Roundtable: Sizing up the latest College Football Playoff rankings
The latest College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled on Tuesday evening. As the season approaches its home stretch, SI.com’s Andy Staples, Zac Ellis and Ben Glicksman discuss the top four and what the Top 25 means moving forward.
Zac Ellis: With Thanksgiving just around the corner, the College Football Playoff's top-four teams should give thanks. For what? Well, for a weekend that lacked any landscape-altering upsets. The top four -- Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Mississippi State -- remained unchanged and in the same order. In fact, the top seven were identical to last week's rankings. The only notable change came at No. 8, where UCLA replaced Ole Miss after the Rebels lost 30-0 to Arkansas.
Ben Glicksman: The rankings were largely what I expected, although there were a few noteworthy developments outside the top 10. Boise State and Marshall finally entered the picture, with the No. 23 Broncos -- who lost to Ole Miss and Air Force and sit at 9-2 -- checking in one spot ahead of the unbeaten No. 24 Thundering Herd. Minnesota jumped seven spots to No. 18 after its 28-24 victory over Nebraska, while Arizona climbed four spots to No. 11 after routing Utah 42-10.
What stood out most to me, however, was the stagnancy. With only two weeks left until the final rankings are revealed, I want to see if this Top 25 starts to crystallize, or if the selection committee can stay true to its task of re-ranking the entire list from scratch each time it meets. Granted, last Saturday featured a mostly lousy set of games. And every team in the top five faces an entirely losable matchup this weekend. But that was the original fear, right? By having rankings in the first place, committee members are at risk of simply anchoring and adjusting.
Andy Staples: I feel like the committee has declared itself at this point with regard to the top four. If Mississippi State is No. 4 now, I can't see the Bulldogs dropping if they beat an Ole Miss team the committee still has at No. 19. I could see them falling if Auburn beats Alabama, because it would mean Mississippi State got beat by a team that wasn't as good as the committee thought. But if that happened, the Bulldogs would get another matchup against either the No. 9 team (Georgia) or the No. 17 team (Missouri) in the SEC Championship Game. The biggest issue for Mississippi State might be if Arkansas beats Missouri -- handing Georgia the SEC East title -- and Georgia loses to Georgia Tech on Saturday. That would devalue the quality of the win the Bulldogs could earn in the SEC title game.
That said, I still feel like there are more opportunities for shakeups this week than at any other time this season. All four teams above the cutline play rivals that are only a bus trip away. Of those only Oregon has a significant talent advantage over Oregon State. That means there are three games involving top-four teams in which a team with only slightly less talent -- and nothing to lose -- will pull out all the stops to try to beat its rival. I would be more shocked if all the teams in the top four emerged unscathed than if one or two lost.
As for Boise State and Marshall, at least now we know where they stand with regard to the Group of Five's one guaranteed spot in a big-money bowl. Boise State's win over Colorado State is obviously carrying the Broncos in this case, and I'm not sure the Thundering Herd can make up that spot. They've got Western Kentucky this week and then the Conference USA championship against the winner of Saturday's Rice-Louisiana Tech game. The Herd still will lack anything the committee considers a quality win, so they'll have to try to leapfrog Boise by virtue of the sheer dominance of their wins. In other words, they shouldn't cut it as close as they did at UAB on Saturday.
Ben, if you had to bet, who would you wager goes down this weekend?
BG: My gut says Mississippi State. Its only loss this fall came on the road against Alabama, a team with a talented-but-inconsistent offense and a dominant defense. While Ole Miss lacks the skill-position playmakers Alabama has -- something that’s especially true in the aftermath of receiver Laquon Treadwell’s injury -- it boasts a similarly stout defense, which ranks ninth nationally in yards per play allowed (4.53). Keep in mind, the underdog has reigned supreme in this rivalry in recent years: Ole Miss upset Mississippi State in 2012, while Mississippi State returned the favor in ’13. The stage could be set for another surprise result on Saturday.
Some chaos at the top could create opportunity down below, and I’m also intrigued to see what happens in the Pac-12 showdowns on Friday. UCLA hosts Stanford at the same time that Arizona hosts Arizona State, and one of the Bruins, Wildcats or Sun Devils will ultimately play Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. They sit at No. 8, No. 11 and No. 13, respectively, in the latest rankings, and could make a late surge behind an impressive closing kick.
That brings me to my next question. Zac, if a couple of the top contenders fall, which current two-loss team is best positioned to make a push? And is a two-loss team making the field even a realistic possibility at this point?
ZE: I would say UCLA or Georgia, as those are the highest-ranked two-loss teams. But I'll lean on the Bruins because they control their destiny a bit more than the Bulldogs do. Georgia won't reach the SEC title game unless Mizzou loses to Arkansas -- a distinct possibility but far from a guarantee. UCLA, meanwhile, just needs to beat Stanford in its regular-season finale to reach the Pac-12 title game.
If the Bruins do that and then sink an Oregon squad that's currently a near-lock for a semifinal berth, that résumé suddenly doesn't look so bad. UCLA will have a good nonconference schedule that includes wins over Virginia, Memphis and Texas. It'd have victories over three teams that are currently ranked and two losses (to Oregon and Utah) to quality competition. It’d also have a league title, which the committee says it will value. As Lloyd Christmas famously said: So you're saying there's a chance?
Those three factors are why I think it'd be tough to keep UCLA out in that scenario. But maybe none of it will matter if a couple of higher-ranked one-loss teams keep winning. But hear me out here: Wouldn't a two-loss UCLA with a conference title, nine league games and a top-rated nonconference schedule be more deserving than a Mississippi State that didn't win its conference, played eight league games and had a weak nonconference slate? Perhaps, but as the committee has stressed, it will pick the best teams, not the most deserving.
Andy, could college football handle a two-loss team playing for a championship? Or is this just a bunch of hot air?
AS: Hey, the 2007 season happened and the republic didn't fall. So I think everyone could manage.
Will people complain? Absolutely, from Dec. 7 to Dec. 31. Then they'll just enjoy the games.