Seven-Step Drop: Seven Key Questions for the College Football Playoff Selection Committee
Halloween is in the rearview mirror and college football is about to enter a new phase as the calendar rips off the October page and settles into the November stretch run. As much as that means intriguing division races across the country and some compelling rivalry games still on tap, it also marks the return of everybody’s favorite thing to hate on Tuesday night: the College Football Playoff Selection Committee rankings.
This year’s rankings are set against a unique 2021 backdrop that includes extensive talk of expansion to eight or 12 teams in the next few years, an incredibly active coaching carousel that seems to add a Power Five opening each week, and an abnormally large amount of chaos in pretty much every nook and cranny of the sport.
Related: College Football Top 25 Rankings (After Week 9)
As much as we like to parse every statement though, the weekly rankings do serve as the opportunity for us all to read way too much into what the committee is generally thinking and given insight into just how the postseason will be shaped over the coming weeks. With that in mind, here are seven key questions ahead of the committee’s top 25 that CFB fans want to know.
1. Does Cincinnati control their CFP fate?
The Bearcats notched a 31-12 win over Tulane but have been a tad sloppy the past two weeks following back-to-back routs of UCF and Temple. UC is No. 2 in the polls almost by default and it will be interesting to see if that affects the committee’s voting patterns at all given both the dearth of Power Five options and their status as an undefeated team that has lost just a single game in two years. The victory over Notre Dame continues to resonate loudly in terms of both marquee and on-field results — a big plus given that Indiana win has faded a lot more than Cincy had hoped.
Add it all up and it would not at all be shocking to see a few one-loss teams slide in ahead of Luke Fickell’s squad when the final six get released — that’s been the CFP M.O. for a few years now. It’s still a lock they’ll be the highest-ranked Group of Five team at this point in the process but the larger question remains as to if Cincinnati really controls their chance at a semifinal or if they need a few more contenders from the Power Five leagues to help them out with additional losses.
2. Would Alabama over Georgia in Atlanta lock up two bids for the SEC?
In the past, the CFP chair has noted gaps between teams in the rankings and it will be something to parse out to see if Alabama is a name that is firmly settled among the elite group along with fellow conference mate Georgia. The Bulldogs are the easy choice atop the poll but who the committee thinks is in the same area code is always worthy of debate. The Tide do have a loss but it may be one of the better ones around if the Aggies a) are the top two-loss team and b) keep winning. They did look a little mortal beyond Kyle Field this season, such as in the win over Florida, but still sport quality victories over Ole Miss and Mississippi State plus a host of favorable advanced metrics.
If we’re sitting here in early November having Bama in the top four already with the potential for even better wins against Auburn and UGA still to come, then it may well be time to consider it fait accompli that the SEC locks up half the field if Nick Saban beats Kirby Smart in Atlanta once again.
3. Does the eye test elevate Ohio State over Oregon’s resume?
The recent AP Poll has Ohio State at No. 6 and Oregon at No. 7 — something that will not happen Tuesday night given how the committee respects head-to-head results. But it nevertheless will be intriguing to note if there’s a gap at all between the Ducks and Buckeyes like there is in the Coaches Poll (No. 6 Michigan State separates the two, with OSU two spots ahead of UO).
What happened on the field in Columbus can’t be denied but each side has taken diverging paths from that point forward. Mario Cristobal’s squad has basically played two great quarters at the Horseshoe, then were middling at best as they entered Pac-12 play. The loss at Stanford was dreadful but does come with the caveat that OC Joe Moorhead missed it with health issues. Does the committee simply toss out the result completely, penalize the Ducks extra for their lackluster efforts prior to Saturday’s romp over Colorado or try and thread the needle?
The Buckeyes aspect of the equation is equally compelling in terms of intrigue. Ryan Day certainly has a talented roster and the team does lead the country in scoring and total offense. They’ve been looking like the death machine we’re used to seeing in Columbus even if the competition level wasn’t the highest until they knocked off Penn State in prime time. They have the best chance of pretty much anybody to stack top-10 wins on top of the eye test they likely are passing so it’s going to be fascinating to get a read on where the committee really values Ohio State. If the committee has a decent gap between the two programs on Tuesday, it might well be time to consider a one-loss OSU getting in ahead of a team that beat them given a bigger and better body of work. Surely that scenario won’t generate any controversy at all, right?
