College Football’s Champions Aren’t in Top 4 of the Playoff Rankings. Why?


Imagine being a Clemson player when the College Football Playoff committee announced its first rankings of the season on Tuesday night. The Tigers are the defending national champions. They have won 24 consecutive games — including the last four by at least 31 points. They received seven first-place votes in the most recent Associated Press poll.

And yet when the playoff rankings were revealed, they were in fifth place.

Behind Ohio State, which might be the best team in the country by the eye test.

Behind L.S.U., which might have three of the hardest-earned wins of the season — at Texas, and at home against Auburn and Florida.

Behind Alabama, which has a modest résumé at the moment (without a signature win) but a long track record.

And behind even Penn State, which has beaten — well, um, Michigan and Iowa and … Buffalo.

“After Week 10, the committee felt Penn State was a notch above,” Rob Mullens, the chairman of the committee and the athletic director at Oregon said on ESPN, acknowledging that Clemson’s scare in late September — a 21-20 win at North Carolina — had resonated.

Of course, maybe the committee was just bored. Clemson had been among the top four teams in 24 consecutive polls and was ranked fourth by A.P. on Tuesday, a slot ahead of Penn State.

Or maybe the committee was being provocative. It knows that these rankings are largely meaningless for the top five teams — all unbeaten — because they will largely sort things out among themselves in the coming weeks.

Clemson was not the only unbeaten team to pay the price for a less-than-challenging schedule. The committee slotted Baylor at 12th, one spot below its place in the A.P. poll, and Minnesota was 17th, four spots lower than in the poll.

Perhaps the team with the real worry should be Alabama, which has made the playoff every year since it began in the 2014 season. In previous years, the No. 3 team in the initial ranking has never made it to the playoff. Last season, it was L.S.U., whose title hopes collapsed with a 29-0 loss to Alabama. The year before that, Notre Dame was routed at Miami. And before that, Michigan, Ohio State and Auburn went down.

If Clemson garners a playoff spot for the fifth consecutive year, that could leave Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, L.S.U. and Georgia (ranked sixth with one loss) scrapping for the final three berths.

It may take considerable disruption over the final month of the regular season for a team from the Big 12 (unbeaten Baylor or once-beaten Oklahoma) or the Pac-12 (once-beaten Oregon or Utah) to make its way into the playoff. While Georgia has the worst loss among the once-beatens (at home against South Carolina) it also has two of the best wins (over No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 10 Florida).

The team that might be best equipped to make a jump is No. 7 Oregon, but the Ducks’ hopes largely rest with the team that defeated them in the season opener, No. 11 Auburn.

If Auburn wins the rest of its games, that might do more than burnish Oregon’s résumé — it could also put a dent in the hopes of two contenders that will visit The Plains: Georgia on Nov. 16 and Alabama on Nov. 30.

A little more than a week later, on Dec. 8, the committee will announce its final ranking, the one that really matters. And by then, Clemson, which has had few peers in college football in recent years, should have been able to prove it belongs.



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