What to watch for in first College Football Playoff rankings

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- It never fails.

Somebody will be angry. Maybe two somebodies. TCU? Clemson? Everyone outside the SEC East and Big Ten East?

When 13 people are sequestered around a table for a day and a half to sort out what college football fans have been arguing over for weeks, there's bound to be some controversy, especially during a season in which there's not a clear-cut No. 1 team -- at least not yet. That's hardly the only question facing this committee as it convenes for the first time this season to release its first of six weekly rankings Tuesday night (7 ET, ESPN).

Ohio State, Georgia and Tennessee will jockey for No. 1 as committee members weigh what they see on film with résumés. They will have to decide whether they should rank a one-loss team (Alabama? Oregon?) ahead of an undefeated team (TCU? Clemson?).

Who are these people with all that power?

This year's committee comprises eight people who have collegiate playing experience, including some sitting athletic directors, two members of the College Football Hall of Fame (former Nebraska guard Will Shields and former coach Joe Taylor) and two former Division I head coaches (Taylor and Jim Grobe). There is one woman: former USA Today sportswriter Kelly Whiteside.

Selection committee members are rotated every three years, so what might have been important to last year's group could change this season with four new faces in the room. They are directed through written protocol to consider strength of schedule, head-to-head results and outcomes against common opponents. Conference championships are the final piece of the puzzle, but the committee ranks 25 teams each week based only on what they've done to date.

So which teams have done the most to impress the committee so far? Here's what to look for in the first ranking, what we could learn about the preferences of this group and how it likely will arrive at its final verdict.

Additionally, Adam Rittenberg looks at what will happen Tuesday night as opposed to what should happen, and Chris Low provides a history lesson on how the first CFP rankings each year have compared with the final rankings.

Seven key questions to watch for

1. What matters more, eye test or résumé? If schedule strength is the top priority, Tennessee could be No. 1 and just about everyone else will get dinged for it -- even Georgia. Aside from Oregon, Georgia's FBS opponents are a combined 22-26, with only South Carolina (5-3) above .500. (Counterpoint: But the Dawgs look so good!) Nobody has a better win than the Vols, who beat Alabama and are No. 1 in the country in ESPN's strength of record metric, which says the average top-25 team would have just an 8% chance of achieving the same 8-0 record against Tennessee's schedule. Undefeated Clemson also could be rewarded for playing a strong schedule so far, as the Tigers have three wins against potential CFP top-25 teams (NC State, Syracuse and Wake Forest). But those wins all were by narrow margins.

The selection committee typically loves convincing wins, and nobody in the country has beaten teams as soundly as the Buckeyes, who lead the FBS with a points-per-game differential of plus-32. Based on that, the Buckeyes could have a case for No. 1. Ohio State's best wins are against Notre Dame (5-3) and Penn State (6-2). Beyond that, Ohio State hasn't beaten a Power 5 opponent with a winning record, and the Buckeyes' other Big Ten opponents have a combined record of 15-17. Michigan's best wins are against Maryland and Penn State. The Wolverines don't have a Power 5 nonconference win, and the nonconference teams they beat -- Colorado State, Hawai'i and UConn -- are a combined 8-18.

2. How much respect does the committee have for the Big 12 and Pac-12? There are five Power 5 conferences, but the SEC and Big Ten could be the only two represented in the initial top four. That will eventually change because Georgia and Tennessee face each other Saturday, and Ohio State and Michigan play in the regular-season finale. Those results will open a door, but how far will the Big 12 and Pac-12 have to climb? Oregon has made a case to be the Pac-12's highest-ranked team, but UCLA and USC also have one loss. If any of these teams are lower than No. 16, they could be in trouble because no team has ever been ranked lower than No. 16 and made it to the playoff. TCU is the Big 12's lone undefeated team, but everyone else in the conference has at least two losses.

