Well, tonight is the night, and while it doesn’t hold quite the joyous air of possibility that it seemed like it would most of Saturday afternoon for Penn State fans, the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings by the CFP committee tonight does still have significance for the Nittany Lions.
After all, one loss, on the road, to a top-notch program coming off a bye week, isn’t going to fare all that poorly in comparison with many of the other one-loss teams the committee will be considering in its initial top 15.
To prepare, I’ll be offering my guesses as to who will be ranked in the top 10. But, disclaimer: They’re only guesses. The beauty of a night like this is, you get to see the beginnings of what the committee values, how it will operate moving forward. These initial rankings are hardly predictors of who will finish in the top-4 come December — in fact, they’ve never come closer than halfway to a correct guess — but they do show what the past has meant.
Before we get to my prediction, though, let’s talk a little about where Penn State is going to land.
Penn State is interesting right now. Two weeks ago, they obliterated Michigan at Beaver Stadium. Last week, they were on the way to running Ohio State out of the Horseshoe before the Buckeyes staged a furious fourth-quarter rally to win by one point.
Their biggest win. Their only loss. Back-to-back. This is a team that has generally looked impressive offensively, a team with national interest and a program that has been a very competitive one the last two seasons in maybe the tightest conference in the country right now. But, what does the mere fact that it lost — good loss or not — do to its initial ranking?
Let’s start with some facts:
Teams that Penn State can’t be ranked ahead of: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma
It’s really pretty simple. Alabama is an unbeaten team with a recent history of dominance in a top-flight conference; Georgia also is unbeaten, and it has a signature win over Notre Dame, on the road.
Ohio State and Oklahoma are one-loss teams just like PSU. But, the Buckeyes beat Penn State. And Oklahoma beat the Buckeyes. Penn State doesn’t have a win better than either of those victories.
One-loss teams with a more competitive loss against a better program than Penn State’s loss: Notre Dame, maybe. Virginia Tech, maybe.
I guess, on the surface, it comes down to this question: Is losing to Georgia by one point at home a “better loss” than losing by one point to Ohio State on the road?
Or, is Georgia a better team than Ohio State? Not sure the answer to that one. But, Notre Dame has beaten two teams that were ranked at the time of the game (USC and NC State). Penn State has beaten just one (Michigan). Notre Dame probably falls just shy of the “have to be ranked ahead of PSU” standard. But, the Irish probably will be, partly because they’re the Irish, partly because they’ve been lights-out recently.
Interestingly, Clemson losing to Syracuse might hurt the Hokies’ reputation more than it hurts Clemson. The Hokies lost by 14 to the Tigers when the Tigers were the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. Then, five days later, Clemson got beat by the Orange.
One-loss teams with better wins and a less-competitive loss than Penn State’s: Clemson, TCU, Oklahoma State, Washington
Clemson survived a loss to Pitt last year, but I think the committee probably realized Pitt had a lot of talent in 2016. Not sure they’ll say the same about Syracuse.
TCU lost to Iowa State last week, and Oklahoma State lost to TCU. Neither have Ohio State’s cache. Washington dropped a battle to Arizona State in which its offense went AWOL against a Sun Devils defense that hasn’t stopped anybody else all season.
Unbeaten teams that can be ranked behind Penn State: Miami, Wisconsin, Central Florida
Not suggesting they will be ranked behind Penn State, per se. But the committee has generally done a good job valuing potential over record, and understanding the degrees to which it can do that. Central Florida’s best win came against Navy. Miami has struggled with some mediocre teams, and its one-point win against Florida State no longer looks as impressive. Wisconsin has the easiest schedule in the Big Ten, and it’s not close.The Badgers will not play a ranked team during the regular season (unless Michigan can somehow sneak back in), and the eye test is not kind to them in a potential Big Ten Championship Game matchup against either Ohio State or, by some miracle, Penn State. They might not be favored at home against Michigan in a few weeks, and they’re coming off a brutal showing in a 24-10 win over an Illinois team that might be the worst in a Power 5 conference.
So, here’s how I see this breaking down:
- Ohio State
- Notre Dame
- Penn State
- Oklahoma State
- Iowa State
- Virginia Tech
I’ve seen some of the national media guys rank Penn State in the top four. I’ve seen them ranked as low as No. 9, too.
I think 6 is about right, and I don’t see the committee ranking them worse than No. 7.
Here’s the deal with the top of my list:
- Alabama has earned the right to be No. 1. Its only close game was against Texas A&M, and the Tide wasn’t really challenged in that game. They had a 24-3 lead and the Aggies happened to finish well to lose just 27-19. But to suggest Alabama was challenged in that game? No way. Plus, Alabama crushed Florida State when Deondre Francois was healthy and Florida State was good (if only for a half or so). And, that was all Tide.
- Ohio State is probably the second-most talented team in the nation (if not the first) and it is coming off a stirring win. That’s going to count for something, especially with the committee forced to accept that the offense’s run of dominance against some weaklings might not have been a fluke. Oklahoma comes in third, because its loss no longer looks awful, and Penn State showed how difficult it is to seal the deal at the Horseshoe, which the Sooners did.
- Georgia or Notre Dame for No. 4? That’s an easy one, given the result of the head -to-head matchup.
How did the rest of it fall into place?
- Where does Wisconsin fit? Do the Badgers get the benefit of an unbeaten record, even though they haven’t played…anybody of consequence? Any one-loss team who has played a better team than Wisconsin has should be ranked ahead of the Badgers, to me. So, they get dropped to 11.
- Where does The U fit? Same deal. The ‘Canes have at least played Florida State, and some of the middle-of-the-pack ACC teams. So, they go 10.
- The real interesting decisions are going to come in the 6-9 range with Penn State, Clemson, TCU and Oklahoma State.
To me…and this is just my opinion…but a bad loss trumps a good win. Sure, you beat the No. 15 team three weeks ago. But, you just lost to a team that would be happy to be bowl eligible. I get that the CFP committee is measuring the whole picture, but the picture often looks different in December than it does in September.
I ranked Penn State ahead of Clemson. I think the committee will, too.
Bottom line: You can’t criticize Miami for playing a weak schedule, then overlook the fact that Clemson lost to a team that plays as weak a schedule as Miami. Syracuse lost to Middle Tennessee State. IN FOOTBALL! Sorry, but that matters. I know, Clemson has beaten some ranked teams — Auburn, for starters, but also Louisville (before it tanked) and VA Tech. But would Michigan beat Louisville or the Hokies? Maybe.
What I do know is, if Penn State played Syracuse this weekend, Penn State would be favored by four touchdowns and the critics would complain that they don’t play anybody. I think Penn State showed enough in the Ohio State loss to demonstrate that it can play with elite teams. Clemson has shown it can play with some pretty good teams, and that it can also lose to a bad one. Penn State hasn’t shown that.
It will be interesting to see where this goes.