Defying The Associated Press’s poll and much recent history, the initial College Football Playoff rankings placed the undefeated Georgia Bulldogs (8-0) in the top spot, one above the undefeated Southeastern Conference colossus Alabama (8-0).
Rounding out the top six of the rankings, released Tuesday evening, were Notre Dame (7-1), the defending national champion Clemson (7-1), Oklahoma (7-1) and Ohio State (7-1).
The committee will announce weekly rankings until the final set is released Dec. 3, after all the conferences play their championship games. At that point, the top four teams will be matched in the two national semifinal games — the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl — to be played on New Year’s Day.
The winners will meet in the national championship game on Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
Under Coach Nick Saban, Alabama is in the middle of what is perhaps the greatest run in college football history. It has won four of the past eight national championships (and came within 4 points of a fifth title last season), and it has won its last three games against Georgia, including a meeting in the 2012 SEC title game. It is also the current A.P. No. 1.
But the current athletic directors, former coaches and others on the playoff selection committee judged Georgia to be the superior team at this point in the season, at a time when the Bulldogs have played two ranked teams — including at Notre Dame — while the Crimson Tide have faced none.
“What gave Georgia a very slight edge over Alabama this week in the eyes of the selection committee were really the two top-25 wins that Georgia has, over Mississippi State but specifically over No. 3 Notre Dame,” the committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, who is also Texas Tech’s athletic director, said on a call with reporters.
Alabama hosts No. 19 Louisiana State (6-2) on Saturday night. Georgia’s next game is at home against South Carolina (6-2) on Saturday.
Notre Dame is coming off a 4-8 season that made many suspect Coach Brian Kelly was not long for South Bend. But the Irish have fought back, and they have the genuine honor of the season’s best loss: a 20-19 defeat at home to Georgia in the second weekend of the season. Still on the docket are No. 10 Miami (7-0) and No. 21 Stanford (6-2).
As an independent program in football, Notre Dame’s lack of a conference championship game could prove an obstacle to its playoff hopes, as other contenders will most likely have a 13th game to make a final statement to the committee.
Clemson lost the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist — and current Houston Texans quarterback — Deshaun Watson, but it still has managed wins over two ranked opponents, No. 13 Virginia Tech (7-1) and No. 14 Auburn (6-2).
Oklahoma edged Ohio State for the fifth spot by virtue of its early season win over the Buckeyes. But with the Heisman contender J.T. Barrett at quarterback, Ohio State in turn has recovered to win six straight games, and last Saturday the Buckeyes rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat No. 7 Penn State (7-1) in Columbus.
“Oklahoma’s victory over Ohio State and Ohio State’s win over Penn State were important to us,” Hocutt said, pointing to the head-to-head metric that is among several the committee is directed to consider.
Last season, Penn State beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten title, however, its record hurt by early-season losses, it watched helplessly as the Buckeyes sailed into the playoff anyway. It probably will take another Ohio State loss for Penn State to return the favor this season; the best candidate is the Buckeyes’ traditional regular-season closer at Michigan (6-2).
Oklahoma has its own Heisman contender — and a two-time Heisman finalist — in quarterback Baker Mayfield, and it sustained its only loss against frisky Iowa State (6-2), ranked 15th. The Sooners’ biggest remaining tests come Saturday at No. 11 Oklahoma State (7-1) and the following week against No. 8 Texas Christian (7-1).
With Oklahoma (Big 12), Ohio State (Big Ten) and No. 12 Washington (Pacific-12) outside the top four, were the playoff held today it would exclude three of the so-called Power 5 conferences.
The Huskies (7-1), who made last year’s playoff, still have two ranked opponents, Stanford and No. 25 Washington State (7-2), on their schedule, as well as a potential matchup against No. 17 Southern California (7-2) in the conference title game.
The three other undefeated playoff-eligible teams are No. 9 Wisconsin (8-0), Miami and No. 18 Central Florida (7-0). The former two have played softer schedules — although the Badgers are easily the team that the committee considered most differently than A.P. voters, who on Sunday ranked them 4th.
If either of the first two wins out, it will play tough competition in a major-conference championship game, where a win may badure a playoff slot. Central Florida, of the American Athletic Conference, has a narrower path to the bracket.
There is still time for seeming long shots to make it into the playoff, though. At this point in 2015, the eventual semifinalist Oklahoma was No. 15, while in the committee’s first rankings in 2014, Ohio State was 16th — and went on to win the title.