Tuesday marks another long-awaited milestone in the 2020 college football season: the first set of College Football Playoff rankings.
The Playoff committee shouldn’t have too much to discuss at the top of the rankings, likely ordering Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame among the top three teams. It’s the No. 4 team where most of the intrigue lies. Clemson (7-1, 6-1 ACC) and Florida (6-1, 6-1 SEC) are the most viable candidates, but Texas A&M (5-1, 5-1 SEC) also figures to be within striking distance.
Regardless, each of those teams — barring the Aggies — controls its own destiny as the season heads into its final stretch. But it’s two other, non-traditional powers that will most keenly watch Tuesday’s rankings show (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). Cincinnati and BYU, ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, in both of Sunday’s polls, have perhaps the best shot of any non-Power 5 team other than Notre Dame to make the Playoff.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, in a phone interview with Sporting News last week, broke down the rooting interests for those teams to become the first non-traditional powers to earn their way into the final four teams:
“I think there’s probably a better chance in 2020 than the previous years, going back to 2014, kind of the inaugural year of the Playoff,” Herbstreit said. “I know that there have been teams like UCF and sometimes a Boise State, others that have wanted their opportunity. To be candid, it’s been very, very slim chances of them getting up into the top four.”
“I think the easiest path for them would be that Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State all win out. They need Notre Dame to beat Clemson. Because if Clemson beats Notre Dame, then I think there’s a very strong possibility the committee will keep Notre Dame and Clemson in the top four. So, if you’re a UC fan or a BYU fan, you’re pulling for Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame — which would open that last spot.”
From there, Herbstreit said, it becomes a debate among Cincinnati and BYU and a potential one-loss Texas A&M team. Anything short of that — such as Alabama losing to Florida in the SEC championship or Clemson getting revenge against the Irish — would likely end any chances the Bearcats and Cougars have of making the Playoff.
That said, there’s another team Herbstreit has his eyes on that could make a late charge if it remains undefeated: Oregon, ranked 11th in the Coaches Poll and ninth in the AP Top 25 of Sunday’s polls. If the Ducks can get through their season unscathed, capped with a second consecutive Pac-12 championship, they could make a compelling case to make the Playoff.
“Oregon’s a little bit of a forgotten team, because they’ve only played two games, obviously with the Pac-12 starting late,” Herbstreit said (the Ducks would go on to beat UCLA on Saturday, 38-35). “But I did the Oregon-Stanford game, and even though they graduated a lot of guys, they had a lot of opt-outs, Mario Cristobal has done a really really good job of recruiting and developing. And he’s got a better team than I think America realizes right now. And they might be sitting there at 6-0 or 7-0 and become a team that in a few weeks people are starting to talk about more and more.”
In a season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, even more emphasis has been placed on college football’s top prize. With every team facing shortened schedules, every loss takes on greater significance. What might have been a bump in the road has now turned into an impassable hurdle on the road to the Playoff.
That, Hebrstreit told SN, is one of the negative side effects of the Playoff — particularly as it pertains to college football’s bowl season. With so many teams, players and fans focusing solely on the Playoff, it takes away from college football’s tradition and history of the bowl season.
Herbstreit likened college football’s Playoff and bowl season to college basketball’s NCAA and NIT tournaments, respectively.
“And when was the last time you really as a college basketball fan were like, ‘Oh, here we go. NIT. Can’t wait, let’s watch it,'” Herbstreit said.
One potential fix — one levied against the Playoff since its 2014 inception — is to expand the field beyond its current four-team limit. Even then, however, Herbstreit didn’t know how much that would improve fans’ opinion of non-Playoff bowls. Moreover, he wasn’t certain that, if the Playoff were to expand, it would increase by only four teams.
“I talked to some people that are heavily involved in the decision-making, who want to expand it to 12,” Herbstreit said. “So I think change is on the horizon. I don’t think obviously that it’s going to happen this year. But I do think down the road you’re going to see things continue to evolve. And I wouldn’t be surprised from talking to some of the folks I’ve talked to, seeing it potentially not go to eight, but potentially have it go to 12.”
For now, however, the field remains at four. And, much like in previous years, the traditional powers continue to hold a Playoff monopoly. Indeed, Herbstreit’s picks for the final four teams to make the Playoff could very well include the top four teams in Tuesday’s rankings:
“I think Alabama’s going to be able to get there. I think Ohio State is going to be able to get there,” Herbsrteit said. “I would be surprised if Clemson, healthy, with revenge on their mind, doesn’t beat Notre Dame (in the ACC championship game). And I think Notre Dame will still be impressive enough to still be able to put themselves in.”
Herbstreit did add one small caveat to his picks, however:
“There’s always upsets,” he said. “It’s college football: There’s always things that happen.”
This year, ESPN and Goodyear have partnered to give fans the opportunity to vote on who they think should be the top four teams ahead of the first set of CFP rankings — an innovation to give them a voice in a season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fans voted ahead of Tuesday’s ranking, placing Alabama No. 1; Ohio State No. 2; Clemson No. 3; and Notre Dame No. 4.
Fans can keep the debate going on Twitter with the hashtag #GoodyearPlayoffFanPicks — and continue to be an integral part of the game.
“We’re missing the fans being at all these great games and they’re watching at home, but they’re not there. They’re not at the tailgates, they’re not doing the traditional things that fans do,” Herbstreit said. “So I think it’s very, very fitting that Goodyear and ESPN give the fans an opportunity to voice their opinion and celebrate how much they matter in this sport. Especially more than any other sport in America, college football fans are the most passionate fans we have. I think it’s awesome.”