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Ranking the Top College Football Teams Before the Playoff Committee Reveals Its List

On Tuesday night, the selection committee will share its first set of rankings with the public. To preempt any debate, let’s break down what the order of the top eight teams in the country should be.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday night, the College Football Playoff selection committee will tell us who it thinks the top 25 teams in the country are. This may seem like a rather unnecessary task, since only four teams make the College Football Playoff. No team ranked lower than 16th in the committee’s rankings has ever gone on to make the field, and that happened with Ohio State in 2014, the first year of the FBS’s new postseason system. Over the past two seasons, no eventual playoff participant has ranked lower than seventh in these rankings at any point in the year.

Why rank 25 teams? It’s just the number that college football has always used, even though I’ve never decided whether being the 25th-best team in a 130-team landscape is impressive or unimpressive. Besides, it’s nice to include a few teams from outside the power conferences, so the playoff can pretend they’re included.

But we are not beholden to that number. With the committee set to reveal its initial 2019 rankings, I’d like to offer up my top eight teams in college football this season. Apologies to Oregon, Baylor, Minnesota, and Auburn.

1. Ohio State (8-0)

Ranking college football teams through the first two months of a given season can be tough. It involves watching a few great teams obliterate a lot of good, mediocre, and bad ones, and then determining which of those obliterations were the most impressive.

When the best unit on a championship contender is its offense, this can be fun. Sometimes it involves quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts running circles around overmatched competition; sometimes it involves Tagovailoa and Hurts throwing passes to receivers like Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb as they run away from overmatched competition. When the best unit on a championship contender is its defense, though, this process can be horrifying: After all, have you seen Ohio State defensive end Chase Young? When the most dominant college defender since Ndamukong Suh is hurtling toward a two-star quarterback with a future in accounting, it’s reasonable to fear that a leg might get ripped off.

Here’s a clip of Young from Ohio State’s 76-5 (yes, 76-5) win over Miami (Ohio) on September 21. Miami’s starting QB, Brett Gabbert—Blaine’s brother!—got injured, and Young notched a pair of strip sacks against RedHawks backup Jackson Williamson. Both times, Williamson coughed up the ball instantly, as if he calculated all the ways he could have survived this scenario and 87 percent of them involved him dropping the ball ASAP.

But Ohio State hasn’t just pummeled cupcakes, and Young seems unfazed regardless of who he’s going against. The Buckeyes shut out Cincinnati 42-0 on September 7; while the victory didn’t seem particularly impressive at the time, it’s Cincinnati’s only loss to date, as the Bearcats are now 7-1 and no. 17 in the AP poll. The Buckeyes whipped then–no. 13 Wisconsin 38-7 on October 26. The Badgers sent double and triple teams at Young, but he still registered a career-high four sacks, including a forced fumble.

The Buckeyes have allowed only 63 points on the season, by far the lowest total in the FBS. A third of those came when they allowed 21 garbage-time points to Florida Atlantic in a season-opening 45-21 rout. Ohio State ranks no. 1 in ESPN’s SP+ and FPI algorithms by significant margins.

Young would be a Heisman Trophy front-runner if voters ever truly considered defensive players for the award. He has 13.5 sacks with four regular-season games to play; he could potentially get to 20, a mark no defender has hit since Louisville’s Elvis Dumervil in 2005. Ohio State’s offense isn’t bad either, thanks to transfer quarterback Justin Fields. Fields was considered the same caliber of prospect as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence throughout the 2018 recruiting cycle; while Lawrence garnered widespread acclaim for winning the national championship as a true freshman, Fields has thus far had a more impressive sophomore showing.

If you want to watch Young dominate cupcakes, you’ll have a few more chances. The Big Ten, for some reason, has teams called “Maryland” and “Rutgers,” and the Buckeyes will be favored by six or seven touchdowns in both games. (This is not an exaggeration.) But it’s the matchups with Penn State and Michigan that will reveal how legendary Young is—and determine whether Ohio State will get back to the playoff for the first time since 2016.

