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College Football Playoff Rankings Preview: Three Questions About the First Top Four – Sports Illustrated

Halloween is a special day for college football fans this year. It’s the first day of the 2017 season that we get to freak out over the College Football Playoff rankings. We’ll freak out even though we know the rankings will most likely be drastically different by the time the playoff field is set in December. We’ll freak out because [INSERT MY TEAM] is too low. And we’ll freak out because [INSERT MY RIVAL] is too high.

Projecting what the selection committee’s entire Top 25 will look like would be too much fruitless guesswork. Let’s stick with fewer teams here. Based on how the previous three seasons of CFP rankings have gone and what we’ve seen on the field thus far, here’s our best guess for the top six:

1. Georgia

2. Alabama

3. Notre Dame

4. Ohio State

5. Oklahoma

6. Clemson

In order to explain our reasoning for the speculation above and to prepare you for an evening of yelling at your TV about stuff that doesn’t really matter that much—Mississippi State was No. 1 in the first-ever CFP rankings in 2014, remember—we’ve broken down three major themes to keep an eye on when the rankings are released Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Georgia or Alabama at No. 1?

Bama was the preseason No. 1 in every poll. Bama is still No. 1 in every poll. Bama is the college football Death Star. Bama is the corporate behemoth out to destroy your college football ma-and-pa shops. But Bama may well be No. 2 this week.

Georgia has two wins against current AP Top 25 teams, Notre Dame and Mississippi State. Meanwhile, Alabama has zero wins in this category, with its top résumé-building victory coming against a so-so Texas A&M squad that has fallen out of the rankings after suffering its third loss of the season.

Alabama can still beef up its résumé with remaining games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. And of course, barring weirdness of epic proportions, these two teams will meet in the SEC title game with at least one playoff spot on the line, if not merely the pecking order for two spots.

How will the committee separate the one-loss teams?

Here’s where things get interesting. Keep in mind, the committee likes its rankings to reflect what we know right now, so there are plenty of opportunities for all of these teams to move up or down the rankings as the season progresses. (One-loss Group of Five schools are not making the playoff, so save your breath, Memphis, USF and Toledo fans.)

Translation: the field of one-loss teams is simply too muddy at the moment.

Right off the bat it’s easy to see the committee’s Ohio State–Oklahoma problem. Baker Mayfield & Co. landed in Columbus and whooped the Buckeyes in Week 2, then turned around and lost to Iowa State a few weeks later. (Related: With upsets over Oklahoma and TCU, the Cyclones appear to be on a mission to keep the Big 12 from the playoff.) Then Ohio State beat highly-ranked Penn State this past week in what was arguably the best game of the year so far. From there it’s easy to get into a circular argument over who has a worse loss or whose big win means more. You can say Oklahoma beat Ohio State head-to-head and call it a day, but the committee likely won’t.

Among the one-loss group only Notre Dame and Clemson have two wins over current AP Top 25 teams, which likely means they’ll be ahead of a team like Penn State. However, arguing Saquon Barkley isn’t rumbling toward the Heisman trophy on a top five team is not a hill I would like to die on.

As of now, the likes of Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and Washington appear to be on the low end of the totem pole.

How will the committee treat the Power 5 undefeateds outside the SEC?

Miami and Wisconsin get their own subsection—behold the magic of playing a really easy schedule in the season’s first two months. To be fair, Miami expected its September win over Florida State to actually mean something, and Wisconsin figured BYU would make for a decent out-of-conference foe, not the disaster the Cougars have become. Either way, the Hurricanes are 7–0 and the Badgers sit at 8–0, with the schedule’s biggest tests looming in November. Are they top 10 teams? Probably. Should they be taken seriously as a top-four threat? Not yet.

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