While it’s safe to say that no one really knew what was coming with the first set of College Football Playoff rankings, which aired last night on ESPN, I don’t know that anyone saw Alabama ranked at No. 2. At 3 — Sure! At 4 — why not? But to put a one-loss Alabama team ahead of every undefeated and one-loss team outside of Georgia — well, I think that CFB fans are starting to get nostalgic for the days when a computer decided everything.
The grass is always greener in that sense. When the BCS model decided the rankings with a combination of several polls, computer models, and mathematical calculations, fans complained about factors that couldn’t be accounted for — they “eye test,” if you will — without human observation and discussion.
For instance, this year’s Oklahoma team, despite being the only 9-0 team in the FBS, is ranked all the way down at No. 8, under four different one-loss schools. And (perhaps a controversial opinion here), I think that’s fair. While they’ve certainly improved since replacing Spencer Rattler with true freshman QB Caleb Williams, five of their nine games — all against unranked opponents — were decided by a single score. If luck didn’t go their way, their record would look a lot closer to this year’s Nebraska squad, whose six losses have also all been decided by a single score.
The Sooners, especially after that debacle at Kansas, don’t look ready to be in the CFP facing opponents like Georgia or even Michigan State, and the BCS playoff model would not necessarily acknowledge that. The CFP committee can and does.
On the other hand, the BCS model would also likely not have snubbed Group of 5 powerhouse Cincinnati (which the AP had at No. 2, and the CFP committee placed all the way down the ladder at No. 6), or shut out UTSA (undefeated, beat Illinois), Houston (one loss, beat SMU), and Coastal Carolina. In recent years, the committee has consistently shown a complete lack of respect and acknowledgment for the successes of teams outside of the Power Five. CFP chair Gary Barta told ESPN: “The committee has great respect for Cincinnati. The win at Notre Dame was a really impressive win. Who else did they beat?”
Well, now I can’t resist asking this question about the teams ranked above Cincinnati, out of a perhaps misguided sense of moral fairness. Whom has No. 5 Ohio State beaten? If you’re looking at the AP Poll, a whole lot of nobody — the CFP, however, placed Minnesota, who lost to Ball State, at No. 20. Arguably, the Buckeyes’ most impressive win so far was against CFP-unranked Penn State this past weekend, whereas Cincinnati’s most impressive win was against a top 10 team on the road. But the committee “has great respect” for them, so the Bearcats should probably just be grateful to even be in consideration, right?
How about No. 4 Oregon? They had a great win against Ohio State early in the season — a quality W, I won’t argue that — and then dropped an OT game against 3-5 Stanford. Their only other ranked win came over No. 25 Fresno State, which the committee appears to have pushed into the rankings over more successful Group of Five teams as a way to boost Oregon’s resume.
Michigan, at 7-1 and No. 7, is all but out of playoff contention, save for one highly unlikely and convoluted scenario, so their spot isn’t all that important. If No. 8 Oklahoma wins out, they’ll have no problem hopping Michigan, Cincinnati, and probably either Ohio State or Oregon, depending on final records, to make it into the playoff. But it seems that the committee is prioritizing close losses — not really even quality losses (a then-unranked Texas A&M, a below-average Stanford team) — over winning.
But the real issue here lies at Alabama at No. 2 — ahead of an unbeaten Michigan State, complete with an impressive comeback victory against a very good Michigan team and a Heisman front runner, Kenneth Walker III, at running back (although, to be fair, the rest of their resume does leave something to be desired). Does Alabama deserve to be in the top four? I do think so, and I believe I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who strongly disagrees with me on that. They’re a great team, as always, and they have several impressive wins under their belt. But by placing them in the second spot, the CFP committee appears to be gearing up for the possibility of placing a two-loss Bama team in the playoff if they lose to the Georgia powerhouse in the SEC championship.
I really think we’d be dealing with a violent protest at the Gaylord Texan if this happened, especially after Barta had the audacity to say, “We don’t worry about or think about what happened in previous years. The preseason polls do not matter and don’t come into our discussions.”
While I’ll be the first to acknowledge how good Alabama football is, this statement just reeks of mistruth. Of course Alabama’s ranking is guided by their previous years in the playoff — and Bama brings ESPN good money and good viewership. Maybe it’s no more than that and we just have to accept some corruption in the sport. But this first ranking makes it clear that it’s high time for a playoff expansion.
The CFP management committee will meet tonight to debate eight-vs-twelve team expansion options as early as the 2024 season. It seems like an inevitable conclusion at this point, as fans get angry and fatigued watching the same few teams get their shot year after year. But will the goalposts keep moving for Group of 5 schools like Cincinnati if this happens? Who’s to say that they don’t argue for a Power 5 strength of schedule and shut a team like Cincy, undefeated or not, out of the Top 8?
Perhaps — preseason poll bias aside — the BCS computer model was the right way, rather than thirteen people with human bias deciding the rankings. But I know, I know — it’s always greener. And it’s also only the first week of rankings. There’s a lot of football to play and, I’m sure, a lot more things we’ll get riled up about.