The important thing to remember about the debut College Football Playoff rankings is that they’re meaningless.
The make-or-break matchups that will define the chase for the national championship are coming fast and furious, beginning with this Saturday’s must-see pairing of No. 1 Tennessee and No. 3 Georgia.
Later on in November, the Big Ten will be decided between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan, a crowded race atop the Pac-12 will be trimmed down to one or two teams, and the Big 12 will either submit an unbeaten champion for playoff inclusion or settle for a home in the slate of New Year’s Six bowl games.
The history of the playoff format tells us that all answers will be supplied by the first Sunday in December.
For now, what we can glean from the first rankings of the 2022 season is that the committee loves the SEC — no big surprise there, obviously. The committee is also low on No. 7 TCU and higher on No. 4 Clemson than voters in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.
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These teams and conferences lead the list of winners and losers from the debut playoff rankings:
OK, let’s count ‘em up. Tennessee’s at No. 1, and no surprise there. The Volunteers have amassed a sterling resume and can put a headlock on the top spot with a win Saturday against the Bulldogs, who land at No. 3. Alabama is No. 6, as the highest-ranked one-loss team entering Saturday’s game against No. 10 LSU, the top-ranked team with two losses. Just behind the Tigers is No. 11 Mississippi. So, to sum up: Of the top 11 teams in the rankings, five come from the SEC. The league has multiple avenues to putting two teams into the playoff.
Clemson and the ACC
It wasn’t as bad for the ACC as believed heading into the rankings, beginning with the fact that Clemson came in ahead of Michigan to round out the top four. With the easiest remaining schedule of any of the top playoff contenders, the Tigers have to feel very positive about their chances of returning to the semifinals after a one-year absence. Clemson coming in at No. 4 is due to wins against three other ACC teams in the rankings: No. 20 Syracuse, No. 21 Wake Forest and No. 22 North Carolina State. (North Carolina was the fifth ACC representative at No. 17.) The committee respects the top third of the conference and how Clemson has risen to the top of the league.
Tulane comes in first among Group of Five teams at No. 19, thanks in large part to a non-conference win against No. 13 Kansas State. The Green Wave are the only team still unbeaten in American play heading into two crucial November matchups against Cincinnati, the defending conference champions, and No. 25 Central Florida, the only other Group of Five team in the rankings. Being in the driver’s seat for the access-bowl bid might even give Tulane enough room for error where a loss in one of those two games, if avenged in the American conference championship game, wouldn’t prevent the Green Wave from finishing at the front of the pack.
Landing at No. 7 in the debut rankings illustrates the hurdles TCU must overcome to reach the national semifinals. Coming in behind multiple fellow unbeaten teams from the Power Five is one thing, even if the Horned Frogs have a strong case for coming in ahead of No. 5 Michigan and even No. 4 Clemson. Here’s what really hurts: TCU is one spot behind the Crimson Tide. That shows the committee’s affection for the SEC and underscores how at least one and perhaps two one-loss teams from the conference could stay ahead of even the unbeaten Horned Frogs the rest of the way. TCU will need help to climb the ladder and crack the top four.
It’s splitting hairs to argue too much over the relative merits of No. 12 UCLA and No. 9 Southern California, since neither seems likely to win the Pac-12 with just one loss and finish in the top four. Still, to have the Trojans ahead of the rival Bruins seems to ignore each team’s resume and strength of schedule. USC has one win against a team with a winning record, No. 23 Oregon State. UCLA has three: South Alabama, Washington and No. 14 Utah. While the Bruins do have just one road win, that victory against Utah is one of the best from any one-loss team.