With four weeks left in the regular season, the first College Football Playoff Rankings of 2016 were released Tuesday night with Alabama taking the No. 1 spot followed by Clemson, Michigan and Texas A&M from 2-4. Undefeated Washington checked in at No. 5.
As for these first rankings, there are a few surprises -- just nowhere near the top.
We will get to those surprises in a moment, but first, let's start with the usual disclaimer. Nothing in these rankings is meaningful in terms of where teams may be ranked at the end of the season. It is possible that the current top four teams could win out and still not be the top four teams at the end. Even if they are, the order may change. This isn't like the top 25 polls where you usually hold your position unless you lose.
Here is the top 25 as voted on by the committee. Analysis from CBS Sports playoff and bowls expert Jerry Palm, who nailed the top eight teams in order in his predicted rankings, can be found below.
1. Alabama (8-0)
2. Clemson (8-0)
3. Michigan (8-0)
4. Texas A&M (7-1)
5. Washington (8-0)
6. Ohio State (7-1)
7. Louisville (7-1)
8. Wisconsin (6-2)
9. Auburn (6-2)
10. Nebraska (7-1)
11. Florida (6-1)
12. Penn State (6-2)
13. LSU (5-2)
14. Oklahoma (6-2)
15. Colorado (6-2)
16. Utah (7-2)
17. Baylor (6-1)
18. Oklahoma State (6-2)
19. Virginia Tech (6-2)
20. West Virginia (6-1)
21. North Carolina (6-2)
22. Florida State (5-3)
23. Western Michigan (8-0)
24. Boise State (7-1)
25. Washington State (6-2)
You should not be surprised to see a one-loss team (Texas A&M) ahead of a major conference undefeated team (Washington). There have been only three weekly rankings in the first two seasons of the CFP in which all of the unbeaten Power Five teams were atop the rankings. Those were the first two of 2014 (Mississippi State and Florida State) and the final one last year (Clemson). In fact, the only time there have been three major undefeated teams at the top of the rankings was the first one of last season, when Clemson, LSU and Ohio State topped the list. At that time, there were still eight Power Five teams without a loss. "Undefeated" doesn't mean much to the committee.
In fact, the committee ranked the undefeated teams in the only justifiable order. Alabama has the best schedule and has been largely dominant. Clemson's schedule isn't far off from that of the Crimson Tide, and the Tigers have the best road win of any of these teams. In basketball terms, Michigan is what we would call a "home court hero." It has a weaker schedule overall than Alabama and Clemson, and it is very home heavy, although there are a couple of wins against teams in the top 12. Washington's strength of schedule to this point isn't Baylor-level bad, but it is way behind the other teams on this list. The win at No. 16 Utah is good, but the Huskies' nonconference schedule was pretty bad and Stanford and Oregon have let them down some.
The one-loss teams are relatively easy to parse through also. Texas A&M and Ohio State have played similar schedules and each has at least one big road win, but the Aggies lost at Alabama and the Buckeyes lost at Penn State. Louisville's schedule so far is considerably weaker, and the Cardinals only win of note is their destruction of Florida State.
Nebraska, Florida and West Virginia are all about the same in terms of strength of schedule and the lack of quality wins so far. The committee didn't see it that way, though.
For the second year in a row, my primary beef with the committee is how it ranked Baylor. The Bears' schedule is so bad -- one of the 15 worst in FBS and way, way below any other Power Five school -- that it is an injustice that they are ranked ahead of Boise State right now, let alone West Virginia. The first time Baylor played a team with something of a pulse away from home, it lost.
It also appears that the relative order of Baylor, Oklahoma State and West Virginia was decided by head-to-head, which ignores the fact that the Cowboys have two losses, one of which was at home to Central Michigan. I realize that game ended on a play that shouldn't have counted, but the committee is not supposed to consider that. Having the Cowboys ahead of the Mountaineers is similar to having Penn State ahead of Ohio State. Except the committee - correctly -- didn't do that.
The two-loss teams fall into two groups. The first group consists of Auburn, Penn State and Wisconsin, each of which has a very strong schedule, good losses and quality wins.
The next group is a six-car pileup: Colorado, LSU, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia Tech. They have played schedules of similar strength and have some warts on their profiles. You can pretty much draw them out of a hat. Like everything else, this will work itself out as the season goes on. Oklahoma State was added to that hat by the committee. Washington State was correctly at the bottom of the list of two-loss teams in the rankings and could have easily been left out.
It is a little surprising that Boise State is not the top-rated Group of Five team despite losing last weekend at Wyoming. The Broncos have played a better schedule than Western Michigan and beat Washington State. WMU is undefeated but is being dragged down by a bad nonconference schedule and a MAC league schedule. However, it doesn't really matter at this point because Boise State does not control its own destiny for a conference title, which is required to get the Group of Five spot in a New Year's Six game.
One of the unfortunate byproducts of this playoff system is that everyone focuses on conferences, specifically which one(s) are left out of the top four. It's a game of musical chairs: five conferences, four seats. This is really about teams though, not conferences. In the rankings this week, both the Big 12 and Pac-12 are aced out because two SEC teams are in the top four. Looking long term though, only the Big 12 is very likely to miss the playoffs this year. The other conferences figure to have at least one strong candidate for inclusion when all is said and done.