Nick Saban told reporters this week that he couldn’t care less about the first College Football Playoff selection committee rankings. But nobody will blame him if he gives a sideways glance at the top four.
For motivational purposes, of course.
Georgia took the No. 1 spot in the rankings released Tuesday night, ahead of SEC stalwart Alabama. The Bulldogs have the better overall résumé and the better win — over No. 3 Notre Dame. As such, the rankings are justifiable based on the criteria the committee uses to evaluate teams.
But Saban loves to find ways to get his players’ attention. Remember what happened to Vanderbilt when the Commodores thought they might have a chance earlier this season? Alabama won 59-0.
How about Ole Miss, the team that had given the Tide problems the past several seasons? Alabama won 66-3.
If positive press is rat poison, then perhaps this No. 2 ranking could be a slight that Saban uses to his advantage.
As for the rest of the top four, the committee opted for Notre Dame at No. 3 and Clemson at No. 4, ahead of one-loss Oklahoma and one-loss Ohio State.
Notre Dame has posted two impressive back-to-back wins over ranked teams USC and NC State. The Irish’s body of work helps, too. They are seventh in strength of schedule, and their only loss came by one point to undefeated Georgia.
Clemson, with six wins over Power 5 teams that are .500 or better, has the advantage in overall body of work, despite the loss to Syracuse (4-4). The Tigers are the top-ranked one-loss team in the ESPN strength of record metric, and they have played the third-toughest schedule among FBS teams so far this season, with wins over two Top 25 teams (Virginia Tech, Auburn).
Overall, the case for the top four is easy to make. But Ohio State and Oklahoma have arguments of their own, and they could use this first ranking for motivation.
Let’s start with the No. 6 Buckeyes. Ohio State had the most impressive win of the weekend with a come-from-behind victory over then-No. 2 Penn State 39-38. Behind Georgia’s win over Notre Dame, that victory over the Nittany Lions stands as the best one among the top 10 teams. If Ohio State runs the table, it has a valid argument to be in the top four.
But so would Oklahoma, the team in the No. 5 spot, thanks to a head-to-head win over Ohio State in Week 2. After losing to Iowa State earlier in the season, the Sooners appeared to be on the outside looking in. But their win doesn’t look so bad now that the Cyclones have emerged as one of the biggest surprises this college football season. Oklahoma just needs a team ranked ahead to lose and to run the table, and voila! Perhaps another playoff appearance. After all, only seven of the eventual 12 playoff teams of the past three seasons were ranked in the first top four.
What about the other unbeaten teams? There’s plenty of motivation there, too. No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Miami have won all their games. In college football worlds of the past, that used to count for more. But given the evaluation of overall schedule and strength of wins, both teams will have a hard time convincing many that their overall bodies of work are as impressive as those of some of the one-loss teams ranked ahead of them
Still, there are opportunities. What if Wisconsin ends up as an undefeated Big Ten champion despite a weaker résumé? Miami hasn’t beaten a top-25 team, either, but could add two to its résumé the next two weekends, with home games against No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 3 Notre Dame. Say the Hurricanes beat Clemson in the ACC championship game for three top-25 wins and an undefeated season? It would be tough for the committee to leave Miami out.
Having said that, it’s easy to get overexcited about the first ranking, and it’s important to keep perspective. This is the fourth straight season that featured two SEC teams in the first ranking. But we have yet to see multiple teams from one conference represented in the final ranking.
Even so, this first one gives a snapshot of what the committee could face in the weeks to come. What if Alabama and Georgia go undefeated and meet in the SEC championship game? What if Notre Dame ends up with one loss? Would the committee put two teams from one conference, plus an independent, in and leave three Power 5 conferences out?
This is what makes debate so fun. In the grand scheme, these first rankings won’t amount to much. It’s the final rankings that matter most.
On the other hand, Saban has exactly what he needs to give his team yet another edge.