Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Florida Gators

Don’t overreact to the first College Football Playoff rankings. They’ll change. A lot.

There weren't any major surprises Tuesday night when the College Football Playoff selection committee revealed its first set of rankings.

Alabama was No. 1, followed by Clemson, LSU and Notre Dame. That's the same top four as in both major polls (although the Tigers and Irish are flipped). No. 5 Michigan and No. 6 Georgia would be the first two teams out.

It doesn't matter. The actual semifinals won't look like the pairings ESPN revealed Tuesday.

Start with the blockbuster showdown Saturday between 'Bama and LSU in Baton Rouge. Maybe the Crimson Tide can lose and still make the playoff, but the Tigers probably can't.

RELATED: College Football Playoff rankings: Bama is 1, Florida Gators and UCF in top 12

History also shows how much things will change between now and Selection Sunday.

In the first four years of the CFP, the committee has never had the same four teams in its first rankings and its final ones. The closest it came was last year, when all four playoff teams (Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and 'Bama) started in the top five.

On average, two teams in the first four have finished in the final four. And each year so far, one team that started in the top four fell outside the top 13 by the final rankings.

Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame all look like locks to make the semifinals if they win out, and they all have workable paths to perfection on paper. But the games aren't played on paper. They're played in noisy stadiums by unpredictable 20-year-olds who make mistakes. Upsets happen. The Clemson team that won the national title in Tampa suffered a November loss to 8-5 Pitt.

RELATED: Inside College Football Playoff: Takeaways from a mock selection

All three teams have potential pitfalls that look more dangerous than those Panthers. The Tigers have a tricky road trip to No. 22 Boston College in two weeks. 'Bama has two ranked opponents (LSU and No. 18 Mississippi State) plus the Iron Bowl. There's no guarantee Notre Dame will get past Northwestern (which has won 12 of its last 13 Big Ten games), or No. 19 Syracuse, or Willie Taggart's talented underachievers from Tallahassee.

Considering 2010 was the last time three teams entered bowl season undefeated, don't be surprised if at least one team slips up, leaving someone else to challenge for a semifinal trip to either the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl.

In all four years of the CFP era, a team that started 12th or worse either made the playoff or was the first team left out: 2017 Ohio State (started 13th, finished fifth), 2016 Penn State (started 12th, finished fifth), 2015 Oklahoma (started 15th, made the playoff) and 2014 Ohio State (started 16th, won the title).

The Buckeyes aren't that low — Ohio State is 10th — but Urban Meyer's team has enough talent and big remaining games to contend for a spot, if it wins out. No. 13 West Virginia has upcoming games against No. 16 Texas and No. 7 Oklahoma; if the Mountaineers win the Big 12 as a one-loss team, they'll be in the conversation.

And then there's undefeated UCF.

The Knights start at No. 12 — one spot below two-loss Florida but six spots higher than UCF was at this time last season. CFP committee chairman Rob Mullens pointed out on ESPN that UCF hasn't played a team with a winning record. That changes Thursday when the Knights host 5-3 Temple, and UCF closes its season against 7-1 Cincinnati and 7-1 USF.

We don't know whether that would be enough to vault UCF into the playoff. But we do know that the top four unveiled Tuesday night won't be final four we see on Dec. 2.

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