CFP Rankings Review + Alabama-LSU Preview

It happens almost every year.

The College Football Playoff Committee gets together, assembles their ranking and leaves at least one team out.  Sometimes that’s their fault.  Sometimes it isn’t.

In 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff, it was.  They shunned the Big 12’s two best representatives in TCU and Baylor for Florida State and Ohio State respectively.

In 2017 and ‘18, it wasn’t their fault.  Sure, there were legitimate cases for Ohio State and Georgia – in any other year they were Playoff teams.  But two losses wasn’t going to cut it.  Not with that crop of teams ahead of them.

This year slips in between the committee’s past.  The country’s top tier of teams consists of five.  Only four can make the playoff.  And there’s not a lot of separation between all of them.  The top three teams have a real case for No.1, and the gap between No.4 and No.5 is extremely close.

This season is reminiscent of last.  It’s just that Clemson’s (or Penn State’s) case is much, much better than Ohio State or Georgia’s.  And that makes things so much harder.

Support for Ohio State at No.1 overall makes sense.  The Buckeyes have looked and been absolutely unstoppable.  They’re No.1 in Football Outsiders’ overall FEI thanks to their No. 4 rank offensively and second defensively.  Justin Fields is among a crowded bunch for the Heisman Trophy, which also features his stud teammate Chase Young.  JK Dobbins is having another insanely productive season at running back; rounding out a deadly offense.

That pure dominance could be tied to their schedule.  They’ve played one good team (Michigan State was counted as the second, but they also lost to Arizona State at home, soooooo) in Wisconsin.

Sure, Ohio State should have blown out everyone they’ve played thus far.  But going out and actually making that happen when everyone is expecting that is much harder than it seems.  Ohio State is meeting and exceeding expectations.  Wisconsin’s revolutionary (For them, it’s revolutionary) passing attack should have given the Buckeyes a bit of trouble when dealing with Jonathan Taylor simultaneously.  It didn’t, and the Buckeyes romped them.

If Ohio State hasn’t played anyone, then Alabama really hasn’t played anyone, which is why they find themselves at No. 3 overall.  Their best win was over a ranked Texas A&M team that doesn’t even find themselves in the rankings anymore.  Any debate about the Tide being placed behind LSU is closed for now.

The LSU-Ohio State debate is a very real and fun one.  The committee selected Ohio State because of the case above.  It’s an interesting pivot from the AP Poll, and displays that strength of schedule may not matter as much as we think.

The committee seems to be relying on the eye test and even their gut.  The Tigers demolish the Buckeyes in SOS and likely tie them in the eye test – LSU’s offense the past two seasons has been the missing piece to making this program a Playoff contender.  Now it’s there, and it’s terrifying.

But doesn’t Ohio State seem scarier?  LSU being an explosive team with a downfield passing attack still seems too good to be true.  Is that what the committee rooted its decision in?  Or were they just trying to avoid the classic SEC bias?

Somehow, this isn’t the most controversial decision they made.

Penn State is undefeated.  That alone is impressive.  And their schedule has been better than Ohio State’s – they’ve actually played two decently tough conference opponents as opposed to just one.  Both have been tight wins, but that’s expected with true competition.  They’re ninth in overall FEI, with their defense ranking tenth and offense 20th.

And yet, them beating Clemson in any game seems completely inconceivable.

The difference is simple.  Clemson has Trevor Lawrence.  Penn State doesn’t.  Clemson has Travis Etienne.  Penn State doesn’t.  Clemson has Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.  Penn State doesn’t (KJ Hamler is really, really good).

They haven’t shown it, but Clemson is just a better team.  They’re more talented.  That’s why Clemson wins that football game.

That’s also why Penn State, despite the projection above, deserves to be ranked ahead of the Tigers for now.  Clemson has looked really bad despite being 8-0.  They’ve started slow in a couple games, almost lost to North Carolina and didn’t stomp on Texas A&M whatsoever, winning only 24-10.  Lawrence has thrown the 10th-most interceptions in the country with eight, and some of them have been really bad decisions (That despite the glorifying of him above).

Penn State over Clemson – for now – is the right decision.  But the committee gets a little hypocritical here.  If they’re choosing strength of schedule for Penn State, then why didn’t they do it for LSU when it comes to No.1?

Here are a couple other thoughts regarding the committee’s first rankings…

The Big 12 disrespect is real

The Big 12 and Pac-12 are becoming eerily similar of one another, and because of it, the committee could be punishing them.

