As expected, the first set of College Football Playoff rankings provided more questions than answers. At this point of the regular season, there’s simply too small a sample size for the selection committee to do more than give an outline for how it views the Football Bowl Subdivision heading into November.
But we’ve got questions. While time and results will eventually settle the postseason picture — well, hopefully — here are the three biggest questions to come out of the debut rankings:
What about Miami and Wisconsin?
There are four remaining unbeaten teams in the Power Five. Two are from the SEC in Alabama and Georgia. The other pair are flying under the radar: Wisconsin was ranked ninth in the debut rankings and Miami was ranked 10th, behind six one-loss teams.The rationale for listing these undefeated contenders behind teams already holding a loss is simple. For one, the Badgers haven’t played anybody. And Miami, while clearly moving forward under Mark Richt, has too many close calls on its schedule to be lumped among the top five.
This wasn’t surprising. The better question asks: What do these two teams need to do to get into the top four? Miami’s road is clear — the Hurricanes need to win out, obviously, and get wins against Notre Dame and the winner of the ACC Atlantic Division, which might be Clemson. The Badgers also need to run the table, which would likely include a win against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But can Wisconsin do enough with its weak schedule to move ahead of a one-loss team with a stronger résumé?
Is the Pac-12 done for?
Compared to the Pac-12, the Big 12 is the SEC. Let me explain. The debut rankings showed the SEC’s easy path for getting a team into the national semifinals. It’s clear that the winner of the conference title game is making the top four, whether that’s Alabama, Georgia or an Auburn team that would have defeated Alabama once and the Bulldogs twice on the way to the postseason. So the SEC is in good shape.
And so is the Big 12, if only compared to the dilemma facing the Pac-12. The Big 12 has four teams in the debut Playoff rankings, three with just one loss: No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 8 TCU and No. 11 Oklahoma State. While it may need some help — such as a Notre Dame loss — the Big 12 should feel real optimism about putting a one-loss conference winner in the field.
The Pac-12 shouldn’t feel so comfortable. The league’s top team, No. 12 Washington, will have chances to improve its stock, notably against Stanford and Washington State in November. But the Huskies still need more than just a little help to make a return trip to the Playoff.
But to say the Pac-12 is done for is ridiculous. There’s a month left! Plenty can change in five weeks. In general, that the Pac-12 enters November with just one team with fewer than two defeats doesn’t bode well for the league’s chances when the selection committee reconvenes for one last meeting in early December.
Can anyone in the Group of Five catch the American?
At No. 18 in the rankings, UCF earned the top spot among Group of Five teams by being the only unbeaten among non-major conferences. The lofty ranking puts the Knights five spots ahead of their next-closest competitor, No. 23 Memphis. UCF will meet USF to end the regular season, and with a win would advance to meet the winner of the American West Division, likely the Tigers.
To partially answer the question: No single team is catching up with undefeated UCF. But one loss could provide a dramatic shake-up to the New Year’s Six bowl picture.
For starters, remember that the access-bowl bid given to best team from the Group of Five only considers conference champions. Think about this scenario: UCF runs the table through November, Memphis loses the West Division to SMU and the Knights lose the conference title game to the Mustangs. In that case, the Knights wouldn't even be an option for a New Year’s bowl.
As winners of the American, two-loss SMU would be a major candidate to earn the access-bowl invite. But a stumble from UCF or Memphis would open the door to the winner of the Mountain West, preferably Boise State or San Diego State, as well as Toledo, the top team in the MAC.