5 takeaways from the first CFP rankings: Cincinnati makes history, Pac-12 flops

Pete Thamel
·4 min read

The College Football Playoff released its first set of rankings on Tuesday night. No. 1 Alabama led the list, as expected. Here are five takeaways:

Schedule matters in college football

Amid the inequity and chaos inherent to the 2020 college football season, two factors that will appear to weigh heavily are the quality and the number of opponents.

At the top of the rankings, No. 3 Clemson (7-1) being ahead of Ohio State (4-0) is a sign that who teams have faced and how many games they’ve played will matter for the committee.

Clemson’s lone loss came to Notre Dame on the road in double overtime without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Clemson’s best win (Miami) is equitable to Ohio State’s best win (Indiana), which means Clemson being tested by playing twice the amount of games and showing well at Notre Dame is important.

History for the Bearcats

In the seven-year history of the College Football Playoff rankings, no team from outside a power conference has been ranked higher than Cincinnati at No. 7.

That’s a significant sign of respect for what Luke Fickell has built at Cincinnati, as the Bearcats’ mauling defense, physical style and evolved offense pass the eye test of anyone who has watched.

Cincinnati also blew out No. 16 SMU in Dallas, won at UCF and blew out every opponent on its schedule aside from the Knights. The Bearcats will clearly need help to jump into the top four, but it’s historic that they have a shot.

Leonard Taylor of the Cincinnati Bearcats celebrates as he scores a touchdown against Central Florida on Nov.21, 2020. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Leonard Taylor of the Cincinnati Bearcats celebrates as he scores a touchdown against Central Florida on Nov.21, 2020. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

BYU left behind

The biggest surprise in the initial ranking was where the committee placed No. 14 BYU (9-0). While Cincinnati stayed even with its Associated Press ranking, BYU came in six spots behind. That’s a clear message to the Cougars that their schedule isn’t good enough.

Committee chair Gary Barta, the Iowa athletic director, mentioned that BYU’s best win came against Boise while the Broncos were “shorthanded” because of COVID-19 issues. This was interesting mostly because it offered a window into how the committee would view matchups impacted by the coronavirus.

Barta went on to say that BYU’s “schedule compared to teams around them came into play.” The committee not-so-subtly screamed to the Cougars’ athletic brass: Get on the phone and schedule a formidable opponent, pronto.

BYU was never going to crack the top four. But they’d still likely need a boost from No. 14 to make a New Year’s Six Bowl, which includes a $4 million payout that the independent Cougars don’t have to share with anyone. (They’d have to make it as an at-large.) It’d be surprising if BYU wasn’t more aggressive with its schedule after getting jilted by the committee.

On ESPN’s show, coach Kalani Sitake made clear that BYU wasn’t ducking playing Washington this week when there were rumblings of a game. BYU has just one remaining game scheduled (San Diego State on Dec. 12), but Sitake told ESPN: “We still want to play football. We have open dates. We want to fill them.”

Better luck next year, Pac-12

That was the clear message to the Pac-12, which didn’t have a team higher than No. 15 Oregon (3-0). The league only had two teams in the rankings, which matches the current AP poll.

The Pac-12 is late to the party, and they are clearly going to be stuck at the doorstep craning their necks to watch everyone else having fun. Barta mentioned that Oregon has yet to play a ranked team, and the earliest that could change is Dec. 12. “We put them where we thought they should be for now,” Barta said. That’s something that appears unlikely to change.

The committee also appeared to recognize how fragile USC’s 3-0 record is, as the Trojans required late comebacks against Arizona and Arizona State to wheeze past those milquetoast opponents.

Who else got shafted?

The other big loser of the night was No. 8 Northwestern, which is 5-0 with a blowout of Maryland, road wins at Iowa and Purdue and an impressive home victory against Wisconsin on Saturday.

The Wildcats are just No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, and it was interesting that the committee valued one-loss SEC teams Florida and Texas A&M over them.

That didn’t bother Pat Fitzgerald, who told Yahoo Sports: “I assume we control our own destiny then…1-0 is all we need to focus on.”

That’s a fair analysis. If the Wildcats win out and then beat Ohio State, the presumed East favorite, it would be hard to leave them out of the playoff.

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