It’s the first time in the six-season playoff format that two teams have changed places like this; in three of the first five years, the same team held down No. 1 through all the rankings. It’s also a welcome change from long-ago days when a team could stay No. 1 as long as it kept winning, no matter against whom.
With four slots in the playoff, this wouldn’t matter much except that whoever winds up No. 2 on Dec. 8 probably will have to play a semifinal against No. 3 Clemson, the program that knows playoffs so well it turned two foes last season into large piles of sawdust by a combined 74-19. Getting to No. 1 seems wiser than ever, even though no No. 1 seed has won any of the first five titles under this cherished format.
By jostling the top two on the basis of midstream developments — LSU won at No. 3 Alabama on Nov. 9 to pip Ohio State; Ohio State just won vs. No. 8 Penn State to pip LSU — the committee has restated its emphasis for teams that have shiny victims. As a bonus, it supplied another of college football’s relentless gifts: the chance for days and days of cherished wrangling.
Ohio State (11-0) will play at No. 13 Michigan (9-2) on Saturday and then against No. 8 Minnesota (10-1) or No. 12 Wisconsin (9-2) in the Big Ten championship game. LSU (11-0) will play Texas A&M (7-4), which probably bubbles just beneath the rankings, Saturday and No. 4 Georgia (10-1) in the SEC championship game.
If Ohio State and LSU both reach 13-0, disentangling the two should be excruciating enough that the committee room really ought to include that long-recommended open bar. Margins would be infinitesimal. Ohio State would have five wins over ranked teams, those currently at Nos. 10, 12, 13 and 19 and either 8 or 12. LSU would have four wins over ranked teams, those currently at Nos. 4, 5, 11 and 15. Of those nine wins between the two, only two will have come on the true road: Ohio State would have won at Michigan on Saturday, and LSU won already at Alabama, which is shinier than Ohio State winning at Michigan because it is shinier than anybody else’s win, anywhere.
LSU’s offense is better than Ohio State’s, which is still damned good (No. 8 nationally in yards per play). Ohio State’s defense is better by a wider margin than LSU’s, which is somewhere between average and damned good (No. 44 nationally). Could LSU claiming a second top-five victim by beating Georgia in Atlanta on Dec. 7 help it leapfrog that shred of inconvenience, especially given its tougher set of victory sites?
The ultimate answer to that is that it would not be the most ridiculous rankings decision in the sport’s screwball history — or even in the top thousand.
This is where the decision-makers would have to digest the nonconference particles, and the whole thing could involve questions about Cincinnati and Texas and Northwestern State. That’s some kooky calculus, and we do love our kooky calculus.
In nonconference play on the same day, which was Sept. 7, LSU won at then-No. 9 (in the Associated Press poll) Texas, which, still chesty from its upset of Georgia last Sugar Bowl, assumed it still would be ranked by now because it feels it was born ranked. Ohio State won at home against Cincinnati, which assumes nothing, not even after a dandy 2018 season of 11-2 and a 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl.
Well, as the fall has blurred along, two things have plummeted together: Texas’s stature as it has galumphed to 6-5 and very unranked and LSU’s 45-38 win at Texas. Two things have risen: Cincinnati’s image as the committee’s No. 19 team at 10-1 and Ohio State’s 42-0 win over Cincinnati.
Now it gets crazier: Cincinnati, the fresh American Athletic Conference East champion, goes on Friday to No. 18 Memphis (10-1), which aims to clinch the West. If Cincinnati loses that, it will go again eight days later to Memphis for the AAC championship game. “You guys don’t know this yet,” Luke Fickell, Cincinnati’s outstanding coach, joked to reporters Saturday in Cincinnati, “but we’re not going to show up [Friday]. We’re just going to skip it. I guess that means we’d have to come back down there next week. So we’re going to take a bye on this one. I’m not sure exactly what the NCAA would do. . . . It could be a unique situation. Hopefully, it’s not.”
But there’s a catch: If Cincinnati wins and Navy (9-2) wins Saturday at Houston, sure, Navy will play at Cincinnati in the title game. But if Cincinnati wins and Navy loses, there’s a reality Fickell apparently hadn’t realized: Cincinnati returns to Memphis. “I’ve never had to do it in college,” Fickell then said. “No matter what, when you’ve got to play a team back-to-back, you’ve got to play a team twice in the year, you’ve got some ideas of what it is that they do. I think maybe you’ve got to make some more adjustments from what you normally do in college. You don’t see a team twice in the year. I guess the NFL — could get some input from those guys.”
If Cincinnati finally feels all the injuries it has withstood so commendably and winds up 10-3, would it wind up still ranked? What to make of the fact that all of Ohio State’s nonconference victims might win conferences — Florida Atlantic (8-3), Cincinnati (10-1) and Miami (Ohio) (7-4) — while LSU had the intestines to schedule the only top-tier nonconference game (Texas), but in addition to pretty good victims Utah State (6-5) and Georgia Southern (6-5), it also had Northwestern State (3-9) of the Football Championship Subdivision?
That last detail makes Ohio State 11-0 against the Football Bowl Subdivision, with LSU only 10-0, even as only LSU dared test the Power Five in nonconference.
Clearly, it’s best to start arguing early.