As Halloween rapidly approaches, so do the first CFP committee rankings. Last year, in fact, the first rankings came out exactly on Halloween night. I remember that day very vividly for two reasons: first, I got a text from my mom saying that our family dog of 16 years, Daisy, had been put down (insert all the crying face emojis) and, second, in the midst of that mourning I became embroiled in the biggest Twitter feud of my career with a band of rabid Mississippi State fans over my tweeting that it was insane for them to be ranked ahead of undefeated UCF (it was insane by the way). All in all, that made for an emotional Halloween filled with tricks and treats of the delayed gratification variety (since I got the last laugh in that State vs. UCF debate). This week I will precede next week’s committee rankings by making an “opening argument” for each team featured in this week’s column.
Cotton Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Alabama vs. UCF
Alabama has the easiest argument of any team in the country right now even if “they ain’t played nobody.” They have taken a mother-loving napalm to their schedule so far, to the point that their starting quarterback hasn’t even taken a snap in the fourth quarter yet. The Tide’s closest game so far was a 22-point win over Texas A&M that was never in doubt. The only real adversity this team or fanbase has faced this season is over whether or not the administration would allow a certain song, that may or may not incite students under the influence of a certain substance to add lyrics that may or may not be offensive towards their biggest rivals, to be played over the loudspeakers.
The only two arguments against UCF being in the playoff currently are that “they don’t play nobody” and “they only beat Memphis by one point.” I’ll give you that Memphis isn’t as good this year as they were last year, but at the same time at some point UCF has to have proven everything they can before getting a shot right? Maybe that’s naivety on my part, but it just seems like if UCF runs the table again then it’s time to put them in the playoff. I’ll remind everyone that we are officially at the point where if they do run the table then they would be one of (at maximum) four undefeated teams, and could be the only undefeated team again. They won their New Year’s Six game last year, and it wasn’t a fluke. They were the best team on the field with a team who had previously beaten both Georgia and Alabama. It’s time that they get a shot if they can avoid a stumble for another few weeks.
Orange Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Notre Dame vs. Clemson
Without “incenting margin of victory”, as the committee claims not to do, Notre Dame actually might have the strongest résumé of any team in the country. The Fighting Irish currently boast wins over Michigan, Stanford, and a ranked-at-the-time Virginia Tech. Wins against Ball State and Pitt look like garden-variety, afterthought wins without the margin of victory, and they are, but in reality the fact that those two wins were by a combined 13 points (and these are not great teams) and you can see why there might be some reservations about ranking them #1. Then again, the committee doesn’t incent margin of victory, right? Right?
Clemson is still undefeated despite looking less-than-stellar in a few games earlier this season. However, the Tigers have been rolling ever since naming Trevor Lawrence as the full-time starter, with the exception of the Syracuse game, which he missed the majority of due to injury. Per the committee’s own criteria, they are allowed to consider major injuries that affect the team in their selection decisions. By extension, it seems reasonable that they would also factor in quarterback changes and player transfers in the middle of the season. The argument can be made that, since switching to Lawrence, Clemson has been the most complete team in the country. They have won their last two games by a combined score of 104-10 after all.
Rose Bowl- Michigan vs. Washington State
Michigan is starting to round into form as the team we expected Jim Harbaugh to be able to put together when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have a downright nasty defense, and Shea Patterson seems to be getting better and better in this offense. Then again, they still have games like Northwestern where they just look hapless for long stretches of time. Truth be told, there’s no reason Michigan shouldn’t have beaten this Michigan State team by more than two touchdowns last week. Their only blemish to date is a 7-point loss to Notre Dame in the season opener when Patterson was still getting up-to-speed in Harbaugh’s offense. That’s arguably the “best loss” of any of the one-loss teams to date.
The Cougars currently sit atop the Pac-12 standings in what has turned into a game of musical chairs at the top. Washington, Stanford, and Oregon have all taken turns in this spot, but none of them seem content to hold on to that position. Currently, it is Washington State’s turn after a big win over Oregon to leave them as the only one-loss team left in the conference. They would almost certainly need some outside help to sniff the playoff, but they would be able to boast wins over Utah, Stanford, Washington and Oregon if they managed to win out from here. There are at least a few other contenders out there whose best four wins won’t top the combined quality of those four wins. Plus, the more content that can be generated on YouTube under the search “Mike Leach Media Days” the better.
