It’s time to retrain your brain, as fans conditioned to the old poll mentality of the Associated Press Top 25 now need to forget any previous rankings and preconceived notions about college football’s pecking order.
The 13 most powerful people in the sport will decide that on Tuesday at the Gaylord Texan resort in Grapevine, Texas, where the College Football Playoff selection committee will reveal its first of six weekly rankings (9 p.m. ET on ESPN, ESPN App).
While it’s not the final answer, Tuesday’s top 25 will provide important clues as to how Selection Day (Dec. 8) might shake out. Eleven of the past 20 semifinalists have appeared in the committee’s initial top four. In each of the past two seasons, three of four teams in the first ranking were in the top four on Selection Day.
Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the committee in its first meeting, and how Tuesday’s answers will help shed some light on which teams are in good shape and which have more work to do:
1. Who’s No. 1?
The debate will likely center around LSU and Ohio State, with LSU winning the resumé comparison and the Buckeyes wowing committee members on film with their sheer dominance. Ohio State is No. 1 in offensive efficiency and No. 2 in defensive efficiency. If the committee ranks Cincinnati, which needed a field goal as time expired to beat a six-loss ECU team, it will help Ohio State’s nonconference and overall strength of schedule. The same can be said for Texas, which can help separate LSU’s resumé, but LSU also has wins against Florida and Auburn. LSU is No. 1 in ESPN’s Strength of Record metric, which reflects the chance an average top 25 team would achieve the same record or better, given the schedule. On paper, neither Clemson nor Alabama have accomplished as much as LSU. The committee is instructed to ignore last season, which means Clemson’s title as defending national champions should be irrelevant in the room. Speaking of Clemson …
2. How do Clemson and Alabama compare?
Alabama’s brand name and history don’t earn the Tide a hall pass when it comes to resumé scrutiny from the committee members, and Alabama’s only win so far against a Power 5 opponent with a winning record is Texas A&M – a team Clemson also beat. Clemson has three road wins to Alabama’s two, including against a much-improved 5-3 Louisville team. The question is if committee members are so impressed with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his talented group of receivers that it compensates for the weak schedule, especially without knowing the status of the injured Tagovailoa (ankle).
Clemson has been criticized this season for at times looking vulnerable. Some of it has been warranted (i.e., a 21-20 win against North Carolina, or Trevor Lawrence’s eight interceptions), but the Tigers are still beating opponents by an average of 31 points per game and rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency. There could be more of a debate between Clemson and Alabama than some think. Both have looked good enough to earn a top-four spot, but what about undefeated Penn State?
3. Who’s on the bubble?
It starts with Penn State (8-0), but that doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions won’t get top-four consideration from some committee members. PSU is No. 2 in Strength of Record and has three straight wins against Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State – teams that have combined for a record of 17-8 to this point. Where does the committee rank those opponents? With no Heisman hopeful, Penn State has lacked star power and has been statistically average on offense. Defensively, the Nittany Lions have been among the nation’s best.
Can any one-loss teams make the case for No. 5? Saturday wins by Oregon (against USC) and Georgia (over Florida) kept their playoff hopes alive, but it would be surprising to see either team ahead of Penn State or ranked higher than sixth. The Bulldogs’ Oct. 12 double overtime loss against South Carolina is an ink stain, but any team with a chance to win the SEC has a chance at finishing in the top four. Georgia also has its win against Notre Dame still working in its favor after the Irish found a way to beat Virginia Tech on Saturday. And what about those one-loss Sooners? …
4. How much did Oklahoma’s loss hurt?
Many were quick to write off the Sooners following their shocking loss at K-State on Oct. 26 (the last game they played before the first ranking), but how damaging was it in the eyes of the committee? It might not be that bad if K-State is a top-25 team Tuesday, especially considering it was a close road loss. What might hurt Oklahoma more is the lack of a true statement win. The Sooners’ best win right now was a 34-27 victory against Texas, so it will matter where the Longhorns are ranked for Oklahoma, too. If the committee thinks OU (7-1) is still a top-10 team, a top-four finish isn’t inconceivable, but are the Sooners even the highest-ranked team in the Big 12?
5. How good are undefeated Baylor and Minnesota?
Doubts continue to swirl around both programs’ viability as national title contenders despite their unblemished records. Do the committee members have similar concerns, or do they give Baylor (7-0) and Minnesota (8-0) more credit? Before you argue brand-name bias in Selection Central, consider this: neither team played a Power 5 nonconference opponent, Minnesota’s Big Ten opponents are a combined 15-25, and Baylor needed double overtime to beat five-loss Texas Tech and struggled to beat five-loss West Virginia. The committee doesn’t look ahead, so Tuesday’s ranking is only based on what those teams have done to this point. Is it enough to leapfrog one- and possibly two-loss teams?
6. Who’s the highest-ranked two-loss team?
We’ve seen the committee consider two-loss teams before – at least from the SEC – and Auburn was one of them in 2017. Much like that season, Auburn (6-2) will again have an opportunity to face both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season, but the Tigers are highly unlikely to win the West at this point. Auburn’s 12-game season would have to stand on its own merit. Would wins against Oregon, possible Pac-12 champs, and Alabama and Georgia be enough to earn a semifinal spot if the Tigers run the table? Let’s first see how far they have to climb, and who they’re already ahead of.
7. How deep is the Pac-12 in the eyes of the committee?
Things couldn’t have gone better for the Pac-12 on Saturday, as Utah and Oregon both won what should be their most difficult remaining games of the regular season. Oregon’s win at USC also helped Utah, because the Utes needed USC to lose to help their position in the Pac-12 South race. (Utah’s only loss so far was Sept. 20 at USC.) Oregon also benefited a bit by Auburn’s win against Ole Miss, as the Ducks’ narrow season-opening loss against the Tigers certainly isn’t a deal-breaker.
Oregon and Utah (both 7-1) are favored by at least 80 percent in each of their three remaining games, according to ESPN’s FPI, and are on a collision course to meet in the conference title game. While a one-loss Pac-12 champ will be considered for a top-four spot, its resumé will be compared against other Power 5 winners, which is why it’s important to see if the committee ranks any other Pac-12 teams besides Oregon and Utah. If not, it’s possible the only ranked team they face all season is each other.
8. Who’s leading the Group of 5 race?
The highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. With Appalachian State’s loss to Georgia Southern and SMU losing at Memphis, there are no more undefeated teams remaining, leaving the door wide open for the committee to hit the reset button on ranking them all.
Cincinnati’s only loss is against Ohio State, but the American Athletic Conference is proving to be an exciting race with UCF, SMU, Navy and Memphis each having just one loss in league play. UCF has lost to Cincinnati and Pitt, though, likely eliminating them from the conversation. Boise State and San Diego State are also one-loss teams in contention from the Mountain West Conference.