2. LSU (8-0)

For years, LSU’s brand of football was swamp violence. Under former head coach Les Miles, the Tigers were nasty bog monsters whose defense was so ferocious that they could win 11 games per season despite hardly moving the ball on offense. That identity seemed likely to stick when Miles was replaced by Ed Orgeron, a Cajun demigod who, according to local legend, was born when a young boy’s football rolled into a bayou and was eaten by an alligator that developed human legs and a thick accent.

However, in 2019 the Tigers have discovered offense, and it’s glorious. The key has been Joe Burrow, a quarterback transfer from Ohio State. (Fields, who transferred to the Buckeyes from Georgia, probably wouldn’t be where he is if Burrow hadn’t transferred first. The college football quarterback butterfly effect is real.) And Burrow is on pace to absolutely demolish the single-season NCAA completion percentage record, as he’s hitting 78.8 percent of his passes. Normally, when a quarterback has record-setting completion percentage, it’s an indicator of a conservative style of play—take Sam Bradford setting the NFL record (71.6 percent) while finishing 19th in yards per attempt (7.0) in 2016. But that’s not the case with Burrow, who’s already thrown 30 touchdown passes to break LSU’s single-season record.

He’s making difficult passes and maintaining hyperaccuracy. I keep thinking it’s going to fall apart, and yet it keeps working. Burrow went 31-of-39 for 471 yards with four touchdowns in a 45-38 win at Texas on September 7; 21-of-24 for 293 yards with three scores in a 42-28 victory over Florida on October 12. In his worst game of the year, Burrow put up a 32-of-42, 321-yard, two-touchdown (one passing, one rushing) stat line, in a 23-20 win over Auburn two weeks ago.

The Tigers have had more close calls than most of the other teams in this ranking, but they’ve also already beaten three top-10 opponents. And it just so happens that they have another one to play this weekend.

3. Alabama (8-0)

Ranking LSU and Alabama before Saturday’s massive matchup between the two is a fool’s errand. Yet it’s all we can do to pass the time before the big event. After that game in Bryant-Denny Stadium, we’ll know definitively which of these SEC powerhouses is superior.

Right now, I have LSU ranked higher because of the level of competition it’s faced and the uncertainty surrounding the health of Alabama quarterback Tagovailoa. For my money, Tagovailoa is the best player in college football—he’s my Heisman pick, the guy I’d take as the top overall selection in the 2020 NFL draft, and my personal hero. Tagovailoa was his typical incredible self through the first six-plus games of this season—throwing 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions—but then he went down with a high-ankle sprain during a 35-13 win over Tennessee on October 19. Tua didn’t win the Heisman last year after an injury to his other ankle forced him to leave the 2018 SEC championship game against Georgia. He won’t win the Heisman this year if this ankle injury keeps him out for an extended period of time or hampers him in a loss to LSU.

Backup Mac Jones—who?—filled in admirably for Tagovailoa with an 18-of-22, 235-yard, three-touchdown effort in a 48-7 demolition of Arkansas on October 26. But who among us hasn’t thrown for three touchdowns against Arkansas?

Thus far, the Tide have, um, rolled—their closest game was a 19-point win over Texas A&M on October 12. But they haven’t played any games against teams ranked in the latest AP poll. So I’m slotting Ohio State and its routs of good teams and LSU and its close calls against good teams ahead of Alabama and its blowouts of bad teams. These are the type of ranking decisions that have to be made in early November.

Still, this is college football, the sport in which we annually find reasons to trash Alabama for months before it plays in the national title game. Even if LSU beats Bama on Saturday, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Tide won’t be left standing at season’s end. It’s happened before, and that was back when there were only two teams in the FBS championship bracket.

4. Penn State (8-0)

Three teams in college football allow an average of fewer than 11 points per game. One is Penn State, at 9.6. The Nittany Lions have already beaten one of the other teams in that group, Iowa, in a 17-12 brawl straight out of the Big Ten owner’s manual. But they’ve still got one more matchup against a defensive juggernaut to go—on November 23, they’ll visit Ohio State in the game that will decide who wins the Big Ten’s perennially stacked division.

