5 things to look for in inaugural College Football Playoff rankings, including where Clemson fits in

Pete Thamel

The first College Football Playoff rankings come out on Tuesday. It marks the official kickoff of postseason blathering season, transitioning over from postseason speculation season. In the grand tradition of embracing debate, days of arguing over the placement of teams will commence with little regard to how meaningless the arguments will be once another set of games are played.

In honor of this ritualistic homage to television ratings and network partnership, we preview the rankings with five things to look for.

1) Remember the Pac-12? It’s easy to forget, as the conference has missed the College Football Playoff the past two years. In the five years of the College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 has been included just twice and reached the title game only once. (Washington lost in the semis following the 2016 season and Oregon got blown out by Ohio State in the inaugural title game following 2014.)

Oregon squandering a 21-6 second-half lead to Auburn back on Aug. 31 portended another season on the CFP sidelines. But the No. 7 Ducks (8-1) have surged since and could meet No. 8 Utah in the Pac-12 title game. The issue? Neither has beaten a team that’s currently ranked. So where they start will be a litmus test on how the committee views quality wins.

2) Clemson’s initial ranking will be the most closely followed because of their similarly light résumé. The Tigers (9-0) have also beaten no teams currently ranked. They will likely have just one remaining game against a ranked team, as they host Wake Forest on Nov. 16.

The Tigers have smoked the competition in going 9-0 with wins by an average of more than 30 points per game. It’s impossible to imagine undefeated Clemson getting left out, but it will be interesting to see if the committee makes them sweat for a few weeks. Will Clemson’s close victory at UNC hurt them?

Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney walks off the field after the game with the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium. (USA Today)
Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney walks off the field after the game with the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium. (USA Today)

3) Selfishly for the optics of everything, we all want Alabama vs. LSU to be a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup this weekend. Spoiler alert: It won’t be in the eyes of the CFP committee. Expect Alabama’s weak schedule – anyone see a theme here? – to keep them out of the top two. But there’s a good chance the winner of the game will be No. 1 next week.

The most interesting part for Alabama’s first ranking will be where they are initially ranked when looked at through the prism of a potential loss. The Tide would have just one more chance at a ranked win if they lose to LSU. That comes by closing the season at No. 12 Auburn, which could have three losses when Alabama comes to town. Is one quality win enough for a team with Alabama’s pedigree to get in?

This week, expect LSU to be in the mix versus Ohio State for the top spot. It won’t mean much in a few weeks, but LSU starting No. 1 could help it stick in the top four if it loses to Alabama. LSU would have the best résumé of any one-loss non-league champion. And, likely, more quality wins than any one-loss league champion.

4) Where will Penn State end up? The No. 5 Nittany Lions have a legitimate argument to be ahead of No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Clemson. They have strong wins at Iowa and at home against Michigan. They also have a decent non-league win against Pitt (decent meaning a pinch better than Alabama’s win over Duke, but not much).

Don’t be surprised to see Penn State in the top four if the committee truly judges teams based on what they’ve accomplished. PSU has a thick enough résumé to deserve starting there. Where the committee has Minnesota will be of dual interest. For the Gophers, there’s intrigue in their shot at catapulting into the top four. For Penn State fans, it’s what type of quality road win the Nittany Lions could get when the undefeated teams square off this weekend.

5) Oklahoma’s shocking loss to Kansas State means the Sooners will be scrambling to catch up. They still have an excellent shot to win the Big 12, and their trip to Baylor on Nov. 16 suddenly looms as a marquee game.

The Sooners (7-1) are lacking in the quality win department, as they also have not beaten a team that’s currently ranked. Where they’re ranked will be interesting in terms of a starting point for a potential push to the top four.

Where Baylor is ranked will be another scheduling test, as the Bears have won at now-No. 20 Kansas State. They also had one of the country’s worst non-conference schedules – Stephen F. Austin, Rice and UTSA. How will the committee treat a program that schedules for a bowl instead of the CFP rankings? Baylor may be the most difficult team to predict on the board.

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