So which four teams will be atop the first College Football Playoff rankings when Arkansas athletic director and committee chairman Jeff Long makes that announcement on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN)? I think three of the four are sure things: Clemson, LSU and Ohio State.
The criteria that the committee uses isn't written in stone, but it is supposed to use these four as a potential tiebreaker between two teams: championships won (not decided for a month), strength of schedule, head-to-head competition (if it occurred) and comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incentivizing margin of victory).
The Buckeyes remain No. 1 in the polls, but I don't expect they will be No. 1 in the playoff rankings because they lack any quality wins. Clemson, meanwhile, has a great win over a Top-10 Notre Dame team. ESPN's probability model gives Clemson an 82.5 percent chance to win out, the highest of the 11 remaining unbeaten teams. Iowa is second with only a 49 percent chance.
LSU, meanwhile, has a victory over ranked Florida, which is going to win the SEC East Division. The Tigers also beat Mississippi State and Auburn while they were ranked. So maybe LSU deserves to be No. 1. I have seen a few "experts" predict that Ohio State won't be in the Top 4, but I disagree with that. The polls do mean something, and the Buckeyes are unbeaten. They are also +250 national title favorites at Bovada.
As for the fourth team, it should be one of Baylor, TCU or Michigan State. The Bears and Horned Frogs both played ridiculously easy nonconference schedules -- neither has played a team that was ranked at the time yet. Both their schedules get significantly tougher the rest of the way, including facing each other on Nov. 27 in Fort Worth. Sparty has a nonconference win over Oregon, although the Ducks are down this year, and that miracle win over ranked Michigan. Will the committee hold the flukiness of that win against the Spartans? We shall find out. Alabama should be the highest-ranked one-loss team.
Here are a few opening lines that caught my eye.
No. 2 Baylor at Kansas State (+17.5): This one is Thursday night. How much will the committee take injuries into account? That could certainly affect Baylor as the Bears play their first game since losing star quarterback and Heisman contender Seth Russell to a season-ending neck injury. That's probably the biggest injury of the season for any team. The job now goes to true freshman Jarrett Stidham, who was a highly-touted recruit. Stidham has played sparingly this season but has gone 23-for- 27 for 319 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. At least Baylor was on the bye last week to get Stidham more reps with the first team. Now we find out whether that Bears offense makes the quarterback. Sure seems to. Russell piloted an attack leads the country in total offense (8.43 yards per play), points per game (61.1) and scoring margin (36.2). K-State enters on a four-game losing streak. The Wildcats lost 38-27 at Baylor to close the 2014 regular season. The pick: K-State covers.
Minnesota at No. 1 Ohio State (-23): The Buckeyes will play this game without starting quarterback J.T. Barrett. With OSU off last week, Barrett was arrested for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol and backing without safety. He was stopped at a Columbus police checkpoint early Saturday morning. Barrett is suspended for this game and will lose his scholarship for the 2016 summer term. Barrett will be eligible to return for Ohio State's road game at Illinois on Nov. 14, but Coach Urban Meyer gave no guarantee that he would reclaim his starting job moving forward. So it's Cardale Jones under center again, with Braxton Miller as his backup. Minnesota, in its first game since Coach Jerry Kill retired, lost a heartbreaker 29-26 at home to Michigan on Saturday, unable to punch it in from the 1-yard line at the end of the game. Gophers interim coach Tracy Claeys decided to try for the win than kicking the easy field goal. The pick: OSU.
No. 17 Florida State at No. 3 Clemson (-12): I was totally wrong on these two teams this past Saturday as I thought both might struggle in potential trap games. The Seminoles beat Syracuse 45-21 to cover despite playing without superstar running back Dalvin Cook and starting quarterback Everett Golson. FSU didn't announce Golson was going to be out until two hours before kickoff due to a concussion. Presumably he will return this week -- if not, Sean Maguire starts again -- and I'm positive Cook will. Maguire's only previous start came last year against Clemson, when he led the Noles to an overtime victory over the Tigers when Jameis Winston was out suspended. Clemson covered the 10 points in a 56-41 win at NC State on Saturday. But those were by far the most points the Tigers have allowed this season. Deshaun Watson accounted for six touchdowns. The winner of this game will take the ACC Atlantic Division. The league has to be pulling for Clemson or the ACC is going to likely miss out on the College Football Playoff. The pick: Think Tigers win, but I'll take those points. It's the first time FSU has been a double-digit dog since 2009.
No. 4 LSU at No. 7 Alabama (-6): As has been the case on the first Saturday of November for the past several years, this SEC showdown is the game of the day. ESPN GameDay will be on hand. The Tide are out of the playoff and the SEC West race with a loss. LSU is the only SEC team without a loss overall. But even if the Tigers end their four-game skid in this series, they aren't locks to win the West. They still have to host Arkansas, visit No. 19 Ole Miss and host No. 25 Texas A&M. Should Tigers running back Leonard Fournette have a big game and LSU win, the Heisman race is over (especially with Russell out now). Fournette is the -225 favorite to win the Heisman at Bovada. Alabama running back Derrick Henry is +1400. The pick: Alabama.
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