May 27, 2024

GRAPEVINE, Texas — Before the College Football Playoff selection committee members even began their first meeting here on Monday at the Gaylord Texan Resort, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian lobbed the first public pitch of the season in their direction.

“I’d argue we have the best win in the country right now,” Sarkisian told reporters on Monday at his weekly news conference. “The fact that we go into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and beat a team that was 52-1 in the previous 53 games.

“I hear so much about how tough the SEC is, but I haven’t seen any of those teams go into Alabama and win either, so I feel pretty good about our team.”

He’s right. The Longhorns have the best nonconference win in the nation. But are they the best one-loss team? Or will that honor go to Oregon when the committee releases its first of six rankings Tuesday evening?

Nothing that has unfolded through the first nine weeks of the season will make this any easier for the 13-member group tasked with determining which of the five remaining undefeated Power 5 teams will be on the bubble this week: Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State or Washington.

Adding to the drama is the ongoing investigation into Michigan, which is facing allegations of cheating by scouting future opponents in person at games. It’s an unprecedented situation for the committee members to consider — or try to ignore.

There are seven sitting athletic directors on the committee, including Michigan’s Warde Manuel, who is here and will recuse himself during voting and discussions about his team. The CFP on Monday declined to answer any specific questions about what Manuel can speak about as it relates to the investigation or how the committee will be instructed to handle it. CFP executive director Bill Hancock referred to his original statement: “The answer continues to be that the committee considers teams that are eligible to participate in a bowl game.”

Selection committee members are rotated every three years, so what might have been important to last year’s group could change this season with three new members in former Nevada coach Chris Ault, Miami (Ohio) athletic director David Sayler and Utah athletic director Mark Harlan, who replaced Jennifer Cohen when she was hired as USC’s AD.

Harlan is the Pac-12’s representative in the group, working alongside the ACC’s Boo Corrigan (NC State), the Big Ten’s Manuel, the SEC’s Mitch Barnhart (Kentucky) and the Big 12’s Gene Taylor (Kansas State). Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk is entering his second year with the committee.

Other committee members include former Wake Forest, Ohio and Baylor coach Jim Grobe, former Nebraska All-America offensive lineman and NFL All-Pro Will Shields, former Notre Dame linebacker Rod West and Hall of Fame coach Joe Taylor, whose career spanned stops at Florida A&M, Hampton, Virginia Union and Howard. There is one woman in the group, former USA Today sportswriter Kelly Whiteside.

Committee members are directed through written protocol to consider strength of schedule, head-to-head results and outcomes against common opponents. Conference championships are the final piece of the puzzle, but the committee ranks 25 teams each week based only on what they’ve done to date.

These are the biggest questions facing the group, and their answers when the rankings are released will be the first clues to the playoff pecking order in the final season of a four-team field:

Who’s No. 1?

Ohio State, Florida State and Washington have the three best résumés, according to ESPN’s strength of record metric. Georgia’s strength of schedule so far ranks 100th, while Michigan’s ranks 111th.

Ohio State could have the best résumé in the country if both Penn State and Notre Dame are top-15 CFP teams. The committee also would value the Buckeyes’ recent road win against a respectable Wisconsin team. While its offense hasn’t been as consistent or explosive as others, Ohio State’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in a game all season.

Georgia has won back-to-back national titles and is undefeated, but the Bulldogs might not have any wins against CFP-ranked opponents, and the committee isn’t supposed to let previous seasons influence its voting. Georgia has played well against its toughest competition, though, and it proved Saturday against Florida that it can be a top-four team even without injured tight end Brock Bowers. How the committee evaluates Florida and Kentucky, which are both three-loss teams, will factor into where the Bulldogs are placed. Those are also the only two FBS opponents Georgia has defeated that have a winning record.

Florida State’s best win is against LSU in Orlando, and it trumps anything Georgia and Michigan have done yet, but the Noles’ overtime victory against Clemson no longer looks as impressive because the Tigers are a four-loss team. Washington arguably has the best overall win in the country — against Oregon — but the Huskies have won unconvincingly in each of the past two weeks.

Michigan has looked like the most complete team in the country and is No. 1 in ESPN’s game control metric (though Ohio State is No. 2, and Washington is No. 3). As good as the Wolverines have appeared, their best win is against Rutgers (6-2).

Speaking of Michigan …


How will the allegations against Michigan impact its ranking, if at all?

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0:53

Finebaum: It’s time for Jim Harbaugh to take some responsibility

Paul Finebaum reacts to Jim Harbaugh’s passive response to a question about Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal.

It’s highly probable the investigation won’t impact Michigan at all, at least not if the selection committee members follow the written protocol committee chair Corrigan reminds them of at the start of each meeting. If the NCAA or the Big Ten levies a postseason ban, the Wolverines are out, but the investigation process at the NCAA level typically moves at a glacial pace.

