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The College Football Playoff Rankings Are Back to Keep Screwing Over UCF

Here’s what the selection committee’s top 10 should have been

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first two months of the college football season are in the books, and now it’s time for the good month: November. This is when rivalries are settled and the College Football Playoff takes shape. On Tuesday night, the playoff selection committee released its first set of rankings in 2018. Why does it do this? Five years into this system, there’s still no practical purpose for these rankings besides giving everybody something to talk about.

Well, we like talking about things! Here’s how I would rank the top 10 teams:

1. Alabama (8–0)

CFP Committee Ranking: 1

What can be said about Alabama football that wasn’t already said in the IPCC’s recent climate change report? There is still a chance that someone can stop this looming destructive force, but it seems like the proper time to act was many years ago, before things ever got to this point. Even as we heed the warnings, nobody seems equipped to take the drastic steps necessary to prevent our world’s bleak fate. Everyone has apparently decided to stand around, slack-jawed, and accept the rise of the Tide.

Alabama has been dominant before, which you probably know if you’ve heard of college football. But this version of the Crimson Tide is different, thanks to the transcendent play of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Bama is generally a boa constrictor that suffocates opponents with defense. With Tagovailoa it’s a cheetah, outsprinting opponents and tearing them to shreds.

Texas A&M v Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Bama has won championships with mediocre offenses. For example, take 2015: The Tide ranked 30th nationally in scoring (35.1 points per game) and 24th in offensive S&P+. This year Bama leads the nation in scoring (54.1 points per game, the only team above 50) and is second in offensive S&P+. Tagovailoa is averaging 13.6 yards per pass attempt, which is on pace to be the best ever, by a lot. He has thrown 25 touchdowns against zero interceptions; no other 2018 college quarterback has thrown more than six touchdown passes without an interception. Alabama is winning games by an average margin of 38.3 points, with only one contest, a 45–23 win over Texas A&M on September 22, being decided by fewer than 29 points. And A&M is ranked! Bama is handily beating good teams and vaporizing bad ones.

Tagovailoa hasn’t even thrown a pass in a fourth quarter yet. It’s halfway through the damn season and this team hasn’t been pushed enough to justify it playing its starting QB for more than 75 percent of a game. (To be fair, it’s nice to see onetime SEC Offensive Player of the Year Jalen Hurts getting snaps in those blowouts.) The story of college football in 2018 feels preordained, and the bad guys are going to win. The good news is that we’re going to get one of two fascinating outcomes:

  • Alabama somehow fails to win the national championship. This would represent a colossal failure and would likely require an epic upset on par with any in history. If the Tide fall, it would set off the biggest party the college football world has seen since Pitbull made those Dr Pepper commercials under that overpass. (I think those commercials aired during non-college-football broadcasts, too, but it’s telling that the YouTube rip is taken from ESPNU.)
  • Alabama wins with such ease that we can begin ranking the Tide among the sport’s all-time greatest teams. I don’t think this version of Bama is as good as the 2001 Miami Hurricanes; the Tide have already allowed 127 points, whereas The U allowed only 117 during that entire season. Still, 2018 Bama has a larger average margin of victory. (Miami won its average game by a measly 32.9 points.)

Of course, there’s the worst-case scenario: Alabama wins the national championship, but not convincingly enough to be historically significant or cool. In that case, we’ll do this all over again next year. Tagovailoa is only a sophomore.

2. Clemson (8–0)

CFP Committee Ranking: 2

Every few days I ask my editor whether I can write about Trevor Lawrence’s hair. “No,” he says. “We should be trying to hit on the really significant stories in the sport every week.”

A few days later, I see Lawrence’s hair falling out of his helmet and cascading down the back of his jersey. I ask again.

“Rodger, stop asking whether you can write about this college football player’s hair.”

“But it’s LUSTROUS.

“Honestly, it’s uncomfortable how often you think about this teenager’s hair.”

IT HAS FLOW.”

“Why are you so obsessed with this guy’s hair? It’s not like you’re bald. Look at how long your hair is! Wait, have you been putting off getting a haircut because you want to look more like this 19-year-old?”

I log off in a huff. He’ll never understand. Despite what Garnier Fructis ads have told me, my hair will never attain Lawrence’s level of shimmer and bounce.

Lawrence, for those who don’t know, is Clemson’s true freshman starting quarterback. The Tigers won the 2016 national title because of the quarterback play of college football demigod Deshaun Watson. They did not win the 2017 title, because when Watson left for the NFL, he was replaced by human being Kelly Bryant, who was good, but not 420-yards-and-three-touchdowns-against-Alabama good. In fact, we learned in last season’s College Football Playoff semifinal that Bryant was more of a 124-yards-and-two-interceptions-against-Alabama type of player.

Is Lawrence 420-yards-and-three-touchdowns-against-Alabama good? We don’t know yet, but he’s good enough that his emergence on campus prompted Bryant to transfer. If Bama-Clemson Part IV happens this winter, Lawrence could make all the difference. (Well, and Clemson’s defensive linemen, four of whom could play in the NFL tomorrow.)