3. Will any one-loss teams be ranked ahead of undefeated teams? If undefeated Clemson and TCU are ranked behind one-loss Alabama and/or Oregon, they don't need to panic -- at least not yet. Winning a conference championship game can change a team's position dramatically. But that would be an indication that neither team has much, if any, margin for error. Being a one-loss conference champion might not be good enough for them this season. Clemson travels to Notre Dame on Saturday for what could be a tricky game, and still faces rival South Carolina. TCU has to go on the road to face Baylor and Texas. If they are behind a one-loss team from the start, the pressure to stay undefeated will rise.

4. Where are the contenders' opponents ranked? The selection committee wants to know how many wins a team has against top-25 opponents -- the committee's top 25. Forget the Associated Press Top 25, and what you think were wins against ranked opponents (sorry, TCU). Those determinations begin now. Is beating Maryland (6-2) a top-25 win for Michigan? Can three-loss Notre Dame sneak into the rankings and help Ohio State's case? Is three-loss Kentucky still a top-25 win for Tennessee? Is Georgia's win against Oregon its only victory over a ranked opponent? How impressive is Clemson's résumé after Wake Forest and Syracuse both lost Saturday? Does Alabama have any wins against ranked opponents? Its best wins are against Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi State, all of which have three losses. And if none of the Tide's opponents are ranked, scroll back up to No. 1 on this list and say a prayer.

5. Which two-loss teams still have a chance? Watch where LSU and Utah are ranked because both can finish as two-loss conference champions. Teams ranked outside the initial top 10 have reached the playoff only twice (2014 Ohio State, which was No. 16, and 2015 Oklahoma, which was No. 15) and no two-loss team has ever made the cut. But that doesn't mean it can't happen, especially if LSU defeats Alabama on Saturday and Georgia or Tennessee in the SEC championship game. (What loss to Florida State?!) Utah lost its season opener to Florida but has only one conference loss and can still win the Pac-12.

6. How important is defense? If the selection committee is wowed by big plays on offense, TCU, Tennessee and Ohio State will be held in high regard. If it is searching for teams playing at an elite level on both sides of the ball, the pool shrinks considerably. Georgia and Michigan are among the few teams playing championship-caliber defense. The Dawgs are No. 2 in the FBS, allowing only 10.5 points per game, and Michigan is right behind them, allowing 11.5. The Vols played their most complete game of the season Saturday, shutting down Kentucky, but it was the first time this season their defense was the story, and TCU's defense is tied for No. 73 in the country, allowing 27.3 points per game.

7. Which fan base will be angriest? Best guess, the Horned Frogs. TCU is in the midst of a special season under first-year coach Sonny Dykes, and the explosive offense is legitimate -- its 12 touchdowns of at least 50 yards lead the FBS. TCU has a habit of playing from behind, though, in large part because the defense continues to allow a lot of first-half points (more than 20 in each of the past three games). TCU is undefeated, but that might not be enough for it to land a top-four spot.

What the committee will -- and should -- do

The weekly CFP rankings are designed for debate and disagreement. They show where the selection committee, based on the criteria it uses, thinks teams belong. But we've all got our opinions about where teams belong in the rankings. Before every release, I'll examine where teams will be ranked and where they should be ranked. Think of this as an Oscars-style audit of the CFP's top 25.

What the CFP selection committee will do: Rank Clemson ahead of TCU

What the CFP selection committee should do: Rank TCU ahead of Clemson

Both Clemson and TCU are résumé teams more than world-beaters. Clemson has three six-point wins and one other by 10. TCU has five wins by 10 points or fewer. Clemson has three wins over teams ranked in the AP poll at the time of the game, while TCU has four.

The season point differentials are nearly identical: 138 for Clemson, 136 for TCU.

Don't be swayed by the brands and CFP history. These teams are incredibly close, but TCU's offense is the only consistently dominant unit on either squad. Clemson has had some fluctuation on both sides of the ball. At times, Clemson's defense looks like a group filled with future NFL players. But the Tigers had few answers for Wake Forest, and allowed 28 first downs and 460 yards to Florida State. Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei has improved from last season but boasts only one 300-yard passing performance and was benched in a come-from-behind win over Syracuse.

