College Football Playoff Rankings: Where Will Utah State, Fresno State Land?
The Aggies and Bulldogs will likely make the College Football Playoff’s first top 25, so we predict where they might begin.
We have an idea of how high they can fly.
After the coaches poll and the Associated Press poll finally gave a nod to both the Utah State Aggies and the Fresno State Bulldogs this weekend, it seems likely that both will find a spot in the only rankings that truly matter going forward. The College Football Playoff announces its first top 25 tonight, and while others might concern themselves with the top four, we are more interested in the opening snapshot of the Group of 5’s hunt for a New Year’s Day bowl bid.
To do that, we’ll take a look at the past to answer some pertinent questions and give you a sense of how our staff sees this opening exercise shaking out.
What’s the upper limit?
In the four years of the College Football Playoff rankings, the Group of 5’s highest ranking came courtesy of Memphis, who began at #13 back in 2014. If you read our opening arguments in favor of Utah State and Fresno State, though, you know that was probably an overestimation: The Tigers were ranked 34th and 27th by S&P+ and Sagarin, respectively.
The more interesting case study is last year’s UCF team who, though they can claim the most favorable profile by advanced metrics (5th by S&P+, 15th by Sagarin) of any G5 team since 2014, were under-ranked by the CFP committee and began 18th.
This would appear to be a point in Fresno State’s favor, as they own a decent edge over Utah State in both measures (9th vs. 21st by S&P+, 16th vs. 34th by Sagarin) and can now boast the second-best such profile, but all three have mostly had to deal with the same question: How much lemonade can you make out of a bunch of lemons? The committee only seems to weigh bludgeoning clearly inferior competition so much, but maybe there’s room to believe the committee learned something from how UCF closed last year, so we’ll guess the upper limit is #15 for either Utah State or Fresno State.
They’ll probably begin behind UCF, right?
Probably, since the zero in the loss column stands out. There’s a very strong argument that all three belong within five spot of each other, though, since all four teams reasonably in the argument — UCF, Utah State, Fresno State and Houston — face the same strength of schedule question. I’d wager there’s little chance they begin at #9, where the Knights sit in both the coaches and AP poll right now, since their own advanced profile — 11th by S&P+ and 29th by Sagarin — isn’t quite as strong as it was last year.
I would be surprised, though, if the disparity between that advanced profile and their initial CFP ranking is as wide as it was in 2017. My hunch is that UCF gets passed by Washington State, Kentucky and probably West Virginia and begins at #12.
Will they both be behind Houston, too?
This is a lot tougher to say since a lot will depend on how much the committee favors their big win against South Florida last Saturday. The Bulls led a charmed existence before getting demolished by the Cougars, winning four games by eight points or less against — wait for it — Illinois, East Carolina, Tulsa and Connecticut. To say that’s the “best” win any of these teams own stretches the definition of the word.
The Cougars’ win over Arizona looks a little nicer after the Wildcats beat a pretty good Oregon team at home, but UA is still just 4-5 on the season. They’ve also put up points against lousy opponents, but I’d argue they haven’t had the same level of dominance. In the last four games, Houston’s average margin of victory is just 17.75 points; by comparison, Utah State’s average margin is 26.5 and Fresno State’s is 25.75.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say no, Utah State and Fresno State will both be ahead of Houston, though not by more than a spot or two.
How much will performance against common opponents matter?
Considering we’re talking about a sample size of two, New Mexico and Wyoming, it’s hard to say. The Aggies had the closest call in their win over the Cowboys, but they also rebounded last Saturday to rout the Lobos. Fresno State, meanwhile, put on defensive clinics by allowing a combined ten points and 3.94 yards per play to Wyoming and UNM. If consistency matters at all to the committee, this gives the slightest of edges to Fresno State.
Which two-loss Power 5 teams will the CFP committee rank in the 20-25 range that they really shouldn’t?
The committee really loves their two-loss Power 5 teams. Based on past precedence, I’d say Boston College and Iowa are easy calls. I’m also not a believer in Texas, but they might beat this mix by a spot or two.
What’s most interesting is that many of the Power 5 teams in the 20-35 range by both S&P+ and Sagarin actually have three losses already — Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Miami — and the committee has placed just one three-loss team, 2016 Florida State, in the first top 25.
The Seminoles (S&P+: 12, Sagarin: 14) made that standing pay off by finishing 5-0. Mississippi State (S&P+: 14, Sagarin: 17) and Washington (S&P+: 7, Sagarin: 11) might become the next teams to pull this off, though I’ll leave it to you to determine how much they deserve it.
What does the Mountain West Wire staff think?
Here are the responses from eleven members of our staff:
Utah State: 19, 19, 19, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 24, 25, 25 (average: 21.7)
Fresno State: 15, 18, 18, 19, 19, 23, 23, 23, 24, 24, unranked (average: 18.6)
It seems like there’s much more agreement about the Aggies’ standing, though our staff also believes the Bulldogs have a higher ceiling.
So what’s the official prediction?
Here’s how I think the CFP top 25 will look:
- Alabama (8-0)
- Clemson (8-0)
- Notre Dame (8-0)
- Michigan (7-1)
- Georgia (7-1)
- Louisiana State (7-1)
- Oklahoma (7-1)
- Ohio State (7-1)
- Washington State (7-1)
- Kentucky (7-1)
- West Virginia (7-1)
- UCF (7-0)
- Penn State (6-2)
- Utah (6-2)
- Texas (6-2)
- Florida (6-2)
- Fresno State (7-1)
- Iowa (6-2)
- Utah State (7-1)
- Houston (7-1)
- Virginia (6-2)
- Washington (6-3)
- Mississippi State (5-3)
- Boston College (6-2)
- Syracuse (6-2)