In some years, Michigan is Ohio State’s primary challenger in the Big Ten East. That was the case last season, when the Wolverines went 10-3 and made a trip to the Peach Bowl. In other years, Penn State is the Buckeyes’ biggest threat. Take when Saquon Barkely powered the Nittany Lions to 11-win seasons in 2016 and 2017. This year, it’s Penn State, which beat Michigan 28-21—it led 28-0 at one point—on October 19.

The Nittany Lions don’t have Barkley anymore and must rely on defense rather than the superhuman acts of football genius. Barkley hurdled people; Penn State’s freakiest athlete in 2019, wide receiver K.J. Hamler, can only attempt to hurdle people.

The 8-0 start is impressive, but Penn State will be playoff-bound only if it can go into the Horseshoe and come away with a win. The Nittany Lions also have a game against surprise unbeaten Minnesota this week; the Golden Gophers, like their mascot, seem very cute.

5. Clemson (9-0)

Everything has seemed slightly off for the defending national champions this season. That starts with the play of Lawrence, the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder with the shampoo-commercial-quality hair. He threw four interceptions on 397 passing attempts as a true freshman, but already has eight picks on 225 passes as a sophomore.

It continues with the defensive line, which lost three first-round draft picks in April, more than most programs produce in a decade. Defense hasn’t yet been a problem for these Tigers—they haven’t allowed more than 20 points in a game—but they also haven’t played any especially worthy competition.

Clemson has by far the easiest schedule of any national title contender. The ACC Atlantic Division should be challenging for Clemson because of the presence of Florida State, but, uh, Florida State hasn’t been doing so hot. The Tigers’ best conference opponent is Wake Forest, ranked 46th in SP+. And still it’s been a struggle. Clemson would have lost to North Carolina, a 4-5 team currently being rebuilt as a retirement hobby by 68-year-old Mack Brown, if the Tar Heels had converted a last-second two-point conversion attempt during their matchup on September 28.

It’s fair to question where Clemson would be ranked based off this season’s results alone, if we hadn’t just seen it demolish Alabama during January’s national championship game. I think the Tigers would be below 8-0 Baylor, but above 8-0 Minnesota. That said, Clemson did demolish Bama in last year’s national championship game. We know what it’s capable of.

Given that its schedule feels like an awkward tour of forgotten football stadiums next to famous basketball arenas, Clemson will probably return to the playoff. The Tigers’ 2019 outings have yet to justify that, but Lawrence and Co. should be regarded as title contenders so long as they can avoid an upset loss between now and December.

6. Oklahoma (7-1)

Oklahoma is allotted one regular-season loss per year. Two years ago, it was a 38-31 loss to Iowa State. But 12-1 Oklahoma still made the playoff, where it fell to Georgia in a 54-48 double-overtime Rose Bowl classic. Last year, it was a 48-45 Red River Rivalry loss to Texas. But the Sooners still reached the playoff, where Kyler Murray threw for 300 yards and ran for 100 more in a 45-34 defeat against Alabama. This year, the Sooners lost a 48-41 game at Kansas State in which Wildcats quarterback Skylar Thompson rushed for four touchdowns. To make the playoff, they’ll have to run the table, and yet it again seems plausible: With Jalen Hurts at QB, Oklahoma’s offense is better than it was with Murray, which was even better than it was with Baker Mayfield.

For 18 years, Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick held the single-season FBS record for yards per pass attempt (11.3). In 2017, Mayfield, who transferred to Oklahoma from Texas Tech, broke it by averaging 11.5. In 2018, Murray, who transferred to Oklahoma from Texas A&M, snapped that by averaging 11.6. Hurts, who transferred to Oklahoma from Alabama in January, is currently averaging 13.7 yards per attempt. He is not merely on pace to break Murray’s record—he is living on his own highly efficient planet.

Hurts would love to accomplish the things he never got to at Alabama because of the rise of Tagovailoa: win the Heisman Trophy or a national championship as a starter and set himself up to go in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft. He just has to hope that Oklahoma’s defense can hold up its end of the bargain.

