The first College Football Playoff rankings for this pandemic-disrupted season were revealed Tuesday. Then came all sorts of righteous and ritualistic self-regard and fury. The coming days will bring games that will feed the cycle.
But that cycle — a staple of a sport that has thrilled generations of fans with weekly offerings of the predictable and the downright ridiculous — is more fragile than ever because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Win out” may not prove a surefire route to a berth in semifinals at the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl. Games could vanish from the schedule with only hours of warning, new matchups might be added, and postponed showdowns might be resurrected. A team might miss a chance to play for a conference title because of a viral outbreak.
If the season lasts, the final rankings are expected on Dec. 20, soon after many top teams play for league championships and just a year after a Playoff slate that drew few complaints.
In the meantime, that sound you hear, besides some cousin’s bumbling over a video chat or the smoke detector announcing that the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes are burning, may just be the birthright bickering of college football fans. Here are the top teams they’re arguing over because, well, not everything is different in 2020.
No. 1 Alabama (7-0)
Remaining games: No. 22 Auburn, at Arkansas
Nick Saban needs one more national championship at Alabama to equal Bear Bryant’s six titles with the Crimson Tide. Saban, for years one of the country’s finest defensive minds, has a path to it this season with the best scoring offense in the Power 5 leagues and third over all. Quarterback Mac Jones has entered the mix in the race for the Heisman Trophy, and Najee Harris is a human highlight reel of a tailback. But never sleep on the Iron Bowl game against Auburn, planned for Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Saban, however, will not be on the sideline: On Wednesday, Alabama said Saban, 69, had tested positive for the virus.
No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0)
Remaining games: at No. 19 North Carolina, Syracuse, at Wake Forest
The Fighting Irish, who are playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year, cleared their biggest test of the regular season this month when they defeated an undermanned Clemson. Keep an eye on Kyren Williams, the sophomore running back, especially on Friday when Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and North Carolina’s Mack Brown will face each other for the first time. And remember that Notre Dame’s dealings with Clemson may not be over: The Tigers just might be waiting for the Irish in the A.C.C. championship game.
No. 3 Clemson (7-1)
Remaining games: Pittsburgh, at Virginia Tech
No matter what the Clemson faithful may claim, no serious person ignores or disrespects a program that has reached the national championship game in four of the last five seasons. This year, Travis Etienne became the A.C.C.’s career rushing leader, and Clemson nearly beat Notre Dame, even when Trevor Lawrence, its star quarterback, was sidelined after a brush with the virus. The defense is allowing about 305 yards a game, far better than some top teams, like Alabama and Georgia, with defensive-minded coaches at the top. Coach Dabo Swinney is sometimes the subject of harsh criticism — he drew ire this week for his remarks after Florida State refused to play Clemson because of virus concerns — but he has proved more than able to direct his team on the biggest stages.
No. 4 Ohio State (4-0)
Remaining games: at Illinois, at Michigan State, Michigan
Ohio State wanted to play this fall and with good football reason. After narrowly missing out on an appearance in last season’s national championship game, the Buckeyes are positioned to make it through the regular season undefeated: Their remaining opponents have a collective record of 5-9. Indiana tested Ohio State’s passing defense last weekend, but Justin Fields directs the best offense in the Big Ten and has one of the highest quarterback ratings in the country.
No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1)
Remaining games: Louisiana State, at No. 22 Auburn, at Tennessee
Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team could have been left for dead after Alabama walloped the Aggies, 52-24, in October. Then Texas A&M upset Florida, beat Mississippi State and Arkansas and humiliated South Carolina. The question for Texas A&M is whether two virus-related postponements after that run will upend its momentum when it hosts Louisiana State this weekend. Isaiah Spiller has rushed for 643 yards this season, placing him among the country’s elite, and the Aggies’ defense is surrendering the fewest yards of any team in the Southeastern Conference.
No. 6 Florida (6-1)
Remaining games: Kentucky, at Tennessee, L.S.U.
A coronavirus outbreak slowed the Gators but did not stop them, mostly because Kyle Trask has continued his blossoming into a star at quarterback. Injuries cost him games early in his career, but he took over the Florida offense last season after Feleipe Franks, now at Arkansas, was hurt and eventually led the team to a victory in the Orange Bowl. So far this season, Trask tops the country with 31 passing touchdowns. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney has more catches than any other Gator, but Kyle Pitts, a tight end, is making the most of his 24 receptions and averaging about 17 yards per catch. And Florida has already crushed Georgia, its nearest rival in the SEC’s East Division.
No. 7 Cincinnati (8-0)
Remaining game: at No. 25 Tulsa
No team from outside a Power 5 league has ever earned such a high playoff ranking. Now Cincinnati, a member of the American Athletic Conference, has a viable chance of reaching the semifinals, having impressed the committee with its national rankings in scoring offense and scoring defense. Desmond Ridder, the quarterback, has been the conference’s offensive player of the week in four of the last five weeks, helped by an offensive line that has given up only nine sacks. (Alabama, by contrast, has surrendered 11.) But in a reminder of how chaotic this season is, Cincinnati announced Wednesday morning that this weekend’s game at Temple had been canceled because of the pandemic.
No. 8 Northwestern (5-0)
Remaining games: at Michigan State, at Minnesota, Illinois
Talk about a team that has come back from last year. The Wildcats, who went 3-9 in 2019, have been perfect but not dominant. Their wins have rarely been blowouts — only one, a 43-3 pummeling of Maryland on Oct. 24, was by more than 10 points — but Northwestern has already beaten Wisconsin, the preseason favorite in the Big Ten’s West Division. The Northwestern defense, which made life miserable for Wisconsin when the Badgers were on third down, has been the difference, allowing fewer than 13 points a game. Brandon Joseph, a defensive back from College Station, Texas, has five interceptions, the most in the Power 5.
No. 9 Georgia (5-2)
Remaining games: at South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Georgia has two losses, but they were to Alabama and Florida. The trouble for the Bulldogs is that Florida has to stumble for them to reach the SEC’s championship game, and the Gators don’t exactly have a frightening schedule. Whether Georgia can get something going partly hinges on JT Daniels, a redshirt sophomore quarterback who only last week made his first start as a Bulldog. It went well — he threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns — but Georgia still beat Mississippi State (2-5) by only a touchdown.
No. 10 Miami (7-1)
Remaining games: at Wake Forest, No. 19 North Carolina, Georgia Tech
Much like Northwestern, Miami has rebounded after a disappointing 2019 in which the Hurricanes, a great national power of decades past, posted a 6-7 record. D’Eriq King, a redshirt senior playing his first season at Miami, has passed for 2,086 yards and 17 touchdowns. But Miami had toggled between huge wins — think a 52-10 rout of Florida State — and narrower margins, like a 25-24 win over Virginia Tech.
Odds and ends
No. 11 Oklahoma (6-2) is the highest-ranked Big 12 team. The Sooners reached the Playoff last year, only to lose handily to L.S.U. in the Peach Bowl. They do not have any ranked opponents remaining.
No. 14 Brigham Young, an independent in football, is 9-0. But the selection committee appears worried about the strength of the Cougars’ schedule. Their best win so far, according to Gary Barta, Iowa’s athletic director and the chairman of the selection committee, was a 51-17 victory over Boise State.
The Pac-12 has not reached the Playoff since the 2016 season, when Washington was ranked No. 4. The first rankings were not particularly kind to the Pac-12 — Oregon, at No. 15, had the league’s best showing — but the conference started its season later than others.