Roundtable: Breaking down the third College Football Playoff rankings
With the third round of the College Football Playoff rankings introduced Tuesday evening, SI.com consulted three of its experts -- Andy Staples, Zac Ellis and Gabriel Baumgaertner -- to assess the top four, the future implications and the chatter that inevitably accompanies the playoff committee's decision.
Zac Ellis: We saw a couple of surprising changes in this week's College Football Playoff rankings. While Mississippi State remained at No. 1, one-loss Oregon jumped Florida State for the No. 2 spot. The 'Noles dropped to No. 3 and TCU moved into the No. 4 spot as the new top-four team after Auburn's loss. That's a TCU team, mind you, that lost to No. 7 Baylor earlier this season.
What stood out to you the most this week, Andy? Was it Oregon's rise? Was it the TCU-Baylor conundrum? Or was it something else?
Andy Staples: I'm still fairly perplexed that TCU would be ranked ahead of Baylor despite Baylor's head-to-head win. I'd understand ignoring head-to-head if they had radically different resumes, but they don't. Baylor lost at West Virginia. TCU barely survived Morgantown. TCU squeaked by Oklahoma in Fort Worth. Baylor blew out Oklahoma in Norman. The deciding factor at the moment seems to be TCU's win Saturday against Kansas State and the Sept. 13 win against Minnesota, which is currently 7-2 but has Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin left and could easily finish 7-5. That's still better than anything in Baylor's pathetic non-conference schedule and if the committee intends to punish that choice, I could probably live with that. But I still think head-to-head should be the ultimate arbiter for teams with similar resumes. If Baylor and TCU each go 11-1, their resumes likely will look very similar. And I wouldn't be shocked if they flipped places in late November or early December as the resumes begin to look more and more alike.
It would make things easier if one of those teams would lose, but I'm not sure that's happening. Baylor gets Kansas State at home on Dec. 6, and Bill Snyder should never be counted out. TCU's trickiest game is that Thanksgiving visit to Texas. The Longhorns look like a different team of late, so maybe they give the Horned Frogs a game. Here's a fun fact should it come down to 11-1 TCU and 11-1 Baylor. In 2008, Art Briles ranked 11-1 Oklahoma No. 1 on his final coaches poll ballot. Briles ranked 11-1 Texas, which beat Oklahoma by 10 on a neutral field, at No. 5. Of course, there was an 11-1 Texas Tech team -- which Briles ranked No. 6 -- complicating matters in the Big 12 South, but that makes it tough for Briles to argue the sacredness of the head-to-head result should it come to that. I probably still will argue it, because I'm pretty sure I stayed consistent on head-to-head through five years of Power Rankings. Although if I wasn't at any point, it'll get dug up.
The other oddity was Oregon jumping Florida State. While Oregon's win at Utah was impressive, the losses of center Hroniss Grasu and tight end Pharaoh Brown are troubling going forward. Of course, the Seminoles are having trouble staying healthy as well. Gabriel, what surprised you tonight?
Gabriel Baumgaertner: I'm typically not one for Grassy Knoll theories or InfoWars, but I can't quite grasp the reasoning for placing TCU ahead of Alabama other than trying to drum up a little more drama for the Crimson Tide's game against Mississippi State. Until these rankings are final (just like all rankings, really), it doesn't matter that Alabama landed at No. 5. Its schedule is bottom-heavy with games that will ultimately determine its fate (Mississippi State, Auburn, maybe the SEC championship game), so the Tide are one of the few teams remaining whose presence in the top 4 will either be guaranteed or denied by the results of two of their last three games. Beat Mississippi State? In. Lose to Mississippi State? Out (with a chance to get back in). Whether it's designed or not, the committee has added an extra narrative for this weekend's game.
To piggyback off of Andy's earlier point, the term 'body of work' keeps reappearing, but how accurate is that? The closer one examines this week's rankings, the more it feels like last week's performance is a determining factor in where a team lands in this week's rankings. Why else would Oregon jump Florida State? Oregon took out the buzzsaw in the fourth quarter to dismantle Utah while Florida State cobbled together a sloppy win against middling Virginia. For further evidence, see Andy's case for ranking TCU ahead of Alabama (and for that matter, Baylor). Perhaps this is the committee's attempt to emphasize strength of schedule above all (i.e. a one-loss Power Five team can be better than undefeated one), but it feels more like this was the result of the nebulous 'eye test,' which isn't the most transparent way to grade teams.
Zac, have I veered too far off course? Am I the only one who thinks the 'eye test' may be playing a bigger role than the committee is letting on?
