Alabama fans always think they’re No. 1.
Miami fans — for the first time as members of the ACC — can actually make the case.
(Um, excuse me, Wisconsin fans say, we’re undefeated, too!)
The College Football Playoff selection committee dove into its third of six rankings this week with no clear-cut No. 1 team in the country. While there are plenty of good teams fighting for a semifinal spot, there’s not necessarily one great one right now. With two of the top four teams losing on Saturday, and a total of four teams ranked in the top 10 losing, the committee’s meetings are undoubtedly more difficult this week, starting at No. 1. There are only six Power 5 teams remaining with one or fewer losses.
“It’s important that we get this right,” selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said last week. “That’s our charge, and that’s what we endeavor to do each week.”
So who will be No. 1 tonight (9 ET on ESPN and the ESPN App)?
Here’s a look at the case for:
Following the release of the selection committee’s first ranking this season, Hocutt said Alabama’s “convincing victories” stood out to the 13-member group. The Tide had defeated their first eight unranked opponents by an average of 33 points. The past two weeks, back-to-back wins against ranked opponents LSU and Mississippi State have been more of a struggle, but Alabama is still the top-ranked team in ESPN’s game control metric and overall FPI. Alabama is outscoring its opponents by 28.7 points per game, the best scoring margin in the FBS — all while allowing an FBS-low 10.3 points per game. Hocutt has referenced Alabama’s elite defense and “great play” from quarterback Jalen Hurts. Alabama leads the SEC in scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense and rushing defense. Alabama’s schedule strength also has improved. The Tide are ranked No. 2 in strength of record, giving an average Top 25 team just a 9 percent chance to achieve Alabama’s undefeated record against the same opponents.
The committee has been patient in its evaluation of the undefeated Hurricanes. “Miami was a team that the selection committee and all of us had seen a couple of their wins come in dramatic fashion, wanted to continue to watch and evaluate Miami,” Hocutt said last week. The Canes’ win against Virginia Tech was the first step in boosting Miami up three spots to No. 7 last week. Now they’ve added a win against what was the committee’s No. 3 team, Notre Dame — an even better performance over the Irish than the one that earned Georgia the No. 1 spot. Remember, the committee compares common opponents, and Georgia went on the road and beat Notre Dame by one point. Miami stunned visiting Notre Dame 41-8. Hocutt also has said how impressed the committee has been with Miami’s defense, which held the Irish to just 109 rushing yards and forced four turnovers, including three interceptions. Notre Dame had four interceptions all season entering Saturday. The gimmicky turnover chain is working — Miami is the first FBS team to force at least four turnovers in four straight games against Power 5 opponents since at least 2004. The Canes have the best turnover differential (plus-15) among Power 5 Conference teams, and only Wyoming at plus-17 is better in all of FBS.
Clemson got a hall pass for the Syracuse loss because starting quarterback Kelly Bryant was injured in that game, but the rest of Clemson’s schedule also has helped the Tigers compensate for their lone loss. If Virginia Tech remains ranked in spite of its loss to Georgia Tech, Clemson will continue to have three wins against Top 25 teams, including an important nonconference win against surging Auburn. That win looked even better considering Auburn’s win over No. 1 Georgia. Clemson is No. 2 in the ACC in scoring defense (15 points per game) and No. 3 in scoring offense (32.7). With the exception of Florida State (3-6), every Power 5 opponent Clemson has faced is .500 or better, and five of the nine teams have already reached bowl eligibility.
Two weeks ago, Hocutt called Oklahoma’s defense into question, but he backed off those remarks significantly after the second ranking. “You know, we evaluate the team, and when you’re scoring at the rate Oklahoma is and winning games,” he said, “then you’re going to have an opportunity to continue to make a positive impression in the eyes of the committee.” The committee should certainly be impressed with the Sooners following their win over No. 6 TCU. Heading into Saturday’s game, TCU had allowed just 13.9 points per game, but OU scored 38 in the first half. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has emerged as front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy and has thrown 71 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions over the past 23 games. Oklahoma currently leads the FBS in offensive efficiency. Add to that a résumé that includes three wins over Top 25 teams, including two on the road (at Ohio State and at Oklahoma State), and OU should certainly be off the bubble and in the top four this week. At No. 3 in strength of record, OU is the top one-loss team.
If it were just about being undefeated, the Badgers would have been in the top four by now, but the committee goes beyond that. “We look at a number of strength of schedule metrics,” Hocutt said. “But consistently over the course of all of those metrics that we looked at, Wisconsin had the lowest strength of schedule amongst any of the 25 teams ranked this week.” Did a win over No. 20 Iowa change that? Maybe. Wisconsin already has clinched the Big Ten’s West Division, guaranteeing it an opportunity to face another ranked opponent in the conference championship game. The committee doesn’t look ahead, though. Right now, Wisconsin’s best wins are against No. 25 Northwestern and No. 20 Iowa.