Also left unsaid about OSU’s potential strength is what happens if both they and Michigan State are sitting there at 11-1 going into championship weekend? Could the Big Ten have a shot at placing two in lieu of the SEC scenario? Reading into the Buckeyes may gain us more clarity on that than wherever the Spartans get placed in the top six.
4. Will undefeated Wake Forest at least keep the door open for the ACC?
To state the obvious: it’s not a great year in the ACC. The normal standard-bearer Clemson will be an absentee when it comes to the CFP discussion and it sure seems like the league will get an up-close look at how the Pac-12 has been treated in recent years when it comes to the Tuesday show and associated debates that arise.
Hope is not completely lost for commissioner Jim Phillips’ conference though as they do sport one of the six undefeated teams still left standings. The Demon Deacons cracked the top 10 in both the polls for the first time in school history on Sunday and seem to be gaining notice beyond the Carolinas but there’s still a healthy dose of skepticism from many in both a name-brand standpoint and an on-field results viewpoint. Wake does not have a single top-25 win to their credit and may not even get a shot at one if the ACC keeps doing its thing. Their offense has been a sight to behold under Dave Clawson but this is still the same team that has also eked out victories over Louisville and Syracuse plus allowed Army to put up 56 points.
The outcry of an undefeated Power Five team getting left out of a four-team playoff seems incomprehensible but isn’t that what this sport is all about?
5. Just how alive is Notre Dame and Michigan?
The Irish are just sitting there as a one-loss team, lurking as a talented squad that has experienced a fair amount of growing pains as they replace some key pieces from last season’s CFP run. They have to enjoy Wisconsin bouncing back to potentially get back to winning the B1G West but beyond that, the schedule is a bit light this year. USC and Stanford don’t boost anything other than sunshine in b-roll packages and the ACC set of opponents are underperforming far beyond their normal brand names. Navy is bad and even the trip to Virginia doesn’t look as notable given QB Brennan Armstrong’s rib injury he suffered in a loss to BYU. At the end of the day, they may only have wins over three bowl teams depending on how things break.
Yet, this is still Notre Dame we’re talking about. And as we saw in glimpses against USC and North Carolina recently, the Irish can still string together a few impressive drives to put away games. Given how chaotic things have been around the country, is it too crazy to suggest ND still has the opportunity to make it into the field if their lone loss was a close-ish one to an undefeated Cincinnati early in the year? If Brian Kelly sees his team’s name on the final slide near the Georgia and Alabamas of the world, then maybe the most loathed program in the sport could sneak in.
6. How do you define Oklahoma/Oklahoma State and does Baylor have a real shot?
The Big 12 still has the rest of November to beat itself up but an early read on the league could prove valuable given the opportunities ahead to add top-25 wins. 7-1 Baylor has been a great surprise and it will be a good moment for Dave Aranda to see the Bears appear somewhere on the screen Tuesday night as a showcase of how far things have come in Waco in Year 2.
But the biggest Rorschach test may lie in Bedlam. Oklahoma is the only 9-0 team in the country and has their fate fully in their own hands but we’ve gotten a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde dynamic from the Sooners. They struggled to put away Tulane in the opener, had Nebraska in a one-score game, played a slugfest against West Virginia and then had a crazy shootout against Texas in Red River. Oh, and then there’s the whole quarterback controversy, a defense that has yet to show some consistency and simply the fact that they struggled to beat Kansas — Kansas! Even sitting there undefeated, don’t be shocked if OU is the great talk of the rankings release show after the Sooners end up far lower than they are in the polls. That will be due to both their lack of top-25 wins and the maddening way they seem to do just enough each week.
Mike Gundy’s crew is a bit of a different equation. The Cowboys are led by their defense and it’s proven to be one of the better units in the entire country so far in 2021. They did beat Baylor earlier this season and made a sharp contrast to their in-state rivals by having their first-team defense hold Kansas to zero first downs on Saturday in a 55-3 blowout. They could get two shots to dethrone Oklahoma but unlike 2011, could have some leeway after a loss at Iowa State depending on where they land initially and after Thanksgiving in the eyes of the committee.
