Roundtable: Breaking down the fourth College Football Playoff rankings
The fourth edition of the College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled Tuesday evening, so SI.com dispatched three of its experts -- Martin Rickman, Colin Becht and Gabriel Baumgaertner -- to discuss the top four and the inevitable chatter that accompanies the playoff decision.
Colin Becht: We knew we'd have change in the College Football Playoff top four with Alabama's win over Mississippi State. Some of the biggest questions heading into this week's rankings concerned how high the Crimson Tide would rise and how far the Bulldogs would fall. Both teams can be relatively satisfied with the selection committee's answers on Tuesday night as Alabama climbed to No. 1 and Mississippi State only dropped to No. 4. Wins over Vanderbilt this week and Ole Miss in Week 14 would likely send the Bulldogs into the playoff. Oregon at No. 2 and Florida State at No. 3 rounded out the committee's top four.
Ohio State also rose in the rankings for the second straight week after the Buckeyes survived a blizzard in Minnesota to beat the Golden Gophers 31-24. Urban Meyer's crew leapfrogged Baylor while the Bears were on a bye week to improve to No. 6. TCU, last week's No. 4 team, fell back a spot with Alabama's rise but still maintained its edge over Baylor, despite the Bears' 61-58 victory over the Horned Frogs.
Martin, we saw a lot of shifts in this week's rankings, both near the top and among the teams just fighting to stay in the top 25. What surprised you the most?
Martin Rickman: I think I'm most surprised that Marshall is still unranked. Look, I understand that the committee is punishing Marshall for its schedule. That's fine. But they're undefeated. At some point you have to reward wins rather than losses. Minnesota didn't drop a spot despite losing to Ohio State. Clemson stayed in the top 25 after losing to Georgia Tech. Auburn stayed in the top 15 after getting stomped by Georgia. It's almost as if the committee feels like a loss is better than a win at this point because it justifies your strength of schedule somehow. "Look you played a good team, that team wouldn't be good if you had beaten them."
That's the same problem plaguing Florida State at this point too. If the 'Noles had lost to Louisville or Clemson, then Louisville or Clemson would be ranked higher and the Seminoles could say they lost to a "pretty good football team" like every other team in college football (except the Thundering Herd). There has to be some measure of rationale that says a win is important. I'm not saying Florida State's schedule is a gauntlet, but the 'Noles haven't lost. They keep winning. If you're going to mention the idea of 'game control' (which isn't a thing in the first place), you should acknowledge that there are two undefeated teams left and both are probably being disrespected.
What about you, Gabriel? Are you satisfied with the rankings as a whole? Would an Alabama-Mississippi State, Oregon-Florida State semifinal bracket if the season ended today get you excited?
Gabriel Baumgaertner: After last week's relatively dull affair, I don't know that I'd want to watch Mississippi State and Alabama again, but Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston? I'll take two!
One has to start feeling for Baylor at this point, right? The Bears barely got a promotion when they thrashed a preseason playoff favorite in Oklahoma, and they can't jump a team (TCU) that they beat in a head-to-head matchup. Now, they sit below Ohio State, a team that lost to a Virginia Tech team that may not be bowl-eligible by the end of the year. The argument against Baylor up to this point has been non-conference schedule, but Art Briles and co. seem to be suffering from their entire schedule. This is where, **conspiracy alert**, I thought of Andy Staples' style bias argument from two weeks ago. Alabama didn't have that marquee win until it beat Mississippi State last week, now it's ranked No. 1 even though Oregon has defeated three teams in the CFP top 25. Baylor keeps flying past its opponents, yet it's (somehow) become an accepted argument that "you can't prove it would have beat TCU on a neutral field," and the committee has clarified they have no plans to put them in, or anywhere near, the top four. Baylor's win over the Horned Frogs is, unquestionably, the most undervalued win of any major victory among the top eight teams.
I've long been a Briles/Baylor skeptic, but its weak non-conference schedule has become the defining reason to not move it up in the standings. Every other team in the top eight has received some benefit of the doubt. There is virtually no talk of how terrible Mississippi State's non-conference schedule is (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, Tennessee Martin), yet it's in the top four because it has the best loss (Alabama) despite being dominated for about 55 minutes. Baylor has shown nothing but improvement since its loss to West Virginia, and the committee doesn't want to move them. Perhaps the Bears will get that chance when they play Kansas State.
Colin, am I the only one who thinks Baylor is suffering? No rankings matter until they're final, but what can it do to even sniff the top four at this point?
