Forde-Yard Dash: College Football Playoff rankings primer

Pat Forde
College football and basketball columnist

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (shark jokes no longer applicable in Gainesville):

More Forde-Yard Dash: Spoiler alert | 10 Heisman candidates | Butch Jones/Tennessee

FIRST QUARTER: PLAYOFF PRIMER

The 2017 College Football Playoff rankings debut Tuesday night, the first of five weekly reality TV shows aired by ESPN that will serve as overreaction fodder before the real rankings are announced Dec. 3. While fans are getting their premature outrage on, The Dash is here to help set the table for what’s to come.

The 18 teams that matter most can be broken down into subgroups. First, the kingpins. The rest of the nation can get in line behind the best of the Southeastern Conference:

Georgia (1). The Dash has been selling the Bulldogs as the No. 1 team in America for a couple of weeks now, and the rest of the nation is starting to catch on in limited doses. (Georgia got two first-place votes in the Associated Press poll, the first team other than Alabama to get any first-place votes in three weeks.) The ‘Dogs own what is arguably the top win in the nation to date, beating 7-1 Notre Dame in South Bend, and have a second quality victory over 6-2 Mississippi State. The win over the Fighting Irish is the only Georgia game decided by fewer than three touchdowns, and its average margin of victory in SEC play is 32 points. (For reference, Alabama’s dominant 2016 SEC champs won their eight regular-season league games by an average of 23 points.)

Alabama (2). The only thing the Crimson Tide has done wrong all season is play a Florida State team that has tanked since losing quarterback Deondre Francois in the season opener. The Seminoles are now 2-5, taking what looked like it would be Alabama’s signature victory south with them. But Nick Saban’s team does have a road win over Texas A&M and the opportunity for three quality wins in November: LSU on Nov. 4, at Mississippi State on Nov. 11 and at Auburn on Nov. 25. Then there is the potential SEC championship showdown with Georgia, which could lead to two teams from the same league in the playoff for the first time. (And wouldn’t the rest of the nation be thrilled with that?)

Nick Saban and Alabama are rolling again this season, but Georgia has the better résumé thus far. (Getty)

Then, the team the conferences hate most, positioned to take a playoff bid away from a Power Five team:

Notre Dame (3). The Fighting Irish have the best one-loss résumé in the nation by a wide margin, even though the pollsters continue to miss it. (They’re fifth in the AP poll, two spots behind 7-1 Ohio State, and eighth in the USA Today poll, behind the Buckeyes, Clemson and Penn State.) Other than its one-point loss to Georgia, Notre Dame has blown out everyone on the schedule, including 7-2 USC, 6-2 North Carolina State and 6-2 Michigan State.

(Here is a Dash Armageddon Scenario (4): Georgia makes the playoff at 13-0, Alabama makes it at 12-1, Notre Dame makes it at 11-1. That would leave one other bid to split between the champions of the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Could you imagine the howling if not one, not two, but three champions of the privileged class are left behind?)

Next, the rest of the lead pack of one-loss teams (5):

Clemson has victories over Virginia Tech (No. 13 AP poll) and Auburn (No. 16), plus easy wins over a quartet of other solid ACC teams: Louisville, Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The only team the Tigers have played that has a losing record is Kent State. Their lone loss was by three points on the road against a 4-4 Syracuse team, and Clemson played most of the game without injured starting quarterback Kelly Bryant.

Oklahoma has a trump card, a 31-16 road victory over Ohio State that only gained currency when the Buckeyes rallied past Penn State on Saturday. And the Sooners’ loss, which looked bad at the time, is less so now that Iowa State has improved to 6-2. Oklahoma’s problem is that its Big 12 victories to date are all over the bottom half of the league: Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Texas Tech. (It’s a temporary problem; there are games against ranked teams in the next two weeks.) And there is a non-conference rout of winless UTEP, which ranks among the very worst FBS teams.

