The first College Football Playoff Rankings of 2019 were just released. This is an annual event that gets way more attention than it probably deserves.
For one thing, most teams have a third of their regular season schedule still to play, and then a conference championship game after that.
Also, the committee has never seemed particularly beholden to precedent, prior statements, or anything else.
These rankings release shows are like the non-canonical episodes of a TV show. Think of them as Treehouse of Horror: College Football Edition. Sure, Kang and Kodos replaced Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in the 1996 election, but the next week, things were back to normal and no one referenced it again.
This time next week, anything that was said on this week’s show that was inconvenient will be spun, dismissed, or simply forgotten in favor of whatever is new.
However, there are a few things from this week’s rankings show that are at least worth keeping an eye on.
Are The Schedule Strength References In Line With Reality?
There is a long and storied tradition of crediting SEC teams with playing absolutely grueling schedules. Sometimes this is true. Often, it’s somewhere between a stretch based on reputation and an outright fabrication.
But that assumption gives certain schools a lot of extra credit that they haven’t necessarily earned. It can boost them higher than they deserve to be early in the season, and then keep them artificially higher later in the year because their losses to those other artificially-high teams are “quality losses.”
What to watch this year
Here are the current strength of schedule rankings for the top 10 teams and other unbeatens in the CFP rankings by Sagarin
Ohio State: 20
Penn State: 39
As soon as OSU was announced as the #1 team in the initial rankings, ESPN’s Rece Davis immediately interjected, “I don’t know if they have a marquee win. Their best win would be against Cincinnati.”
The Buckeyes have a 31-point win over the #13 team in the rankings (Wisconsin) and a 42-point win over the #20 team (Cincinnati).
LSU has a 14-point win over #10 (Florida) and by 3 over #11 (Auburn), which led Joey Galloway to say LSU must be thinking, “what more can we do?”
And ESPN’s Andrea Adelson got extremely #MADONLINE that Penn State got what she viewed as a free pass compared to Clemson.
Check those schedule strength numbers above, and then consider that PSU won by 7 while Clemson faced a potentially game-winning two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. Oh, and also has a win over No. 14 Michigan.
Penn State plays a close game against Pitt and it's fine, yet Clemson plays a close game against UNC and WELL THAT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE AT ALL YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO STRUGGLE AGAINST THE ACC*
*Unless you play in the Big Ten and have a marquee win against … checks notes … Iowa.
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) November 6, 2019
How Are Teams’ Best Opponents Being Positioned?
“They have the best win of anyone in the top-10” is a strong argument for including someone in the final CFP field.
While the rankings below No. 4 in the final poll don’t really matter from a practical standpoint, they can be manipulated to make a case for a team.
For example, in 2018, Alabama was the top unbeaten team in the poll. No SEC team finished with exactly one loss, but two-loss Georgia was not only the top two-loss team in the poll, they actually finished ahead of one-loss conference champion Ohio State. Florida and Auburn were the top 9-3 teams in the polls.
What to watch this year
Where are teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota, who are likely to face an unbeaten Big Ten East champion in Indianapolis, being ranked as compared to similar SEC schools?
SP+ has Georgia 6th, Wisconsin, 8th, Minnesota 10th, Auburn 12th, and Florida 13th.
Georgia is 6th in the CFP as well. Florida is 10th and Auburn is 11th. All are at or above their SP+ levels. Wisconsin is 13th and Minnesota is 17th, both well below those SP+ marks.
After the rankings were released, CFP chairman Rob Mullens cited Georgia’s two wins over top-15 teams in placing them at No. 6. But one of those is against Notre Dame, which was ranked #15 despite having no wins over top-25 teams and just suffering a massive blowout at Michigan.
The Wolverines, with the same number of losses, are ranked exactly one spot higher than a team they just beat by four touchdowns.
That brings us to…
How Are Teams’ Marginal Opponents Being Positioned?
This became a big story in 2017 when Alabama’s resume badly needed some polish. As a reminder, the Tide lost their regular season finale 26-14, didn’t even make the SEC Championship Game, and had not beaten anyone in the Playoff Committee’s top-15 in the final rankings.
They had only two wins over top-25 teams, and that was only because the committee kept 8-4 Mississippi State in the final rankings after a game where they got shellacked by a 6-6 Ole Miss team.
The final score was 31-28, but it was really nowhere near that close. The Rebels led 24-6 with 10 minutes left to play and 31-13 with 5 minutes remaining in the game.
By dropping the Bulldogs only to 23rd, they handed Alabama a second “top-25” win and helped make their case to include the Tide in the field.
What to watch this year
It’s too early to get too far into the CFP Kremlinology just yet, but it’s worth keeping an eye on where schools like Texas A&M are in comparison to Indiana.
The Aggies and Hoosiers are #20 and #21 in SP+, and should theoretically be close in the CFP rankings, too. If one ends up in the top-25 while the other doesn’t, that could be a narrative-shaping in progress.
At this point, neither is in the top-25.
Cincinnati, whose only loss is to the No. 1 team in the nation according to this same group, is only at No. 20 in the CFP rankings right now. If the Bearcats keep winning and can move up to the top-10 or even top-15, that could be a big resume boost for the Buckeyes. If UC hits a “glass ceiling” that may be the committee’s way of legitimizing jumping someone over the Buckeyes later.
How Are Injury Excuses Being Handled?
It’s part of the committee’s criteria that it can take into account any significant injuries a team may have suffered.
That 2017 Mississippi State loss wasn’t punished as harshly as it should have been because Bulldogs QB Nick Fitzgerald was injured during the game.
What to watch this year
How will a hypothetical Alabama loss to LSU be treated as compared to Oregon’s loss to Auburn?
This week, the health of Crimson Tide QB Tua Tagovailoa is a huge story. If Bama loses, will the result be hand-waved as meaningless due to the injury?
And how will Oregon’s loss to Auburn be treated? Ducks WR Juwon Johnson missed the first month of the season with an injury. Since he returned, he has turned into one of their most explosive playmakers. Johnson had 7 catches for 106 yards and 3 touchdowns at USC last week.
Would he have made a difference in a game the Ducks just barely lost in the final seconds against Auburn? Probably. But the real question is whether the CFP Committee will consider that, or whether that will begin and end with Tua?
Minnesota may get dinged for playing a series of opponents who were fielding their backup quarterbacks due to injury. But Georgia’s best win so far, against Florida, also came against a backup. Which will be used to rationalize the rankings and which won’t?
These questions are largely unanswered thusfar, but are worth keeping an eye on in the future.
[Header photo courtesy: Alabama Football]