These early-bird college football rankings usually come in increments of 25, the Top 25 being the form taken by all major polls. If four years of the College Football Playoff are our measure, we needn’t go that far.
Of the 16 qualifiers for the four-team tournament, 12 have begun the season ranked among the top 10 in the Associated Press poll; 10 have started in the top five. In 2014, Year 1 of the CFP, all four participants were ranked in the preseason top five. Each field of four has featured at least two from the preseason top five. In the season just completed, three playoff participants began in the top seven; the exception was Georgia, which was No. 15.
As much as the selection committee likes to ponder its Data Points, it winds up with chalk on its hands. Eleven of 16 CFP slots have been claimed by four schools – Alabama (four); Clemson (three); Ohio State and Oklahoma (two each). This tells us what we already knew: The playoff hasn’t so much spread the wealth as rounded up the usual suspects.
No team unranked in the AP preseason poll has made the playoff. No team ranked lower than No. 19 – that was Oklahoma in 2015, when nobody knew much about the walk-on transfer Baker Mayfield – has gained entrance. Alabama can lose a regular-season game and still make it. (It has been a one-loss qualifier three times.) Central Florida can go undefeated and not crack the CFP’s top 10.
That in mind, we’re limiting our capsulized entries to 10 – because not much outside the top 10 matters. That top 10 begins where we left off.
1. Alabama. It remains to be seen if even Nick Saban – on his fourth offensive coordinator since Jan. 1, 2017, and his third defensive coordinator since Jan. 1, 2016 – can fit quarterback Jalen Hurts, who led Bama to consecutive championship games, and Tua Tagovailoa, who rescued the latter title tilt, into one functioning unit. Still, Tagovailoa’s bravura performance against Georgia was an indication that Alabama’s 2017 recruiting class might have been Saban’s best, which is saying something.
2. Clemson. Lost in the debris of the no-show against Bama in the latest installment of their now-annual rivalry was this: The Tigers were the top seed the year after losing the best player in Clemson’s distinguished history. Dabo Swinney might have a Hurts/Tagovailoa issue of his own: Quarterback Kelly Bryant could be challenged by incoming freshman Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville. If memory serves, the great Deshaun Watson also hailed from Georgia.
3. Georgia. Speaking of quarterbacks: Jacob Eason is gone, which you’d figure would leave Jake Fromm unchallenged. But you’re not a big-time program if you don’t have a hot recruit breathing down a decorated incumbent’s neck. The Bulldogs have greeted Justin Fields, who’s a dual threat. Having seen his Alabama defenses bedeviled by such quarterbacks, Kirby Smart is surely tantalized by the thought of deploying one of his own. Georgia has lost some gifted players, but that’s why you recruit, which Smart has and does.
4. Oklahoma. Speaking (yet again) of quarterbacks: Mayfield has taken his Heisman and histrionics and gone, leaving Kyler Murray, who was once – stop me if you’ve heard this already – the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback of his class. He transferred from Texas A&M at a time when everybody was transferring from A&M; now he gets to work full-time in Lincoln Riley’s bleeding-edge offense. Remember what we said about the status quo holding? Last season’s final four are next season’s first four.
5. Ohio State. And the first team out of the playoff just completed is No. 5 again. J.T. Barrett, who’s surely of age to draw Social Security, has finally completed his eligibility, but Urban Meyer is never at a loss for quarterbacks. Tailback J.T. Dobbins gained 1,403 yards as a freshman and seems the new Ezekiel Elliott. But the Big Ten East looks especially rugged next season, and one loss might again be enough to bar the Buckeyes from the tournament.
6. Michigan State. Speaking of which: The Spartans, who won the Big Ten and made the playoff in 2015, have rendered their 3-9 2016 record an abject outlier. Michigan State was 10-3 last season, one loss coming in triple OT. Nearly every player of consequence returns. The Spartans will face both Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing. At issue: Whether Mark Dantonio, in the wake of reports questioning his handling of sexual-assault allegations involving players, stays as coach.
7. Miami. Even by Mark Richt almost-but-not-quite standards, last season was jarring. His Hurricanes were 10-0 and positioned to reach the playoffs. They lost their final three games, all by double figures. If they weren’t as good as 10-0 made it appear, they surely weren’t as bad as 0-3. This will be Richt’s third season at his alma mater, and his teams have shown enough to suggest a breakthrough isn’t far off. But we around here have heard that before.
8. Washington. Only one Pac-12 member has made the past three playoff fields – the Huskies were beaten by Alabama in the Georgia Dome in 2016. USC lost quarterback Sam Darnold. UCLA changed coaches, going from Jim Mora to Chip Kelly. Arizona and Arizona State changed coaches. The only threat to U-Dub is Stanford, which just lost five games. And where does Washington open next season? In the new building just down Northside Drive.
9. Auburn. The Tigers had one of those thrill-of-victory/agony-of-defeat seasons. Their three losses came against teams that lost a total of four games. They were 2-2 against playoff qualifiers. In 15 days, they beat two teams ranked No. 1. They went from No. 2 in the penultimate CFP rankings to Exhibit A as to why Central Florida merited playoff consideration. They lost consecutive games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They open against Washington at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
10. Wisconsin. There are two Wisconsins – one annually lays waste to the Big Ten West; the other has lost three of the past four conference title games. Because playing in such a weak division all but ensures a 10-win season, we can never discount the Badgers. Until they break through against the East champ, we can’t quite take them seriously. Note that Scott Frost, who led Central Florida to 13-0, is now coaching Nebraska, which puts Wisky on notice.
As for the rest of the Top 25, here you go: 11. Penn State; 12. Boise State; 13. Central Florida; 14. Stanford; 15. TCU; 16. Notre Dame; 17. Florida Atlantic; 18. West Virginia; 19. Michigan; 20. Memphis; 21. Texas; 22. Florida State; 23. Virginia Tech; 24. Purdue; 25. Texas A&M.