Alabama and Clemson, the two kingdoms that have dominated the College Football Playoff concept by hoarding three of the first four titles and seven of the first 16 playoff spots, began this year at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on Tuesday night when the selection committee issued its first set of rankings.
Beneath the Crimson Tide (8-0) and Tigers (8-0), the 13-member committee used the first of its six weekly meetings this season to get slightly quirky. As the committee of five athletic directors, five former coaches, one university president, one former player and one journalist placed LSU (7-1) at No. 3, ahead of Notre Dame (8-0) at No. 4, it repeated its knack of earlier years for rewarding beefy schedules, and decreed that when Alabama visits LSU on Saturday, the stadium will welcome two-thirds of the top three.
LSU began the season by clobbering Miami, and while the Hurricanes (5-3) did not make these opening rankings, their caliber is considered higher than for some nonconference schedules in forging rankings that often entail slight differences from one spot to the next. Beyond that, LSU won at Auburn (5-3) and at home against two fellow ranked teams, No. 6 Georgia (7-1) and No. 18 Mississippi State (5-3).
Notre Dame, meanwhile, owns the highest-ranked victim on this first list, having beaten No. 5 Michigan (7-1) in the season opener. But because none of the other Irish opponents have wound up ranked, LSU’s cluster of high-profile wins pushed it to No. 3, even as LSU lost to Florida, which sits at No. 11.
“Well, there’s a lot of discussion about” LSU and Notre Dame, first-year committee chairman Rob Mullens, the athletic director at Oregon, told ESPN. “But when you look at LSU’s résumé, they’ve got six wins against teams above .500 that include quality wins over Georgia and Mississippi State. They’ve got a great résumé, and their only loss is a close loss at Florida. So, really impressed with their defense and overall their body of work was pretty strong.”
The first rankings had some heady presences from some fresh teams. Behind No. 5 Michigan, No. 6 Georgia and No. 7 Oklahoma (7-1), No. 8 Washington State (7-1) certainly has been a mainstay in the rankings of the previous years, but not so much as the runaway leader from the Pac-12 Conference, as it turned out here. The only other team from that league on the list is No. 15 Utah (6-2).
Further, Kentucky (7-1) made a lofty debut in the rankings at No. 9, with its wins at Florida and against Mississippi State, among ranked teams. The Wildcats, coming off a dramatic 15-14 win at Missouri that saw them rally from a 14-3 deficit in the final six minutes, actually wound up one slot ahead of 2014 champion and perennial presence Ohio State (7-1), which wound up at No. 10 after its 49-20 loss at Purdue.
Beyond Kentucky, the freshness came from such nouveau entries as No. 19 Syracuse (6-2) and No. 25 Virginia (6-2), each appearing for the first time. They were part of a cluster rich in ACC teams that included No. 21 North Carolina State (5-2) and No. 22 Boston College (6-2), the whole lot of them looking upward at Clemson, the league’s thrice-defending champion.
After Florida at No. 11 came Central Florida at No. 12, and therein might lie some discussion. UCF (7-0) remains the only unbeaten Football Bowl Subdivision team behind Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, even as its schedule costs it chronically with the schedule-minded committees, which do vary from year to year in membership but not in the schedule ethic. As Mullens pointed out on ESPN, “They are the only team in the country that has not played a team that has a winning record, through Week 9.”
That said, UCF’s No. 12 ranking matches the highest yet achieved for one of the schools from the Group of Five, the second tier of the eccentric sport. The only previous Group of Five team to hit No. 12 was UCF, which closed there last year on its way to its 13-0 season. It’s also the highest opening ranking for any Group of Five side, beating by one notch the No. 13 position given to Memphis at the start of the 2015 rankings.
Even with a batch of Group of Five teams such as Houston and Utah State turning up in the recent Associated Press poll, the committee went only for two such teams starting out this time, counting UCF and No. 23 Fresno State (7-1).