The release of the initial College Football Playoff rankings usually brings plenty of discussions regarding the validity of the polls. Fans and pundits alike dissect whether or not some teams were ranked too high or too low. Ultimately, it’s crazy to get too worked up over the first CFP rankings of the season, as there is still plenty of football left to play. But it is still interesting to analyze the teams and determine whether or not they will have a spot in the top four at the end of the season. I will look at the top teams and determine what chance they have going forward.
4. Clemson Tigers (7-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference)
How they got here: With a bevy of one-loss teams slotted in the top 10, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers find themselves back in the title picture this week. Clemson has looked dominant in all of their victories this season, particularly against ranked opponents like Louisville, Auburn, and Virginia Tech. As of Tuesday, Clemson is sixth in the country in scoring defense, holding teams to just 13.1 points per game. Led by a tremendous defensive line, the Tigers have created fits for plenty of opposing offenses, including last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Their offense has not been as impressive, but they more than hold up their end (41st in scoring, 24th in rushing). Clemson’s lone loss to unranked Syracuse on October 13 doesn’t look that bad; the Tigers were on the road and their starting quarterback Kelly Bryant left that game due to injury. Clemson’s arduous schedule, the eighth hardest in the nation, allowed the committee to overlook a close loss on the road on a short week.
Will they stay here: Like the other teams on this list, Clemson has a good chance to make the playoff, but they have little room for error. ESPN ranks them 41st in remaining strength of schedule, meaning on more slip up likely pushes them out of the CFP. They travel to NC State this Saturday, followed by games against Florida State (who cratered after losing Deondre Francois in their opener), The Citadel (FCS school), and South Carolina. Even if they make the ACC Championship Game, they would probably play either Virginia Tech, who they already beat or Miami, who are undefeated but have not played any top level opponents yet. If Clemson’s D continues to smother their opponents and they continue to blow out lackluster competition, they should be in a good position to defend their national title. CFP chances: 4/5
3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-1, Independent)
How they got here: After Notre Dame finished with a disappointing 4-8 record in 2016, head coach Brian Kelly’s seat started to percolate. After all, his team played poorly and he constantly threw his players under the bus after numerous defeats. This year has been a different story. Behind quarterback Brandon Wimbush (75.2 total QBR) and a balanced squad (11th in scoring offense, 10th in scoring defense), the Irish are back in the title hunt, much to a lot of college football fans’ chagrin. Their success has been no fluke; per Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which rates teams based on their record, point differential, and strength of schedule, Notre Dame is the best team in the country. They have lost just once in a nail-biter to Georgia that looks more impressive now (the Bulldogs were ranked 15th then). Other than that, Notre Dame has blown out ranked teams like USC and NC State while also handling their business against lesser rivals (Temple, Boston College, North Carolina etc.).
Will they stay here: The Irish have the second-toughest remaining schedule of the top four CFP teams according to ESPN (vs. Wake Forest and Navy, at #9 Miami and #18 Stanford). Notre Dame’s defense will be tested in those games; all of their final four opponents average at least 31.2 points per game. Unlike the other teams on this list, Notre Dame does not have a conference title game, which could work against them (like when the Big 12 named Baylor and TCU co-champions in 2014). Like Clemson, the Irish can’t afford to lose and open the door for the likes of Penn State, Ohio State or Oklahoma. CFP chances: 3/5
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference)
How they got here: As long as Nick Saban remains the head coach, the Tide will probably have permanent residence in the CFP rankings. This years outfit follows much of the same Alabama routine: stout defense (9.8 points allowed per game, best in the country) and steady run game (298.8 yards per game, seventh best in the country). Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played tremendously thus far; he ranks ninth in the country in total QBR while also making plays as the team’s primary rusher alongside Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and a bevy of other tailbacks. Per Sports Reference, Alabama has had the easiest road of the four CFP teams (46th in strength of schedule) but they have done what they are supposed to do against their lightweight opponents. Bama has hung at least 40 points on all but two of their opponents. The Tide’s SOS took a hit with FSU’s fall from the top 25, but they have looked impressive all season. Their spot here is more than justified.
Will they stay here: As usual, Alabama’s tests come towards the end of the season. They have two straight games against ranked opponents, starting with LSU this Saturday night. They also have road games against Mississippi State and Auburn sandwiching a likely win over Mercer. Should Bama get through the rest of their schedule without a loss, they should have another CFP berth regardless of whether they win the SEC title again. CFP chances: 5/5
1. Georgia Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 SEC)
How they got here: The Bulldogs earned the number one ranking in the CFP by running through their competition just like their SEC West counterpart. In addition to blowing out middling programs like Tennessee and Vanderbilt, Georgia has two marquee wins over ranked opponents: their 20-19 win over Notre Dame (which looks more impressive now) and their 31-3 shellacking of Mississippi State. Quarterback Jake Fromm provides a steady presence under center (eighth in total QBR) while Nick Chubb (6.4 YPC), Sony Michel (8.5 YPC) and D’Andre Swift (8.0 YPC) rack up yards for the Bulldogs offense. This keeps the defense fresh, though they don’t need much help (third in points allowed, third in pass defense, sixth against the run). They are second to Notre Dame in SRS but fifth in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). The Bulldogs are for real.
Will they stay here: Georgia has a tough road ahead. They have the fifth toughest remaining schedule IN THE COUNTRY according to ESPN with the 6-2 Kentucky Wildcats presenting the easiest test for the Bulldogs. Even that one is a trap game for Georgia as are their meetings with South Carolina, Auburn, and Georgia Tech. All of those teams are among the 40 best run defenses in the country and could cause Georgia some problems. If the Bulldogs keep up their torrid pace on the ground and win in impressive fashion, they should earn a spot in the SEC title game and a spot in the playoff. CFP chances: 3/5
Of course, all of these teams could lose this weekend and screw up the rankings. With my luck predicting things, that’s exactly what will happen.