On Tuesday the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee unveiled the first official playoff rankings for the 2014 season. And, while the poll delineates the top 25 teams in the rankings, virtually all attention was placed upon the top four slots, the teams who will make up the bracket for the first-ever playoff. They are Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn, and Ole Miss.
The most glaring fact about the opening top four is the fact that three of the teams are from the Southeastern Conference. Mississippi State, as one of only two power conference unbeaten teams, undoubtedly deserves their spot atop the rankings, as do #3 ranked Auburn, who boast a very strong non-conference win on the road at #9 ranked Kansas State. The most questionable SEC inclusion in the top four is #4 Ole Miss, who comes off of a 10-7 loss on the road against an average LSU team, albeit in the hostile environment of Death Valley. While Ole Miss’s dominant defense kept LSU’s offense in check, quarterback Bo Wallace and the Rebels’ offense struggled and will need to play much better throughout the rest of the season, including this week’s showdown with the aforementioned Auburn Tigers.
Many cite the Rebel’s inclusion in the top four as evidence of SEC bias among the selection committee. To indulge the anti-SEC crowd, placing three teams from the same conference in the playoff would be grossly unfair and would not at all be the ideal way to determine the nation’s best team. Luckily for the college football world, the 3 SEC teams, as well as #6 Alabama, still have hellish slates of games in front of them. So, while having two SEC teams in the playoff, which would still be fair considering the depth of the conference this year, may occur, having more than two would be highly unlikely.
The best-positioned team in the poll is undoubtedly #2 Florida State. The defending-champion Seminoles have their biggest challenge of the season ahead of them on the road against #25 ranked Louisville in a historically pesky Thursday night game. The Cardinals boast one of the nation’s top defenses and should challenge quarterback Jameis Winston and the Seminoles. Expect the Cardinals to come out strong in the early going, but the depth of the Seminoles should be enough to ward off the Cardinals’ threat and stay unbeaten. Assuming Florida State survives at Louisville, their remaining schedule is incredibly manageable, with games against average ACC teams before their rivalry showdown with the lowly Florida Gators. The Seminoles will likely then take on Duke in the ACC Championship Game, a solid team that would be no match for the Seminoles.
Just on the outside of the current playoff picture is the team in the second-best position to make a run at the playoffs, the Michigan State Spartans. While the Spartans currently have one loss, it was on the road in a game they scheduled to boost their non-conference strength of schedule against #5 Oregon, so they will not really be punished for this loss in the eyes of the committee. The Spartans have already beaten their best Big Ten foe, on the road against Nebraska, and face their second toughest challenge this week, hosting an Ohio State team that is probably overrated at #16. If the Spartans win out, they will likely face Nebraska again in the Big Ten Championship Game, and if they win there, they will assuredly be ranked in the top four.
The conference which has been the most surprisingly strong thus far is the Big 12, who, while lacking any teams in the top four, boast 3 highly ranked one-loss teams: #7 TCU, #9 Kansas State, and #13 Baylor, as well as two strong two-loss teams: #18 Oklahoma and #20 West Virginia. Seeing as these teams all have to face off against each other, if one of the one-loss teams is able to run the table the rest of the season, they will likely have a strong enough schedule to rank in the top four, and even a team with two losses could still remain in contention with some help from teams in other conferences.
With so many teams in the playoff race, the inaugural playoff carries with it an additional level of chaos before unseen in the college football landscape, and it will only amplify in the season’s final month. One thing is known for certain: I do not envy the duties of the selection committee.
Melina Vastola/USA Today Sports