The questions include some that have addled college football brains for decades upon acrimonious decades:
Where’s Notre Dame ranked?
How much does it matter that somebody (in this case, Oklahoma) won on somebody else’s field (in this case, Ohio State) in the nascent part of the season?
By the way, who’s No. 1?
As the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee unleashes the first of its six weekly rankings at 7 p.m. Eastern time, toward determining the four-team playoff of late December and early January, there’s a batch of fundamental questions. And in an indecipherable national sport that has quibbled about rankings for decades upon acrimonious decades, it makes loony sense that some of this has hinged on a bespectacled place kicker who began the season as a walk-on.
Through Monday and Tuesday, the committee of five former coaches, five athletic directors, one university president, one former NCAA executive and one former reporter has been meeting and untangling near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Much of the hard untangling of the first eight main weeks might stem from one game, from Sept. 10. In the kind of interesting interregional matchup the committee tends to reward, Georgia, then ranked a middling No. 15 by the Associated Press panel, won by 20-19 at No. 24 Notre Dame, which fell to 1-1 coming off a 4-8 season of 2016.
The Bulldogs won on a 30-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship with 3:34 remaining, in a game that went overshadowed by its postgame, when Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly proved memorably frail under questioning. Georgia won also because Notre Dame couldn’t get any first downs in its final three possessions, and because it held Notre Dame to 55 rushing yards. That last feat has amassed steam through the ensuing weeks, as Notre Dame rushed for 515 yards against Boston College in a 49-20 win that also has elevated with Boston College’s rise; 182 yards in an impressive 38-18 win at Michigan State; 377 yards in a 49-14 mauling of then-No. 11 Southern California; and 318 yards in a 35-14 ease through then-No. 14 North Carolina State.
The bounty of things shaking out since then include Georgia’s rise to a dominant 8-0 and Notre Dame’s unforeseen surge to a dominant 7-1. In the everlasting search for logic around college football, Georgia’s rise flatters Notre Dame’s surge, and Notre Dame’s surge flatters Georgia’s rise.
Conceivably, Notre Dame, still a football independent, could start out ahead of four of the five Power Five conferences, excepting only the Southeastern. The Big 12 and the Pacific-12 have run out of unbeaten teams. The Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast have only Wisconsin (8-0) and Miami (Fla.) (7-0), both presumed to have played weaker schedules, mainly because they have played weaker schedules. Neither has beaten anybody ranked either at the kickoff of the game, or now.
It’s also conceivable that Notre Dame could lag behind either or both of defending national champion Clemson (7-1) and Ohio State (7-1), especially the former with its impressive stash of wins (Auburn, at Louisville, at Virginia Tech) that preceded its lone, surprising loss (at Syracuse).
The Notre Dame-Georgia dynamic means it’s also conceivable that Georgia could start this year’s rankings at No. 1, with Alabama No. 2. In this Alabama decade, that could violate the widely assumed bylaw that the committee rank Alabama No. 1 as a formal kickoff to each meeting, just after pouring the water. (In the committee’s 19 previous rankings across three seasons, only three teams — Alabama, Clemson and Mississippi State — have held down No. 1, including Alabama 10 times. The committee does not issue a postseason ranking.) If Georgia ranks No. 1, it could wreak some fine, if meaningless, neighborly quarreling in the SEC.
This time, Alabama began with an audacious nonconference game on Sept. 2, the first ever featuring two top-three Associated Press teams. It beat — and beat up — No. 3 Florida State, 24-7. Unforeseen that night was that Florida State would careen to a most unfamiliar 2-5, and that the Georgia-Notre Dame game the next week would outstrip, at least for now, the headline game that happened concurrently on Georgia-Notre Dame night.
That was Oklahoma’s visit to Ohio State, and Oklahoma’s impressive 31-16 win wound up throwing another puzzle at the committee. Past committees have shown their affinity for daring nonconference scheduling and good wins, especially good road wins. With three new members on this committee — former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith and Robert Morris President Chris Howard — the Oklahoma-Ohio State dynamic will be interesting.
Both are 7-1. Oklahoma’s 7-1 should have become more enticing given the sudden prowess of its lone conqueror, Iowa State (6-2). In two other rankings, which are unrelated and maybe even unnoticed by committee members, Ohio State ranks No. 3 after its stirring comeback against then-No. 2 Penn State. Oklahoma ranks No. 8 (media) or No. 9 (coaches). If the committee follows similarly, expect some Oklahoman dissent at least until the weekend, when the Sooners play at No. 11 (media) Oklahoma State (7-1). Further, No. 13 Virginia Tech (7-1) visits unbeaten No. 9 Miami, No. 6 Clemson (7-1) plays at No. 20 North Carolina State (6-2), and No. 19 LSU (6-2) visits No. 1 Alabama (8-0), a program which, across three seasons, has won 29 consecutive regular season games.
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