LSU’s loss to Alabama created a void in the College Football Playoff rankings’ top four that Notre Dame has filled. What that and the ordering of the teams immediately behind the Fighting Irish means both now and moving forward is the key intrigue of this week’s top 25, released Tuesday night.
Here are three takeaways from the playoff selection committee’s second installment of its rankings:
1. Notre Dame’s in—for now
Playoff bids aren’t won in early November, despite the attention we all give to these early rankings. So while Notre Dame should be happy to be in the top four at this point in the season, the more important question is can the Irish hang on? As Baylor and TCU learned last year, teams without a conference championship game and outright league title to win can get leapfrogged late in the final rankings. Could Notre Dame suffer the same fate?
What if No. 6 Baylor or No. 8 Oklahoma State finishes the season undefeated? What if No. 10 Utah wins out, including a victory over No. 7 Stanford in the Pac-12 title game? Sure, these are what ifs that Notre Dame can’t answer and has no control over, but they present challenging scenarios in which the Irish could get knocked out of the top four even if they win every game left, including their Nov. 28 meeting with the Cardinal.
2. The Big 12 has to go undefeated to get in
One of the big questions heading into these rankings was how much of a reward Oklahoma State would get for its 49–29 victory over TCU. In last week’s rankings, each of the Big 12's three then-undefeated teams suffered due to their lack of quality wins. The Cowboys scored the first marquee victory in the conference's November slugfest, and the boost they got was ... rather disappointing.
Oklahoma State moved up six spots to No. 8, which isn’t insignificant, but consider that Stanford rose four spots from No. 11 to No. 7 after its win over Colorado and Iowa moved up from No. 9 to No. 5 after beating Indiana. Each team’s placement isn’t done in a vacuum and is based on more than just its most recent game, but Oklahoma State had to be hoping for a bigger surge. TCU fell more spots—from No. 8 to No. 15—after the loss than the Cowboys gained after the win.
What this makes clear is that Baylor or Oklahoma State will have to finish the season unbeaten to make the playoff. If the Bears, Cowboys or Horned Frogs had any hope that going 11–1 with some quality wins in the final weeks would be enough, that hope should be all but gone. Even if TCU beats Oklahoma and Baylor, it’s hard to imagine Gary Patterson’s squad rising all the way from No. 15 back into the top four. If the Bears or Cowboys slip up in their remaining games, the damage will be too great to recover from even if a loss is sandwiched between some other marquee victories. The Big 12’s scheduling was designed give it as many options to go undefeated as possible at the beginning of November, but that system is not conducive to getting a one-loss team into the playoff field.
The only Big 12 team that could possibly make the playoff with a loss is Oklahoma, which already fell to Texas on Oct. 10. The Sooners, who rose to No. 12 this week, got their loss out of the way early enough that if they can close the season with wins at Baylor, vs. TCU and at Oklahoma State, they might be able to climb into the top four.
3. The committee is finally respecting Iowa
Based on the results of Week 10 alone, it doesn't make sense for Iowa, which was No. 9 last week, to jump to No. 5 past Baylor, which stayed at No. 6. The Hawkeyes got an eight-point road win over 4–5 Indiana while the Bears got a seven-point road win over 3–5 Kansas State.
But the committee begins its rankings from scratch each week, and that allows for corrections for past mistakes rather than locking teams in for subsequent weeks when the rationale no longer makes sense.
Both Iowa and Baylor are undefeated (Iowa has even won an extra game, for whatever that’s worth at this point), but the Hawkeyes have compiled their perfect record against a more difficult schedule. Baylor has beaten its opponents by the widest average margin of any team in the country, but if the committee valued that, the Bears would have already been higher than No. 6. Put simply, under the committee’s criteria, there was no reason to rank Iowa behind Baylor other than that Baylor’s record was less surprising than Iowa’s, which may have led members to be more skeptical.
The committee fixed its mistake this week. While Baylor has yet to play any ranked opponents, Iowa has beaten two, both of them on the road. It fought off Wisconsin, which entered this week’s rankings at No. 25, for a 10–6 victory on Oct. 3 and pummeled Northwestern 40–10 on Oct. 17. Baylor’s remaining regular season schedule is much more challenging than Iowa’s, so the Bears could easily move back in front of the Hawkeyes. But for now, Iowa has earned its better placement.