TCU has scored 38 points or more in every game and averaged 7.6 yards per play, nearly 2 yards better than Clemson (5.8). The Frogs have eclipsed 400 yards in every game and 450 in all but one. While Uiagalelei's starter status remains tenuous, TCU quarterback Max Duggan has gone from a second-stringer to begin the season to a Heisman Trophy contender, passing for 2,212 yards with 22 touchdowns and only two interceptions. TCU's defense has been far from dominant, but first-year coordinator Joe Gillespie has been excellent with in-game adjustments, and opponents average just 3.8 yards per rush.

Let's look at the résumés. Two of Clemson's best three wins came against teams that were exposed Saturday (Wake Forest against Louisville, Syracuse against Notre Dame). TCU's wins over the Oklahoma schools don't look as strong as they once did, although Oklahoma State's overall profile shouldn't be written off despite its no-show at Kansas State. Speaking of the Wildcats, TCU's win over them might be the single best victory between the teams.

Again, it's close. But if these teams are to be evaluated blindly, as they should be, TCU deserves the edge. -- Adam Rittenberg

What the first ranking really means

Over the first eight years of the four-team format, 19 of the 32 teams (59%) that were in the top four in the initial rankings ended up in the playoff. That leaves room for teams outside Tuesday's top four to land a spot in the semifinals on New Year's Eve.

The lowest-ranked teams in the initial rankings to make it to the final four are Ohio State in 2014, when the Buckeyes started at No. 16, and Oklahoma in 2015, when the Sooners started at No. 15. Those are the only teams that were outside the top 10 of the first CFP rankings to make that year's playoff.

On the other end of the scale, seven of the eight No. 1 teams in the first CFP rankings and 14 of the 16 teams initially ranked in the top two have reached the playoff. The exceptions are No. 1 Mississippi State in 2014 and No. 2 LSU in 2015.

Only once, in 2020, did all of the top four teams in the initial rankings make it to the playoff.

Here's a year-by-year look at the top four in the first rankings, where those teams landed in the final rankings and the key elements that shaped each year's race.


No. 1 in first ranking: Georgia (third in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Michigan State (10th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Oregon (14th in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 2 Michigan (seventh in first ranking), No. 4 Cincinnati (sixth)

Michigan State seemed to be in great shape after beating Michigan 37-33 on Oct. 30 to secure the No. 3 spot in the first rankings. But that didn't last. The Spartans lost 40-29 the next week at Purdue and were routed 56-7 by Ohio State two weeks after that. And the Wolverines picked up steam only after their close loss in East Lansing. They reeled off five straight victories, including a 42-27 win over Ohio State (their first in the series in 10 years), and earned their first playoff appearance. Meanwhile, Cincinnati went unbeaten during the regular season to become the first Group of 5 team to make the playoff and benefited from Oregon losing twice to Utah in the final three weeks.


No. 1 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Notre Dame (fourth in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Clemson (second in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Ohio State (third in final ranking)

The selection committee's top four remained intact in the final rankings, although Texas A&M lost just one game (to Alabama) playing an all-SEC schedule during the shortened COVID-19 season and thought it deserved the No. 4 spot over a Notre Dame team that lost by 24 points to Clemson in the ACC championship game.


No. 1 in first ranking: Ohio State (second in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: LSU (first in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Alabama (13th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Penn State (10th in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 3 Clemson (fifth in first ranking), No. 4 Oklahoma (ninth)

Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts helped Oklahoma rebound from a 48-41 loss at Kansas State on Oct. 26 to win its next five games, including a 30-23 overtime win against Baylor in the Big 12 championship game, to climb up to the No. 4 spot. Georgia had been No. 4 the previous four weeks but slipped to No. 5 in the final rankings after losing 37-10 to LSU in the SEC championship game.


