Clemson shouldn’t fret, but Alabama maybe should

Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks on during the game against Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 12, 2019 in College Station, Texas.

Credit: Logan Riely

Credit: Logan Riely

Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks on during the game against Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 12, 2019 in College Station, Texas.

Clemson has played for three of the past four national titles and won two. Alabama has played for the past four national titles and won two. Clemson is undefeated. Alabama is undefeated. Neither is ranked among the nation’s top two teams, according to the College Football Playoff committee, which generates the only rankings that matter.

For all who insist that rankings are largely a function of reputation, the set released Tuesday night stands as counterpoint. Clemson and Alabama have essentially been 1-2, or 2-1, in college football for 4-1/2 seasons. But Bama wasn't No. 1 or No. 2 in the CFP's eyes, and Clemson wasn't No. 3 or 4. If you've ever asked, "Does the committee even watch games?" … well, there's your answer.

This isn’t to say the two superpowers won’t be included in the field of four come Dec. 8. It would still be a shock if Clemson doesn’t make it. (Alabama has a rockier road, as we’ll discuss momentarily.) But the committee has been saying for the entirety of its existence that it doesn’t go on what happened in any year other than the one at hand, and someday folks might begin to believe it.

The writers/broadcasters who vote in the Associated Press poll have Bama No. 2 and Clemson No. 4. Alabama is No. 1 and Clemson No. 3 in the USA Today coaches’ poll. The committee held neither in such high esteem, ranking the Crimson Tide No. 3 and the Tigers No. 5. AP has LSU No. 1; the committee rated it No. 2. That part gave me pause, seeing as how Ohio State is No. 1 and the Buckeyes’ claims to fame are victories over Wisconsin and Cincinnati, Nos. 13 and 20 in the CFP’s ranking. LSU, meanwhile, has beaten No. 10 Florida and No. 11 Auburn. But if we check strength of schedule on, we find …

Ohio State is No. 3 nationally. LSU is No. 8. To paraphrase Jesse Pinkman: Yay, data!

It’s easy to make fun of committees. (Google “sarcastic definition of committee,” and you’ll get the drift.)The CFP, however, must pluck four teams from somewhere, and everybody agreed that the BCS mashup of human polls and computer ratings was flawed if not foolish. The CFP has commissioned 13 actual people — all of whom with a background in college sports, one of whom is athletic director at the Georgia Institute of Technology and another who may or may not be my cousin — and lets them work.

(Florida AD Scott Stricklin is on the committee. He believes we’re related. He has relatives from Paintsville, Ky. Some are named Williams. My mom and dad were from Paintsville. My mom’s maiden name was Williams. DNA tests are pending.)

This isn’t to say the committee has or will get everything right. This is, however, to suggest that the committee tries very hard to get things right, which is all we can ask. Georgia fans will whine forever that the two-loss non-champion Bulldogs should have been admitted ahead of one-loss Big 12 champ Oklahoma or no-loss no-champ Notre Dame last year, but most of the committee disagreed — and so did I. When in doubt, being the champ of something should matter. Being unbeaten against Notre Dame’s schedule should matter.

There's a chance the committee could again face a similar issue re: Georgia. If the Bulldogs win the rest of their regular-season games but lose to Alabama/LSU in the SEC championship, they'd be a two-loss non-champ. Tuesday's rankings had Georgia as the top one-loss team at No. 6, ahead of No. 7 Oregon and No. 8 Utah and well ahead of No. 9 Oklahoma. This was a warning flare to the Big 12: Its one-loss champ mightn't make the field. (Unbeaten Baylor is ranked behind two two-loss SEC teams, and nobody expect the Bears to stay unbeaten.)

Even with the worst loss of any team in the CFP Top 25, Georgia seems in decent shape. (It has two victories over teams ranked among the top 15.) It might be in better shape than Alabama. Should the Tide lose at home to LSU on Saturday, there could be no way back. And here’s where you say, “Yeah, but with Alabama there’s always a way back.” Historically, yes. But this Bama hasn’t beaten a team ranked among the CFP’s chosen 25. If it loses Saturday, it almost certainly won’t play for the SEC title, and it could finish the regular season with nothing more than a victory over an Auburn team that might dump its coach.

Say LSU beats Georgia for the SEC title. Would the committee choose one-loss non-champ Alabama over the two-loss non-champ Bulldogs? Would it choose one-loss Pac-12 champ Oregon/Utah over Georgia? Would it again pick one-loss Big 12 champ Oklahoma? Would the South Carolina loss seem bigger on Dec. 8 than in the first week of November?

If Georgia wins out, it’s in. The same holds with Clemson. Forget the momentary indignity of being ranked No. 5. At least two of the four teams ahead of the Tigers will lose: Bama plays LSU; Ohio State plays Penn State. Clemson is No. 5 because its strength of schedule is No. 42 among 130 FBS teams. If Clemson is one of two or three unbeatens at season’s end, it won’t be No. 5. (Though it won’t be No. 1, either. The ACC is awful.)

It’s fashionable to maintain that we overreact to the first CFP rankings, but do we really? In 2016, the teams that made the playoff were ranked No. 1, 2, 5 and 6 in the initial set. In 2017, they were No. 1, 2, 4 and 5. In 2018, they were No. 1, 2, 4 and 7. Only two of the 20 invitees over the CFP’s five-year history were ranked above No. 7 in the first week, and those were teams — Oklahoma in 2015, Ohio State in 2014 — that wound up being one-loss champs of Power 5 leagues.

Things will change between now and Dec. 8, but at this moment a best guess at a final four would be: The SEC champ, the Big Ten champ, Clemson and either a second team from the SEC or a one-loss Pac-12 champ. That’s provided a second team from the Big Ten, which hasn’t had any of its members make the field since 2016, doesn’t slip in. If you check these rankings — Ohio State No. 1, Penn State No. 4 — there’s reason to believe it might.

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