3. UCF (7–0)

CFP Committee Ranking: 12

As UCF has extended its winning streak, dating back to 2017, to 20 games, it’s steadily climbed in college football’s two main polls. The 7–0 Knights are now ninth in both the AP and coaches’ polls after entering the season at no. 21 and no. 23, respectively. It’s easy to see how we got here. Voters felt compelled to include the Knights in their preseason ballots after the last UCF team went 13–0 and claimed a national championship. Those voters didn’t feel comfortable putting it above any power-conference squad worth a damn, though, so the low 20s sounded about right. And many voters fill out their ballots during the season by looking at their rankings from the prior last week and bumping down the teams that lose. UCF has not lost, so voters have gradually notched it up to the point where the program is now inside the top 10.

But the College Football Playoff rankings don’t work this way. The selection committee members haven’t been putting together weekly rankings all fall. They come together every October to begin assessing which teams have played the best thus far. This system was designed to do away with the BCS’s anchoring-and-adjustment fallacies and embrace an approach in which a collection of impartial observers could start fresh. And that has manifested itself in the selection committee freshly stating that it believes UCF is good, but not as good as any power-conference team worth a damn.

Remember, the playoff committee is run by the five power conferences and has a financial incentive to not include teams from outside those leagues. The committee wants to make it seem like any team can crack the playoff, but has shown time and again that it’s uninterested in living that reality. The way the committee has ranked the Knights in the past is a prime example. It should come as no surprise that UCF was included in the first 2018 installment of the committee’s rankings, but only at no. 12 — high enough to show that the members are paying attention, but low enough to signify that the Knights are not an actual candidate for the playoff. Since the committee hasn’t had to offer its evaluation of this season’s college football landscape until now, it can slot UCF this low without looking hypocritical.

I’m not putting UCF third to to prove any sort of point. I truly believe that the Knights are the third-best team in college football this season. I don’t know why this is such a radical idea: The program hasn’t lost since 2016, a stretch during which it has recorded three impressive wins over power-conference foes. (Two blowouts and a win over Auburn, which beat Alabama and Georgia last season.) The Knights’ starting QB, McKenzie Milton, has as much talent as anyone in Division I not named Tagovailoa. All good quarterbacks come from Hawaii.

One mild bummer is that UCF is probably a bit worse than it was last season: In 2017, the Knights were first in college football in scoring and seventh in S&P+; this year they’re fifth in scoring and 11th in S&P+. Their offense has lost the coaching of Scott Frost, and their defense is all out of Griffin brothers. Still, I think they’d beat almost anybody in the country.

4. Notre Dame (8–0)

Navy v Notre Dame
Ian Book
Kent Horner/Getty Images

CFP Committee Ranking: 4

It’s unpopular to have UCF ranked ahead of Notre Dame. While both teams are undefeated, most fans think that the Knights have gotten here by playing a flimsy schedule of nobodies and the Fighting Irish have gotten here by rolling through a virtuous schedule filled with mainstays of college football. We simply don’t know what would happen if Notre Dame played UCF’s schedule or vice versa, so it’s easy for the college football hive mind to presume that Notre Dame would easily breeze through UCF’s slate while UCF would crumble against Notre Dame’s.

But in this case the two teams share a mutual opponent: Pitt. Notre Dame struggled mightily against the Panthers on October 13, falling behind 14–6 before scoring two late touchdowns to win 19–14. UCF blew the living hell out of Pitt on September 29, carrying a 31–7 lead into halftime before completing a 45–14 rout. To summarize: We have one common data point with which to compare these teams; in that game, Notre Dame required a dramatic comeback to win by five while UCF coasted to a 31-point demolition.

Pitt, now 4–4, is not the only meh team that has given the Irish trouble this fall. Notre Dame also beat Ball State (now 3–6) by just eight points and Vanderbilt (now 4–5) by just five. Those games happened before the Irish decided to bench quarterback Brandon Wimbush in favor of Ian Book, a move that has massively boosted them. Still, I wonder if this undefeated Notre Dame team with a knack for playing close games against supposedly inferior competition is going to wind up like the last undefeated Notre Dame team with a knack for playing close games against supposedly inferior competition.

5. Michigan (7–1)

CFP Committee Ranking: 5

Before this season, I wrote about how Jim Harbaugh needed to start winning this year to prove he could actually accomplish meaningful things for Michigan instead of just acting weird and excelling at recruiting. After all, the ex-quarterback who made his name coaching quarterbacks finally had a Wolverines quarterback with star potential: Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson.

And lo and behold, the Milk Man has done it. Michigan’s 7–1 start hasn’t really been due to Patterson; the Wolverines boast the best defense in the country, which ranks no. 1 in S&P+, yards allowed per game (220), and yards allowed per play (3.71). Michigan has a close loss to Notre Dame on its résumé, but that doesn’t look so bad in retrospect.

