The initial College Football Playoff rankings of 2019 were released Tuesday evening with Alabama atop the polls. The Crimson Tide were followed in the top four by No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Ohio State. Texas A&M checked in fifth while Florida landed sixth.
The new rankings set the tone for what will be a wild final four weeks of the season. Keep in mind when teams are “comparable at the margins,” the CFB Playoff committee places an emphasis on strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and outcomes against quality opponents.
This is a rundown of what you need to know from the first CFB Playoff rankings of the year, plus a quick preview of the consequential games from the weekend ahead.
Cincinnati Has A Shot
This is by far the most notable occurrence of the evening. No Group of Five team had ever ranked higher than eighth in the CFB Playoff rankings at any point. But Cincinnati, sitting at 8-0, checked in at No. 7 in the initial rankings reveal. That’s a huge deal.
With that ranking, the Bearcats have a legitimate path to the CFB Playoff. That’s something no G-5 team has had in the playoff’s seven-year history.
There’s plenty of time to dissect Cincinnati’s path, but the Bearcats need a few things to happen: 1. Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State need to win out or Clemson needs to suffer a second loss. 2. Texas A&M needs to either lose or lose a few more games while Cincinnati is convincing the rest of the way. 3. The Bearcats need to hope a two-loss Oklahoma isn’t judged a better team by season’s end. It’s still unlikely that Cincinnati has everything break its way to reach the playoff. But the Bearcats have a shot. I can’t stress enough how much of a change that is compared to recent years.
As for BYU … the Cougars have almost no chance of reaching the playoff after debuting No. 14. It’s a shame to see the Cougars, who are winning by 31.4 points per game, ranked so low.
The Pac-12 Is In Trouble
You can’t quite eliminate the Pac-12 from playoff contention at this point. But an unbeaten Oregon landing at No. 15 and an unbeaten USC ranking 18th is not a good sign for the Pac-12’s chances. Sample size matters to the committee, you can see that with an 8-0 Cincinnati ranking ahead of a 5-0 Northwestern. But the committee clearly can make an exception for a program it thinks passes the eye test as Ohio State checks in at No. 4.
If Oregon and USC fit the mold of a legitimate contender, they’d rank higher whether or not they’ve played three games or six. The committee hasn’t been impressed by what either team has shown thus far, and the Pac-12 isn’t going to give either the Ducks or the Trojans many chances to change their mind.
As it stands now, the Trojans will play a maximum of seven games and the Ducks five – their game this weekend with Oregon State has been canceled. Given that there isn’t a single other Pac-12 team ranked in the Top 25, it’s going to be extremely difficult for either program to make up ground.
The First Rankings Matter A Lot
The first rankings have been a strong historical benchmark in figuring out who will eventually advance to the playoff half a decade into the CFB Playoff era. Twenty-two of the 24 teams to reach the playoff ranked within the top 7 when the initial rankings were released. So, congrats Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Florida and Cincinnati. You’ve got a great chance of reaching the playoff.
Only No. 16 Ohio State in 2014 and No. 15 Oklahoma in 2015 are exceptions to this rule.
The Buckeyes, which lost to an unranked Virginia Tech in Week 2, finished the season with a trio of Top 25 wins, including a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. The Sooners, following a loss to an unranked Texas in Week 5, finished the regular season with back-to-back-to-back top 18 wins, including road victories over No. 6 Baylor and No. 11 Oklahoma State.
Can a team from outside the top 10 make that sort of run this year? This year there are a number of candidates. A two-loss Oklahoma checked in really high at No. 11, and it’s not inconceivable with a little chaos to see the Sooners run the table and crash the party. The other two teams that can factor in come from the Pac-12 with Oregon and USC. But their path forward with a maximum of seven games is difficult.
Games That Affect Next Week’s Rankings
All times CT
No. 2 Notre Dame at No. 19 North Carolina: This is by far the toughest remaining hurdle for Notre Dame on the way to a potential undefeated regular season. The Tar Heel run game, which ranks 11th nationally in yards per play, is the best group the Irish have seen this year. Notre Dame will be without starting right guard Tommy Kraemer and center Jarrett Patterson this week, so it’ll be interesting to see what the offense looks like. (Friday | 2:30 p.m., ABC)
No. 4 Ohio State at Illinois: The Illini are riding high following a win over Nebraska, while the Buckeyes have to come into this game a bit pissed off following the way the end of last week’s matchup with Indiana went. Good luck to an Illinois defense that’s allowing opposing passers to complete 71.4 percent of their attempts for 8.6 yards per throw. Justin Fields is a different sort of test. (11 a.m., FS1)
No. 22 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama: At least the Iron Bowl stayed on Thanksgiving weekend! Gus Malzahn has won two of the last three in this series, but it’s difficult to see an Auburn team averaging jut 5.84 yards per play keeping up with an Alabama offense averaging 7.92. This rendition of this rivalry could get ugly. (2:30 p.m., CBS)
Pittsburgh at No. 3 Clemson: The Tigers get back on the field after a two-week layoff, and this game also signals the return of Trevor Lawrence. Pittsburgh is the best run defense the Tigers will have seen all season, so this will be a good measure of if the interior of Clemson’s o-line is playing any better. (2:30 p.m., ESPN)
No. 8 Northwestern at Michigan State: The Wildcats are in the playoff if they run the table. Welcome to 2020! Michigan State was riding high following an upset of Michigan on Halloween, but the Spartans have scored a total of seven points since. Things do not get any easier against a great Wildcat defense. (2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Colorado at No. 18 USC: This is the quietest possible meeting of unbeatens possible as the Trojans (3-0) and the Buffaloes (2-0) are set to clash. The Trojan defense, which ranks 71st nationally in yards allowed per play, will be tested as Colorado is averaging 41.5 points per game thus far. (2:30 p.m., ABC)
No. 7 Cincinnati at Temple: Yep, the Bearcats are fully in the mix. Don’t expect this to be close. The Owls have taken a major step back this year at 1-6, and they’ve lost their last five in a row by an average of 24.4 points per game. (3 p.m., ESPNU)
LSU at No. 5 Texas A&M: It’s no Texas vs. Texas A&M, but things have gotten ugly between these two of late, making this a fun rivalry game. LSU is near two-touchdown underdog, but this is still a really dangerous game for A&M as LSU can score with anyone. The Tigers defense, which ranks 124th in yards allowed per play, has to be better to have a shot. (6 p.m., ESPN)