Imagine being a member of the Clemson team when the College Football Playoff committee announced its first rankings of the season on Tuesday night. Ranked No. 4 in The Associated Press poll, the Tigers are the defending national champions. They have won 24 consecutive games — including the last four by at least 31 points.
And yet when the playoff rankings were revealed, they were in fifth place.
Behind Ohio State, which might be the best team in the country by the eye test. Behind L.S.U., which might have three of the hardest-earned wins of the season — at Texas, and at home against Auburn and Florida. Behind Alabama, which has a relatively modest résumé at the moment, without a signature win, but is still Alabama. And behind even Penn State, ranked No. 5 by The Associated Press, which has beaten — well, um, Michigan and Iowa and … Buffalo.
“After Week 10, the committee felt Penn State was a notch above,” Rob Mullens, the chairman of the committee and the athletic director at Oregon, said on ESPN, acknowledging that Clemson’s scare in late September — a 21-20 win at North Carolina — had resonated.
Maybe the committee was just being provocative. It knows that these rankings are largely meaningless for the top five teams — all unbeaten — because they will largely sort things out among themselves over the next few weeks
Alabama and L.S.U. will play on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, and two weeks after that, Penn State will play Ohio State in Columbus. So if Clemson rolls through the rest of its schedule as one might expect — the toughest test, Wake Forest, is 19th in the rankings — the Tigers should find their way into the playoff.
If Clemson garners a playoff spot for the fifth consecutive year, that could leave Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, L.S.U. and Georgia (ranked sixth with one loss) scrapping for the final three berths.
It will take considerable disruption over the final month of the regular season for a team from the Big 12 (unbeaten Baylor or once-beaten Oklahoma) or the Pac-12 (once-beaten Oregon or Utah) to make its way into the playoff.
The team that might be best equipped to make a jump is Oregon, but the Ducks’ hopes largely rest with the team that defeated them in the season opener, Auburn.
If Auburn wins the rest of its games, that might do more than burnish Oregon’s résumé. It could also put a dent in the hopes of two contenders that will visit The Plains: Georgia on Nov. 16 and Alabama on Nov. 30.
A little more than a week later, on Dec. 8, the committee will announce its final ranking, the one that really matters. By then Clemson, which has proved to have few equals in college football, could have only faint, if motivational, memories of Tuesday’s snub.