Predicting what the first Playoff rankings of 2020 will look like tonight
For the first time in my 6 seasons doing this job, I avoided the polls.
I didn’t want to get caught up in weekly rankings for the simple fact that it’s 2020. Utah just played its season-opener and BYU is 9-0. It’s impossible to actually base this thing on uniform logic and reason.
Some might argue that Ohio State might be worthy of a Playoff spot if it only plays 8 games. Others might say that the Buckeyes, if they go undefeated, should be a no-doubter based on what we thought of them in the preseason.
With wild schedules that didn’t feature massive nonconference matchups, we’re going to get chaos during the first Playoff Rankings Show, which is Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. It’s inevitable that heads will be scratched, arguments will be made and conclusions will be drawn.
Predicting chaos isn’t so easy. But I figured I’d take a stab at it.
Here’s what I think the first CFP Top 10 will look like (remember that’s different than what I think it should look like):
You can go a lot of different ways with this spot. Oregon? Indiana? Coastal Carolina?! I suppose. But for the most part, my guess is that the selection committee is going to reward the teams that have actually played games against Power 5 competition … with a hint of confirmation bias sprinkled in (more on that later). The Canes are a 1-loss Power 5 team, and the lone loss was at Clemson. Miami has 6 wins against Power 5 teams, though only 1 of them has a winning record. And, in the “eye test” department, Miami’s last 3 wins were by a combined 9 points. That’s the problem. Barring another Clemson loss or a Notre Dame collapse to open a path to the ACC Championship, don’t expect the Canes to get much closer to sniffing the Playoff.
That’s right. They might have a bunch of Rece Davises (they don’t), but the Cats are undefeated coming off a double-digit win against a top-10 Wisconsin team. What’s going to keep them behind teams like BYU and Cincinnati is the fact that despite the 5-0 record, Northwestern won its last 4 games by 10 points or less. Granted, scoring 10 points against that defense is more like 30. There’s a path to the Playoff, though obviously it runs through Justin Fields and the Buckeyes. For now, though, Pat Fitzgerald’s team is absolutely worthy of starting in the top 10.
The fact that BYU isn’t pouncing at the opportunity to face Washington is a bit annoying. Why? If waiting on the Playoff rankings is really one of the holdups, I can’t imagine BYU is going to be too pleased with where it winds up. Why? The selection committee has always held Power 5 wins in a different regard. As good as the Cougars have been in beating 9-0 Group of 5/FCS teams — UTSA was the only foe that stayed within 2 scores or less — that’s still the obvious “yeah, but” on the résumé. The combined record of opponents is 30-38 with a thumping of Boise State as the lone true quality win. BYU scrambled well, but it’ll take more scrambling to get serious Playoff consideration.
Why will the Bearcats get more love than BYU? The AAC has commanded a bit more respect than the schedule BYU faced. Going on the road and winning at UCF was impressive, despite the fact that the Knights now have 3 losses. Dismantling a 7-win SMU team on the road will help, as will the blowout against Memphis, which spent time as a Top 25 team this year. The issue for Luke Fickell’s squad is obvious. All that’s left are 2 potential wins against solid Group of 5 teams. If the selection committee has Cincinnati any higher than No. 7, it’ll be a sign that the résumé is being taken much more seriously than past Group of 5 contenders.
6. Texas A&M
I know, I know. Why wouldn’t the Aggies, who have 1 loss like Florida, get the advantage? Well, that’s not the only part of the résumé. As good as that Florida win is, that’s A&M’s only win vs. a team with a winning record. The rest of the Aggies’ wins have a combined record of 7-23. That’s also discounting the blowout loss against Alabama. Remember, 2017 Georgia is the only team that made the field with a 3-score loss, and the Dawgs avenged said loss in convincing fashion in the SEC Championship. The selection committee only gave 4 of the 24 total spots to a team with a loss by double digits. Even though Jimbo Fisher’s squad looks significantly improved since that 28-point loss to Alabama, that could still be considered a major demerit moving forward.