As proven by Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas State, the Big 12 is starting to become a conference in which anyone can lose to anyone, most of that rooted in the putrid defense and the explosive offenses that reside in the league.  In shootouts, it comes down to the last possession, and there’s a 50% chance that “x” team gets that chance.

The Pac-12 is similar.  Not necessarily in the strategy that it takes to get there, but in the results that the teams in the league produce.  The Pac-12 is trash because no one is that good, and that leads to anyone having a chance against anyone.  The Big-12 has at least one good team, but has their own reasons as to why.

Utah ranked above Oklahoma is a bit wild.  Each have a pretty bad loss (Utah’s being to USC).  They rank behind Oklahoma in overall FEI, don’t have nearly the offensive firepower or a Heisman contender and skirted past an unranked Washington just last weekend.  It’s hard to think that the Utes would have a chance at keeping up against the Sooners offense, but we did see what a good defense does to Lincoln Riley’s scheme last Playoff.

Baylor might deserve a little less credit.  Auburn and Florida, who’re ranked ahead of the Bears, were legitimate Playoff contenders at one point this season; a season which had eight Playoff teams after four games, which felt like quite a bit after that much of a sample size.  The Bears aren’t of that quality yet despite their 8-0 record.  It took them 2OTs to beat Texas Tech (A classic Big 12 game) and they barely got by West Virginia in their last contest.

The Minnesota disrespect is deserved

When you want to talk about not playing anyone, Minnesota might be the crown jewel of that statement this year.

The Gophers beat South Dakota State, a FCS school, by seven.  Then they went to double overtime with Fresno State.  Then they beat Georgia Southern by three.

That came in back-to-back-to-back weeks.  And they followed that up with wins against Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers – the Big Ten’s bottom of the shoe, and that might be an understatement.

So that’s how Minnesota got to 8-0.  No. 17 overall sounds about right.

Now for a look at No.3 Alabama vs. No.2 LSU…

Contrary to how it’s being marketed and talked about, this game is not nearly as big as we tend to think.

Perhaps the most important takeaway we’ll have from this game is the tape it produces, which would serve as a nice basis for a potential rematch in the future.

Whoever loses is in fine shape. Penn State, despite their case above and they’re No.4 ranking, likely won’t make the Playoff thanks to an upcoming date with Ohio State in another week. That opens up a spot for Clemson. Neither LSU or Alabama – with one loss and the ceiling they’ve showed – will drop from the top four with a loss Saturday.

It certainly affects the race for the No. 1 position. But how important is that really??

Plus, if Tua Tagovliola is not the quarterback Saturday, a loss for Alabama is perfectly excusable. They shouldn’t be expected to win at all if he doesn’t play.

Tua is the obvious and massive x-factor here. Tua not playing gives the Tide almost no chance. Tua playing makes them almost hard to bet against.

Tua is expected to play.

But the last clause of that second sentence is worth considering. What if he’s not Tua. What if he’s 80 percent? Is 90 even good enough?? This isn’t your normal LSU team. You might actually have to outscore them as opposed to grinding out a defensive-oriented game.

Tua not playing didn’t make a difference against Ole Miss. Mac Wilson was impeccable. But that was Ole Miss, a defense that was 47th in defensive FEI.

LSU ranks 23rd, which feels a bit low and offensive given the talent on that side of the ball.  Their pass defense is likely the cause for that drop; it’s what happens when you lose a guy like Greedy Williams.  But the Tigers are tough to run on; they rank 13th in rushing yards per attempt and rushing yards allowed per game at 3.0 and 97.9, respectively.

A defense that can be thrown on is scary against the Tide.  Their mercenary receiver group of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith is one of the best of all-time, and could negate a non-100% Tua.  This is the No. 1 ranked team in offensive FEI, and that’s not adjusted for Mac Wilson’s start.

Alabama is still very good in the defensive department despite their own drop statistically.  They rank ninth in defensive FEI – much higher than LSU.  The Tide have been lockdown through the air while their usually stout defensive front hasn’t been as good against the run.  Alabama ranks fourth in passing yards per attempt allowed and 13th in passing yards per game allowed at just a mere 180.1

If Bama can shut down the LSU passing game, then that reduces LSU to the type of team they were before Joe Burrow got to campus:  an old fashioned SEC team that doesn’t score a lot of points and has a grinding defense.  That’d be fine if the Tigers were dealing with a Tua-less Bama squad; it’d essentially be the same type of team squaring off against one another.  Unfortunately for the Tigers, Tua is going to play, and probably be just fine.

Prediction: Alabama-27  LSU-20