ESPN reached out to past committee members to understand how the topic likely will be handled in the room.

“Because these things take so long, I think the committee tries to do things based on their criteria, based on the letter of the law, and I really don’t believe this would come into discussions during our meetings,” one former committee member said, “and if it did, it would be shut down really quickly because it doesn’t go with our standards. If for some reason [the investigation] was fast-tracked, and they vacated wins during the season, obviously that’s a different story.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that committee members won’t be talking about the allegations against Michigan outside the room.

There will likely be some “private disgust and conversations away from the table about how this is a kick in the gut to sportsmanship and, especially among coaches, kind of sacrilegious,” the same former committee member said.

“I think this is totally against everything that is fair and ethical about college football,” another former committee member said.

Another said “it’s almost worse” if a committee member penalizes Michigan because he or she thinks the school might have done something.

“That’s not a metric, right?” the person said. “That could end up really adversely affecting the other rankings, and that’s not right either.”

“I would say at this stage the committee should rank them as they deem appropriate,” the same committee member said. “Keep an eye on their eligibility. But I think they’d have to rank the team based on what they see. There’s plenty to question outside of the alleged cheating. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to against the schedule they’re playing, but there’s not a lot of meat on the bone as far as their opponents yet. So that may be more of a discussion point.”


Who is the highest-ranked one-loss team?

Sarkisian would like to think it’s Texas — and it could be — but Oregon has a strong case and enters the committee’s first conversation after a convincing win at Utah, where the Utes had won 18 straight home games. Harlan, the Utes’ athletic director, can certainly weigh in on what he saw from the Ducks firsthand, just like Kentucky’s Barnes will certainly have some opinions on what he witnessed about Georgia.

The Ducks have three wins against Power 5 teams .500 or better (Colorado, Washington State and Utah) and one victory against what should be a ranked CFP team in Utah. Four road wins is a detail the committee will notice — but so is a win against an FCS school, Portland State.

The Longhorns’ double-digit road victory at Alabama will be a focal point of the committee’s discussions about Texas, and their only loss was to their rival Oklahoma, by four points. Even without injured starting quarterback Quinn Ewers, the Longhorns earned a convincing home win on Saturday against BYU. Following Kansas‘ upset of Oklahoma on Saturday, it’s possible the selection committee has the Jayhawks in their top 25. That would give Texas a second win against a ranked opponent, along with the victory against the Crimson Tide. With the exceptions of Baylor and Houston, all the Longhorns’ wins have come against FBS opponents at .500 or better.

While Alabama is certainly one of the nation’s best one-loss teams, the Longhorns’ head-to-head true road win against the Tide will keep Alabama from leapfrogging Texas — for now.


Will the committee honor Oklahoma’s head-to-head win against Texas?

It would be surprising if the committee did, even though the teams have identical 7-1 records, considering the Sooners lost to Kansas and didn’t play well in their win against UCF. Oklahoma beat Texas 34-30 on Oct. 7, but the selection committee has caused controversy before by discounting a head-to-head result.

In 2021, the group ranked Michigan ahead of Michigan State in spite of the Spartans’ 37-33 October win over their in-state rival. At the time, committee chair Gary Barta said the group deemed Michigan the “more complete team” and better statistically “in just about every category.”

With OU and Texas, there aren’t many glaring statistical differences, though any can be pulled as an example in either team’s favor. The key factors could be Oklahoma’s two-point win against a 3-5 UCF team and the Sooners’ lack of a nonconference win against a Power 5 opponent.


Who’s on the bubble at No. 5?

With five undefeated Power 5 teams remaining, somebody is going to get snubbed. The most likely candidates for this dubious distinction are Washington, Michigan and Georgia.

What’s unique about this first ranking is Michigan could truly be No. 1 or No. 5 in such a subjective system. Michigan is No. 9 in ESPN’s strength of record metric, while Georgia is No. 7 and Washington is No. 3. (Strength of record measures how difficult it is for an average top-25 opponent to achieve the same record against the same opponents.)

The Huskies’ concern is how they’ve played each of the past two weeks, particularly in an unimpressive 15-7 win against Arizona State, which is now 2-6. Washington’s high-powered offense was held without a touchdown against the Sun Devils. On Saturday in a narrow victory against Stanford, Washington had two red zone turnovers. The Huskies’ win against Oregon, though, is looking better than ever after the Ducks’ triumph at Utah.


Where are the contenders’ opponents ranked?

This is where strength of schedule starts to be determined — at least in the committee members’ eyes. One of the most repeated justifications for where a team is ranked has been how many CFP top-25 opponents it has defeated. Well, the committee is the one that sets that bar.

