ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The first College Football Playoff rankings of the season will be released Tuesday night, and Michigan is sure to be among the nation’s top 25 teams.
Jim Harbaugh’s team has bounced back from a rocky 2-1 start to win five of its last six games. Michigan sits at 7-2 on the season and No. 14 in both the AP and Coaches polls.
But where will Michigan land in this season’s first CFP rankings?
Ahead of Michigan
Regardless of what order they land in, there appear to be nine teams that make up a pretty clear top tier in the rankings.
Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Penn State are the top five teams in both major polls because they’re undefeated and have at least some semblance of a quality victory. Ohio State and LSU have been the most dominant teams so far and will likely take up the top two spots. Alabama and Clemson will likely round out the top four, and Penn State seems like a good candidate for No. 5.
Then, Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah, Georgia and Baylor should land at spots six through nine. Baylor is a perfect 8-0 this season, and while the resume was once thought to be lacking, wins at Kansas State and Oklahoma State are starting to look much more impressive. Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah and Baylor are all one-loss teams with solid resumes.
Oregon and Georgia will probably share the No. 6 and No. 7 spots, with Baylor, Oklahoma and Utah at No. 8 through No. 10.
To recap, the following teams will be ranked ahead of Michigan, without a doubt:
- Ohio State
- Penn State
It would be a surprise to see any other teams in the top 10.
Then, the true debate begins.
An early theme to this college football season is the depth of the top tier of mid-major teams.
In the current top 25 polls, Cincinnati, Memphis, Boise State, SMU, San Diego State and Navy are all ranked as one-loss Group of Five teams.
While they’re all deserving of consideration in the CFP rankings, none of these teams have good enough wins to be ahead of Michigan at this point.
The same can likely be said for the Power Five teams hovering around the bottom of the current polls. Iowa doesn’t have any wins over currently ranked teams. Wake Forest is simply a product of a weak schedule. Indiana hasn’t beaten a single team with a winning record.
Notre Dame’s resume is probably a step above the rest of the teams in this group, but with no wins over currently ranked teams and a 31-point loss to Michigan in the head-to-head meeting, there’s no way the committee would put the Fighting Irish ahead of the Wolverines.
To recap, here are the teams deserving of CFP poll consideration that will certainly be below Michigan:
- Notre Dame
- Boise State
- San Diego State
- Wake Forest
Every other Power Five team in the country is either mentioned in this article or has more than two losses and won’t be considered for Tuesday’s rankings. Louisiana Tech and Appalachian State are one-loss Group of Five teams without impressive victories.
In the mix with Michigan
If you’re keeping track of the teams above, you probably figured out Michigan has to land somewhere between No. 11 and No. 16, based on this logic.
There’s no way Michigan is ranked ahead of those top 10 teams. It would also be a shock to see any of the teams in the second group ranked ahead of Michigan. That leaves six Power Five teams to fight for spots 11 through 16.
Two very distinct groups live within this tier: two-loss teams with at least one ranked victory and Minnesota.
Minnesota vs. two-loss teams
Minnesota will be by far the most fascinating ranking to watch Tuesday night. There are only seven undefeated teams left out of 130 FBS programs, and Minnesota is one of them. On the other hand, the Golden Gophers’ best wins are against 5-4 Illinois and 5-3 Georgia Southern -- both at home.
The committee will reveal the whether record or resume is more important by how it treats Minnesota. Does it reward a team that hasn’t lost a game or penalize it because the two best teams on its schedule have losses to Eastern Michigan and Louisiana?
Only one undefeated Power Five team has been ranked below a two-loss team in the history of the CFP poll. Auburn, 11-2, was ranked No. 2 and Wisconsin, 12-0, was ranked No. 4 in Week 14 of 2017. That Auburn team was coming off a 12-point win against No. 1 Alabama and already had a 23-point win over No. 6 Georgia and a 39-point win against No. 23 Mississippi State. Auburn’s losses were against No. 1 Clemson and No. 17 LSU by a combined 12 points.
Michigan, Auburn, Florida, Wisconsin and Kansas State are the two-loss teams I expect to join Minnesota in the 11 through 17 slots. Michigan, Auburn and Florida are 7-2. Wisconsin and Kansas State are 6-2.
None of the two-loss teams in this group have a resume like Auburn’s in 2017, but no undefeated Power Five team in the CFP era has ever had a resume as weak as Minnesota’s, either.
Michigan vs. Wisconsin
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Can Michigan be ranked ahead of a team it lost to by 21 points?
Michigan is currently ranked ahead of Wisconsin in both major polls, and while the Badgers are on an ugly two-game losing streak, it has to feel wrong for anyone who watched the slaughter in Madison six weeks ago.
The placement of Michigan compared to Wisconsin will be a classic test of how much the CFP committee values head-to-head results.
Michigan has an edge over Wisconsin no matter how you break down the resumes. The Wolverines have two wins over top 20 teams, no losses to unranked teams and a win over Illinois. Wisconsin has one win over a top 20 team and a loss to Illinois.
There’s also a matter of where the teams stand today. Michigan has clearly improved since Sept. 21 and is currently playing its best football. Wisconsin lost to Illinois and got pounded by Ohio State the last two weeks.
Amazingly, I think Michigan will be ranked ahead of Wisconsin in the first CFP poll. It doesn’t feel right, but the committee insists head-to-head is only a factor when there isn’t much difference between two resumes, and that isn’t currently the case.
Michigan vs. Kansas State
Kansas State deserves to be in this group after taking down No. 5 Oklahoma two weeks ago. The problem is the Wildcats haven’t beaten another FBS team with a winning record.
The win over Oklahoma is better than any of Michigan’s wins, but the Wolverines have a much deeper resume, with wins over Notre Dame and Iowa -- both teams that will be in Tuesday’s CFP rankings -- and a third win over a team with a winning record in Illinois.
Kansas State also has the worst loss -- against Oklahoma State. That’s not a bad loss on the road, but it’s much worse than Michigan’s losses to Penn State and Wisconsin.
Michigan vs. Auburn
Like Kansas State, Auburn has a win over one of the teams in the first section of this breakdown: Oregon.
That win, combined with wins over two 6-3 teams in Texas A&M and Tulane, might be enough to put Auburn ahead of Michigan. It will be especially helpful to Auburn if the committee puts an undeserving Texas A&M in the top 25, despite every single one of the Aggies’ wins coming against teams with losing records.
Auburn has comparable losses to Michigan: one to an undefeated LSU team and one to a fellow two-loss team in Florida.
While Michigan’s best argument is that it has two wins against top 10 teams, that likely won’t be enough to jump Auburn.
Michigan vs. Florida
No, this isn’t a bowl matchup. It’s just a resume comparison.
Florida has the aforementioned win over Auburn, which is probably a more impressive victory that either Notre Dame or Iowa. But its second best win is against 5-4 Miami, which is a bit underwhelming.
The Gators are going to benefit from their losses coming to LSU and Georgia, who will both be ranked in the top 10. Even though the wins are mostly uninspiring, the win over Auburn and the top 10 losses will likely put Florida ahead of Michigan.
Here’s how I predict this group will be ranked:
16. Kansas State
Since Harbaugh took over in 2015, Michigan has been ranked in the CFP poll 19 out of 24 weeks, including 17 weeks inside the top 15.
Who would have thought Michigan could be No. 13 in the first CFP rankings of 2019 after the way this season began?