By the time the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee meet for the first time this season in Grapevine, Texas, and release their first ranking on Oct. 30, they will know who the leader is in the SEC East, as the Florida-Georgia game (or Georgia-Florida game) this weekend will help determine that.
They will know Alabama is still undefeated, as both the Tide and LSU have byes this week before their showdown, which might be the biggest game in November. The committee will also know that the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten are guaranteed to produce conference champions with at least one loss, as there are no undefeated teams remaining in those leagues. The certainty stops there.
This is not your weekly Associated Press Top 25 poll.
New committee chairman Rob Mullens, Oregon’s athletic director, said the process is “completely different.”
“We don’t start until after Week 9, so everything is based on work to date, results to date, résumé to date,” he said. “It is not based on any sort of projection or look forward or even prior years’ performance. It’s 100 percent based on the results through Week 9 when our first ranking comes out.”
Because of that philosophy, he said, fans and coaches can expect fluidity.
“It changes week to week,” he said. “That’s the beauty of college football, right? There’s tremendous passion, there’s a lot of great teams, and when you start fresh each week and you’re only basing things on results, stuff happens.”
How the selection committee, with its six new members, chooses to prioritize data such as strength of schedule, continues to be an ambiguous, subjective process. Here’s a look at the top storylines to watch when the first ranking is released next Tuesday:
How will the top three undefeated teams shake out?
Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame are all likely to appear in the first top four, but there could be a debate over the order. They all have similar résumés with three wins each against Power 5 opponents over .500, and both Clemson and Notre Dame have two wins over teams currently ranked in the top 25 while Alabama has one (Texas A&M). They share common opponents, which is another factor the committee considers (Alabama and Clemson both beat Texas A&M; Clemson and Notre Dame both beat Wake Forest). Nobody in the country, though, has been as consistently dominant as Alabama. The more likely Alabama takes the top spot and the discussion centers around Nos. 2, 3 and 4. And yes, it’s certainly possible for a one-loss team to be ranked ahead of an undefeated team.
Who will be the highest-ranked one-loss team?
There is an abundance of options to consider, but few teams (even the undefeated ones) can match the résumé of LSU. The Tigers have defeated five Power 5 opponents with a combined 25-12 record. While only one of those teams, Georgia, is currently ranked in the AP Top 25, the committee will recognize that every Power 5 opponent LSU has beaten is over .500.
Michigan and Texas can also make a case, though Michigan’s loss to Notre Dame is much better than the Texas loss to Maryland. Head-to-head results also will help sort it out, as Texas handed Oklahoma its only loss, and either Georgia or Florida will have two losses by the time the committee votes.
Texas is not back … but how close is it?
The Longhorns are an intriguing one-loss team, because its loss was to an inspired, emotional Maryland team in the season opener at FedEx field. The committee would consider all the special circumstances surrounding that game: Maryland playing for the first time since the June 13 death of teammate Jordan McNair, under an interim head coach and not far from the Terps’ home field. Still, Texas played poorly in that game, and Maryland is hardly a juggernaut. How will the committee weigh that loss? And would Texas have a strong enough résumé to overcome it if it wins the Big 12? It could all be a moot point if the Longhorns don’t survive their difficult trip to Oklahoma State this week.
How high will undefeated UCF be ranked?
The highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of 5 is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, but after finishing last season as the only undefeated team in FBS, UCF and its fans are clamoring for more. Playoff consideration remains unlikely, as strength of schedule is such an important component, but with six new committee members, it’s impossible to predict the Knights’ ceiling. In the CFP era, only two Group of 5 teams entered bowl season undefeated — 2016 Western Michigan (13-0) and 2017 UCF (12-0). In those final CFP rankings, Western Michigan ranked 15th and UCF ranked 12th. Last season, after UCF beat Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, CFP executive director Bill Hancock defended the committee’s No. 12 ranking of the Knights.
“To qualify for the playoff, teams need to play tough schedules against good teams — that is the way for all teams to stand out and be ranked high by the committee,” Hancock said then. “UCF is an excellent team, but you still have to take into account who each team played and defeated during the regular season.”
UCF’s current nonconference schedule is 125th.
How does the committee view the Pac-12?
Everyone in the Selection Central room will tell you they don’t rank conferences, they rank teams, and while that is true, the number of Pac-12 teams in the first top 25 will indicate how highly the league is regarded, and if this conference is truly out of the mix or if it still has a glimmer of hope. Washington State is the only one-loss Pac-12 team remaining, but there are a plethora of two-loss teams that could impact the Cougars’ résumé. How high is Washington State ranked, and how does the committee sort through the Pac-12’s two-loss teams? As much as the Pac-12 has been criticized, it has five teams currently ranked in the AP poll, four of which are in the North Division. The only FBS conference that has more is the SEC (six). The ranking indicates the Pac-12 is deeper than the ACC and just as deep as the Big Ten. Would the committee give the Pac-12 more credit than it has gotten in the court of public opinion?
How will the rankings impact the strength of schedule of other contenders?
For example, will Miami be a ranked win for LSU? How does the committee view NC State, which is one of Clemson’s best wins? Where does Stanford’s win rank for Notre Dame? Michigan State dropped out of the AP Top 25 after losing to Michigan, but will the committee differ on the Spartans? They are an important piece of the résumé puzzle for both Ohio State and Michigan. The same can be said for Penn State, Michigan’s next opponent on Nov. 3. Also look to see what the committee thinks of the American Athletic Conference’s South Florida and Cincinnati, the final two opponents for UCF. Cincinnati dropped out of the AP Top 25, and South Florida is currently the only ranked opponent on UCF’s schedule.
Which team is in a position to make the biggest jump?
Just because a team doesn’t start in the top 10 doesn’t mean it can’t finish in the top four. Ohio State (No. 16 in 2014) and Oklahoma (No. 15 in 2015) both made the playoff after starting outside the initial top 10. Any one-loss Power 5 team that is still in contention to win its conference can’t be ruled out — at least not yet. That means keep an eye on Iowa this week, because if the Hawkeyes can pull off the upset at Penn State, they might have the best chance to make the slow climb up the ranking. The Nittany Lions are the only remaining opponent Iowa isn’t favored to beat, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the Hawkeyes have a second straight difficult road trip to Purdue on Nov. 3. They also need Wisconsin to lose again, as the Badgers own the head-to-head in the division race.
Washington State is another one-loss team that can make a push in the second half of the season, but it would have to leave zero doubt in the committee room that it’s a top four team to overcome a nonconference schedule that includes Wyoming (2-6), San Jose State (0-7) and Eastern Washington (5-2). All 16 of the past CFP semifinalists have played a nonconference Power 5 opponent, so Wazzu would be a first. Kentucky and West Virginia also have a shot to win their respective conferences.