So how good is the Big 12 beyond Texas and Oklahoma? Will the Sooners have defeated any ranked opponents besides Texas? Will Texas get a shot Saturday at another top-25 team in Kansas State?

How much has the ACC fallen with Clemson, North Carolina and Miami having multiple losses? That answer could help determine how much pressure is on Florida State to finish as an undefeated ACC champ.

And where is LSU ranked? Does Georgia have any top-25 wins yet?


Does any two-loss team have a chance?

No two-loss team has made the cut in the nine-year history of the CFP, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

While Notre Dame could be the committee’s highest-ranked two-loss team, it’s incredibly difficult for the Fighting Irish to overcome that without a conference championship win against a ranked opponent. It will be hard for the committee to overlook their loss to Louisville, as well.

LSU is in a similar position to that of last season, when it had an opportunity to finish as a two-loss SEC champion and push the committee to see how seriously it would consider the Tigers. Instead, the Tigers finished as a three-loss runner-up to Georgia, and it was a moot point. The same could happen again on Saturday if LSU loses at Alabama.

One other possibility is two-loss Oregon State, which will end the season with back-to-back games against Washington and Oregon.

Keep an eye on where these two-loss teams are ranked Tuesday.

The lowest a team has ever been ranked in the initial CFP ranking and still made the playoff was No. 16 Ohio State in 2014, but the Buckeyes only had one loss and went on to win the national title that year.


What the first ranking really means

Over the first nine years of the four-team format, 21 of the 36 teams (58%) that were in the top four in the initial rankings ended up in the playoff. That leaves room for teams outside Tuesday’s top four to land a spot in the semifinals.

The lowest-ranked teams in the initial rankings to make it to the final four are Ohio State in 2014, when the Buckeyes started at No. 16, and Oklahoma in 2015, when the Sooners started at No. 15. Those are the only teams that were outside the top 10 of the first CFP rankings to make that year’s playoff.

On the other end of the scale, seven of the nine No. 1 teams in the first CFP rankings and 15 of the 18 teams initially ranked in the top two have reached the playoff. The exceptions are No. 1 Mississippi State in 2014, No. 2 LSU in 2015 and No. 1 Tennessee last year.

Only once, in 2020, did all of the top four teams in the initial rankings make it to the playoff.

ESPN’s Chris Low takes a year-by-year look at the top four in the first rankings, where those teams landed in the final rankings and the key elements that shaped each year’s race.


2022

No. 1 in first ranking: Tennessee (sixth in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Ohio State (fourth in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Georgia (first in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Clemson (seventh in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 2 Michigan (fifth in first ranking), No. 3 TCU (seventh in first ranking)

No team in the 2022 playoff chase suffered a more crushing defeat than Tennessee, which was shredded 63-38 by unranked South Carolina in the next-to-last week of the regular season. The Vols were No. 5 heading into that Nov. 19 game, and their only loss was to No. 1 Georgia on the road. With Ohio State losing at home to Michigan in the final regular-season game, and TCU falling in the Big 12 championship game to Kansas State the next week, the door would have been open for the Vols to make the playoff as a one-loss team. Things fell just right for the Buckeyes to slide into the final playoff spot when USC blew its chance by losing to Utah (for the second time that season) in the Pac-12 championship game. The Trojans were No. 4 in the CFP rankings heading into their rematch with the Utes, but USC was beaten soundly, 47-24.


2021

No. 1 in first ranking: Georgia (third in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Michigan State (10th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Oregon (14th in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 2 Michigan (seventh in first ranking), No. 4 Cincinnati (sixth)

Michigan State seemed to be in great shape after beating Michigan 37-33 on Oct. 30 to secure the No. 3 spot in the first rankings. But that didn’t last. The Spartans lost 40-29 the next week at Purdue and were routed 56-7 by Ohio State two weeks after that. And the Wolverines only picked up steam after their close loss in East Lansing. They reeled off five straight victories, including a 42-27 win over Ohio State (their first in the series in 10 years) and earned their first playoff appearance. Meanwhile, Cincinnati went unbeaten during the regular season to become the first Group of 5 team to make the playoff, benefiting from Oregon losing twice to Utah in the final three weeks.


2020

No. 1 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Notre Dame (fourth in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Clemson (second in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Ohio State (third in final ranking)

The selection committee’s top four remained intact in the final rankings, although Texas A&M lost just one game (to Alabama) while playing an all-SEC schedule during the shortened COVID-19 season and thought it deserved the No. 4 spot over a Notre Dame team that lost by 24 points to Clemson in the ACC championship game.