Ohio State got the résumé builder it needed Saturday against the previously undefeated Nittany Lions, winning a one-point thriller. Its previous four Big Ten victories were against teams with a combined league record of 7-13. November will provide a couple other quality win opportunities: Michigan State on Nov. 11 and at Michigan on Nov. 25. The 15-point home loss is an issue, even though the pollsters seem to have forgotten all about it and overrated the Buckeyes.

Penn State has a one-point loss at Ohio State, which is no great shame, and it came in a game the Nittany Lions led nearly the entire way. But other than blowing out Michigan the previous week, there are no noteworthy accomplishments on the résumé. The non-conference schedule (Akron, Pittsburgh, Georgia State) carries no weight. Penn State almost assuredly will need considerable help to play its way back into the top four.

Then, the unproven unbeatens (6):

Miami is 7-0, but looking increasingly vulnerable. The Hurricanes’ last four wins are all by one score: 24-20 over Florida State; 25-24 over Georgia Tech; 27-19 over Syracuse; and 24-19 over a 1-7 North Carolina team that played its third-string quarterback most of the game. Miami has consecutive home games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame that could dramatically improve its stock – or eliminate the ‘Canes from playoff contention.

Wisconsin’s best win is over 5-3 Northwestern, which is No. 30 in the Sagarin Ratings. Its best non-conference win is over Florida Atlantic, No. 71 in the Sagarin Ratings. There simply is no meat on the bone – but there also aren’t any losses on the ledger, so the pollsters have drastically overrated the Badgers. This is 2015 Iowa all over again, owning a bad division.

Next, the second pack of one-loss teams (7):

TCU has its big win in Stillwater, plus a close win over West Virginia, and not a lot else yet to its credit. The lone loss, by a touchdown at Iowa State, is not terrible. The Horned Frogs need to beat Texas on Saturday and then Oklahoma on Nov. 11, then we can talk.

Oklahoma State is another team that really hadn’t beaten anybody until winning at West Virginia on Saturday, and we’ll see if that victory holds up over the course of the entire season. The Cowboys’ lone loss is to a good TCU team, but it was at home and not very close. The next two weeks are huge for the Pokes, with Oklahoma visiting Stillwater on Saturday and then a visit to Iowa State on Nov. 11.

Forget having an unbeaten team; the Pac-12 is down to just a single one-loss team in Washington. And the Huskies have precious little on their 7-1 résumé. Washington hasn’t beaten anyone in the Sagarin top 40, and lost to an Arizona State team that is 4-4. Even by winning out, it’s hard to see where the quality wins could come from to boost Washington into playoff contention.

Virginia Tech should be rooting for West Virginia every week, hoping that its season-opening victory over the Mountaineers stays strong. A road win over rapidly improving Boston College isn’t bad, but the Hokies are hurt by the collapse of both Old Dominion and North Carolina this season. They’d likely need to win out, including winning a rematch with Clemson in the ACC title game, to have a playoff shot.

They are followed by the unloved unbeaten (8):

Central Florida is 7-0 and savaging everyone, leading the nation in scoring offense at 51 points per game. But there is nothing on the schedule that elevates the Knights into contention with the best of the Power Five. Much more realistic is a Group of Five bid to a New Years Six bowl game.

PLAYOFF PAST AS PROLOGUE

Odds are less than 50 percent that the final playoff field will be as it appears in the first rankings Tuesday. In the three previous years of the playoff, five of the 12 teams that ultimately made the bracket were there initially. Clemson and Alabama both were in the CFP rankings for the entire time in both 2015 and ’16. The only other playoff participant who was ranked from the beginning was Florida State in 2014.

The top-four team that ultimately fell farthest:

Texas A&M (9) in 2016. The Aggies were fourth in the initial rankings last year and wound up 8-4 and unranked by season’s end.

The playoff team that rose the most:

Ohio State (10) in 2014. The Buckeyes were 16th in the first rankings, rose to a controversial fourth at the end and then won the national championship.


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