake Forest (8-0)

The committee will be impressed by Wake's unbeaten record and the play of an offense that ranks fifth nationally in scoring and ninth in yards per play. The Demon Deacons have three wins against opponents currently with a winning record (Virginia, Syracuse and Army) but will be docked for a schedule devoid of any Top 25 victory.

9. Notre Dame (7-1)

The loss to Cincinnati was basically a playoff eliminator for Notre Dame, though the Irish are almost certain to get a cozy landing spot in a New Year's Six bowl. Putting Notre Dame ahead of Michigan is a reflection of six consecutive games against teams with a non-losing record, five coming against the Power Five. The Wolverines have three Power Five wins and just one against a Power Five opponent with a winning record. However, the Irish may not be able to overcome very close wins against Florida State, Toledo and Virginia Tech.

10. Michigan (7-1)

The debate between Michigan and Notre Dame is interesting but ultimately meaningless, since the Wolverines have the November schedule (Indiana, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State) to eventually pull away from the Irish with room to spare.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff rankings: Predicting top 10 for 2021 debut