ZE: I actually took TCU's jump into the top four as a sign of the importance of body of work. Both the Horned Frogs and the Crimson Tide currently boast two wins over top 25 teams. But if we're meant to interpret these rankings as the current college football landscape, then that means the committee might've considered two things: First, TCU beat West Virginia (albeit in a tight game) in Morgantown, which is a tougher draw than Alabama's neutral-site win over the Mountaineers in Atlanta. Second, the committee must view the Horned Frogs' loss to Baylor more favorably than the Tide's loss to Ole Miss. The Bears are currently ranked seventh, while the Rebels are 10th. So in the committee's current viewpoint, Baylor is a better team than Ole Miss, right?
These rankings represent how good teams are right now. At the end of the season, if both Alabama and TCU finish with a single loss, the Crimson Tide should undoubtedly jump the Horned Frogs based on wins still to come. But right now, I'm not certain Bama's schedule warrants that. Plus, as you mentioned, if Alabama beats Mississippi State on Saturday, this will all be a moot point.
I think the eye test came into play more for Oregon's jump to No. 2 than anything else. The Ducks have looked pretty sharp the last couple of weeks, most recently by stomping Utah on the road. But that one loss, at home, to a then-unranked Arizona team is salt in the wounds of Florida State fans. The 'Noles are still unbeaten, yet the committee moved a one-loss team ahead of them in the rankings? This kind of arbitrary movement is what people feared with a selection committee that doesn't have set criteria, but I actually applaud it. That's because, unlike polls of the past, committee members didn't look at an unbeaten Florida State team and say, "They didn't lose, so we can't touch them." Why not? A team can certainly look worse one week than it did the week before, all while winning. Oregon's win at Utah wasn't the first dominating performance by the Ducks. Florida State's sluggish victory over Virginia wasn't the Seminoles' first stumble. Maybe the committee thinks this is what these teams are at this juncture.
Gabriel, am I wrong for being okay with that?
GB: Oh, I think it's more than justified. As a West Coast native who listened to (overstated) cries of SEC/East Coast bias year after year, it is a little startling to see one-loss Oregon get a bump over an undefeated blue blood like Florida State. The 'Noles aren't 2007 South Florida. While hypothetical situations don't push the conversation forward, let's try one out: If you were a committee member and you saw Oregon turn a 30-27 fourth-quarter nailbiter into 51-27 blowout, wouldn't you be inclined to favor the Ducks over a Florida State team that hasn't shown well in almost a month? It's a nice new wrinkle that the committee has presented, but it's bound to infuriate fanbases. But if we know anything about fanbases, it's that they are ALWAYS infuriated.
Speaking of topics that irritate West Coast fans, let's return of strength of schedule for a moment. The SEC West has the finest concentration of teams at the top of any conference this season and the most difficult conference schedule in the nation. I emphasized earlier that Alabama has two vicious games remaining against Mississippi State and Auburn, but let's discuss what gets the non-SEC folks grumbling: The fact that the Tide get Western Carolina in the middle of those opponents. It's essentially a bye week.
The committee is punishing Baylor for playing a soft non-conference slate and could exclude one-loss Ohio State for losing to an unusually weak Virginia Tech, a team that the Buckeyes likely scheduled for the explicit purpose of improving their non-conference schedule. Sure, Alabama played West Virginia to start the year, but should it really be facing Western Carolina (the same goes for Ole Miss facing Presbyterian last week, Mississippi State facing UT-Martin, Auburn facing Samford in two weeks ... you get the idea) when most teams outside the conference are battling conference foes?
Andy, should the committee adjust its perception of strength of schedule to discourage this kind of scheduling? Should teams risk falling in the rankings if they schedule soft in November? Or is this another age-old West Coast argument reeking of insecurity?
AS: If all other factors are equal, the committee should punish the team that scheduled more creampuffs, period. It doesn't matter where they put said creampuffs in the schedule. This is a case of the SEC being ahead of the curve and realizing that it improves the television product if the bodybag games are spaced throughout the schedule rather than loaded into the first four weeks. Look for the Big Ten to figure this out in 2027. But if the committee is only considering the games played and not the ones remaining on the schedule in these early rankings, then a November game against Northwest Idaho Tech A&M State should naturally cause a team's strength of schedule to dip while other teams are playing tough games. In practice, that's probably not going to happen.
No one is stopping teams in other leagues from changing the way their schedules work. Their fans probably would appreciate some high-stakes league games in the first few weeks of the season, anyway. Of course, most of us would appreciate good games every week. I'm not confident we're ever going to see that from most schools.
Let's face it, unless the committee sends a serious message with the December rankings that actually decide which teams make the playoff, most teams will continue to play one decent non-conference game and fill out the remainder of the schedule with mid-majors and/or FCS opponents. The only way they'll stop is if the committee demonstrates that sort of scheduling hurts a contender's chances to make the playoff. (Or everyone could stop attending or watching the bad games on TV, but that's asking a lot.) The committee needs to worry about the fact that teams are scheduling garbage games, not about when the garbage games are getting scheduled.