If the season ended today, there would be two SEC teams, one ACC team and Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff. Of course if the season ended today there would be a serious investigation because most teams have only played about half of their conference schedules.
There is no sense in having a panic attack after the first CFP rankings because there is so much football left to play and so many critical games that will alter the landscape every weekend. But hey, forget sense, let’s panic anyway because the drive toward a national title really does start with the first CFP rankings, which were released Tuesday night. Amid all the noise and furor every week about the AP Poll, it has become irrelevant. For the fourth year, these CFP rankings are the ones that truly count and that’s why it is critical that the committee making those rankings does its job well.
So, who should be hopping mad about the first set of CFP rankings? Here are our five candidates:
Oklahoma (ranked No. 5)
The Sooners have every reason to wonder who they have to schedule to get noticed. Oklahoma earned one of the best victories by anybody this season — 31-16 over Ohio State in Columbus — and that win is better than Clemson’s best non-conference win, at home over Auburn by eight points. The Tigers also own a very nice win by 14 points at Virginia Tech, but Clemson has often not quite looked like a playoff team this year. Its loss at Syracuse is worse than Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State (wait, did I just type that out loud? Checking, checking … yep, Iowa State was the hottest team in the nation the past four weeks).
Both Oklahoma and Clemson have had to fight about equally in their conference games, but if nothing else Oklahoma’s offense is more likely to trouble defensive coordinators in a Playoff game than Clemson’s offense. Here’s the big point: Ohio State’s win last year in Norman was a major reason the Buckeyes made the Playoff in 2016. Shouldn’t the same logic apply for Oklahoma now?
TCU (ranked No. 8)
Yep, another Big 12 team with a beef. The Horned Frogs won pretty handily over an SEC team on the road. It’s not TCU’s fault that Arkansas fell asleep after that. TCU also owns road victories over No. 11 Oklahoma State and over Kansas State, the latter again with a dominant performance just like in the Arkansas game.
On Saturday the Horned Frogs ran into the hottest team in the country in October, Iowa State (did I just type that again? Is it still true? The Cyclones? Double checking … Yes. Wow). And TCU had several opportunities to win on the road before losing by seven. But mostly, TCU’s win at Oklahoma State is better than No. 7 Penn State’s best win, at home over Michigan. It’s hard to punish the Nittany Lions too much for that close loss at The Horseshoe, especially when PSU led for 58 minutes, but nonetheless TCU makes a pretty good case for being No. 7.
Virginia Tech (ranked No. 13)
The Hokies have two dog wins out of conference against Delaware and East Carolina, but they make up for it with a victory over a pretty decent West Virginia team that ranks eighth in the nation in total offense. And of course Virginia Tech’s only loss came against Clemson which, though I’d argue the Tigers should be No. 5, is still a very good team. Of course the nation will find out more about Virginia Tech when it travels to Miami to face the unbeaten and No. 10 Hurricanes this Saturday — don’t be surprised when Tech hands “The U” its first defeat and vaults up the rankings.
UCF (ranked No. 18)
Yes, it’s a Group of 5 team. Yes, its best game out of conference, against Georgia Tech, was canceled in the wake of Hurricane Irma. But the undefeated Knights have done everything one could ask of them. They played a Power 5 team on the road and ran roughshod. Maryland is not great, but it is a mid-pack Power 5 team, likely a bowl-bound one, and UCF went up there and routed the Terrapins 38-10. Margin of victory is not supposed to be a big factor anymore, but UCF has just rolled past opponents, leading the nation at 51 points per game. Its one close game was against a good Navy squad, and the Knights ended the Midshipmen’s 17-game regular-season home winning streak which dated to 2014. Like TCU, the Knights play just as well on the road as they do at home.
N.C. State (ranked No. 20)
Simply too low for a team whose only losses were to No. 3 Notre Dame and to South Carolina in a close one at a neutral site. (And as a side note, the Gamecocks have a legit gripe for being left out of the rankings altogether; at the very least I’d put my money on them over No. 25 Washington State or No. 24 Michigan State all day.)
The Wolfpack, as well as UCF, could both make an argument for being more worthy than No. 17 USC. The Trojans bring a name brand, but that loss to Wazzu did not impress and they looked way worse in losing to Notre Dame than N.C. State did. The Wolfpack trailed by seven at halftime in South Bend; USC was toast by halftime there.