We’re through nine weeks of the 2017 college football season, so that means it’s time for the College Football Playoff … rankings!
To be honest, there’s no real need for the College Football Playoff selection committee to release its ranking of the top 25 teams in college football on a weekly basis, because the playoff has only four spots. And there’s definitely no need for the committee to start releasing that list now, with more than two months remaining in the regular season. In 2014, the first committee rankings of the season featured Mississippi State, Auburn, and Ole Miss in the top four, while eventual national champion Ohio State was ranked 16th. In 2015, Oklahoma was ranked 15th in the committee’s initial rankings of the season, but went on to make the playoff anyway.
This isn’t about logic, though. The committee’s first rankings release is about letting every team know where it stands, and more importantly, giving the rest of us something to argue about. The way that teams are ranked is part science, part style, and part dartboard hurling.
The committee actually went and ranked Georgia first and Alabama second. There was an argument for it, but c’mon: Alabama. The AP and Coaches’ polls both ranked Ohio State and Wisconsin third and fourth, respectively. The selection committee ranked them sixth and ninth. This is amazing argument fodder.
Here’s how the committee ranked the top 25 teams in football, plus how I’d rank the top 10, and what makes each squad special and not so special. Whose version of reality is dumber — mine or the one belonging to the people in charge of determining the playoff field? Let’s get to it.
1. Georgia (8–0)
AP poll ranking: 2
My ranking: 2
Strengths: Head coach Kirby Smart appears to be from the Jimbo Fisher line of NIck Saban disciples rather than the Will Muschamp–Jim McElwain line. The Bulldogs took down Notre Dame on the road—a win the committee clearly thinks is the most impressive of the year—and they allow just 5.2 yards per passing attempt, tied for the best mark in the nation. True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm looks exceptional after emerging from a Jake battle with sophomore Jacob Eason to claim the starting job. Running back Nick Chubb is unstoppable, and by Georgia law, the Dawgs also feature an unstoppable backup, Sony Michel. Chubb and Michel have combined to rush for 1,394 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Weaknesses: Georgia beat Notre Dame by only one point. And look at how much red was in the South Bend stands that evening. We have to call that a neutral-site victory for Georgia instead of a road win. Outside of that, the Bulldogs are suffering from a minor case of Ain’t Played Nobody.
2. Alabama (8–0)
AP poll ranking: 1
My ranking: 1
Strengths: Alabama is still Alabama. The Crimson Tide are undefeated, with an average margin of victory of 34.7 points, and they’ve been especially dominant in SEC play: Bama has hit 40 points five times in six conference games, while allowing only 38 combined points. Quarterback Jalen Hurts (1,223 passing yards, 572 rushing yards, 15 total touchdowns, and just one interception) looks much better as a sophomore than he did as a freshman, and he won SEC Player of the Year honors as a freshman. Most important, assistant coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian are no longer on staff, and Deshaun Watson is no longer eligible to play college football.
Weaknesses: None, besides Nick Saban’s fondness for Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies.
3. Notre Dame (7–1)
AP poll ranking: 5
My ranking: 4
Strengths: The Fighting Irish are not going 4–8 this year. They have three wins over teams that are currently ranked in the AP poll: Michigan State, USC, and NC State. Josh Adams (1,169 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) is the best running back with no real shot of winning the Heisman Trophy, and he forms half of a strong option tandem with quarterback Brandon Wimbush. The defense has allowed just one rushing score all fall.
Weaknesses: Notre Dame’s one-point loss to Georgia indicates that the team may still suffer from a curse that prevents it from winning any close games. It isn’t particularly clear whether Wimbush knows where to throw the football, as he’s completing just 51.8 percent of his passes. The Irish went 4–8 last year, which is completely irrelevant to this season’s playoff race, but I like mentioning it.
4. Clemson (7–1)
AP poll ranking: 6
My ranking: 6
Strengths: The Tigers won the national championship last year, which probably counts for something, even though it technically shouldn’t. They played three top-15 opponents in September and blew all three to smithereens. Clemson also has a preposterously talented defensive line capable of grinding any passer into dust. Its only loss came in a game during which quarterback Kelly Bryant got injured and missed the entire second half.
Weaknesses: That loss also came against Syracuse, by far the worst loss of any championship contender. And the Tigers haven’t been particularly great on offense even when Bryant has been healthy: They’re averaging 32.3 points per game, 41st in the nation; they rank 37th in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P+; and they’re 119th in IsoPPP, a stat that measures explosive plays. One of the Tigers’ early top-15 wins came against Louisville, which does not look impressive anymore.
