By law, we must discuss the initial College Football Playoff rankings. I’ve long mocked the made-for-TV event since no set of rankings matters until the final release, but even if the order doesn’t matter much right now, the playoff has been around long enough to have learned a lot about it.
Only during last year’s strange and unbalanced COVID-shortened campaign did all of the top four teams from the first set of rankings reach the final four. In four of the six previous seasons, only half of the top four teams from the first set of rankings reached the playoff. In 2014, No. 16 Ohio State rose to win the national championship. In 2015, No. 15 Oklahoma earned a berth. Oklahoma ascended from No. 7 in 2018, then again, from No. 9, in 2019.
As many as three spots are up for grabs this season, if Georgia defeats Alabama in the SEC title game. Even if both superpowers advance, the other two spots seem unlikely to be held by the teams currently in playoff position. No. 3 Michigan State has won three games by five points or fewer and has one of the hardest remaining schedules in the nation. No. 4 Oregon has already been upset once, has been shaky in three single-digit wins and cannot improve its résumé in a weak Pac-12, which hasn’t reached the playoff in five years.
So, who could claim the open spots? (The committee has already screwed Cincinnati, making it No. 6, despite the fact the Bearcats are ranked No. 2 in the other major polls and won at No. 10 Notre Dame).
No. 5 Ohio State is the most obvious candidate, representing the Big Ten. No. 8 Oklahoma looks like the next best bet, given its talent and new quarterback and six-year reign in the Big 12, but the Sooners’ biggest rival could become this season’s biggest surprise.
Unlike No. 9 Wake Forest, which has struggled to remain unbeaten despite playing one of the softest schedules in the country, No. 11 Oklahoma State has already earned a noteworthy win, over No. 12 Baylor, in addition to a road win at Texas. The Cowboys will get an even bigger opportunity at home in the regular-season finale against the shakiest Oklahoma team since 2014, when the Cowboys last claimed Bedlam. (Oklahoma still has to play at Baylor and against Iowa State, which beat the Sooners last season.)
Oklahoma State has the fourth-ranked defense in the nation. The Cowboys have rushed for nearly 200 yards per game, enabling them to maintain possession longer than any team in the Big 12. Best of all, Oklahoma State (-3.5) enters its game at West Virginia with six straight covers.
I’m not picking the Cowboys to reach the final four, but they’re an attractive long shot, in a similar spot as past playoff teams.
LOUISIANA (-12) over Georgia State
The Ragin’ Cajuns are back in the rankings — in the AP Poll, at least — after winning seven straight games. The Sun Belt leader has struggled as a big favorite this season, but has been a different team at home, where it has won by an average of more than 23 points per game.
BOSTON COLLEGE (+3) over Virginia Tech
Take the points when two of the worst offenses in the ACC meet. Home turf is just a bonus.
Missouri (+38.5) over GEORGIA
After three straight spotlight games, the Bulldogs will grow bored after running out to a massive lead. Look for Missouri — due to cover for the first time this season — to make a late charge through the backdoor, as Kentucky did in Athens three weeks ago.
NEBRASKA (+15.5) over Ohio State
Understandably, the heavy action is on the Buckeyes, who have won four of their past five games against the Cornhuskers by at least 35 points. But Nebraska is more balanced — ranking 23rd in total offense and 40th in total defense — than coach Scott Frost’s hot seat would lead you to believe. That is why none of its six losses have come by double digits, though the Cornhuskers have faced four ranked teams.
NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) over Wake Forest
“The preseason polls do not matter and don’t come into our discussions,” Playoff Selection Committee chair Gary Barta said with a straight face Tuesday night. Then, may I ask, where would Wake Forest — the only undefeated team in the ACC and the only team in the nation to score at least 35 points in every game this season — be ranked if its name were Clemson?
PURDUE (+3) over Michigan State
There is only one direction for the Spartans to go after an emotional comeback win against their biggest rival. Purdue’s 14th-ranked passing attack could take advantage of the problems that Michigan exposed last week against one of the worst secondaries in the nation.
Navy (+20.5) over NOTRE DAME
Remarkably, the Midshipmen have won two games this season without completing a pass, but their underrated defense has been the key to one-possession losses against Cincinnati (8-0), SMU (7-1) and Houston (7-1).
TEXAS A&M (-4) over Auburn
Bo Nix has been better of late, but the Auburn quarterback — who was held to 144 yards passing in last year’s meeting — will return to maddening form against the SEC’s second-best defense and 100,000 or so of its closest friends.
Baylor (-7) over TCU
A bizarre game begins without ex-TCU coach Gary Patterson on the sideline for the first time in two decades, but in front of the stadium in statue form. The Horned Frogs have lost five of their past six games — including three straight by double digits — and the sudden dismissal of a coach who had been expected to retire in Fort Worth will further fluster a team in shambles.
Wisconsin (-13.5) over RUTGERS
During their four-game win streak, the Badgers are giving up 8.5 points per game. Rutgers, which is averaging 12 points per game in Big Ten play, may never make it to the red zone.
Tulsa (+22.5) over CINCINNATI
I knew the committee couldn’t be trusted to do right by the Bearcats. Now, Cincy has to earn back our trust after back-to-back underwhelming efforts against massive underdogs.
ALABAMA (-28.5) over Lsu
Last year, DeVonta Smith seized the Heisman Trophy by recording 219 receiving yards and three touchdowns by halftime of a 55-17 win over LSU. This weekend, Bryce Young makes his strongest case to become the first Alabama quarterback to win the award, facing an opponent that was unable to field enough players for practice last week due to numerous injuries.
MICHIGAN (-20.5) over Indiana
Despite their collapse at Michigan State, the Wolverines are still in control of their season. The Hoosiers (2-6) — and their freshman quarterback, Donaven McCulley, who is making his second start — will make it easy to bounce back. Even Jim Harbaugh can’t mess this one up, I think.
WASHINGTON (+7) over Oregon
The Ducks have failed to cover their past four games as favorites, repeatedly dropping hints of an inevitable second loss this season. Good teams win. Playoff teams cover.
Best bets: Oklahoma State, Navy, Baylor
This season (best bets): 59-74-2 (16-11)
2014-20 record: 904-866-15
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