At the top of the projected bracket, Tuesday’s first round of College Football Playoff rankings arrived with all the surprise of a morning sunrise or an SEC frontrunner in the national title mix.
As expected, the two undefeated teams at the top of both weekly polls emerged as the early favorites after two days of discussions at the Gaylord Texan Resort.
The 12-member selection committee went with No. 1 Mississippi State (7-0) and No. 2 Florida State (7-0) as the headliners in their first of seven weekly rankings that will be released before the four-team playoff field is set Dec. 7.
But the bigger message sent Tuesday by the committee is this: Strength of schedule matters. And TCU (6-1), which placed No. 7 in the inaugural CFP rankings, has way more of it than Baylor (6-1), its Big 12 rival that checked in at No. 13.
TCU has more of it than most teams, in fact, because the Frogs already hold victories over a title contender from the Big 12 (Oklahoma) and the Big Ten (Minnesota).
Because of that, the Horned Frogs earned more respect Tuesday from the power brokers who will set the playoff field than they received from pollsters Sunday who placed them at No. 10 in both the AP and coaches’ polls.
That represents a huge coup for the Frogs’ playoff hopes if they can run the table in their remaining games, because multiple SEC teams slotted ahead of TCU in Tuesday’s inaugural rankings are guaranteed to lose in upcoming matchups.
In breaking down the top teams during the initial round of discussions, CFP committee chairman Jeff Long identified a “paper thin” margin between teams that emerged at the fringe of the projected playoff pool: No. 4 Ole Miss, No. 5 Oregon and No. 6 Alabama.
Asked about the difference between No. 6 Alabama and No. 7 TCU in the estimation of committee members, Long said: “There’s a small gap, not a large one.”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock cited a clear gap between TCU and a tight, four-team group at Nos. 8-11 (Michigan State, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Georgia). Hancock pointed to three “signature wins” on TCU’s résumé — OU, Minnesota and Oklahoma State, a ranked opponent at the time — that helped trump the Frogs’ 61-58 loss to Baylor on Oct. 11 in Waco.
“The committee thought TCU and Baylor were not as comparable because TCU had those three good wins,” Hancock said. “Even though Baylor had the head-to-head [victory], it was at Baylor. But TCU ... had signature wins. That was really important to the committee.
“If you look down through this, you’ll see signature wins for all the top teams. TCU is a great example of signature wins.”
Baylor, which played one of the nation’s softest nonconference schedules (SMU, Northwestern State, Buffalo), clearly was downgraded by committee members for not challenging itself to a greater degree outside of its Big 12 games.
“It goes back to who the teams have played at this point. If you look at Baylor’s schedule, they have not had a strong schedule outside of their win against TCU,” Long said.
The soft-schedule factor also caught up with Notre Dame (6-1), ranked No. 10 by the committee but No. 6 in the AP poll. If not for its strong showing in a 31-27 loss to No. 2 Florida State, Hancock said Notre Dame probably would have finished outside the top 10, based on committee discussions.
Although Long stressed that teams are judged individually, rather than in conjunction with their fellow conference members, the dismal performance by Big Ten teams in nonconference play clearly did not help No. 8 Michigan State (7-1) or No. 16 Ohio State (6-1).
The SEC, as expected, held serve at the top of the rankings. League teams earned three of the top four spots, four of the top six and five of the top 11. But the Big 12 more than held its own, with TCU and No. 9 Kansas State (6-1) earning loftier spots from committee members than they received from pollsters. Baylor, on the other hand, fell by one spot from its poll positions.
Asked before the CFP rankings release about his interest in Tuesday’s proceedings, Baylor coach Art Briles said: “It will be interesting to see how it changes over the next five or six weeks. It’s kind of like preseason rankings to me. The next five weeks will really tell the tale.”
Long agreed, saying there is only one definitive conclusion to take away Tuesday when there are 18 one-loss teams in the FBS, including 15 that grabbed spots among the top 17 teams.
“It’s early, it’s close and it’s going to change,” Long said.
But the one thing that cannot change is whether a team challenged itself and succeeded during its nonconference schedule. Because TCU did that to a greater degree than Baylor, the Horned Frogs surfaced Tuesday as the Big 12 team to beat in this year’s playoff chase.