Of greater significance to any followers of rankings minutiae, Clemson (9-0) will start this year at a relatively puny No. 5. That marks the first time since the final rankings of 2014, the first year of this four-team playoff concept, in which Clemson does not occupy the top four. It held down No. 1 throughout the six rankings of 2015, bounced between Nos. 2 and 4 throughout the six rankings of 2016, bounced between Nos. 4 and 1 throughout the six rankings of 2017 and spent all six weeks of 2018 at No. 2.
In the No. 4 slot, the committee stashed Penn State (8-0) — oddly, the first time the Nittany Lions have appeared in the top four.
“Two outstanding teams, obviously,” committee chairman Rob Mullens, the athletic director at Oregon, said on ESPN. “When you look at Penn State’s résumé, with wins over [No. 14] Michigan and at [No. 18] Iowa, those are marquee wins. . . . I think the committee felt Penn State was a notch above.”
None of Clemson’s victims thus far wound up ranked, and it became one of only two teams from the questioned ACC to make the list, the other being No. 19 Wake Forest (7-1). The Tigers did have an unafraid bit of nonconference scheduling with the SEC’s Texas A&M, which they beat, 24-10, at home, but the Aggies (6-3) rode their brutal schedule into a space somewhere below the list. To Clemson’s advantage, the teams ahead of it must do a intra-top-four battle: LSU will play Alabama on Saturday, and Penn State will visit Ohio State on Nov. 23.
Below the top five, a logjam of one-loss teams sorted out this way: Georgia (7-1) at No. 6, Oregon (8-1) at No. 7, Utah (8-1) at No. 8 and Oklahoma (7-1) at No. 9. In giving Georgia that nod while considering its home loss to South Carolina (4-5), the committee eyed the Bulldogs’ steepest wins.
“They beat two top-15 teams in [No. 10] Florida and [No. 15] Notre Dame,” Mullens said, “which balances the loss to South Carolina in the eyes of the committee.”
As to how Ohio State pipped LSU, which had been the early favorite to start off at No. 1, Mullens said, “When you watch Ohio State, they have performed at a very consistent level.”
The Buckeyes stand No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency and No. 2 in defensive efficiency. Mullens even gave some rare chairman mention of a defender, noting the dynamism of Buckeyes end Chase Young.
While LSU has a compelling schedule with wins over No. 10 Florida (7-2), No. 11 Auburn (7-2) and on the road against Texas, the Longhorns’ dip to 6-3 probably aided the Tigers’ dip to No. 2. Two of Ohio State’s pulverized victims wound up ranked: No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 20 Cincinnati.
As further evidence of its emphasis on schedules, the committee placed Florida and Auburn ahead of unbeaten No. 12 Baylor (8-0) and way ahead of unbeaten No. 17 Minnesota (8-0), which turned up four spots lower than its AP ranking as it prepares for a huge home game with Penn State. Kansas State (6-2) and Oklahoma State (6-3) are Nos. 16 and 23 based on the caliber of their wins.
While placing Navy (7-1) at No. 24, the committee seemed almost to reserve the bottom fifth of the rankings for the “Group of Five,” the sport’s second tier, from which 65 teams battle for one major bowl berth.
The highest of the Group of Five teams was No. 20 Cincinnati (7-1), followed by No. 21 Memphis (8-1), No. 22 Boise State (7-1), then Oklahoma State before Navy and No. 25 SMU (8-1).