Hypothetically, the Sooners are better equipped on that side of the ball now that they’ve ousted longtime coordinator Mark Stoops and brought in Alex Grinch as his successor. The improvement under Grinch is noticeable; the defense is ranked 30th in SP+ this fall after finishing 84th last year. Then again, Oklahoma did allow 48 points and four quarterback rushing scores to Kansas State, so maybe the defense is just as busted as ever.

7. Utah (8-1)

The Pac-12 championship game might actually have playoff implications this year! Utah and Oregon both sit at 8-1, and they combine to face two teams with .500 or better records for the rest of the regular season. If things continue on the path they’re headed, the winner of that Utah-Oregon clash should have a legitimate shot at the playoff. West Coast football is back! (Well, at least until the playoff committee decides to put both LSU and Alabama into the field, anyway.)

I think the better of these Pac-12 teams is Utah. The Utes’ loss is worse—they fell to USC 30-23 on September 20, while the Ducks lost to Auburn 27-21 in their season opener—but Utah has otherwise looked more potent this fall. Oregon needed a last-second field goal to beat Washington State on October 26 and trailed for most of the fourth quarter against Washington on October 19. Utah, meanwhile, steamrollered Washington State 38-13 on September 28 and held a two-score lead on Washington late in the fourth quarter last weekend.

Utah pretty much stays the same. A lifetime ago, Urban Meyer left Utah for Florida, retired, came back to coach at Ohio State, retired again, got a job as a TV analyst, and is now the subject of rumors that he could unretire for a second time. Since then, Utah has had just one head coach: Kyle Whittingham, who was Meyer’s defensive coordinator. Utah has been remarkably consistent under Whittingham, winning between seven and 10 games in 11 of 14 seasons. The Utes just keep pumping out top-25 defenses and averaging 200 yards per game on the ground.

I am blown away by the Utes’ profound unsexiness. They don’t have a hot, up-and-coming coach; they don’t have a newfangled schematic offense; and they don’t have elite NFL draft prospects. (Although some of their defensive players, like cornerback Jaylon Johnson, could be second-rounders.) They are just doing the same thing they’ve always done, except a little bit better than ever before. That could be enough to propel Utah into the playoff.

8. Georgia (7-1)

The end of Georgia’s 20-17 loss to South Carolina on October 12 was an hour-long advertisement for college football, the sport where marvelously dumb stuff happens. A summary:

  • Georgia, a 21-point Vegas favorite, scored a touchdown to tie the game at 17 with 1:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.
  • South Carolina, whose kicker has never hit a 50-yarder in his career, decided to settle for a 57-yard attempt with 40 seconds left in regulation. It went as well as if you or I tried a 57-yard field goal.
  • Georgia, whose kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, has hit many 50-yarders in his career, decided to attempt a last-second Hail Mary instead of a would-be game-winning 56-yarder. This, of course, failed.
  • Georgia threw an interception on the first possession of overtime. It was quarterback Jake Fromm’s third on the day and gave South Carolina the opportunity to win the game with a made field goal.
  • South Carolina attempted a 33-yard field goal. It missed.
  • South Carolina concluded its second possession of overtime by making a 24-yard field goal. This gave Georgia the opportunity to win the game with a touchdown or tie it with a field goal.
  • Georgia missed a 42-yard field goal, the only kick Blankenship has botched from under 50 yards all season.

This was a masterpiece of college football failure. It was not, however, a ringing advertisement for Georgia. In 2017 and 2018, the Bulldogs were right there, beating every unranked opponent they faced while Fromm developed into one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation. They almost took down Alabama! Twice!

But Fromm has regressed in 2019. After losing three wide receivers to the NFL, including speedster Mecole Hardman, he seems less interested in throwing deep and is on pace for career lows in yards, yards per attempt, and touchdowns. The Bulldogs may have made the wrong QB choice in prioritizing Fromm over Fields, who has posted incredible numbers since transferring to Ohio State.