7. How does the rest of the New Year’s Six shape up?
It’s been such a wild season so far that while the playoff itself seems like it’s taken a backseat, so too has the race for some pretty compelling New Year’s Six spots. I mean, we’re actually going to get a Rose Bowl at the actual Rose Bowl this season so that’s reason enough for some teams to be intrigued at what could be the possible pecking order when it comes to those other marquee postseason trips.
Related: Updated College Football Bowl Projections for 2021-22
For pollsters, it’s been nine weeks of sometimes spinning a roulette wheel and seeing what number comes up for some teams. To put it mildly, the field is wide open for some of the at-large spots and it could be fascinating to figure out if a team like UTSA is viewed favorably enough to potentially crack the threshold for a second Group of Five bid if they run the table. Or if it’s Texas A&M, Kentucky or Ole Miss that could be the favorite for a trip to the Sugar Bowl should Alabama win out. Is there a second Pac-12 team that even makes the top 20 and would therefore be in line for a trip to Pasadena if Oregon heads to the final four? Could it be Michigan that smells some roses at 10-2 or is that someone else out of the Big Ten? Kentucky fans feeling blue about their loss to Mississippi State could sure take solace in the possibility they’re still in the running for a big-time bowl bid too and so on, and so on.
Finally, don’t discount the joy and prestige it means for some programs just to find their way onto the Top 25 at this point in the year even if we don’t know how the next few weeks will play out.
It’s been a wild college football season so far and now it’s time to turn it over to the selection committee to start to make sense of it.
Good luck to all involved in that. Not only is it a bit of an impossible task but regardless of the final outcome, everybody already hates it.
(But bring it on anyway as the perfect lead-in for Tuesday #MACtion)
Seven Other Thoughts This Week
— Michigan/Michigan State deliver a classic
What a treat we had under the dull gray sky of East Lansing on Saturday as the much anticipated Michigan-Michigan State clash wound up becoming a "game of the year" candidate. The Spartans and Wolverines combined to produce a little bit of everything, from wild swings of momentum, a crazy comeback, and even FOX play-by-play man Gus Johnson going up two or three octaves with each series in the fourth quarter. While the national focus will undoubtedly zero in on Jim Harbaugh's side coming up short once again, the more legitimate focus should be on what Mel Tucker has done in short order. Not only has he flipped the roster in seemingly one offseason and coached up the leading Heisman Trophy candidate in Kenneth Walker III, but he’s made this group live up to their Spartans nickname by facing opponents head-on and never backing down. They did their best to put the game in Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara’s hands as much as possible defensively and just kept battling down the stretch to whittle away the lead until they had one themselves. The ol’ Paul Bunyan Trophy series has seen some good games over the years, but this year’s edition featuring the largest comeback in the series since 2004 is right up near the very top. There will be a massive amount of job speculation for both head coaches after this one but that needs to be sequestered away for a few days to let this one breathe just a bit more. The Big Ten East was shaping up to have a heck of a November and between this one and Ohio State-Penn State, we got our first look at a refreshed pecking order in what might be the toughest division in CFB.
— Tyler Van Dyke looks like QB of the future at Miami
The CFB and NFL world coming into Saturday was buzzing about Kenny Pickett, with Heisman Trophy talk thrown around nonchalantly and a growing realization that maybe Pitt — Pitt! — was indeed one of the favorites to actually win the entire ACC. Despite a robust 519 passing yards and three touchdowns (plus two picks), the signal-caller exited Week 9 with the passing of another Dan Marino school record taking the back seat to a disappointing 38-34 loss to Miami. In fact, Pickett may not have left Heinz Field as the QB with the brightest future despite the talk at the next level. That’s a reflection of just how good young Hurricanes freshman Tyler Van Dyke has been ever since getting fully accustomed to the starting role. He had just 10 incompletions on 41 attempts with 428 yards and three scores (one INT) at Pitt, possibly saving his head coach’s job in the process given how tenuous the situation has been recently in Coral Gables. This UM squad started the year with a lot of hype around their QB as NIL ramped up but it might be the kid from Connecticut who gives The U their best hope at a bright future under Manny Diaz and company.