CB: I agree that it's hard to imagine why the committee would rank Ohio State ahead of Baylor, though I do still believe TCU deserves to remain ahead of the Bears for now. With the Buckeyes, it's hard to justify their seeding. Given the weakness of the Big Ten, Ohio State's strength of schedule is only marginally better than Baylor's, and its loss to Virginia Tech at home is much worse than the Bears' defeat to West Virginia in Morgantown. Both teams have two wins over the current Top 25 -- though how Minnesota could avoid falling at all despite its home loss to Ohio State is baffling. Selection committee chair Jeff Long said he was impressed by the Buckeyes' two critical conference road wins over Michigan State and the Gophers, but what about the Bears' 48-14 drubbing of Oklahoma in Norman?
As for the Baylor-TCU debate, the Horned Frogs' overall body of work is still sufficiently stronger than the Bears' that the narrow margin of Baylor's victory at home doesn't cut it for me. Even if Minnesota doesn't deserve a top 25 ranking, it's still a lot better than SMU, Northwestern State or Buffalo. That said, if we reach the end of the regular season and Baylor still hasn't surpassed TCU, I'd be stunned. In games against nearly every common opponent except West Virginia, the Bears won more convincingly than the Horned Frogs did, with Kansas as the latest and most glaring example. If Baylor beats Kansas State emphatically in Week 15, it deserves to at least be the best of this trio of one-loss teams currently just outside the top four. But whether any of these teams finishes fifth versus sixth or seventh won't matter much to them. It'll take a loss to one of the top four teams for any of these three teams to make the playoff.
It hasn't become a point of controversy yet, but as more one-loss teams fall, the idea of a two-loss team making the playoff shifts from long shot to realistic possibility. Based on its No. 8 ranking, Ole Miss would seem to be favorite of the two-loss teams. I might have even ranked the Rebels over Ohio State given their better strength of schedule and win over Alabama. Martin, based on what we've seen from the committee so far, could a two-loss team make the playoff? Or would that only happen in some crazy apocalypse scenario in which there aren't four one- or zero-loss squads?
MR: It's definitely possible at this point, and the most likely suspect is going to come from the SEC. Here's the scenario I can't get out of my head -- Georgia finds a way to win the SEC East (with a Missouri loss to Tennessee or Arkansas) and also grabs that win over Georgia Tech. Then a two-loss Georgia team beats Alabama in the SEC championship. The Bulldogs would be in for sure, right? But their two losses are to Florida and South Carolina. But they also beat Auburn and Alabama in a year in which the SEC West is considered the toughest division in college football. And not to mention their non-conference wins over Georgia Tech and Clemson.
Or let's say UCLA wins out, plays Oregon again in the Pac-12 title game and beats the Ducks in round two. Is that enough to push the Bruins over one of the one-loss triumvirate of Baylor, TCU or Ohio State? What if Mississippi State remains out there with one loss too?
We knew we wouldn't have many undefeated teams. Now that we have all these one-loss teams left with only a couple weeks remaining, it's hard to envision multiple two-loss contenders unless all kinds of disasters struck. I still think once you get out of that top 10, everybody else is out of luck. If the cut line is Ole Miss (with losses to LSU and Bama), UCLA (with losses to Oregon and Utah) and Georgia, there's not a whole lot of separation there.
To me it would take two of TCU losing to Texas, Baylor losing to Kansas State, Florida State losing to Boston College or Florida, Alabama losing to Auburn (or the SEC title game), Mississippi State losing to Ole Miss or Ohio State losing the Big Ten championship to push a two-loss team in. Seems like exactly the sort of thing that is just implausible enough to make it 100 percent likely. Thanks, college football.
Am I off base here? Are there any other weird situations I'm missing, Gabriel?
GB: I'm looking for other examples and am coming up ... well, empty. I love the point that you make about Georgia, Martin. As the only staff member boneheaded enough to pick the Bulldogs to win the national title (who could have seen the Todd Gurley autograph suspension coming anyway?), they could present the committee with its most formidable challenge if they win out. Even if Ohio State finishes the season with one loss, can you leave a team out that could finish the season with wins over four of the top 25? Some might say: "They lost to Florida." And I don't know if I have a comeback to that. I'm not envious of Jeff Long and friends. Reading through those scenarios made my head spin.
To some, it may feel like this season has flown by, but just look at UCLA's path this season and one realizes how quickly fortunes can change. The Bruins went from a preseason playoff contender to midseason bust to No. 9 in the playoff rankings with only two regular-season games to go. Quarterback Brett Hundley won't be in Heisman consideration like many thought he would, but UCLA managed to hang around the conversation all season by beating every team that it should beat (even if its wins against Virginia, Memphis, Cal and Colorado were far too close), logging two quality wins (Arizona, Arizona State) and losing to ranked teams (Oregon, Utah). It's the ideal two-loss resume if Martin's apocalyptic scenario takes hold. If the Bruins earn a Pac-12 title berth and then beat Oregon, they'll be looking for a seat at the table as well.
UCLA, a potential playoff team? Would you have predicted that in October?