As we enter October and the heart of conference play, don’t forget what has transpired already; the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee certainly won’t.
Several September statements will continue to influence how the committee chooses its top four teams, as a victory against a ranked Power 5 nonconference opponent can help separate teams with similar records. One constant in the group’s ranking rationale has been the number of CFP-ranked opponents a team beats, so it’s worth watching to see if squads such as Texas A&M (which lost to Clemson) and Virginia (which lost to Notre Dame) can finish ranked. If not, the committee usually still regards it as a respectable win if the opponent is over .500.
For better or for worse, the perception of early wins often changes deeper into the season, but we have a snapshot now of who could be significantly helped later. Here’s a ranking of the four best nonconference wins of September:
1. Auburn 27, Oregon 21
If the selection committee were meeting today, it’s likely Auburn would be in the top four because of victories against Oregon and Texas A&M. Auburn entered Week 5 ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s Strength of Record metric, which measures how difficult it would be for the average Top 25 team to achieve the same 4-0 record against the Tigers’ schedule. What makes the win against Oregon so valuable is the potential for the Ducks to continue winning and stay ranked. ESPN’s Football Power Index favors the Ducks to win each of their remaining games, but they have to play both Washington and USC on the road. If Auburn can claim a win over the Pac-12 champ, it certainly would give the Tigers an edge over another contender with a weaker nonconference résumé.
2. LSU 45, Texas 38
A road victory against a ranked Texas team capable of winning the Big 12 catapulted LSU into the national spotlight and legitimized the Tigers as a playoff contender. What if Texas does upset Oklahoma and win the Big 12? It’s possible LSU can claim a win over the Big 12 champs — or that the head-to-head result gives the Tigers the edge if they’re competing for a semifinal spot, too. As long as Texas doesn’t come completely unraveled, it will continue to rank as one of the best nonconference wins of the season.
3. Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17
This win did two things for Georgia: It boosted an otherwise easy nonconference schedule that included Murray State and Arkansas State, and it gave the Bulldogs some margin for error in an SEC slate that includes West division opponents Auburn and Texas A&M. It helped Georgia that the Fighting Irish rebounded on Saturday and beat Virginia.
4. Clemson 24, Texas A&M 10
This is last on the list because of the likelihood that the Aggies finish with four or five losses, devaluing the win for the Tigers by the end of November. Texas A&M was fortunate to escape Arkansas — a team that had lost at home to San Jose State — on Saturday. ESPN’s FPI gives the Aggies less than a 50% chance to beat Alabama, Georgia and LSU, but considering how highly ranked all of those teams should be, the committee still would acknowledge this as a good triumph for Clemson. Don’t forget that Clemson also ends the regular season at rival South Carolina, so to have two victories against SEC opponents can only help. The question is how much.
Four nonconference schedules to worry about
1. Washington (Eastern Washington, Hawai’i, BYU) — If Washington finishes as a one-loss Pac-12 champ, this will be a point of debate among the committee members, but Washington has overcome it before. In 2016, Washington’s nonconference schedule included Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, but the Huskies still finished in the top four, ahead of two-loss Big Ten champion Penn State. Playing FCS opponents isn’t a deal-breaker, as the past four national champs have all beaten an FCS opponent en route to earning a semifinal spot. The question would be how many Pac-12 opponents finish ranked.
2. Oklahoma (Houston, South Dakota, UCLA) — The Sooners continue to roll, but if they finish as one-loss Big 12 champs — even if their only loss is to ranked rival Texas — they might face only one ranked opponent all year (the Longhorns). Kansas State is likely to fall out of the Top 25 after Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State. The question is if Oklahoma can continue to win so convincingly it looks like one of the top four teams.
3. Ohio State (Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Miami-Ohio) — No Power 5 nonconference opponents is a problem if the Buckeyes lose a game they shouldn’t (like at Northwestern on Oct. 18) or if the rest of their ranked opponents tumble out of the Top 25. Remember: When teams have similar records, the nonconference schedules are just one way for the committee to help separate them. While Saturday’s convincing victory at Nebraska was important, Ohio State’s best opportunities will come against the rest of the conference. That’s why the Buckeyes need Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan to stay ranked. Plus, Ohio State likely would face a ranked opponent in the Big Ten title game.
4. Wisconsin (South Florida, Central Michigan, Kent State) — The Badgers are in a similar position to Ohio State in that they can compensate for having no Power 5 nonconference opponents if their Big Ten lineup remains strong, and assuming they would face a ranked East division opponent if they make it to the conference title game. Would it be enough, though, to unseat a one-loss LSU that beat Texas? Or a one-loss Auburn that defeated Oregon?
Four October games that will shape the playoff
1. Auburn at LSU, Oct. 26: This game should reveal which team is the bigger threat to challenge Alabama for the West division and also should put the loser in a tough spot with the Crimson Tide still on the schedule. Both teams will face Florida first. Will Auburn or LSU enter this game with a loss already?
2. Wisconsin at Ohio State, Oct. 26: It would benefit the Big Ten if this were a preview of the conference title game, as the loser would have a chance to redeem itself in the Big Ten championship.
3. Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 12: The Sooners lost this game last season but beat the Longhorns in the Big 12 title game to earn a spot in the top four.
4. Oregon at Washington, Oct. 19: The winner should emerge as the front-runner to win the Pac-12 North, clinging onto the league’s playoff hopes.