— Georgia flexes, turns up heat on Florida
It would be fascinating to see if one could measure the actual amount of alcohol consumed by Florida fans in the final 150 seconds of game time in the first half because it may have been best rationalized by a percentage of the volume of Lake Okeechobee. If you tuned in at all to the World’s Largest Cocktail Party, you instantly recognize the exact stretch that refers to in Jacksonville and just how intoxicated both sides were — the Gators quite literally and Bulldogs fans unapologetically with their historic defense. It wasn’t just that UF lost 34-7 on Saturday afternoon, no it was the way they were embarrassed that stood out in sharp contrast to an inspired effort against Alabama a few weeks ago. QB Anthony Richardson went from anointed savior by the fan base to a passing thought as fleeting hopes of winning were replaced by a rather low bar of simply putting points on the board. That’s no easy feat against UGA this year of course, and after a short field goal attempt was yanked past the goal post there was some sudden scrambling to note that Florida had not been blanked completely in 417 consecutive games (the current NCAA record and a streak that dates back to 1988). Emory Jones was eventually able to find the end zone to help keep make it moot but it was all a good reminder that despite last year’s results in Duval, the gap between the programs remains fairly wide at the moment.
Kirby Smart seemed to bring this up with a not-so-subtle shot at the operation down in Gainesville by noting that no coach is going to out-coach the players on the field and that you have no chance if you don’t spend the time recruiting good players. Dan Mullen has been rightfully discussed as one of the best play-callers and game-schemers in CFB the past few weeks despite issues on the field. But it is that undeniable talent gap that was glaringly obvious Saturday that has his seat warming and a fan base nodding along in agreement with the coach of their biggest rival about what the Gators’ biggest issue really is.
— Big Ten West remains a work in progress
The Big Ten’s imbalanced divisional structure gets brought up pretty much every year but it is kind of wild to see the West division standings feature a team that lost to Bowling Green at home (Minnesota) atop the pack followed by a program that has been thumped by anybody outside the division (Wisconsin). You go down the list some more and note next in line is a team that finally cracked the 24-point barrier in league play and another squad that was at one point No. 2 in the country. The Gophers still have two of their toughest divisional tests left but you can’t help but wonder if they hadn’t lost to home if they wouldn’t find themselves in the top 15 of the CFP rankings and looking at a potential New Year’s Six invite if things broke correctly. Alas, this is the B1G West, which seems destined to have every game played at noon with chilly overcast weather and large chunks of sod ripped up amid heavy usage of 13 personnel.
— Bowling Green gives us peak #MACtion
Speaking of Minnesota, the team that beat them a few weeks back gave us quite the dose of #MACtion just ahead of the conference kicking off midweek games again. The Falcons not only went into Buffalo to pull a 56-44 upset, but they did so in about as unique of circumstances as you’ll find — including head coach Scot Loeffler getting ejected in the third quarter, a combined 49 points in the fourth quarter alone and let’s just say some late hijinks that may have earned QB Matt McDonald a place in infamy on a few Bulls’ lists:
You truly see something new every week in the MAC and even if you have zero rooting interests in any of America’s fine Midwestern programs, that’s reason enough why you should be tuning in to pretty much every league game when possible.
— Indiana, Iowa State amp up the debate for the most disappointing team in 2021
It was mentioned in this column last week that Indiana was among the most disappointing teams in the country this year but the Hoosiers added another data point on Saturday in a 38-35 loss to Maryland that was not even as close as that final score indicated. Now IU was down to a freshman quarterback given injuries at the position but it remains nearly unfathomable that this team is winless in Big Ten play going into November. The defense is not anywhere close to what it was a year ago and the offensive malaise has some already thinking about potential new coordinators for 2022. The outcome was a big one for the Terrapins as they’ve got bowl eligibility in sight but the game just said far much more about the team they defeated.
While that preseason top 25 team has faltered, so too has another darling in Iowa State. There was legitimate Big 12 title and even CFP talk surrounding the Cyclones yet they find themselves at just 5-3 on the year after losing to West Virginia. ISU’s defense was far from where it had been and Brock Purdy seems to have regressed running the team’s offense. While it shouldn’t take the shine off Matt Campbell in this kind of coaching cycle, the way this team has returned to earth after being built up the past few years is a good enough reminder to celebrate those highs when they come because even if things look like they’ll align perfectly the next season, college football has a way of dishing out some humbling reminders that things rarely happen as scripted.
