The traditional polls agree this week on the top four teams in college football: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Wisconsin, in that order. But those polls will be superseded when the College Football Playoff selection committee unveils its first rankings of the season Tuesday night.
The committee’s rankings – not the Associated Press or coaches’ polls -- will determine which four teams reach the playoff, and the 13-member committee’s initial rankings will provide an early glimpse into how it views the season.
The committee, which began two days of deliberation Monday in Grapevine, Texas, has said it doesn’t use the other polls as a reference tool. Still, it would be a shocker if the committee were to veer from Alabama and Georgia as the top two teams -- in one order or the other.
Will it have unbeaten Alabama No. 1, as 59 of 61 AP voters did this week? Or is there a chance unbeaten Georgia could be ranked ahead of Alabama on the basis of the Bulldogs’ signature win at otherwise undefeated Notre Dame?
And what about Nos. 3 and 4?
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Ohio State is No. 3 in the AP and coaches’ polls after its come-from-behind victory over Penn State on Saturday. But the committee looks at a team’s “full body of work,” as playoff executive director Bill Hancock often has said, and will have an interesting decision in comparing Ohio State and Oklahoma, two one-loss teams.
The committee will have to decide which it values higher, Oklahoma’s head-to-head win at Ohio State or the Buckeyes’ win over Penn State.
And if the committee deems Georgia in the top two, might it rank Notre Dame No. 3 or No. 4, given that the Fighting Irish’s only loss was by one point to the Bulldogs?
Aside from Alabama and Georgia, the only unbeaten power-conference teams are Wisconsin and Miami, the latter ranked No. 6 by the coaches and No. 9 by AP. It’ll be interesting to see how the committee evaluates Wisconsin and Miami, given questions about the quality of their wins. Once-beaten Clemson also is an interesting case.
The order in which the committee places Alabama and Georgia at this point doesn’t mean much, because if the teams keep winning they’ll meet in the SEC Championship game Dec. 2 with the victor almost certainly securing the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart expressed little interest in the rankings when asked about them at his weekly news conference Monday, saying “it’s just a matter of how we finish.”
“The rankings that have been coming out up until this point – the AP ones – are the same thing: It’s just a distraction,” Smart said. “So it’s just a matter of who can manage it best and which team is mature enough to handle it, because it has zero outcome on performance on Saturday. It’s only a distractive measure that we have to contend with.”
Tuesday’s rankings, which will be unveiled at 7 p.m. on ESPN, are a starting point for the committee, the first of its six sets of rankings. The group will reconvene every Monday and Tuesday through November to re-rank teams and release a new Top 25.
Its final rankings on Dec. 3 will set the playoff field, with No. 1 facing No. 4 and No. 2 facing No. 3 in the semifinals, which will be played this season in the Rose and Sugar bowls on New Year’s Day. The semifinal winners will meet for the national championship at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8.
In the playoff’s first three seasons, no more than two of the top four teams in the committee’s initial rankings wound up making the playoff field: one of four in 2014 and two of four in both 2015 and 2016. That is worth remembering amid the controversies that Tuesday night’s rankings inevitably will trigger.
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