<
>

What you need to know one month from the first CFP rankings

play
Would another Alabama-Clemson title game be good for CFP? (0:45)

Paul Finebaum says fans want to see new blood in the College Football Playoff National Championship. (0:45)

We're so close ... and yet still so far away from the College Football Playoff selection committee's first rankings of the season on Oct. 31.

Four weeks from today, we'll find out their first top four. What should we be looking for from now until then? Let's break it down into fours:

Four burning questions until the first CFP rankings

1. Is Alabama or Clemson No. 1? It's a valid debate and should be a fascinating discussion among the 13 committee members. Will they be more impressed by Alabama's dominance, as it has outscored its opponents 231-43 and leads the FBS in total efficiency at 97.3? Or will they reward Clemson for beating three quality opponents, including two on the road in Louisville and Virginia Tech?

Alabama's opponents are all unranked and a combined 11-10, and the Tide have one road win. Clemson's opponents are 15-10. Why does it matter? Seeding. The committee will not put the No. 1 seed at a geographic disadvantage. Seeding could mean the difference between Alabama playing in New Orleans at the Allstate Sugar Bowl or in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual.

2. Can Mike Leach do it again? Once again, Leach has an outlier team capable of crashing the party. In 2008, Leach led Texas Tech to an 11-2 season and reached as high as No. 2 in the polls in November, the best in school history, and was named Big 12 Coach of the Year. He has similarly raised the profile of Washington State with his Air Raid offense. Now, with Friday's win over USC, Wazzu is 5-0 and in the CFP conversation. The question is if it can stay there.

3. Can the new contending coaches build on their September success? Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley and Georgia's Kirby Smart already have earned statement nonconference road wins against Ohio State and Notre Dame, respectively, but no coach wants his team to peak in September. October is about becoming entrenched in the CFP discussion, and both Riley and Smart have worked for predecessors who know how to stay relevant through November. Can they take that blueprint and do the same?

4. Is it too soon to start talking about Notre Dame? Brian Kelly entered this season on the hot seat, and the Irish haven't even qualified as an afterthought in the CFP race. Take a look at their October schedule, though: at North Carolina, vs. No. 14 USC and No. 24 NC State. FPI projects the Irish to be 7-1 heading into the first ranking, with wins over two teams possibly ranked by the committee and their lone loss coming to the SEC East favorites. If Notre Dame can run the table -- a big "if" with road trips to Miami and Stanford in November -- would the committee really leave out a one-loss Notre Dame? Especially if that loss is to the SEC East champs?

Four one-loss teams with no margin for error

1. Ohio State (4-1): The Buckeyes are favored by FPI to win each of their remaining games, but the Oct. 28 matchup against Penn State looms the largest. The Buckeyes lost this game last season and still finished in the top four, but that wouldn't happen this time because of their Week 2 loss to Oklahoma.

2. USC (4-1): The Trojans' toughest remaining game is Oct. 21 at Notre Dame. FPI gives USC just a 26.5 percent chance to win. If they don't, they're likely done.

3. Oklahoma State (4-1): The Cowboys can overcome their home loss to TCU, but not if they don't beat Texas on Oct. 21. Yes, Bedlam is the game that gets all of the attention, but Oklahoma State will enter the committee's first rankings having played back-to-back road games against Texas and West Virginia.

4. Auburn (4-1): If the Tigers win out, they're a lock for a top four spot, but they have to avoid a letdown in back-to-back road games at LSU and Arkansas heading into the first rankings.

Four players to watch until the first rankings

1. TCU QB Kenny Hill: He's completing 73 percent of his passes and is No. 6 in the nation in Total QBR. Few, if any, would have predicted that he would be orchestrating a potential top-four run for the undefeated Frogs.

2. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley: The Heisman front-runner has scored a touchdown running, passing, receiving and on special teams. Can he continue to dazzle against Michigan and Ohio State?

3. Georgia QB Jake Fromm: The freshman earned the spotlight at the expense of injured starter Jacob Eason and has helped catapult the Bulldogs into the playoff debate. Kirby Smart said he's keeping the competition between the two open, but would he really bench Fromm after UGA's 5-0 start?

4. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham: He has clearly gotten more comfortable and more efficient since the loss to Clemson and hasn't thrown an interception in two SEC games. He's also giving the Tigers' offense a vertical passing threat. He completed four of six passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield in a win over Mississippi State. If that trend continues, Auburn should be 3-0 this month, including two road wins against LSU and Arkansas.

Four games that will impact the first rankings

1. Oct. 21 Michigan at Penn State: This will be the Nittany Lions' first ranked opponent of the season and the best defense they will have faced. Michigan already has defeated Florida, but a road win over a top-five league opponent would catapult the Wolverines into serious CFP consideration and change the narrative in the Big Ten.

2. Oct. 21 USC at Notre Dame: This is the most difficult remaining game on USC's schedule and the only one the Trojans aren't projected to win, per FPI. One more loss, and USC is likely done in the CFP race, barring a complete collapse elsewhere.

3. Oct. 28 Florida vs. Georgia: If the best team in the East Division goes down in Jacksonville, Florida, so does the league's reputation. Florida has won the past three games in this series, and the Gators have won back-to-back division titles only to be outscored by Alabama 83-31 in the past two SEC championship games.

4. Oct. 28 Penn State at Ohio State: This game could determine the East Division winner and will tell us whether the Buckeyes can overcome their Week 2 loss to Oklahoma and if Penn State can survive its only road game against a ranked opponent -- one week after playing Michigan. This is the only game ESPN's FPI doesn't favor the Nittany Lions to win.