— Wazzu thumps Arizona State, London falls, Oregon State hits a speed bump, Utah takes control of the South
It was once again another week of being unable to make sense of the football played out West. Oregon did throttle Colorado for one bit of normalcy but it was surprises otherwise around the Pac-12 over the weekend. Cal putting up 39 points to deal a setback to Oregon State was one head-turner but the biggest shock was certainly Washington State completely outclassing Arizona State 34-21 in Tempe. It not only earned interim head coach Jake Dickert a Gatorade bath after the final whistle but also felt like a bit of catharsis for the entire program after the events of last week surrounding the firing of Nick Rolovich and several other staffers. The Cougs' defense forced five turnovers and incredibly control their own destiny in the North division. By not just winning the game but winning in the manner they did, Wazzu also improbably shifted the focus away from Pullman to what exactly has gone on at ASU. The Sun Devils were supposed to be one of the South division favorites and had largely built up their roster to have a great 2021 but sit at just 5-3 with a long road ahead to even make it to Vegas. Add in the NCAA investigation and it feels like the slow march to the end for Herm Edwards tenure that never really delivered any sort of results beyond a few feel-good moments with his broadcast buddies. It says it all that WSU now has as many wins as fired coaches and ASU now has as many losses as coaches on paid leave.
At a lifeless Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Arizona was surprisingly punchy against USC in a game where the most notable thing about it might have been the loss of Trojans’ receiver Drake London to a broken ankle. It’s yet more brutal news for the team and especially for the player himself, who looked like he was a lock to earn the school’s next Biletnikoff Award given the year he was having. At least the Cardinal and Gold netted a win on Saturday, something their local rivals did not after getting run over in Salt Lake City by a Utah team that is in line to lock up the division title by mid-November. Washington’s win over Stanford was so unwatchable that it won’t be spoken of again but at least those in the Pacific/Mountain Time Zones could take solace in BYU-Virginia turning into an old-school WAC shootout to save the night when the Pac-12 did not give us the after-dark entertainment we’re used to.
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
Stat of the Week
Make It Make Sense Item of the Week
No Really, Make It Make Sense
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State
Team of the Week: Washington State
Goat of the Week: Dan Mullen
Heisman Five: 1. Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State), 2. Jordan Davis (Georgia), 3. Bryce Young (Alabama), 4. Kenny Pickett (Pitt), 5. Caleb Williams (Oklahoma)
Projected Playoff: 1. Georgia, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Ohio State, 4. Cincinnati
Projected New Year’s Six: Orange Bowl — Georgia vs. Cincinnati, Cotton Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Ohio State, Rose Bowl — Oregon vs. Michigan State, Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. Oklahoma State, Fiesta Bowl — Texas A&M vs. Notre Dame, Peach Bowl — Michigan vs. Wake Forest
The Super 16
Here’s my ballot in this week’s FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
3. Ohio State
4. Michigan State
7. Notre Dame
8. Texas A&M
9. Wake Forest
13. Oklahoma State
Wake Forest at North Carolina
Who would have guessed in August this Carolina clash would have national implications for… the Deacs? And that this quirky non-conference conference game would be among the most intriguing games on the slate for Week 10 despite having zero impact on the wide-open ACC race? Wild times. This might be the spot where Wake gets tripped up but given the state of things in Chapel Hill, it figures to be a high-scoring game where Dave Clawson’s side does just enough to keep a touchdown cushion for most of the second half. The Pick: Wake Forest +2.5
Auburn at Texas A&M
Perhaps it says a lot about how the SEC West race has changed that this was CBS’ TV pick and not LSU-Alabama. The Tigers are fresh off their upset of Ole Miss but they’ll face a different challenge on the road against the Aggies, which have the defense to force Bo Nix into some mistakes. This seems like a close one until a few turnovers tilt it in favor of the home side. The Pick: A&M -4.5
UTSA at UTEP
The Miners rallied to make things interesting late against Florida Atlantic but didn’t seem super sharp during their trip to Florida. Add that to the long trip home after a loss and a really good team coming in that’s rested with an extra week to prepare and… this could get ugly early and often. The Pick: UTSA -12
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.