When the College Football Playoff committee gathered in recent days to determine the initial ranking of the top teams in the country, the first task was straightforward: confirm undefeated Georgia, which has mauled all comers, as No. 1.
Filling in the rest of the board, especially the three remaining spots in the playoff field, might have been done by firing names out of a confetti cannon. The exercise tested the limits of the eye test, strength of schedule comparisons, statistics and even what seemed like an infallible arbiter: head-to-head competition.
And so it was Tuesday night when the first rankings were announced that following Georgia were one-loss Alabama, unbeaten Michigan State and one-loss Oregon in the top four spots. Ohio State, which lost at home to Oregon in September, was fifth and Cincinnati, trying to become the first team from outside the five power conferences to crack the playoff, was sixth.
Oklahoma, undefeated and unimpressive after a series of narrow wins against middling opponents, was dropped to eighth — one step behind Michigan, which blew a 16-point second-half lead at Michigan State on Saturday.
In all, there would seem to be at least a dozen teams with a chance to reach the four-team playoff, which — with the absence of Clemson, which has already lost three times, and Alabama and Ohio State in precarious positions with one loss each — is shaping up as one of the most wide-open fields since the format began in 2014.
If the rankings regularly agitate college football fans — and, of course, that’s the point — this edition comes amid wrangling about what the future of the playoff will be.
When three conference commissioners — Greg Sankey of the Southeastern, Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12, Craig Thompson of the Mountain West — and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick revealed earlier this year their secretly hatched plan for a 12-team playoff, it set off another turf war over automatic berths and whether schools outside the Power Five would have a shot.
When Texas and Oklahoma’s intentions of jumping to the SEC from the Big 12 were made public, it created greater suspicions that the proposed format would be set up as an SEC invitational.
For more than two decades, schools outside the power conferences have argued that they deserve a chance to compete for a championship, even going to court. If there have been other minnows with strong résumés — Central Florida won 25 consecutive games in 2017 and 2018 but was never ranked higher than eighth by the committee — Cincinnati, another American Athletic Conference program, may provide a particularly strong case.
The Bearcats (8-0) won decisively at No. 10 Notre Dame (7-1) — one of the best road wins on any team’s ledger — and although they looked jittery the last two weeks, they have been no more uneasy on the eyes than Oklahoma (9-0), which has eked out wins over Tulane, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas and Nebraska, and trailed woeful Kansas in the fourth quarter.
And if pedigree counts for the sport’s blue bloods, then it is worth noting that these are largely the same Cincinnati players whose only loss last season was on a last-second, 53-yard field goal to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
Those in the Pac-12 had to surely be relieved for now. The conference has been shut out of the playoff since 2016 and is down to one hope: Oregon (7-1). The Ducks have played uneven football for most of the season, but they have what stands out as a giant rose on their résumé — a 35-28 victory at Ohio State, which was achieved even without their star defensive end, Kayvon Thibodeaux, who did not play because of an injury.
If the Buckeyes should get credit for bouncing back after shaking up their defensive coaching staff, the Ducks might argue that an allowance should be made for their unsightly overtime defeat to Stanford — it came with the offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead, in the hospital after emergency surgery.
“At the end of the day, that’s why they’re one spot behind Oregon because of the head to head,” said committee chairman Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa.
The schedule, as it often does, will iron out some of the existing wrinkles. Michigan State and Ohio State play each other on Nov. 20 in Columbus, and the Buckeyes play at Michigan a week later. Those games will largely determine the winner of the Big Ten East and provide the conference with a strong contender for a playoff berth.
Alabama, after being upset last month by Texas A&M, ranked 14th on Tuesday, may not be able to afford another slip up, either at No. 13 Auburn on Nov. 27 or in the SEC title game against Georgia if that matchup holds.
Oklahoma, which has skirted past virtually everyone on its schedule, still has to play at one-loss Baylor, ranked 12th, and one-loss Oklahoma State, ranked 11th, and will likely meet one of them again for the Big 12 title.
And Oregon has to play at Utah, which has won 17 of its last 18 home games, on Nov. 20, and will likely see the Utes again in the Pac-12 championship game.
Long shot No. 9 Wake Forest must survive No. 19 North Carolina State and a visit to Clemson to keep alive its hopes for an unbeaten regular season and a spot in the playoff.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.