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Five things we learned from the first College Football Playoff rankings

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, center, discusses a call with an official during the first half against Florida State Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Clemson, S.C.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, center, discusses a call with an official during the first half against Florida State Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Clemson, S.C. (Richard Shiro/AP)

From the committee’s lack of respect for the ACC and Group of 5 to the razor-thin margin for error for the Pac-12 and Big 12, here are five things we learned from the College Football Playoff selection committee’s first Top 25 rankings.

The committee doesn’t respect the ACC.

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The most surprising reveal Tuesday night was Penn State claiming the No. 4 spot over Clemson. The Nittany Lions and Tigers are both undefeated, but the committee valued Penn State’s wins over currently ranked teams Michigan (No. 14 in CFP) and Iowa (No. 18) over Clemson’s soft strength of schedule, which includes no wins over current Top 25 teams and a near-upset loss against North Carolina.

With the Big Ten getting six teams in the rankings compared with the ACC’s two (Wake Forest is No. 19), it’s clear which conference has been tougher this season. But the defending champs can’t do anything about Florida State, Syracuse and Louisville having down seasons. And despite Trevor Lawrence’s initial struggles, the Tigers have been dominant, with a plus-152 point scoring differential against Power 5 opponents.

As the defending national champions, Clemson won’t be left out of the playoff if it wins out. But the rankings showed that if the Tigers slip up, their resume isn’t strong enough to make up for it.

How you play matters just as much as who you play.

The other big surprise was Ohio State taking the top spot over LSU. The Buckeyes have been the most dominant team in the country through the first 10 weeks, and it’s clear the committee valued its efficient performance on offense and defense and consistency over the Tigers’ three wins over top-10 opponents.

Based purely on merit, LSU has the best case of any team to be No. 1, having beaten Texas, Florida (No. 10 in CFP) and Auburn (No. 11). But the committee has often stressed that it is looking for the best teams in the country, not the most deserving, when it comes to picking the playoff field. Ohio State’s placement at the top of the rankings is the latest example.

That’s not to say the Buckeyes haven’t played anyone. In fact, their early season wins over Cincinnati and Indiana, which didn’t move the needle at the time, are more impressive in hindsight, considering the Bearcats are No. 20 in the initial CFP rankings and Indiana is 7-2. And Wisconsin, which Ohio State swept aside with ease, came in at No. 13 on Tuesday night, just two spots behind Auburn and three behind Florida.

Minnesota and Baylor aren’t serious contenders — yet.

The 8-0 starts by both teams have gotten their respective coaches contract extensions, with P.J. Fleck signing a new seven-year deal with Minnesota and Baylor locking down Matt Rhule through the 2027 season. But it hasn’t done much for their rankings, with Minnesota coming in at No. 17 and Baylor at No. 12.

In the committee's eyes, going undefeated through 10 weeks doesn’t inspire a whole lot of belief when you’ve done it the way the Golden Gophers and Bears have.

Baylor beat Stephen F. Austin, UTSA and Rice in nonconference play and has had a few close calls in the Big 12, winning by a combined eight points against Iowa State, Texas Tech and West Virginia. But the Bears have also had some impressive performances, beating Kansas State (No. 16 in CFP) and Oklahoma State (No. 23) by more than two touchdowns.

Minnesota, meanwhile, had to survive against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern to begin the season, but has been dominant of late in the Big Ten, outscoring its past four conference foes by a combined 168-41.

Baylor and Minnesota would be considered underdogs against many of the teams above them in the rankings, so perhaps it’s not that surprising to see them ranked so low. The committee rightly took a wait-and-see approach, with Minnesota hosting Penn State this weekend and Baylor hosting Oklahoma in two weeks. If they win those games, their playoff candidacies will be taken much more seriously.

There’s no margin for error for the Pac-12 and Big 12.

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It’s fitting that No. 7 Oregon, No. 8 Utah and No. 9 Oklahoma are bunched together. The committee seems to have put these teams in their own tier and given them the message, “tread lightly.”

With Oregon and Utah on a collision course in the Pac-12 championship game, only one team can emerge as a true playoff contender. And with the way things are shaping up at the top of the rankings, specifically in the Big Ten and the SEC, a one-loss Pac-12 champion might not be strongly considered for a playoff spot. That means a 12-1 season is the only chance that either the Ducks or the Utes get a sniff at the top four, and the same goes for Oklahoma.

The Sooners are the second-lowest ranked one-loss Power 5 team, ahead of only No. 19 Wake Forest. The loss to Kansas State was a major setback, and with the Big 12 only offering Baylor and Oklahoma State — plus the team Oklahoma will likely face in the conference title game — as future ranked opponents, there might not be enough time left for the Sooners to build a playoff resume. The best hope for Lincoln Riley, Jalen Hurts and Co. is to crush the competition and leave no doubt it’s one of the strongest teams in the country and that the loss to the Wildcats was a fluke. If Oklahoma struggles even the slightest bit in any game, especially against an inferior opponent, that could seal its fate as a team outside the top four.

The Group of 5 continues to get slighted.

It’s not surprising, but that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing.

Cincinnati comes in as the highest ranked Group of 5 team at No. 20, followed by No. 21 Memphis, No. 22 Boise State, No. 24 Navy and No. 25 SMU. Ahead of this group are seven two-loss teams, and 6-3 Oklahoma State even sneaked in ahead of Navy and SMU at No. 23.

The Group of 5 will never get the same respect as the Power 5, for obvious reasons. But it’s still a shame to see strong teams like Cincinnati and Memphis pushed to the bottom of the rankings and seemingly given no chance to make a run at a playoff berth. That won’t change until the playoff expands to six or eight teams, and even then an undefeated or one-loss G5 team will have to scratch and claw its way past a two-loss Power 5 team.

With how well Memphis and SMU played Saturday night in representing the best of the American Athletic Conference and Boise State’s domination of the Mountain West, there’s no reason Iowa, Kansas State and even Wake Forest should be ranked higher than the top G5 teams. The AAC has been just as strong, if not better, than the ACC and Pac-12 this season. In the Massey composite rankings, which is essentially every poll and rating combined into one ranking, the AAC has five teams in the Top 25, which is the same as the SEC, four more than the ACC, three more than the Pac-12, one more than the Big 12 and just one fewer than the Big 10.

Until the top of the G5 gets more opportunities to show it can compete against the P5 elite — the way UCF and Houston did in winning recent New Year’s Six bowl games and Boise State did by beating Florida State to start the season — the committee will continue to consider G5 teams second-class citizens. Given what we’ve seen so far from an improved AAC and a resurgent Boise State, it’s past time to start giving the G5 more respect.

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