2019

No. 1 in first ranking: Ohio State (second in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: LSU (first in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Alabama (13th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Penn State (10th in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 3 Clemson (fifth in first ranking), No. 4 Oklahoma (ninth)

Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts helped Oklahoma rebound from a 48-41 loss at Kansas State on Oct. 26 to win its next five games, including a 30-23 overtime win against Baylor in the Big 12 championship game, to climb to the No. 4 spot. Georgia had been No. 4 the previous four weeks but slipped to No. 5 in the final rankings after losing 37-10 to LSU in the SEC championship game.


2018

No. 1 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Clemson (second in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: LSU (11th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Notre Dame (third in final ranking)

Other playoff team: No. 4 Oklahoma (seventh in first ranking)

Similar to the 2019 season, Hurts played a big role in how the final 2018 playoff rankings shook out, only this time he was playing for Alabama. Hurts came off the bench for an injured Tua Tagovailoa to pass for a touchdown and run for another in rallying Alabama past Georgia in the fourth quarter for a 35-28 win in the SEC championship game. That loss cost the Dawgs a spot in the playoff, as they fell from No. 4 to No. 5 in the final rankings. It also cleared the way for the Sooners to move from No. 5 to No. 4 after beating Texas in the Big 12 championship game for their seventh straight win.


2017

No. 1 in first ranking: Georgia (third in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Alabama (fourth in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Notre Dame (14th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Clemson (first in final ranking)

Other playoff team: No. 2 Oklahoma (fifth in first ranking)

The team that didn’t make the playoff in 2017 that most shaped the field was Auburn. In a span of three weeks to end the regular season, Auburn beat No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama to move to No. 2 in the next-to-last rankings despite having two losses. But in a rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship game, Auburn lost 28-7 to the Dawgs, paving the way for both Alabama and Georgia to move back into the top four and eventually play for the national championship. Alabama had been No. 5 and Georgia No. 6 the week before in the committee’s rankings. If Auburn had won the SEC title game, the Tigers would have been the only two-loss team ever to make the playoff field.


2016

No. 1 in first ranking: Alabama (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Clemson (second in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Michigan (sixth in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Texas A&M (did not make final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 3 Ohio State (sixth in first ranking), No. 4 Washington (fifth)

Penn State fans still grimace over this one. The Nittany Lions finished one spot out of the playoff, at No. 5 in the final rankings. That’s despite beating Ohio State head-to-head and winning their last nine games, including a 38-31 decision over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State was the Big Ten team that made the playoff, though, as the Buckeyes had just one loss as compared to the Nittany Lions’ two losses. Eventual national champion Clemson survived a 43-42 home loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 12 to finish No. 2 in the final rankings. Pitt was unranked at the time of the game but was No. 23 in the committee’s final rankings.


2015

No. 1 in first ranking: Clemson (first in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: LSU (20th in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Ohio State (seventh in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Alabama (second in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 3 Michigan State (seventh in first ranking), No. 4 Oklahoma (15th)

One of the biggest kicks during the College Football Playoff era was courtesy of Michael Geiger, whose 41-yard field goal as time expired lifted Michigan State to a 17-14 win over Ohio State, snapping the Buckeyes’ 23-game winning streak. Ohio State was No. 3 entering the Nov. 21 game. The Spartans won their next two, including a 16-13 win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, to make the playoff. The Iowa-Michigan State tilt was essentially a play-in, as the Hawkeyes came in at No. 4 and the Spartans were No. 5 in the committee’s rankings. Oklahoma made its big move up from No. 15 after beating No. 6 Baylor on the road Nov. 14 then hammering No. 6 Oklahoma State 58-23 two weeks later to win the Big 12 championship game.


2014

No. 1 in first ranking: Mississippi State (seventh in final ranking)

No. 2 in first ranking: Florida State (third in final ranking)

No. 3 in first ranking: Auburn (19th in final ranking)

No. 4 in first ranking: Ole Miss (ninth in final ranking)

Other playoff teams: No. 1 Alabama (sixth in first ranking), No. 2 Oregon (fifth), No. 4 Ohio State (16th)

Three SEC teams in the initial playoff rankings? The rest of the college football world was fuming, but none of the three ended up in the final four. Eventual national champion Ohio State was the comeback story that season. The Buckeyes lost in Week 2 at home by two touchdowns to a Virginia Tech team that dropped six games. Ohio State also lost a pair of quarterbacks — Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett — to injury but clawed back to secure the No. 4 spot in the final rankings, moving up from No. 5 after a 59-0 drubbing on Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Nobody was more upset that season than TCU. At the time, the Big 12 didn’t have a championship game, and the Horned Frogs, who were No. 3 in the next-to-last rankings, closed the regular season by drubbing a 2-10 Iowa State team 55-3. That clinched the Frogs a share of the Big 12 championship, but it wasn’t enough to impress the committee, as TCU somehow fell to No. 6 in the final rankings.

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