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Top Takeaways From First Playoff Ranking: Alabama Ranked Too High, SEC in Best Shape

How should we feel about the committee's placement of Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Oregon, Michigan State and others? SI experts weigh in.

Two-thirds of the way through the college football season, finally a poll that really matters. Well, kind of.

The College Football Playoff Selection Committee unveiled its first rankings of the 2021 season on Tuesday night, giving us a window into the 13-member panel’s thinking. But don’t get too excited. There are four more such releases before the final teams are selected for the four-team playoff on Dec. 5.

Why do they release rankings that, in the end, really don’t matter? To have us do exactly this—write, talk and opine about them! Honestly, it’s downright silly, but, hey, it does provide us content.

In many ways, this was the most highly anticipated inaugural rankings of any season since the CFP began in 2014 simply because (A) so many traditional powers have a loss—Alabama and Ohio State, for instance; and (B) Cincinnati is undefeated and No. 2 in the AP poll.

Based on the rankings, we learned quickly that the Committee doesn’t think as highly of the Bearcats as the pollsters (they are No. 6), that the Tide, despite a loss, is rolling quite nicely (No. 2!) and that head-to-head competition matters (Oregon is a spot ahead of Ohio State).

Let’s get some hot, warm and cool takes from the SI experts!

How do you feel about Cincinnati's ranking?

Pat Forde: I hate it. Hate it the way I hate billionaires who don’t pay taxes and rich kids getting into elite schools because their parents made big donations. Noblesse oblige rules the day again in favor of Power 5 conference teams, and the Group of 5 banner carrier pays the price. This is a tired refrain that never ends. The Bearcats at No. 6 is at least three slots too low, and this is a program that needed to be in the top four from the start to withstand the strength of schedule slide that seemingly awaits it. This shouldn’t be a surprise after the way the committee disrespected Cincinnati last year, but it’s freshly insulting.

Ross Dellenger: I don’t like it, but, hey, it could be worse right? The Bearcats have the worst strength of schedule (94th) of any team in the Top 10. I’ve been in those mock CFP selection meetings in Dallas and I can tell you that committee members rely on schedule strength just as much—or more—than any other metric of data. Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn’t, but they do. And the reality is Cincinnati’s full body of work will not be enough to have them in the top four (as much as it pains me to say it). They’ll need some help. They need Georgia to beat Alabama in the SEC championship game and for Oklahoma to stumble along the way. They might even get left off for a one-loss Big Ten runner-up.

Richard Johnson: I mean look, what were you expecting? They weren’t gonna be in the top four and it is noteworthy that they’re in the top 10 from where I’m sitting. The Committee’s point is well taken that Cincinnati has struggled relatively with bad teams the last two weeks. Oklahoma, a team that has similarly played with its food this season, is down at No. 8.

Who is ranked too high?

Forde: Alabama is too high at No. 2. It’s almost like the committee put them there out of habit, assessing almost no penalty for going down to two-loss Texas A&M. Ultimately, it probably won’t matter—if the Crimson Tide take care of business the rest of the way, they’re going to the playoff. If they don’t, they’re likely out with two losses. But if they lose a nailbiter to Georgia for the SEC championship, this does give them at least a puncher’s chance to become the first two-loss playoff team. That will depend on what happens around them, but starting at No. 2 is an undeserved bonus for Bama.

Dellenger: Oh yeah, it’s definitely Alabama. But for the sake of variety, let’s mix it up. I’ll go Wake Forest. We all love the upstart, pesky Deacons and their fun-filled offense, but Wake has one quality win (at Virginia) and a strength of schedule that is in the 80s. I was a little shocked to see them above a number of teams, namely Notre Dame.

Johnson: Sparty’s a great story, but I don’t think they’re the third-best team in the country. I do get the resume of beating Michigan necessitates them being in the top four today, but I expect Ohio State to make this moot in a few weeks. Bonus: Wisconsin being ranked at all is an affront to decency.

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Who is ranked too low?

Forde: Clearly, Cincinnati is. But the other team I would put in that category is unranked Penn State. Yes, the Nittany Lions have three losses and one of them is a bad one, to Illinois. But Penn State also beat No. 21 Wisconsin on the road and No. 13 Auburn at home, and its three-point road loss to No. 21 Iowa can almost completely be attributed to a second-quarter injury to quarterback Sean Clifford. The Lions also hung in the game relatively well at Ohio State on Saturday. They have a Top 25 resume, but no ranking to show for it.

Dellenger: Oklahoma State. The Pokes, at No. 11, are behind one-loss teams like Michigan and Notre Dame despite them having a much better resume. Depending on how you measure it, they’ve beat three and maybe quality teams and have a strength of schedule in the top 30. Sure, the loss at Iowa State is not great, but as a body of work, the Cowboys’ resume is good enough to be top 10.

Johnson: I don’t really think anyone’s actually criminally low. I’d personally have Cincinnati 5 and Michigan State 6. So by the letter, I think Cincinnati should be a spot higher.

What Power 5 conference is in the best shape?

Forde: The SEC, with the top two teams, is a near-lock to get its champion into the field. But the Big Ten might be best positioned to put two teams in the bracket. Depending how things break in the remaining games for No. 3 Michigan State, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan, two of the three could have a solid shot. If the Spartans and Wolverines both win out, going 13–0 and 11–1, respectively, that would be one favorable combination. Or if the Buckeyes finish 12–1 and the Spartans are 11–1, that’s another.

Dellenger: You mentioned the SEC. Of course, it’s the SEC! The league has the best chance to get two teams into the field for the second time in five years. If there’s a way to get this playoff expanded, it’s that. All the league needs is the Crimson Tide to knock off Georgia in the SEC title game. It’s not so far-fetched.

Johnson: The SEC is the cop-out with almost half the league in the rankings. I’ll say Wake Forest being in the top 10 as the ACC’s lone undefeated says something about the league in addition to partial member Notre Dame being right behind them.

What regular season game will have the biggest impact on the playoff race?

Forde: Michigan State at Ohio State on Nov. 20 now looms as the biggest remaining game on the November schedule.

Dellenger: Bedlam! An undefeated Oklahoma could be playing a one-loss Oklahoma State in Stillwater. A Sooners’ loss paves the way for, guess who, to enter the playoff? Cincinnati! Barring, of course, the Tide don’t upset Georgia in Atlanta.

Johnson: Michigan State-Ohio State is going to say a lot about how the final seeding will shake out if Oregon and Ohio State both win out. We often consider seeding in the actual Playoff a moot point, but I wouldn’t want to be fourth and face (likely) Georgia. If Ohio State beats a No. 3 Michigan State but stays behind Oregon, we’ll all know how much weight the early-season game has.

What is your top four?

Forde: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan State, 3. Cincinnati, 4. Oregon

Dellenger: 1. Georgia, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Alabama, 4. Michigan State

Johnson: 1. Georgia, 2. Alabama, 3. Oregon, 4. Ohio State

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