The new College Football Playoff rankings came out last night, and they include some lessons about what the selection committee thinks of the SEC teams in the field.
Alabama is golden
The Crimson Tide's win over LSU was more dominant than the 14-point margin would indicate, and the selection committee seemed to be on board with that. After last week's somewhat controversial placement of Bama in the No. 4 spot, Nick Saban's team finds itself in the second position behind only undefeated No. 1 Clemson.
I don't think the Tide is a lock to stay in the No. 2 spot indefinitely. Ohio State still has Michigan State and Michigan to go, and those will be quality wins if the Buckeyes can get them. OSU will likely face an Iowa team with no more than one loss in the Big Ten Championship Game, so that will burnish its case as well. I don't think Alabama will finish ahead of an undefeated Ohio State in the final rankings. It might not finish ahead of an undefeated Iowa either, given that the Hawkeyes would have gotten a win over most likely Ohio State in the B1G championship.
That said, where Alabama is at now—ahead of everyone but Clemson and above four undefeated Power 5 schools—shows that the committee believes it is the best one-loss team. The Tide can always do something against Mississippi State, Auburn, or Florida to dissuade them of that idea, but if Alabama wins out, it should be in the top four. Maybe not the top two, but top four looks assured.
LSU is not lurking
If there is any hope of a conference getting two teams into the playoff, the non-champion will most likely have to be a one-loss team that only lost to the eventual league champion. If LSU wins out, that will describe the Tigers.
That said, dropping seven spots from second to nine is a big vote of no confidence from the committee. The win for Alabama was impressive enough to have it jump Ohio State, who was ahead of the Tide a week ago. However, losing to the now-No. 2 team wasn't enough to keep LSU from dropping like a rock. The Tigers didn't help themselves in that regard by appearing to have absolutely no chance of solving Alabama's defense, but this was still a strong statement.
There are still plenty of chances for teams ahead of them to drop and have LSU move upwards with more wins. Oklahoma State could lose to Baylor and TCU. Baylor could lose to TCU and Oklahoma State. Notre Dame and Stanford still must play each other. If Ohio State and Iowa don't play each other, it's because one or both picked up worse losses than losing to the other would be.
Had LSU landed somewhere around No. 6, then I'd have more confidence in the team having a chance to sneak into the top four. Nearly falling out of the top ten makes the task much harder. It's not because the committee does the traditional inertia-based rankings, because it doesn't, but it's due to the fact that the committee clearly casts a much harsher eye towards the Tigers now than before.
"Just win" isn't enough
The only other team with a prayer of making the playoff at this point is Florida. If the Gators win out and win the conference crown, they'll have a reasonably good chance to get into the top four spots.
However, winning games alone isn't enough. After eking out a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, Florida dropped a spot in the selection committee rankings from No. 10 to No. 11 as three teams passed up the Gators. Oklahoma State, now 9-0 after blowing out TCU, makes sense. Stanford jumped from 11 to 7 after blowing out a mediocre Colorado team, so whatever the committee saw in that wasn't just about the Cardinal passing up UF. Utah also passed up the Gators after grinding out a 34-23 win over Washington.
I give you those results to provide context, not argue against the outcome. It's hard to overstate how bad Florida's offensive line looked against Vandy, and there isn't much difference between winning and losing when the margin is two points on a late field goal. I'm not even sure Florida is the 11th best team in the country. It could be the 11th most deserving team, but the committee's guidelines explicitly tell them to vote based on "best" and not "most deserving".
Everything always depends on what other teams do around the country. With that caveat applied, one-loss Florida isn't guaranteed a spot in. I don't see Clemson losing now that it's past Florida State, and the Big Ten champ will probably be undefeated too. I don't think Florida would have priority over an undefeated Baylor, and the Notre Dame-Stanford winner will have a strong case for inclusion (especially if it's conference champion Stanford).
One-loss Florida's best wins would be in the SEC Championship Game, probably over (now two-loss) Alabama, and then Ole Miss and Florida State in some order. It would also have stinkers over ECU, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt—and who knows, maybe South Carolina and/or FAU too. Florida would have a most deserving case over the Stanford/Notre Dame winner, but again, the committee is supposed to vote on "best". Florida's best has shown up for one game only, the win over Ole Miss, and the rest of the way, the Gators haven't looked better than many of the current top ten. Maybe the win over Alabama would be enough, but we'd have a better guess at that with the old BCS system than we do with the committee.