It’s been almost a year since the College Football Playoff caused much of the sport to raise a collective eyebrow when it released its initial rankings with Georgia in the No. 1 spot. At that point, undefeated Alabama had held the top spot in each week’s AP poll since the preseason, but the CFP committee showed, in that case at least, that it was willing to buck assumptions.
This year, when the committee’s first playoff rankings are released on Tuesday, Oct. 30, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Crimson Tide aren’t No. 1. Nick Saban’s 8–0 team, which has won by an average of more than 38 points per game, looks the part of the game’s undisputed best team, and it has a bye this weekend, so there’s no jeopardy of a fluky loss or even a minor stumble. But beyond Alabama’s dominance, there’s plenty still at stake in Week 9 that could figure big in the committee’s decision once this week’s slate of games are over. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the biggest questions we have going into that release, as well as some of the games that will have the biggest impact on the rankings to come.
After Florida vs. Georgia, either the Gators or Bulldogs will have two losses. How will the committee treat the loser, and how high can the winner’s stock go? Georgia came into the year a playoff favorite, Florida a question mark. Now, the rivals’ fates have converged just in time for them to face off; the Gators are No. 9, the Bulldogs No. 7. Each has a loss to another ranked SEC team. Things look evenly matched, but this game will tell us a ton about how real Florida’s surge is—or how big of a step Georgia has taken back. One of these current top-10 teams will have two losses by Sunday, and it’ll be interesting to see how the committee regards that. (Right now, the highest-ranked two-loss team in the AP poll is No. 15 Washington.)
How will the committee treat UCF, which has a bye this weekend? A season ago, a 7–0 UCF team had crept to No. 15 in the Week 9 AP poll. When the CFP released its rankings two days later, the Knights were No. 18, and their CFP ranking continued to trail their AP poll numbers all year, by as much as four spots. This season, though, UCF started out ranked and has climbed the polls faster. It currently sits at No. 10, but it could creep a bit higher if there’s a top-10 upset or depending on the quality of play in the Georgia-Florida game. That’s all to say: The Knights will be a top-10 team in the AP poll, but if the CFP committee is functioning as usual, I’d expect to see UCF somewhere in the teens.
What’s the committee’s estimation of the Pac-12, and how will it handle the winner and loser of Washington State’s game at Stanford? The Pac-12 has done a great job cannibalizing itself of late; there’s not a single team without a conference loss, and in the South, the best teams have two conference losses. Still, there are currently five ranked Pac-12 teams: No. 14 Washington State, No. 15 Washington, No. 19 Oregon, No. 23 Utah and No. 24 Stanford. How the Cougars fare against the Cardinal will figure big in the rankings, and I’m curious to see whether the committee values the conference more than the AP poll does, for the quality of its losses. It just might.
South Florida vs. Houston pits two talented American Athletic Conference teams against each other. How will the results shake out for the conference’s representation in the rankings? Besides UCF, the Week 8 AP poll features two other ranked Group of Five programs: No. 21 South Florida (which is undefeated) and No. 25 Appalachian State (which fell to Georgia Southern Thursday night). Houston, though, has only one loss, to Texas Tech, and looks like it might have the chops to climb into the top 25. Would one loss boot South Florida from the rankings, as Cincinnati’s did a week ago? Would Houston be deemed worthy if it were to beat Charlie Strong’s team?
How will the outcome of the Kentucky-Missouri game figure for the Wildcats? Kentucky is ranked No. 12; it’s defeated one current top-10 team, Florida, and lost in OT to No. 16 Texas A&M. That’s an impressive résumé for the best Wildcats team in a while, but still, it’s a road dog at Missouri on Saturday. The Tigers have a dynamic offense, and if Drew Lock and company pull off the win, it’ll be interesting to see how far Kentucky, an SEC team with little of the name recognition the committee has been accused of favoring, falls. Should it win, it’s top-15, for sure.
Historically, the committee is pretty high on Notre Dame. Will that hold, and how much could a big win over Navy help the Irish? Last season, the CFP rankings opened with a 7–1 Notre Dame team ranked No. 3. (In the AP poll that week, the Irish were No. 5.) In fact, Notre Dame has been a top-four team in four different weeks of CFP rankings, and the only team to appear more times without making the final four is Mississippi State, which was ranked for five weeks in 2014. This year’s Irish, though, are undefeated, and they look poised for another win this weekend against a disappointing Navy team. The only catch: The game is in San Diego, which will make for some extensive travel. Still, Notre Dame should win, and that’ll likely put it in the top four. A loss? The Irish might fall out of the top 10, especially if they look anything like they did in their last game two weeks ago, an uninspiring win over Pitt.
After a rough few weeks, how will the Big Ten fare overall, and how fluky will the committee find Ohio State’s loss to Purdue? The Big Ten lost its only undefeated team, Ohio State, last week with an upset at the hands of Purdue. The Buckeyes fell to No. 11 in the AP poll—behind UCF, which is noteworthy—and the highest-ranked of the conference’s teams is now No. 5 Michigan. October has also been cruel to Penn State, which lost to Michigan State and then barely beat Indiana on Saturday. The Nittany Lions, now ranked No. 17, get No. 18 Iowa on Saturday, and that outcome could figure big in how the conference is perceived. Also, if Notre Dame gets its due in the rankings, then Michigan certainly should as well; the Irish are its only loss. Would that be enough to edge Jim Harbaugh’s team into the top four? It’s a stretch, but not too huge of one.