Roundtable: Analyzing the first round of College Football Playoff rankings
With the first round of the College Football Playoff rankings introduced on Tuesday evening, SI.com consulted three of its experts -- Andy Staples, Brian Hamilton and Zac Ellis -- to assess the top four, the future implications and the chatter that inevitably accompanies the playoff committee's decision.
Zac Ellis: Okay here we go...
After much debate and speculation, it's finally here: The College Football Playoff's first set of rankings. The top 25 that was unveiled on Tuesday night included a top four of Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss. Though the selection committee's current top 25 means very little right now, it might shed light on the process behind the committee's decision-making.
So what do we think about the first playoff rankings? I'll start with you, Andy --what was your immediate takeaway from the first top 25?
Andy Staples: I looked at the list and imagined 12 very accomplished people -- including a former Secretary of State -- saying the following in unison: They ain't played nobody, Pawwwwwwwl. Judging by this top 25, two questions mattered most to the committee.
• Who have you played?
• Who have you beaten?
Mississippi State has played LSU and Auburn. It has beaten LSU and Auburn. Florida State has played Notre Dame. It has beaten Notre Dame. Auburn has played Kansas State, LSU and Mississippi State. It has beaten Kansas State and LSU. Ole Miss has played Alabama. It has beaten Alabama. That's why they made the top four. It doesn't appear any credit was given for what opponents these teams will play in the future.
That's why Notre Dame is at No. 10. The Fighting Irish almost won at Florida State, but they didn't. Their best win is against Stanford, which could look much better if the Cardinal beat Oregon on Saturday. Notre Dame also faces Arizona State and USC, and wins against both could bolster the Fighting Irish -- especially as SEC West teams will suffer losses due to head-to-head matchups.
This also is why Marshall isn't anywhere in the top 25. Sorry, but that road win against Old Dominion isn't going to impress anyone. For this, the Thundering Herd can blame Louisville, which dropped a planned game against Marshall this season in favor of a game against Notre Dame. The winner at the lower end of the polls is East Carolina, which can lock up a spot in one of the big-money bowls by winning out and hoping the committee remains consistent. The loser at the lower end of the polls is Conference USA, which would have been better off setting its money on fire than hiring a PR firm to pump up Marshall's miserable schedule.
The only head-scratcher is TCU six spots ahead of the Baylor team that beat the Horned Frogs. Head-to-head wins between teams with similar records were honored elsewhere. While this may have been a much-deserved rebuke of Baylor's pathetic out-of-conference schedule, that doesn't change the fact that those two teams played and the Bears won.
This ranking probably bears little resemblance to the one that will slot the teams into the playoff. One team (Auburn or Ole Miss) probably drops out of the top four next week because one is guaranteed to lose on Saturday. So if you're mad, just listen to the dulcet tones of Nicholas Lou Saban Jr. "To me, none of it matters," Saban told reporters Tuesday. "What does it matter? I mean, it only matters where you end up at the end."
OK, Mr. Hamilton?
Brian Hamilton: Before I say anything of (little) substance, I have to say this: I didn't think the weekly poll was a good idea. I thought it made no sense. There was no reason to create a scenario in which predetermined outcomes were even a remote threat. And then the rankings came out Tuesday. And I changed my mind. Because?
For the love of Bill Hancock's dog, this is unbelievable. The reactions to this mostly completely meaningless arrangement of teams in late October is priceless. I chuckled a bit after Mississippi State's win on Saturday, when Dan Mullen was asked about watching the big reveal three days later, and he was more interested in what came next. "Talk radio Wednesday morning is going to be absolutely amazing," he said. I had no idea how right he was, though Mullen probably miscalculated the timing of detonation by about 12 hours.
