Alabama Tops First College Football Playoff Rankings of a Chaotic Season

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A subject that can be as fraught as politics and religion has arrived just in time for Thanksgiving debates: The College Football Playoff selection committee said Tuesday night that Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State are the country’s best teams.

Texas A&M, Florida, Cincinnati, Northwestern, Georgia and Miami reached the top 10 of the committee’s initial rankings but were not slotted into the potential playoff quartet.

Cue the arguments of fans who can be prone to surrendering reason in favor of fervor.

The rankings, delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, are the first glimpse of how the 13-member panel is evaluating the records and talents of the teams in the mix to be selected for one of two playoff semifinals. Here’s a look at how the process is working in a year in which more than 90 games have been canceled or postponed.

Two leagues. Seven teams in the top 10 — and three of the top four.

The Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conferences have largely dominated college football in recent years, winning the national title in 13 of the last 14 seasons. Tuesday’s rankings give them favorable opening odds of extending that reign. But December’s league championship games, which could slot Alabama against Florida and pit Clemson against Notre Dame, will almost certainly reorder the rankings.

Still, the A.C.C., which includes Notre Dame this year, and the SEC are in far better position than the Big 12 or Pac-12, which did not place a team higher than No. 11.

Oklahoma, at No. 11, stands above its Big 12 colleagues, while No. 15 Oregon has the highest rank of any Pac-12 program. Plenty can change, but the early rankings suggest that two of the sport’s top leagues are at risk of missing college football’s grandest stage this season.

Seventh-ranked Cincinnati, 8-0 and a member of the American Athletic Conference, is the bright spot for fans hoping to see someone break the grip of the Power 5 leagues on the playoff. Brigham Young, which is 9-0 and an independent in football, came in at No. 14, with its schedule seen as particularly weak among the sport’s top teams.

College football has a fractured schedule, varied approaches to the pandemic by top leagues and uncertainty over whether the season will last long enough to hold the playoffs safely. But the Playoff is still aiming for something like a business-as-usual approach.

The selection committee is still planning to meet weekly at a hotel near Dallas, as usual, despite the surging tally of virus cases around the United States and recommendations from health officials to avoid most travel. The committee’s members are being tested for the virus.

The semifinal matchups are set for Jan. 1, as long planned, just as the national championship game is still scheduled for Jan. 11. Conference championships are still likely to carry a high value before the final rankings come down, as early as Dec. 20.

“They’ve still been watching games all season,” Bill Hancock, the Playoff’s executive director, said of the selection committee last week. “This is why we have a committee of 13 experts rather than some data-driven system. It’s because these people can discern.”

But Hancock acknowledged in an interview that some factors that committees have considered in the past are absent, most notably games that top teams play outside their conferences.

“The one that’s probably most significant in everyone’s mind is the lack of those marquee intersectional games,” Hancock said. “Just look back at the games that were important to the committee through the years — Notre Dame-Georgia, the two Oklahoma-Ohio State games, Oregon-Auburn — and the committee won’t have that this year.”

Among the planned games this year that were lost: Alabama-Southern California, Ohio State at Oregon and a Wisconsin-Notre Dame showdown at Lambeau Field.

That’s right.

“It’s in the discretion of each of the 13 members, and keep in mind no one knows how many games any team will play this season,” Hancock said. “Each individual member considers what’s most important to him or her. People talk about the committee as a singular unit; really, it’s plural: It’s 13 members making individual decisions.”

Although conferences have imposed requirements for teams to reach league championships, the committee has no threshold for how many games a team must play to be eligible for the playoff.

“The number of games and wins by each team is certainly important in weighing its ranking, but it is not the only factor,” the Playoff said on its website. The Playoff added, “The more games played, the more chances a team has to prove itself to the committee.”

Not this year, at least. But it could certainly be bigger in future seasons.

The first rankings and the final ones have always seen changes. In 2017 and 2018, though, three of the initial top four teams ultimately appeared in the season’s playoffs.

Last season, two teams that were on an early course to reach a semifinal actually made it there: Louisiana State and Ohio State. L.S.U. ultimately won the national championship when it beat Clemson in New Orleans.

Alabama and Penn State were initially placed in the top four last year. Later that week, Alabama lost to L.S.U. and Penn State fell at Minnesota.

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