Doesn’t matter, of course, because the College Football Playoff, in fact, doesn’t begin today, and it’ll all sort itself out. The best sporting event of this week — heck, maybe this month — is Saturday afternoon’s game between LSU and Alabama, ranked second and third in the first CFP rankings, released earlier this week. Shoot, Ohio State, which holds the top spot, and Penn State, which sits fourth, play in two weeks, another barnburner. So in an 14-day span, two of the teams ahead of Clemson will lose, which means the Tigers will be just fine.
Which begs the question: What is the point of these November rankings anyway?
The only rankings that matter will arrive Sunday, Dec. 8, when the four participants in the CFP semifinals will be announced. The top team will face the fourth team. The second will face the third. Anything else is just somewhere between potentially misleading and unnecessarily confusing.
Take this weekend alone. Penn State is 8-0 with nice wins at Iowa and against Michigan. It faces 8-0 Minnesota, with nice wins against . . . well, no one. If the Nittany Lions win — they’re favored by a touchdown on the road — they’re guaranteed to move up in next week’s rankings. Why? Because either LSU or Alabama will have lost, and an unbeaten Penn State isn’t going to settle behind one-loss LSU.
But even that discussion is fraught. Penn State’s upcoming schedule — at Minnesota, vs. Indiana and at Ohio State — will have all the impact on whether the Nittany Lions make the playoffs. We don’t need to know whether they’re third or fourth or ninth this week or next week. Win those games — plus Rutgers and the Big Ten championship against a (presumably) weaker team from the Big Ten West — and there’s no way Penn State is left out.
So why do we care that the Nittany Lions are fourth in November? Because we needed to be distracted from the opening night of college basketball, which was right when the rankings were announced?
Start at the top, because maybe that’s one place that it may matter. Since the CFP began in 2014, the top team in the first ranking has made the playoff every year but one. Remember when Mississippi State was the No. 1 team in the first ranking ever? Yeah, me neither. (Ole Miss was fourth in that first ranking, and Florida State was the only school that appeared that made the playoff.)
So this November, as irrelevant things are concerned, Ohio State as the top-ranked team is fine, just fine. Hard to argue with an 8-0 juggernaut that has won its games by an average of more than 40 points. And they’re not patsies. Okay, some of them are patsies (looking at that 76-5 win over Miami (Ohio)). Cincinnati has only one loss all year – to Ohio State, 42-0. Indiana and Wisconsin have lost only twice – once each to Ohio State, 51-10 and 38-7, respectively. The Buckeyes’ next opponent, whoever that is, should be shuddering.
That would be Maryland, which oddly is a worthy candidate to be involved in this discussion. Not because the Terrapins — at 3-6, with four straight losses by an average of four touchdowns — are any good. But they can help explain why the first CFP rankings — as irrelevant and unnecessary as they are — came out in November, and not in August.
When the CFP began, it tacitly acknowledged that the only thing sillier than ranking teams in Week 9 would be ranking them before anyone’s played a game. That’s what the Associated Press (writers) and USA Today (coaches) have done for years. It’s a system designed to generate chatter and gin up excitement, even if it’s based on, essentially, year-old information combined with speculation.
This year’s preseason AP poll ranked Syracuse at No. 22 — entirely reasonable for a team coming off a 10-3 season, even with a new quarterback.
That’s where Maryland comes in. Second game of the year, and — wham — the Terrapins waxed Syracuse, 63-20. Maryland beat a ranked team! Maryland is good!
Well, not so much. Syracuse is now 3-6 and winless in the ACC. Maryland’s two games after thumping the Orange? A loss at Temple and a 59-0 shellacking at home to — you guessed it — Penn State.
So you need information before assembling all this. But even nine weeks in, there’s so much more to gather. What do these incremental rankings provide? Misguided angst about teams that are left out when they still can play their way in.
There could be actual frayed nerves on Dec. 8 if, say, Ohio State and Clemson win out while Georgia, Penn State, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and either Oregon or Utah all have one loss — which would require only Georgia beating the Alabama-LSU winner in the SEC title game and Ohio State beating Penn State in the regular season and then taking the Big Ten championship.
That would be a delightful mess, and further the (obvious) arguments to expand the playoff to eight teams: the five major conference champions (in the above case, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma and Oregon/Utah), the best team from the remaining “Group of Five” conferences (perhaps Cincinnati or Memphis or Boise or Navy), and two at-large teams from among Alabama, LSU, Penn State and Utah.
Would there still be controversy? Sure. Would it be a more complete playoff? Absolutely. And don’t listen to anyone who says the college presidents who make these decisions want to protect the athletes’ academic interests by not extending the season into a new semester. The national title game this year will be on Jan. 13 — 16 days after the semifinals!
Back to Clemson. The Tigers are on the outside looking in at the moment because, it seems, of a single narrow escape: a 21-20 victory at North Carolina.
“That’s a piece of it,” committee chair Rob Mullens said on ESPN. “When you’re comparing resumes, you look at every single game, and that was a game.”
Well put, Rob. Well put.
So then don’t release rankings before all the games have been played. Don’t do it before LSU-Alabama. Don’t do it before Ohio State-Penn State. Wait until Dec. 8. Then we’ll have something worth arguing over.