Anyway: My first reaction was imagining Saban, Gary Patterson, Mark Dantonio, Bill Snyder and Brian Kelly doing little jigs in their respective offices Tuesday night. (Actually, in this dream, Snyder calls in a GA to do a jig for him while he snacks on butterscotch candies and watches film of the 1993 Copper Bowl.) As you said, Andy, these rankings bear little resemblance to what the final rankings will be. Yet they gift-wrapped motivation for every coach in the bottom half of the top 10. These teams are both in very realistic striking distance of playoff berths, and now each of the aforementioned coaches can walk into the meeting rooms tomorrow and say: They don't think you can do it. They don't think you're good enough.
It's never a truly ideal position to need help to move up. But someone's going to lose. Maybe multiple someones will lose. So here are some of the most potent, talented teams in the country, lurking in very decent position to play for a title. Now, those teams benefit from the time-honored jolt of perceived disrespect. If I'm any of these coaches, I feel very much OK with where I am as of Tuesday night, because I can tell my team how much the Selection Committee is a bunch of haters.
So who's in trouble, though? This early on, do we look through the top 15 or so and see any teams that have to be truly worried about what the Committee thinks of them so far?
ZE: First off, you have to feel for SEC haters who tuned into ESPN on Tuesday night, don't you? Never mind that the fact that the top four teams in Football Outsiders' latest F/+ rankings hail from the SEC. The only explanation for plugging three SEC teams into the committee's top four must be a lingering SEC bias that plagues the Worldwide Leader. Or, you know, maybe -- just maybe -- more than one SEC team is actually good.
Either way, none of this matters now, as you both have touched on. There's still a lot of football left to play. What does matter, to Brian's point, is what this first batch of rankings tells us. What's important to the selection committee?
If I'm No. 10 Notre Dame, I might be a little concerned. It was sixth in the latest AP poll. Beating Stanford isn't going to earn you much respect from the committee right now. In fact, the Fighting Irish got more attention for almost beating Florida State in Tallahassee. Right now Notre Dame only has two remaining games against teams in the committee's first set of rankings: No. 14 Arizona State and No. 25 Louisville. If the Irish win out, do they deserve a spot among the top four without a conference title to show for it? That could be an intriguing debate when the rankings start to matter.
Overall we're seeing that scheduling had to play a major part in the committee's discussions. No. 13 Baylor is ranked behind a team that it beat (No. 7 TCU), perhaps due to the Bears' weak nonconference slate. No. 16 Ohio State hasn't played a team currently ranked on the committee's list. Suppose the Buckeyes beat No. 8 Michigan State in two weeks and win the Big Ten title. That schedule still doesn't look like it's worth rewarding to me, especially with one loss.
Brian, you mentioned using these rankings as bulletin-board material. Which team on the outside of the top four spots should be happiest with its position right now? Who controls its destiny?
BH: Well, the obvious answers are the two teams just on the outside, looking in: Oregon and Alabama.
Oregon has Stanford this weekend and Utah the next, plus the Pac-12 title game. Alabama has LSU on the road and then Mississippi State and Auburn at home. By passing every test, these two teams will be in the football Final Four. If it's not exactly an easy path, it's a fairly straightforward one. Not many other teams between Nos. 5 and 10 can say that.
You wonder if Kansas State, too, would seize the attention of the Selection Committee and leap others based on degree of difficulty: Road games at TCU, West Virginia and then Baylor to end the season. Sweep those, and one could imagine a spike in notoriety just based on so many good wins away from the comforts of home It's unlikely the Wildcats manage it, though, which is why it's not a terribly bad bet to figure the Ducks and the Tide for the playoff instead.
So who's got the most tenuous spot in the top 4, Andy? Who's teetering on late October oblivion?
AS: The obvious answer is Ole Miss. Or Auburn. One of them is losing on Saturday. That could be all she wrote for the playoff chances of the vanquished.
Good job by CBS locking in that Florida-Georgia game in May. Now you get to watch as viewers evaporate, bound for the telecast from Oxford on the Worldwide Leader. The committee has made Auburn-Ole Miss the must-see game of the season (so far).
So, just as we predicted when it was announced that they'd have a cockamamie rankings show every week starting in late October, the real winner here is ESPN.