Playoff rankings give Nick Saban early birthday present — Alabama in No. 2 spot


For all the hype surrounding the return of the College Football Playoff rankings, at least one person wasn’t thrilled about seeing how the top teams stack up at midseason.

That person would be Nick Saban.

“I can care less about the poll,” the Alabama coach said this week. “What significance does a poll have right now?”

Tell us how you really feel.

“These are the things we try to categorize as poison,” Saban added.

Maybe he foresaw Tuesday night’s surprise, the CFP selection committee issuing its first top 25 of the fall, placing Georgia in the No. 1 spot above a Crimson Tide team that has spent weeks atop the Associated Press poll.

The other eye-opener? Notre Dame vaulting over the likes of Ohio State and undefeated Wisconsin to land at No. 3 in the wake of recent victories over USC and North Carolina State.

Coach Brian Kelly suggested the ranking means something more to the Fighting Irish because, as an independent, they don’t get a late-season boost from a conference championship game.

“We have to be aware of our situation,” Kelly said on ESPN’s announcement show. “Our guys are aware of our situation but they have not listened to the noise.”

In case anyone has forgotten, the CFP works like this:

The 13 members of the selection committee — which includes athletic directors, former coaches and university administrators — begin gathering at midseason to study video and statistics.

It’s all about “data points,” as they like to say.

Strength of schedule matters. So do head-to-head outcomes and results against common opponents. Eventually, the conference championships will come into play.

But there isn’t a precise formula.

“Ranking football teams is an art, not a science,” the CFP states on its web site.

Committee members will issue their top 25 for the next five weeks, leading up to early December when they announce the four teams that will contend for the national championship.

Georgia and Alabama were no-brainers to start things off. Selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said the Bulldogs got the edge in part because of their one-point victory over Notre Dame.

After the top two, the picture got a little muddier.

“Really, the discussion for teams three through seven was as pbadionate as any discussion I can remember the committee having,” Hocutt said on the announcement show.

Clemson grabbed the fourth spot because it has played a strong schedule and suffered its only loss when quarterback Kelly Bryant was injured against Syracuse.

The committee put Oklahoma at No. 5, just ahead of Ohio State, settling one of the prickliest questions of the week.

The Sooners won by two touchdowns when the teams met in September, yet there was speculation Ohio State might rank higher after last weekend’s impressive victory over Penn State.

“If they think like that, they’ve got a broken system,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “We like the body of work that we’ve put out.”

Miami couldn’t quite make the same argument, its undefeated record marked by a series of narrow escapes. The Hurricanes paid the price, ranking 10th.

At least they have a chance to impress the committee with remaining games against Notre Dame and No. 13 Virginia Tech.

“It’s easy to get caught up in that and thinking about what we can do, how we should win,” offensive coordinator Thomas Brown told reporters. “A win is a win.”

Further down the list, two-loss USC landed at No. 17, two spots below this season’s Cinderella team, Iowa State.

The Pac-12 Conference also has Washington at No. 12 and three more teams on the extreme fringe of the playoff picture with No. 21 Stanford, No. 22 Arizona and No. 25 Washington State.

In fairness to coaches who downplay the rankings, the season’s initial list has not been a reliable indicator when it comes to predicting the actual playoffs.

Only one or two of the highest-rated teams have ultimately made it to the semifinals in the first three years of the CFP system.

If anything, Tuesday’s announcement might have served as an unexpected birthday present for Saban, who turned 66 on Tuesday.

The Alabama coach seems to loathe the role of the favorite. He would rather his team scratch and claw through the regular season as an underdog.

“You really don’t want your players to be focusing on or thinking about” the rankings, Saban said in response to a question about the CFP. “But I appreciate your asking so I could get this off my chest.”

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