5. Oklahoma (7–1)
AP poll ranking: 8
My ranking: 8
Strengths: The Sooners have the best offense in college football. Mayfield is the star, as the redshirt senior is perhaps the best and certainly the most charismatic quarterback in the country. The Sooners don’t only rank first in passing S&P+, though; they also rank first in rushing S&P+, thanks to a trio of running backs (Trey Sermon, Abdul Adams, and Rodney Anderson) that almost always picks up swaths of yardage when called upon. The highlight of Oklahoma’s résumé is its 31-16 win at Ohio State, a result the committee values greatly given that the Sooners are slotted above the Buckeyes, while the AP poll has Ohio State several spots higher. The lowlight is Oklahoma’s 38-31 home loss to Iowa State in which the Cyclones trotted out a third-string walk-on quarterback. But … apparently Iowa State is awesome?
Weaknesses: Former head coach Bob Stoops is gone, but unfortunately his brother Mike remains the team’s defensive coordinator. The Sooners might rank first in yards per passing attempt (11.5), yet they’re also tied for 102nd in yards per passing attempt allowed (7.9.) The Sooners have 22 passes defensed (tied for 126th in the nation) and have allowed 28 completed passes of 20 yards or more (tied for 87th). It’s really bad if a defense is more likely to allow a 20-plus-yard completion than it is to deflect a pass. The Sooners aren’t abysmal by every defensive metric — congrats on being tied for 58th in sacks! — but even in the areas where Oklahoma is not completely embarrassing on defense, it ranks far below where a true national title contender should.
6. Ohio State (7–1)
AP poll ranking: 3
My ranking: 3
Strengths: Ohio State just beat Penn State 39–38 in the game of the season thus far. Fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett has bounced back in a big way after getting off to a rocky start, throwing 22 touchdown passes since his last pick. Most crucially from a rankings standpoint, the Buckeyes had a really good nationally televised thing happen to them much more recently than any bad things have happened to them.
Weaknesses: The Buckeyes got legit whupped by Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma at home in Week 2. They gave up 31 points to the Sooners, and 38 to Penn State in last Saturday’s win, so defense can be an issue when the opposing offense is dynamic. The Buckeyes might allow a touchdown on any given kick return. Also, they’re terrible at defending opponents from planting flags at midfield.
7. Penn State (7–1)
AP poll ranking: 7
My ranking: 5
Strengths: The Nittany Lions have Saquon Freakin’ Barkley. With Trace McSorley at quarterback and Mike Gesicki at tight end, they can boast a highlight-reel offense even when Barkley is bottled up. Penn State’s only loss has come on the road at Ohio State, one of the best teams in the country. The Lions led 21–3 in that game, and ultimately fell by one point.
Weaknesses: The defeat against Ohio State means that Penn State lost to the only currently ranked team that it’s played. Yet while the Nittany Lions are otherwise undefeated, they topped Iowa only after McSorley threw a touchdown pass on the final play of the game. The Nittany Lions rack up a lot of big plays, but they often struggle to move the ball efficiently behind a shaky offensive line — Barkley was stopped for a loss nine times on 21 carries against Ohio State, and nine times on 16 carries against Northwestern.
8. TCU (7–1)
AP poll ranking: 10
My ranking: 10
Strengths: Look, a Big 12 team that can play defense! The Horned Frogs boast one of the top run defenses in college football, limiting opponents to an average of just 2.32 yards per carry. (Alabama, by comparison, is at 2.31 in that stat.) Redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Hill is having the best year of his career, and TCU forced four turnovers in a 44–31 statement victory at Oklahoma State in Week 4.
Weaknesses: The Horned Frogs also took a loss against the mighty Iowa State Cyclones. (Seriously, Iowa State would be in the top 10 of the rankings if it hadn’t looked like Iowa State typically does until the start of October.) TCU’s offense is middling — while Hill is having the best year of his career, he hasn’t been as good as he was in that one 2014 month when he became a national phenomenon at Texas A&M. The Frogs tallied just seven points in Saturday’s loss to the Cyclones, with Hill throwing two interceptions.
9. Wisconsin (8–0)
AP poll ranking: 4
My ranking: 7
Strengths: Wisconsin is undefeated, with seven of its eight wins coming by multiple possessions. The offense features an unspectacular but highly successful passing game that perfectly complements an unspectacular but highly successful running game. The defense is allowing an average of just 2.91 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, the second-best mark in college football. The Badgers are beefy.
Weaknesses: Wisconsin’s strongest opponent to date has been either Northwestern or Florida Atlantic. The Badgers have won every game by a lot, but given that they’ve faced no significant opposition, it’s hard to gauge whether they merit true playoff consideration at this point.
10. Miami (7–0)
AP poll ranking: 9
My ranking: 11
Strengths: Miami hasn’t lost yet! And it has a cool turnover chain.
Weaknesses: The Hurricanes have barely won four games in a row, knocking off Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina, respectively, by a combined 18 points. It seems like a matter of time until Miami loses. When it does, it won’t have much of a résumé otherwise.