The eternal national question of Notre Dame, a question presumed less eternal after that program’s 4-8 hardship of 2016, reared its loud head again on Tuesday night. The Irish began the College Football Playoff rankings season at a loud No. 3 even as somehow, what happened at No. 1 might make more noise as the country begins its annual November rancor.
Up top, the 13-member selection committee finished two days of wrangling near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and decided Georgia (8-0) had looked a smidgen better than Alabama (8-0), and that the reasons included Georgia’s 20-19 win at Notre Dame (7-1) in a Sept. 10 match that looked second-tier at the time. Alabama, meanwhile, had its nonconference achievement go south when Florida State, the Crimson Tide’s first victim, careened to 2-5. Georgia became only the fourth program to sit at No. 1 in the four seasons and 20 rankings of this concept, following Mississippi State, Alabama and Clemson.
The Georgia-Alabama question, committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said on ESPN, wreaked “as passionate a debate as I’ve seen,” while the passion it will wreak among Alabamians is not up for debate. That’s true even as the committee has five more weekly lists to issue before it chooses the four playoff teams on Sunday, Dec. 3.
In the coveted fourth spot, for now, stood defending national champion Clemson (7-1), meaning Clemson has occupied the top four across all 13 rankings since 2015. (The committee does not issue postseason rankings.) In favoring the Tigers over seven more Power Five one-loss teams, the committee noted their six wins over teams with winning records, and their two wins over top 25 teams: at No. 13 Virginia Tech (7-1) and against No. 14 Auburn (6-2).
The expected pockets of intrigue turned up at both Nos. 5-6 and Nos. 9-10. At the former, the committee sorted out the Oklahoma-Ohio State puzzle. At the latter, it showed the new dimension of this concept that differs from so many seasons in the game’s long history: A once-beaten record can trump an unbeaten record if the latter has fed off a weak schedule.
Oklahoma took No. 5 to Ohio State’s No. 6, a dramatic departure from the weekly polls, where the media (Associated Press) had Ohio State at No. 3 and Oklahoma at No. 8, with the coaches ranking Ohio State at No. 3 and Oklahoma at No. 9. That was all curious because the Sooners (7-1) and the Buckeyes (7-1) happened to play each other, on Sept. 10, with Oklahoma winning, 31-16, on the road, before it began to look less emphatic while Ohio State began to rise. “As you know,” Hocutt said on ESPN, “we don’t look at the polls. The first ranking, in our eyes, just came out with the top 25.”
Then, at Nos. 9 and 10, the committee placed the latter two of the four Power Five unbeaten teams: No. 9 Wisconsin (8-0) and No. 10 Miami (Fla.) (7-0). It ranked these behind one-loss Notre Dame, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State (7-1) and No. 8 TCU (7-1) because neither Wisconsin nor Miami has beaten a ranked team.
At that No. 7, Penn State landed in a spot quite lower than it looked like it might on Saturday in Columbus, when it led Ohio State by 18 points before falling, 39-38, for a rare time when a one-point deficit on the field led to a one-point deficit in the rankings.
Of the Power Five conferences, the Pacific-12 suffered most for its indecipherable parity. It placed no team higher than No. 12 Washington, which reached the playoff last year, but which even at 7-1, suffered from a startling 13-7 loss at Arizona State. Teams ranked as low at first as No. 16 (Ohio State, 2014) and No. 15 (Oklahoma, 2015) have reached the playoff in previous years.
The first two-loss team on this list was Auburn at No. 14, its 6-2 record dented only on trips to play the various other Tigers at No. 4 Clemson and No. 19 LSU. The Auburn Tigers do have a curious opportunity ahead, potentially, because they play both No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama at home, on Nov. 11 and Nov. 25, respectively. The first 12 playoff qualifiers across the first three seasons have had either zero losses (three teams) or one loss (nine teams).
Further down lurked three fresh success stories.
In the annual chase for the top spot in the second-tier Group of Five programs, with the annual prize a trip to a gaudy New Year’s Six bowl game, Central Florida (7-0) became one of two Group of Five teams included, getting No. 18 to land five spots ahead of Memphis (7-1), which UCF defeated, 40-13, on Sept. 30.
In the Notre Dame spirit, three programs that went 3-9 just last season debuted on the list: the feel-good story of No. 15 Iowa State (6-2) — with its two wins over teams lodged in the Associated Press top five at the time, Oklahoma and TCU — as well as No. 22 Arizona (6-2) and No. 24 Michigan State (6-2).
All have looked freshly, surprisingly good, even as none has looked as strong as Notre Dame. In the debate between slots Nos. 3 and 7, the Irish came in first after their routs of three other ranked teams, No. 24 Michigan State (by 38-18), No. 17 Southern California (by 49-14) and No. 20 North Carolina State (by 35-14), games in which Notre Dame rushed for 182, 377 and 318 yards, to go with the 515 it got against onrushing Boston College (5-4). That all came after Georgia had held it to 55, a statistic that helped translate into No. 1.
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