Think about this. Florida is 6-1 with all of its wins by at least 14 points and its lone loss was on the road via a last-second field goal to a legitimate top-10 team. Florida has a Heisman front-runner at quarterback with Kyle Trask who is rewriting the record books for an offense that has scored at least 38 points in every game. That’s why I think Florida, despite not having the head-to-head advantage with A&M, will get the higher seed. Even after a “meh” showing against Vanderbilt, the Gators still pass the eye test. I expect this to be the Gators’ highest Playoff poll ranking ever (they were No. 8 in early-November of 2015).
It’s wild that Clemson hasn’t won a football game since Halloween. A Notre Dame loss, a bye week and a last-minute postponement are at the root of that. Don’t get it twisted. The Tigers are still going to end up in the top 4 or 5. I gave them the benefit of the doubt in part because of that blowout win against Miami, which will be the biggest feather in their hat until the (likely) ACC Championship rematch with the Irish. But a double-overtime road loss to Notre Dame without Trevor Lawrence will get some leniency from the selection committee, despite the fact that the Clemson defense was the reason for that loss.
Here’s something to keep in mind. Since the start of the 2015 season, there have been 30 Playoff rankings, and Clemson was in the top 4 for 29 of them. The only time the Tigers were left out was in the first Playoff poll last year — they were still No. 5 — and that was as an undefeated team that seemingly couldn’t buy a quality win. I don’t think that’ll be the case this year, even with 1 loss.
3. Ohio State
Ah, here’s arguably the most interesting Power 5 ranking of the night. What to do with the Buckeyes, who are now 4-0. This is where I think we see some confirmation bias come into effect. It’s a good thing Ohio State faced a quality Indiana team because the combined record of the Buckeyes’ first 3 opponents is just 2-12. This is not a complete team. So far, I’d argue, an inexperienced Ohio State defense is a legitimate “yeah, but” for the selection committee to consider. But it’s still a preseason top-2 team that is 4-0 with a win against a top-10 team, which will be easier for the selection committee to justify ranking ahead of teams with double the games like Cincinnati and BYU.
Justin Fields is healthy, and the Buckeyes are seemingly going to have a legitimate shot at a Playoff berth, though with 3 teams with losing records left before a likely Big Ten Championship vs. Northwestern, I wouldn’t bet on an Ohio State team with 7 regular season games having any sort of wiggle room.
2. Notre Dame
There’s not really much intrigue between the top 2 spots. At least there shouldn’t be. If anyone is arguing Notre Dame’s credentials, perhaps they should exclude Alabama and find another 8-0 Power 5 team with a win as good as Clemson. Just kidding. There isn’t one. The Irish have 3 wins against teams with winning records, and 2 of those were comfortable road wins. There might not be a better schedule so far than that one outside of Alabama. Ian Book and the Irish are putting together a quality résumé that’ll have another chance at a quality win this weekend at UNC.
If anyone is making the claim that Notre Dame is only benefitting from being a national brand, that’s just downright lazy.
I mean, there’s no debate. Did Alabama beat the brakes off a pair of top-15 teams? Yep. Is Alabama undefeated having won all of its games by at least 3 scores? Yep. All the talk is about this Alabama offense, which is putting up historically good numbers this year. But sort of lost in the shuffle is that unlike teams like Ohio State and Florida, Alabama’s defense is starting to look the part, too. The Crimson Tide have gone the last 137 minutes and 52 seconds without allowing a touchdown. That’s what you would hope a title-contending team would do.
It won’t get appreciated because of Alabama fatigue, but remember when we were talking about how impossible it would be for an SEC team to go undefeated in a conference-only schedule? What if a team did that by winning every game by at least 3 scores? I wouldn’t rule that out. Alabama is a no-doubter No. 1 for the selection committee.