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The College Football Playoff committee took a look at nine weeks of action and came away with the same conclusion as everyone else: Alabama is the cream of the crop.
The defending national champions earned the top spot in Tuesday’s inaugural rankings, followed by Clemson, Michigan and Texas A&M. The Aggies leapfrogged undefeated Washington, which comes in at No. 5. Ohio State and Louisville round out the Top Seven as the likeliest to ascend to one of the four spots should any of the top teams falter.
Here is a look at how everything played out:
While the committee tends to have its own mindset regarding the rankings, the four teams atop the Associated Press and Amway Coaches Poll were widely expected to stay the same in some order. Thus, Texas A&M’s jump to fourth—it’s ranked seventh in both the AP and coaches poll—was the biggest surprise of the inaugural CFP rankings.
Alabama is 8-0, and five of its eight opponents were ranked at the time of their matchups. The Crimson Tide have won all but one of their games by 19 or more points, including a stretch of three straight victories against ranked opponents. They will face a rejuvenated LSU team on Saturday, which is undefeated since firing Les Miles after a 2-2 start.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban told reporters he anticipates a challenge Saturday night:
We have a lot of respect for LSU, the things that they do. They are well-coached. They’ve been able to run the ball extremely effectively. They have a really good play-action pass game that goes with it. They have some really good skill guys who can make big plays. The quarterback has done a nice job for them. So this is very challenging team based on the balance they create and what they do.
Should Alabama prevail, it figures to create an even bigger chasm between itself and the other “unbeatens.”
Second-ranked Clemson leapfrogged Michigan from the major college polls on the back of its victories against elite competition. The Tigers are 4-0 against teams ranked in the Massey Top 40, including two wins over Top 10 teams. They haven’t always looked the best—five of their eight wins have come by only one score—but beating Louisville and Florida State carries a lot of weight.
Third-ranked Michigan has taken the opposite track, mostly beating up on a schedule of shaky competition. The Wolverines have won seven games by two or more scores but have taken down just one ranked opponent. Their schedule doesn’t pose much of a challenge until a Nov. 26 clash with Ohio State—a matchup that seems certain to determine the Big Ten’s playoff representative.
Texas A&M pulled into fourth thanks to its strength of schedule. The Aggies defeated Auburn on the road and Arkansas and Tennessee at home. Their only loss of the season came on the road at Alabama.
“The committee believes that Texas A&M, at this time, has played a stronger schedule than Washington,” CFP Chairman Kirby Hocutt said, per ESPN (via Travis L. Brown of the Eagle).
Kevin Sumlin’s team has a legitimate shot at ending the regular season 11-1 despite low expectations coming into the season. Its only remaining game against a ranked opponent is a season-closing matchup against LSU. Each of the Aggies’ final three games are at home and three of their last four are against teams with .500 records or worse. The scheduling advantage that is helping them now will likely dissipate a bit over the coming weeks.
Washington is the only legitimate playoff contender in the Pac-12 amid the conference’s down season. The Huskies have reeled off eight straight victories seemingly out of nowhere, boasting a balanced offense that has flawlessly carved its way through mostly mid-tier competition. Their 44-6 victory over Stanford looks less impressive with each passing week, and Utah may have provided an upset blueprint before blowing things late last week.
Washington should nonetheless be heavy favorites for each of its remaining regular-season contests. Rival Washington State, itself a bit of a surprise in the conference, is the only major test remaining. USC has reeled off four straight wins since a 1-3 start but will have to travel north for its shot at beating the Huskies.
Because of the early nature of these rankings, the playoff picture remains heavily in flux. A team such as Penn State looks better in the committee’s eyes at the moment because of its relatively difficult schedule. The Nittany Lions’ only opponent with a winning Big Ten record the rest of the way is Iowa—not exactly a barnburner opponent.
Outside the Top Seven, none of the teams with one loss have looked impressive enough to leapfrog into the conversation. Those teams have clearly established themselves as the cream of the crop, so the only way the playoff race heats up is if we see some upsets.
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.