Michigan State, Alabama or Oklahoma: Who Should Be in Top 4 of 1st CFP Rankings?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 31, 2021

Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III
Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker IIIAl Goldis/Associated Press

The selection committee for the College Football Playoff will be releasing its first Top 25 rankings of the 2021 season Tuesday night, and, buddy, there are going to be some arguments.

Not about Georgia at No. 1, of course. The Bulldogs were already the unanimous No. 1 team in the AP poll before squeezing the life out of Florida for a 34-7 victory on Saturday afternoon. Thanks to a Nakobe Dean pick six just before halftime, Georgia's defense/special teams has now scored four touchdowns while allowing its opposition to score just five. The Dawgs are officially in 2001 Miami (10 touchdowns scored against 12 allowed) and 2011 Alabama (five scored against nine allowed) territory of absurd dominance on D.

Beyond that, though, the order of Nos. 2-7no matter what it iswill be highly controversial. Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Oregon all have an argument for debuting in the Top 4, but only half of them can do so.

Before we dive into the cases for and against each of those six teams, let's be sure to point out thatwhile certainly more important than the AP pollthese initial rankings still don't really matter.

When all four teams that debuted in the Top 4 actually made it into the playoff last year, that was very much the exception to the rule. In the first six years of the CFP, only 13 of the 24 national semifinalists debuted in the Top 4. The vast majority of them (21 of 24) did start in the Top 7, but Ohio State famously went from No. 16 to national champion in 2014. Oklahoma also vaulted from a starting spot at No. 15 into the Top 4 the following year.

And looking at it from the opposite direction, 2020 was the first time that there was not at least one team that finished outside the Top 10 after debuting in the Top 4. 2016 Texas A&M was the only one to actually drop all the way out of the Top 25, but there's typically at least one team that fades considerably in November.

In other words, if you're a fan of one of these teams that isn't in the Top Four on Tuesday night, there's still plenty of time to get there.

With that in mind, let's try to figure out what the selection committee will decide this week.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama QB Bryce Young
Alabama QB Bryce YoungVasha Hunt/Associated Press

Case For: Ridiculously good offense, and that loss to Texas A&M isn't anywhere near as bad as it looked at the time.

Quarterback Bryce Young is a bona fide Heisman Trophy front runner, leading an offense that has averaged 45.9 points per game this season. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. took a few weeks to get into the zone, but he averaged 160.5 yards of total offense and 2.5 touchdowns per game in October.

Aside from the final three quarters of the road game against Florida, the Crimson Tide have been virtually unstoppable.

And that three-point road loss to the then-unranked Aggies? That hardly seems unforgivable now that A&M is thriving and has bounced back into the AP Top 15. At any rate, that loss is much less of an eyesore than Oregon's loss to Stanford.

Jumping out to that 35-0 lead over Ole Miss before cruising to a 21-point victory was an impressive best win, too.

Case Against: Already lost one game, and hasn't looked like the Alabama of yore.

The committee isn't going to compare 2021 Alabama to any other iteration of this program, but there's no question that this hasn't been quite a vintage Crimson Tide team as far as game control is concerned.

Not only did they lose to a team that already had two losses, but they were considerably less than dominant in the wins over Florida and Tennessee. They owned the first quarter of the former and the fourth quarter of the latter. However, a now-.500 Gators team out-played them over the final 45 minutes and a now-.500 Volunteers team went into Tuscaloosa and legitimately hung with Alabama through the first 45 minutes.

None of that will matter if they win out, but it could be a justification for slotting Alabama outside the initial Top 4.


Cincinnati Bearcats

Case For: Undefeated with a pair of road wins over Power Five programs

Plain and simple, Cincinnati did exactly what we've been waiting for a Group of Five team to do to make things interesting.

When UCF ran the table in both 2017 and 2018, it did so against an uninspired schedule. The Knights didn't play a single road game against a ranked team, and (excluding the bowl games) only faced two mediocre Power Five programs, beating 4-8 Maryland the first year and 7-7 Pittsburgh the latter year.

But Cincinnati went on the road against preseason No. 17 Indiana and preseason No. 9 Notre Dame, winning both of those contests by double digits. Indiana has since fallen apart for a 2-6 overall record, but that 24-13 win at Notre Dame is still one of the most impressive victories by any team in this entire season.

Not only that but both the Pac-12 (Oregon) and the ACC (Wake Forest) are already down to just one team with any argument whatsoever for a spot in the Top 15. Might as well put an undefeated Cincinnati in the Top 4 alongside the best team from each of the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12.


Case Against: Only one game against a remotely noteworthy opponent and hasn't looked good lately.