6. Oklahoma (7–1)

CFP Committee Ranking: 7

The Sooners have the best offense in the country for the second straight season. Last year their Baker Mayfield–led unit ranked no. 1 in offensive S&P+ and yards per play (8.3); this year their Kyler Murray–led group also paces the nation in offensive S&P+ and yards per play (8.9).

And for the second straight season, Oklahoma’s defense hasn’t proved capable of consistently allowing fewer points than the very high number the offense scores. Last season the Sooners gave up 38 points in a loss to Iowa State and 54 in a Rose Bowl loss to Georgia; this year they gave up 48 points to Texas in an October 6 loss. For the second straight season, Oklahoma could fail to win a national title largely because it entered the fall with a defensive coordinator whose last name is Stoops.

Lincoln Riley is maybe the best young head coach at any level of football, but he didn’t have the pull to fire Stoops after last season, instead doing so after that last-minute loss to Texas. As a result, the Sooners have to run the table to secure their third playoff berth in four years.

7. LSU (7–1)

CFP Committee Ranking: 3

All I want in life is to hear Ed Orgeron being presented with the national championship trophy. I can hear it now: An overjoyed, impossibly raspy voice trying to express a lifetime’s worth of excitement in a few completely incoherent bursts of noise. This would be like Cookie Monster being presented with a 30-foot-tall trophy made of cookies. And yes, I believe that Coach O would eat the national championship trophy immediately after winning it.

LSU has the best chance of anyone of toppling Alabama before the end of the regular season. The Tigers’ chance will come in Baton Rouge on Saturday night. But despite being 7–1 and having one of the most intimidating home atmospheres in the country, LSU enters this matchup as a two-touchdown Vegas underdog. The Tigers are good, but probably not on the same level as Alabama. It’s possible that nobody is.

8. Georgia (7–1)

CFP Committee Ranking: 6

Georgia, this is all your fault. Why’d you have to take a 13–0 lead on Alabama entering halftime of January’s national championship game? Why’d you have to convince Bama to break the IN CASE OF EMERGENCY glass over Tagovailoa’s head? Couldn’t you have just lost normally, like everybody else? Had the Tide won last season’s title with Hurts at QB, Nick Saban would’ve had a hard time benching the junior this season. Then maybe Bama wouldn’t be burning our faces off this fall. It’s not like the Bulldogs were actually going to win that national title game. Their attempt at resistance was futile, and has since brought pain upon everybody else.

I don’t love Georgia’s chances of winning the SEC for the second season in a row. It surrendered 275 rushing yards to LSU in a 36–16 loss October 13.

9. Washington State (7–1)

CFP Committee Ranking: 8

Every year I place an unreasonable amount of faith in Washington State head coach Mike Leach. Leach — the Air Raid mastermind whose most concrete accomplishment as a head coach is … um … winning the Big 12 South in 2008? — has begun to churn out the sort of consistent near-success at Wazzu as he did during his tenure at Texas Tech from 2000 through 2009. Seemingly every season now, the Cougars lead the nation in passing offense, their defense does enough to be competitive, and Leach staves off his desire to do a deep dive on an obscure historical topic long enough to keep the Cougars in the thick of the Pac-12 race until November. (My guess for this year’s topic: the various gold rushes of the 1800s. I deeply suspect Leach has purchased an e-book on the lives of old-timey prospectors that he can’t wait to dig into.)

The Cougars are 17–6 in conference play since the beginning of the 2016 season and 6–0 against Oregon and Stanford, the teams you’d expect to be gatekeepers to the Pac-12 North. In each of the last two seasons, the Coogs have entered the Apple Cup against Washington with a chance to play in the Pac-12 championship game; in each of the last two seasons, Leach’s team has lost to the Huskies, by 27 and 28 points. (Since winning the 2012 Apple Cup, the Cougars are 0–5 against the Huskies and have been outscored 189–71. Dogs are better than cats.)

This year Wazzu is set up to finish the job. It’s beaten Oregon, holding the Ducks and potential no. 1 NFL draft pick Justin Herbert to 20 points, 16 below their season average. It’s taken down Stanford, keeping one-time Heisman Trophy favorite Bryce Love out of the end zone. Its quarterback, Gardner Minshew, leads the nation in passing yardage and mustache-growing, boasting some of the finest upper-lip decoration we’ve seen on a college quarterback since the Jeff George era.

Things feel different for the Cougars this season. The program even hosted ESPN’s College GameDay on October 20 after diligently flying a Wazzu flag in the background of the show every week for 15 years.

Will things actually be different? We’ve got about a month to find out. But if Leach answers a reporter’s question by comparing Minshew’s mustache to the facial hair sported by participants in the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush, it’s a bad sign.

10. Ohio State (7–1)

CFP Committee Ranking: 10

Ohio State lost by 29 points to Purdue on October 20. This loss did not eliminate the Buckeyes from the playoff picture: If they win out, including beating Michigan in the Game, they’ll probably be just fine. But why should we expect a team that lost by 29 points to Purdue to be capable of maintaining such a high level of play down the stretch?

These rankings are just my opinions, and let me tell you: In my opinion, losing by 29 points to Purdue really hurts a team.