Sugar Bowl- LSU vs. Texas
LSU is clearly significantly improved from a season ago. They started the year off by throttling a Miami team that came into the season with high expectations. Since then, they’ve beaten Auburn, throttled Georgia and handled Mississippi State. Losing to Florida in The Swamp has been the lone blemish so far, and that was a close loss against a Florida team that is much-improved themselves. Here’s the thing though, none of those things matter anymore for the Tigers. The equation for LSU making the playoff is very simple at this point: Beat Alabama and don’t screw up and you’re a shoe-in, beat Alabama and screw up somewhere else and you’re probably out or lose to Alabama and you’re definitely out. We’ll find out where that algorithm starts in a week and a half.
A win over Oklahoma is a pretty big feather for any team’s cap. For Texas, it’s currently the only feather in the cap. The Longhorns have a pretty bad loss on their résumé already, and don’t have much in the way of impressive wins (other than Oklahoma) to offset that. They did handle USC, a team that it turns out isn’t particularly great, and TCU, again a team that it turns out we overrated. What is working in Texas’s favor right now is that they’ve already played and beaten the toughest team left on their schedule and currently sit in the driver’s seat in the Big XII.
Fiesta Bowl- Ohio State vs. Kentucky
It’s pretty tough to defend Ohio State after they got absolutely drummed by Purdue last weekend, but honestly it was hard to find a team to replace them here. The other candidates were USF (an undefeated team that doesn’t inspire much confidence they’ll remain that way for long), Georgia (might be more deserving but I didn’t want to be that guy who put 5 SEC teams in there and I doubt the committee would either), N.C. State (just got absolutely plastered by Clemson) and West Virginia (the Big XII doesn’t deserve three teams currently and the Mountaineers still have their toughest stretch of schedule and biggest opportunities for signature wins ahead). Oh yeah, I forgot Iowa. I guess I must have taken some of Urban Meyer’s medicine. Iowa’s loss is significantly “better” than Ohio State’s, but the Buckeyes wins over Penn State is better than any win Iowa has to date. When in a pinch, I default to “best win” over “best loss” any day of the week, kind of like how good parents go with positive reinforcement over negative reinforcement. Right mom? Right dad?
Kentucky’s only loss is an OT loss to Texas A&M. The Wildcats are probably getting overlooked currently because of a) the fact that they weren’t supposed to be good at football and b) Georgia and Florida, who also have only one loss in their division, are supposed to be good at football. Kentucky has already beaten Florida this year, ending a 31-year drought, and put a smackdown on the Mississippi State “Still Better than UCF” Bulldogs. The biggest concern that Kentucky fans should have going forward is how one-dimensional they are on offense. If the running game isn’t getting the job done, then the offense simply isn’t going to score.
Peach Bowl- Florida vs. Oklahoma
As I mentioned earlier, Florida does have a win over LSU to boast. They’ve also taken down Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Tennessee all on the road. Other than Mississippi State, none of those are particularly résumé enhancers, but the fact that those wins came on the road doesn’t hurt. The Gators have already shown tremendous improvement under Cousin Eddie…I mean Dan Mullen…other than the early slip-up against Kentucky. This weekend is their opportunity to really show off that Florida football is actually “back” with the annual showdown against Georgia at what used to be called, “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” That win would be enough to vault them firmly into the playoff discussion, but they would still need help to win the SEC East considering that Kentucky still holds the tiebreaker over them.
At worst, Oklahoma is still pretty good at football. Unfortunately, there have been a few times this season already where the product the Sooners have put on the field has been significantly closer to their worst than their best. Oklahoma’s defense completely broke against Texas, resulting in their first loss and the firing of their defensive coordinator. They got pushed to overtime against Army and had to grit out a road win against Iowa State. The argument for Oklahoma is that when they are clicking they can beat anybody in the country and do it in style too. The biggest obstacle for Oklahoma’s playoff candidacy currently, other than being blocked by undefeated teams, is that they don’t have many more opportunities to impress the committee. They play West Virginia in the season finale, and obviously could still land a bid in the Big XII title game, but until then they don’t have a single ranked team on the schedule and it may be hard to justify ranking them ahead of some of the other one-loss teams over the next month or so as those teams add “signature wins” to their résumé and Oklahoma stuffs theirs with wins over the two Kansas schools.