Cincinnati RB Jerome Ford
Cincinnati RB Jerome FordJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

As awesome as the road win over Notre Dame was, what is Cincinnati's second-best win now that it looks like Indiana isn't any good? The home win over UCF sans Dillon Gabriel? The season opener at home against 4-4 Miami-Ohio?

The Bearcats will eventually need to face a pretty good SMU team (Nov. 20), plus either a rematch with the Mustangs or a showdown with Houston in the AAC championship. But the overall schedule thus far isn't that great, and two games against SMU is nothing compared to what the rest of these contenders will face the rest of the way.

And while there's only so much Cincinnati can do about the strength of its schedule, it should have at least played well in the recent wins over Navy and Tulane.

Sure, they were both road games, but 2-6 Navy had the ball with a chance to tie in the closing minute while a 1-7 Tulane team with a terrible defense held the Bearcats offense in check. The latter was a 14-12 game at halftime, and Cincinnati didn't exactly flex its offensive muscles after the intermission with just one drive of more than 40 yards.

Style points are going to be crucial for Cincinnati to ultimately land in the playoff, and it hasn't gotten many as of late.


Michigan State Spartans

Case For: Last undefeated Big Ten team; just scored a massive win over AP No. 6 Michigan.

Let me first say how incredible it is that we're even having this conversation. At Big Ten media days in July, Michigan State was picked to finish in dead last in the Big Ten East, and Sparty was considerably behind both Rutgers and Maryland in that poll. Going from an expected seventh-place finish in their division to a certain spot in the current Top 7 is the type of thing that could make Mel Tucker a unanimous Head Coach of the Year.

Speaking of year-end honors, go ahead and lock in Kenneth Walker III for a spot among the Heisman finalists. The Wake Forest transfer was already leading the nation in rushing yards per game heading into a Week 9 gem against rival Michigan, in which he rushed 23 times for 197 yards and five touchdowns. He has been the heart and soul of the Big Ten's lone remaining unblemished team.

In addition to that come-from-behind 37-33 win over the Wolverines, the Spartans burst onto the scene in September with a 38-17 road win over then-AP No. 24 Miami. The Hurricanes are only 4-4 overall, but they do have wins over Pitt, NC State and Appalachian State, as well as close calls against North Carolina and Virginia. The committee is sure to view that as an impressive victory.


Case Against: Close calls against Nebraska and Indiana; major question marks in the secondary

The Spartans needed a Jayden Reed punt-return touchdown late in the fourth quarter at home against Nebraska just to force overtime and ultimately win that game. And against an Indiana team adjusting to a new starting quarterback (Jack Tuttle) in the middle of the season, Michigan State narrowly eked out a 20-15 victory, thanks in large part to a pick six of Tuttle in the first quarter.

Two close calls is better than the many that Oklahoma has had, and it's better than the losses that Alabama, Ohio State and Oregon have suffered. But for a team that did not have a win over a currently ranked opponent until that comeback win against Michigan, those razor-thin margins against two teams unlikely to even qualify for a bowl game were a bit concerning.

And even in that win over Michigan, Michigan State's Achilles' heel was on full display: less-than-mediocre pass defense.

The Spartans have a great pass rush, but they just allowed more than 400 passing yards against a Wolverines offense that had not previously topped 255 this season. MSU is now allowing 301.0 passing yards per game.

Granted, hemorrhaging passing yards on a regular basis never kept Oklahoma from reaching the playoff. But with so little separating No. 2 from No. 7 at this point, those defensive numbers against what wasn't a particularly daunting schedule prior to this weekend will be a major talking point for the committee.


Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson
Ohio State RB TreVeyon HendersonIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

Case For: Offense is sensational and the defense appears to have improved a lot since mid-September.

At 49.3 points per game, Ohio State entered Week 9 as the highest-scoring offense in the country by a margin of more than a field goal per game.

C.J. Stroud was averaging well over 10 yards per pass attempt, TreVeyon Henderson was averaging nearly nine yards per rush attempt and each portion of the Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba three-headed receiving monster was well on its way to a 1,000-yard campaign.

Even on what ended up feeling like a down night against Penn State, the Buckeyes racked up 466 yards of total offense and scored 33 points against a mighty fine defense.

A national championship pitting this offense against Georgia's defense would be objectively fantastic.

And after getting shredded for 472 yards and six touchdowns on the ground through the first two games, Ohio State's defense has held its last six opponents to 383 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. As long as that continues, one could argue this is the most well-rounded team in the country.


Case Against: Lost to Oregon and has feasted on a diet of cream puffs.

Winning those Week 4-8 games by a combined score of 231-44 was quite the display of dominance, but are we really supposed to be impressed by steamrolling Akron, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana? It's likely that only one of those teams will get to six wins this season, and that's probably going to come down to the regular-season finale between Maryland and Rutgers.

