Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, and Clemson were the top four teams in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season released Tuesday night, four days before the Volunteers and Bulldogs square off on the field.
Michigan was fifth, followed by Alabama and unbeaten TCU.
Tennessee is No. 1 in the CFP rankings for the first time, starting ahead of a group of teams that have become regulars at the top of the selection committee's top 25. The Volunteers have already beaten the Crimson Tide and LSU, which was ranked 10th.
Tennessee has been one of the season's biggest surprises, starting the season unranked in the AP poll and jumping out to an 8-0 start for the first time since the Vols won their last national title in 1998.
“We’ve tried to enjoy the journey,” second-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel told ESPN. “Three years ago, it didn’t look like this.”
Heupel took over after Jeremy Pruitt was fired following a 3-7 season.
Only one team that has been No. 1 in the committee’s initial rankings has not made the playoff, but only about half the teams in first top four managed to finish there.
The committee began its weekly in-person meetings at hotel in Grapevine, Texas, on Monday and revealed the first of six weekly rankings.
The final rankings that set the CFP field of four are set for Dec. 4. The 13-person panel is led by a first-time chairman Boo Corrigan, the athletic director of North Carolina State.
Corrigan said there was some consideration for Ohio State and Georgia as No. 1, but Tennessee’s victories against Alabama and at LSU won the day.
The Buckeyes' explosive offense and overall dominance gave them a slight edge on Georgia.
He said Michigan's weak nonconference schedule (Hawaii, Colorado State and Connecticut) and Clemson's 5-0 record against teams with winning records gave the Tigers the nod for the fourth spot.
“The wins at Wake (Forest), at Florida State, over N.C. State, over Syracuse, really did push (Clemson) over the top,” Corrigan said.
Oregon was eighth followed by Pac-12 rival Southern California at ninth.
The highest ranked team from outside the Power Five conferences was Tulane at No. 19. The highest ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences earns a spot in New Year's Six bowl.
The CFP semifinals are scheduled to be played at the Fiesta and Peach Bowls on Dec. 31, with the championship game set for Jan. 9 in Inglewood, California.
Even before the rankings were unveiled Tuesday night, it was clear which teams still have a chance to play for a national championship.
A glance at the conference standings reveals 14 contenders, all in the Power Five. Sorry, there will be no Cincinnati-style interloper from the Group of Five this season for the selection committee to consider.
A conference-by-conference assessment of who is in the race and the paths to the CFP, with AP Top 25 rankings.
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
Clemson (8-0, AP No. 5)
The Tigers had their streak of six straight playoff appearances snapped last year, but are well positioned to get back, with no ranked opponents left before a likely ACC title game against North Carolina.
No unbeaten Power Five champion has ever missed the playoff. A glance at the Big Ten and SEC suggests getting in as a one-loss conference champion could be dicey for the Tigers.
No. 17 North Carolina (7-1, AP No. 17)
Run the table, beating unbeaten Clemson in the ACC title game, gets the Tar Heels in the conversation, but they’ll need some upsets in other leagues to clear the way.
No. 7 TCU (8-0, AP No. 7)
See above, re: unbeaten Power Five champions. The Horned Frogs flirt with disaster weekly and have some defensive issues. That’s a profile the selection committee tends to look upon skeptically.
They’ll probably need to stay unbeaten to get in and it’s going to be really tough for them to stay unbeaten with the way they have been playing.
Ohio State (8-0, AP No. 2) and Michigan (8-0, AP No. 4)
Both have been dominant. Neither has played a particularly strenuous schedule and that won’t change much before they meet Thanksgiving weekend. Still, either is lock by winning out.
Either would stay in the mix by being a 12-1 conference champion. And the loser of the rivalry game at 11-1 probably still holds out hope to get in.
Illinois (7-1, AP No. 14)
The Illini have a game against Michigan the week before the Wolverines play Ohio State. That means Illinois could finish 12-1 with either two victories against Michigan or one against Michigan and one against Ohio State.
It’s not likely to happen, but that would put the Illini in the playoff.
Oregon (7-1, AP No. 8), USC (7-1, AP No. 9) and UCLA (7-1, No. 10)
They all need to run the table to have a chance and even then that might not be enough. The Ducks will have to overcome a 49-3 loss to Georgia in their opener. The Trojans have a bad defense and won’t get much of a bump by beating Notre Dame. UCLA played one of the weakest nonconference schedules in the country.
What’s the best option for the Pac-12? The guess here is a 12-1 USC with victories against UCLA and Oregon and one-point loss to a good Utah team.
Georgia (8-0, AP No. 1) and Tennessee (8-0, AP No. 2)
The loser of Saturday’s showdown in Athens is not eliminated, especially if its the Volunteers, with a victory over Alabama already in hand.
Alabama (6-1, AP No. 6) and Mississippi (8-1, AP No. 11)
The Crimson Tide and Rebels can’t afford another loss — they play each other in two weeks — but either would breeze into the CFP by winning out.
The most SEC-centric scenario the rest of the country needs to root against is Alabama winning out, beating Georgia in the SEC championship game, and leaving the Tide and Bulldogs at 12-1 and Tennessee at 11-1 with a close loss to Georgia.
LSU (6-2, AP No. 15)
A two-loss team has never made the playoff, but the SEC champion has never missed the playoff. If the Tigers beat Alabama and avenge a loss to Tennessee on the way to a conference title they could break precedent.
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