By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) The first College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday night, which is to say that if the season ended on Tuesday, No. 1 Clemson would face No. 4 Alabama and No. 2 LSU would play No. 3 Ohio State in their respective national semifinals.
But as we all know, the season didn’t end Tuesday. It doesn’t end for another month. What these rankings try to tell us is what the committee values, ultimately, when it chooses the four teams that will play in the season-ending College Football Playoff.
As was the case last season, the committee continued to make a statement about strength of schedule, ranking one-loss Alabama fourth and one-loss Notre Dame fifth. But there’s little value to that knowledge as far as this season is concerned. Sure, teams can schedule more aggressively for the future. We want instant gratifications, though.
So what do we know after the first set of rankings have been released?
Well, the Big Ten is happy, as it’s nearly guaranteed to have a representative in the College Football Playoff. Reigning national champion and undefeated Ohio State checks in at No. 3, but even if the Buckeyes lose, there are contingencies in place.
Pay close attention — it might get confusing, but it makes sense.
Other Big Ten teams joining the Buckeyes in the top 10 are No. 7 Michigan State and No. 9 Iowa. Both are undefeated.
We’ll go with the easiest of scenarios first: None of Iowa’s four remaining opponents — Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska — have winning records. For Iowa to lose any of those games and/or not make it to the Big Ten championship would net an explanation that made use of the word “choke” multiple times. The Hawkeyes are expected to win out in the regular season.
Michigan State and Ohio State play each other in Columbus on Nov. 21. The winner should head to Indianapolis undefeated. (Yes, I know Ohio State plays Michigan in Ann Arbor, but the Buckeyes will still be favored in that game.)
That would then pit Iowa against either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, guaranteeing the conference would produce an undefeated champion. Unless the Big Ten takes a turn toward mid-major status, an undefeated conference champion is guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But let’s rewind it just a bit to ensure we cover all of our scenarios. If the winner of Michigan State-Ohio State loses its final game (the Spartans play the Nittany Lions at home), the East Division tiebreakers would still favor the winner of that Spartans-Buckeyes game to move to the conference title game.
That would leave an undefeated Iowa playing one-loss Michigan State or Ohio State. If Iowa were to win in that scenario, well, we’ve covered the whole thing about an undefeated Big Ten champion. If Michigan State or Ohio State were to win that game, it would certainly need help but also still have a strong case to reach the College Football Playoff.
No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 TCU each still have to play No. 14 Oklahoma State and No. 15 Oklahoma. The Bears and Horned Frogs also each play each other. No. 1 Clemson plays No. 16 Florida State this weekend. No. 2 LSU plays at No. 4 Alabama. If the Tide lose, they would essentially be eliminated. But even if they win, the Tide still has to travel to No. 20 Mississippi State and play in an SEC championship game.
It’s all a detailed way of articulating that more losses are to come for teams in the top 10. In fact, of all the top-10 teams, Iowa and the winner of Michigan State-Ohio State have the best chance of going undefeated.
Yes, it’s circumstantial, but we’re dealing in likelihood here. And if you’re still following along, you get why the Big Ten will again be represented in this year’s College Football Playoff.
If not, just trust that Tuesday, the Big Ten — more than any other conference — was a winner.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.