Take out those four games and you're left with the home loss to Oregon, the season opener against Minnesota that was a toss-up prior to a defensive touchdown late in the third quarter, the home game against Tulsa that was a one-score game until late in the fourth quarter and the Week 9 win over Penn State in which the Buckeyes uncharacteristically scored a touchdown on just one of six red-zone possessions.

If you want to believe in Ohio State as a title contender, it's not hard. But it's also not that hard to talk yourself into this being a borderline Top 10 team that made the most of a few of its games against sub-par competition.


Oklahoma Sooners

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

Case For: The only 9-0 team in the country hails from the third-best conference.

Undefeated in the Big 12 isn't quite as impressive as undefeated in the SEC or Big Ten, but it's still quite the achievement for the Sooners. And aside from that bizarrely slow start in the first half against Kansas in Week 8, they have been humming on offense since making the switch from Spencer Rattler to Caleb Williams at quarterback.

Perhaps more than anything else that could come from Tuesday night's rankings show, I want to hear selection committee chair Gary Barta say something about how it is handling its evaluation of Oklahoma based on the quarterback situation.

We can't sit here and say that Oklahoma would have more convincingly beaten Tulane, Nebraska, West Virginia, Kansas State and Texas if Williams had been the starter back then. However, it'd be fair to acknowledge that this team has been different over the past month and make an effort to rank the Sooners based on their current state.


Case Against: Too many close calls and a surprisingly weak schedule.

Oklahoma's first five wins against FBS opponents were each by a one-possession margin. It was dreadful defense against Tulane and Texas; dreadful offense against Nebraska and West Virginia. Without suffering a loss, the Sooners slipped all the way from No. 2 to No. 6 in the AP rankings, and it often felt like they didn't even deserve to be that well off in the polls.

And making matters worse, Oklahoma has not yet faced a currently ranked opponent.

That's going to change in a big way down the stretch against Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, but the Sooners had a painfully weak nonconference schedule and have thus far only faced the bottom 60 percent of the Big 12.

Again, they've looked good lately, winning three straight by multiple scores. But strength of schedule and those early margins have to matter, right?


Oregon Ducks

Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux
Oregon EDGE Kayvon ThibodeauxMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Case For: Road win over Ohio State, road win over Ohio State and road win over Ohio State.

The way that Oregon fans and Ohio State naysayers have been bringing up that Week 2 result in complaining about the AP rankings week after week, you'd think it was the only game that either team has played.

But there's no question it was a damn fine win.

Even though C.J. Stroud threw for nearly 500 yards, the Ducks defense did a sensational job of digging in its heels when the Buckeyes got to the fringe of field-goal range. And C.J. Verdell was a strong candidate for the "September Heisman" as a result of his 195 total yards and three touchdowns against the Ohio State defense.

The Ducks do have the worst loss (at Stanford) of any team in this conversation, but they also have the best win. Balancing those two outcomes will be tricky for the committee, but please do not assume that Oregon is going to rank ahead of Ohio State just because of that 12.5 percent of their respective resumes.


Case Against: The other six FBS games Oregon has played.

In addition to the loss to sub-.500 Stanford, Oregon needed a late touchdown to win its opener against Fresno State, had to erase a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to take down Cal, had to climb out of an early 14-0 hole to beat UCLA, didn't pull away from winless Arizona until the fourth quarter and allowed 29 points against a Colorado offense that had been held to 14 points or fewer in five of its previous six games.

In other words, that one fantastic road win over Ohio State has been surrounded by a bunch of "meh."

Injuries and suspensions/ejectionsespecially on defensehave surely played a part in Oregon's inability to put together a complete game in the past month and a half. However, that doesn't change the fact that the Ducks have been consistently scraping by against a recent schedule that (aside from the road game against UCLA) a legitimate title contender would be expected to dominate.


Our Projection:

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Ohio State
4. Oklahoma
5. Michigan State
6. Cincinnati
7. Oregon

I'm reasonably confident Oregon will check in at No. 7, but I truly have no idea how Nos. 2-6 will be arranged. Alabama and Ohio State will most likely be a package deal with the Crimson Tide one slot ahead of the Buckeyes because of their more difficult schedule. Though with the way they have been playing over the past month-plus, it would be very easy to argue that Ohio State is the second-best team in the country.

I do hope I'm wrong about Cincinnati and that the Bearcats get to begin the CFP rankings at No. 2 to match their current spot in the AP and Coaches polls. But a Group of Five team has never been ranked in the Top 6 by the CFP selection committee, so we should probably be prepared for Cincinnati to debut outside the Top 4. 

What do you think we'll see on Tuesday night?


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.