For 12 weeks there has been speculation about how the College Football Playoff committee will handle assessing teams in this uncertain season.
The teams at the top seemed clear, but that’s not always to the case with 13 people sitting down and evaluating several metrics to determine who would be No. 1. Big Ten and Pac-12 teams played half the games of most of the Power Five contenders. Cincinnati made a strong early case about possibly being a contender from the Group of Five given its impressive start and the challenges of other potential champions playing a full schedule.
With the first rankings out, there’s some sense going forward about how things will play out. That’s always assuming things go to plan. Rare is the season that does.
But for now, here are the winners and losers from the first ranking
The Bearcats debut at No. 7, the highest initial ranking for a Group of Five during the playoff era. That easily puts them in striking distance of what was seen as a unlikely opportunity to make the field. A few things will have to go their way. First, beat Tulsa, ranked No. 25, in the regular-season finale and then in the American Athletic championship game.
There also has to be some help. But nothing too crazy. If Notre Dame beats Clemson again or the Irish lose to North Carolina this week, that would eliminate a second ACC representative. Alabama beating Florida would knock out the Gators. It’s possible Cincinnati could also move ahead of Texas A&M without help, but an Aggies loss to Auburn would make things easier. That’s really it. Among the teams behind, only Northwestern seems positioned to pass the Bearcats and that would come with an Ohio State loss.
There was no thought given to the Wildcats before last week’s defeat of Wisconsin. They debut at No. 8, five spots ahead of their position in the Amway Coaches Poll, which removed any doubt about their situation. All Pat Fitzgerald’s team must do is win four games and it will be in the playoff.
The rest of the regular season looks manageable – Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois. That leaves the Big Ten championship game – likely against Ohio State – standing in the way of Northwestern being an unlikely participant in the final four.
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The Big 12
For a league that effectively was written off before September, the first rankings actually provided a glimmer of hope for the Big 12. Two-loss Oklahoma was an unexpected No. 11, ahead of Indiana, Brigham Young and two Pac-12 contenders. The committee acknowledged the Sooners have been dominant in the last four weeks as key suspended players returned. That was made clear with their position ahead of No. 13 Iowa State, which beat Oklahoma early in the year.
So is there a path to the playoff? Probably not. Oklahoma and Iowa State are on course for a rematch in the conference title game. Both could be in the top 10 at that point, but there would have to be complete chaos ahead to put them in striking position. Still, the rankings offered some positive feelings in a season that hasn’t gone as hoped.
The Buckeyes slotted in at No. 4, which was a surprise given their position behind one-loss Clemson. Some of that is due to the lack of games. Ohio State has played just four. Besides No. 12 Indiana, the other three teams on its schedule have a combined record of 2-12. And there have been some issues with the defense that cast doubt on how good this team is.
Things don’t get more difficult the rest of the way with Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan – a combined 4-10 – completing the regular season. That means the seven-point defeat of the Hoosiers would be the only real result of significance entering the Big Ten title game, leaving little opportunity to move ahead of their current No. 4 spot without help.
The Cougars have simply been dominant against a schedule that admittedly isn’t the toughest. Only Texas-San Antonio has come within 17 points in their nine victories. But with only an impressive win against Boise State, which committee chairman Gary Barta noted was short-handed, there’s just not enough meat on the bone to convince those in charge to move them higher than No. 14. That pretty much ends the playoff speculation with BYU only having a game against San Diego State left. There’s a possibility the Cougars could schedule more games and there should be some urgency to find a quality opponents. However, it’s likely only going to give them a chance to possibly make the New Year’s Six.
With just three weeks of games, the first ranking was always going to be an uphill battle for the conference. It’s why commissioner Larry Scott lobbied for a delay. The league’s position hasn’t helped been helped by several COVID-19 cancellations that have kept many teams off the field for at least one game.
No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 Southern California are the only teams in the Top 25, giving neither team an opportunity to play against a ranked team before the conference championship game. Climbing into the playoff looks like an uphill task that likely ends with the league out of the field for the fourth consecutive year.