No. 1 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Clemson (second in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: LSU (11th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Notre Dame (third in final ranking)

Other playoff team: No. 4 Oklahoma (seventh in first ranking)

Similar to the 2019 season, Hurts played a big role in how the final 2018 playoff rankings shook out, only this time he was playing for Alabama. Hurts came off the bench for an injured Tua Tagovailoa to pass for a touchdown and run for another in rallying Alabama past Georgia in the fourth quarter for a 35-28 win in the SEC championship game. That loss cost the Dawgs a spot in the playoff, as they fell from No. 4 to No. 5 in the final rankings. It also cleared the way for Oklahoma to move from No. 5 to No. 4 after beating Texas in the Big 12 championship game for its seventh straight win.


No. 1 in first ranking: Georgia (third in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Alabama (fourth in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Notre Dame (14th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Clemson (first in final ranking)

Other playoff team: No. 2 Oklahoma (fifth in first ranking)

The team that didn't make the playoff in 2017 that most shaped the field was Auburn. In a span of three weeks to end the regular season, Auburn beat No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama to move to No. 2 in the next-to-last rankings despite having two losses. But in a rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship game, Auburn lost 28-7 to the Dawgs, which paved the way for both Alabama and Georgia to move back into the top four and eventually play for the national championship. Alabama had been No. 5 and Georgia No. 6 the week before in the committee's rankings. If Auburn had won the SEC title game, the Tigers would have been the only two-loss team ever to make the playoff field.


No. 1 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Clemson (second in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Michigan (sixth in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Texas A&M (did not make final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 3 Ohio State (sixth in first ranking), No. 4 Washington (fifth)

Penn State fans still grimace over this one. The Nittany Lions finished one spot out of the playoff, No. 5 in the final rankings. That's despite beating Ohio State head-to-head and winning their last nine games, including a 38-31 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State was the Big Ten team that made the playoff, though, as the Buckeyes had just one loss compared to the Nittany Lions' two losses. Eventual national champion Clemson survived a 43-42 home loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 12 to finish No. 2 in the final rankings. Pitt was unranked at the time of the game but was No. 23 in the committee's final rankings.


No. 1 in first ranking: Clemson (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: LSU (20th in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Ohio State (seventh in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Alabama (second in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 3 Michigan State (seventh in first ranking), No. 4 Oklahoma (15th)

One of the biggest kicks during the College Football Playoff era was courtesy of Michael Geiger, whose 41-yard field goal as time expired lifted Michigan State to a 17-14 win over Ohio State, snapping the Buckeyes' 23-game winning streak. Ohio State was No. 3 entering the Nov. 21 game. The Spartans won their next two, including a 16-13 win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, to make the playoff. The Iowa-Michigan State game was essentially a play-in, as the Hawkeyes came in at No. 4 and the Spartans were No. 5 in the committee's rankings. Oklahoma made its big move up from No. 15 after beating No. 6 Baylor on the road Nov. 14, then hammering No. 6 Oklahoma State 58-23 two weeks later to win the Big 12 championship.


No. 1 in first ranking: Mississippi State (seventh in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Florida State (third in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Auburn (19th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Ole Miss (ninth in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 1 Alabama (sixth in first ranking), No. 2 Oregon (fifth), No. 4 Ohio State (16th)

Three SEC teams in the initial playoff rankings? The rest of the college football world was fuming, but none of the three ended up in the final four. Eventual national champion Ohio State was the comeback story that season. The Buckeyes lost in Week 2 at home by two touchdowns to a Virginia Tech team that lost six games. Ohio State also lost a pair of quarterbacks to injury, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, but clawed back to secure the No. 4 spot in the final rankings, moving up from No. 5 after a 59-0 drubbing on Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Nobody was more upset that season than TCU. At the time, the Big 12 didn't have a championship game and the Horned Frogs, who were No. 3 in the next-to-last rankings, closed the regular season by drubbing a 2-10 Iowa State team 55-3. That clinched the Frogs a share of the Big 12 championship, but it wasn't enough to impress the committee as TCU somehow fell to No. 6 in the final rankings. -- Chris Low