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CFB PLAYOFF: Projecting the top 8 teams, in advance of tonight’s inaugural listing

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It's a simple proposition for unblemished Ohio State: Just keep winning out ... and the Buckeyes would finish no lower than No. 2 overall in the final Playoff rankings.

For the next five Tuesdays, the new BATSBY Sports Network shall walk the plank of potential embarrassment … by projecting the College Football Playoff rankings.

And in case you aren’t aware, the inaugural Playoff listing becomes public tonight, airing during the intermission for ESPN’s Champions Classic with college basketball (Duke vs. Kansas … No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky).

It’s worth noting: Our projections will solely focus on this batch of CFP rankings. In other words, we won’t be making a case for the final foursome … until maybe late November.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS

ALABAMA (8-0)

RANKING: 1

BREAKDOWN

**Let’s start with something direct: We don’t care that LSU recently leapfrogged Alabama for the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press poll.

Bottom line: Until the Tigers can rectify the stench of last year’s 29-0 home drubbing … then the Crimson Tide deserve the head-to-head benefit of the doubt.

Especially with Saturday’s mega-showdown taking place in Tuscaloosa.

**The Tide have hardly been threatened in the first eight games, posting an average victory margin of 39 points.

**We’re assuming quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (2,166 yards passing, 29 total TDs, 2 INTs) and his injured ankle will be ready for the LSU clash. If not, we might have to rethink our prediction on the fly.

**Alabama’s statistical dominance might not match that of previous seasons (an unfair comparison, for sure), but it’s still excellent across the board:

1st nationally in turnover margin
2nd in scoring offense
2nd in red-zone conversion percentage
5th in passing offense
9th in total offense
9th in scoring defense
16th in total defense

**The Crimson Tide’s slate has been decent to date (road wins over South Carolina, Texas A&M), but strength of schedule won’t be a concern this month, with Alabama encountering No. 1 LSU at home and No. 12 Auburn on the road.

LSU (8-0)

RANKING: 2

BREAKDOWN

**As stated in previous weeks, LSU likely has the best resume for a No. 1 Playoff ranking, collecting road wins over Texas, Mississippi State and outlasting Florida and Auburn at home.

However, until the Tigers can formally get revenge on the Crimson Tide for last year’s whitewashing … it’s difficult to envision the 13-person CFP committee choosing LSU over Alabama.

(Difficult, but not implausible.)

**Quarterback Joe Burrow (potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft) has brought the LSU offense out of the Stone Age, unleashing a vertical-strike attack that already entails a single-season school record with passing touchdowns (30).

**Check out these national rankings covering offense and defense. The Tigers are on a certifiable roll … and potentially have the requisite balance to upend Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

1st in red-zone offense
2nd in passing offense
4th in scoring offense
4th in total offense
6th in 3rd-down conversion percentage

22nd in scoring defense
23rd in total defense
33rd in turnover margin

OHIO STATE (8-0)

RANKING: 3

BREAKDOWN

The proverbial Eye Test tells us the Buckeyes — average victory margin: 40.5 points — should be ranked No. 1 in the nation.

The numbers suggest a similar notion, since Ohio State boasts top-3 statistical rankings for both scoring defense (1st nationally) and scoring offense (3rd).

However, the Buckeyes likely won’t make another dent in the national rankings until after the LSU-Alabama battle.

Why is that?

Ohio State hasn’t been challenged by any heavy hitters to date, including Wisconsin from two weeks ago (31-point final spread).

Plus, the SEC has earned the right to curry favoritism from voters/committee members — short of any head-to-head tiebreakers.

The best strategy for Ohio State in the meantime: Just keep winning by large margins … and keep developing Justin Fields (33 total TDs, just one INT) into perhaps the country’s best dual-threat quarterback.

And before you know it, the season-ending monster matchups with No. 5 Penn State (Nov. 23 at home) and No. 19 Michigan (Thanksgiving Saturday on the road) will be here.

CLEMSON (9-0)

RANKING: 4

BREAKDOWN

The Tigers don’t always resemble the fourth-best team, as the harrowing, last-second victory over North Carolina (Sept. 28) might attest.

However, the proverbial Eye Test should also be irrelevant to the CFP committee, when observing Clemson in the following prisms:

**An undefeated Power 5 school has never been denied entry into the four-team Playoff.

**Clemson, which has reached five consecutive semifinal rounds, has captured two of the last three national championships.

**Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence (2,027 yards passing, 26 total TDs … the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft) remains a top TV draw — something which can never be underrated, when determining the four semifinalists.

PENN STATE (8-0)

RANKING: 5

BREAKDOWN

**Fresh off back-to-back-to-back victories over ranked opponents (Iowa, Michigan) and Michigan State in wretched weather (trust me, I was there), you’d think Penn State’s schedule would ease up in the coming weeks.

But the October matchups were mere appetizers for a November gauntlet that includes road showdowns with No. 13 Minnesota (Saturday) and No. 3 Ohio State (Nov. 23).

The upside here: An undefeated Nittany Lions squad (hypothetically factoring in a Big Ten title-game victory) would easily cruise into a top 2 seed in the four-team Playoff.

**The statistical categories say it all about Penn State’s stifling defense:

2nd in scoring defense
7th in team sacks
9th in team tackles for loss

9th in total defense
13th in fewest first downs allowed
15th in third-down conversion defense
25th in fewest penalties per game

OREGON (8-1)

RANKING: 6

BREAKDOWN

**Oregon (No. 7 in AP poll) stands as the only defeated team in conference play. As such, the Ducks already possess head-to-head tiebreakers (Pac-12 North standings) over Stanford, Washington and California.

**Oregon has been dynamic (and dramatic) in its last eight outings, enjoying an average victory margin of 26 points and knocking off Stanford, Washington and USC on the road in league play.

The Ducks also held a vastly improved Cal squad to merely seven points.

As for the escape act against Washington State two Saturdays ago … well, a win is a win is a win.

Sometimes, it’s best collect the ‘W’ and never speak of this close call again.

**The Labor Day weekend defeat to Auburn was initially devastating to Oregon’s Playoff hopes, since the Pac-12 hasn’t been particularly strong in recent years.

However, the eight-game winning streak, along with one more substantial road trip to Arizona State, could potentially put the Ducks within shouting distance of the semifinals, in advance of Conference Championship Weekend.

In that case, to maximize its chances of impressing the CFP committee, Oregon would likely need a one-loss Utah team (currently 8th in the AP) to reach the Pac-12 title game.

**Quarterback Justin Herbert (a potential top-10 pick in next year’s draft) gets all the national press, but don’t fall asleep on the Oregon defense, which owns superb categorical rankings with turnover margin (2nd nationally), scoring defense (10th) and total defense (22nd).

**As an aside, it’s imperative for Auburn to defeat either Georgia or Alabama during November. An upset of that proportion would directly boost Oregon’s Playoff viability.

GEORGIA (7-1)

RANKING: 7

BREAKDOWN

**Georgia hasn’t looked uber-dominant in recent weeks (pre-bye), losing to South Carolina at home, posting a sluggish shutout of Kentucky in a downpour and then surviving Florida last week in Jacksonville.

But here’s the empirical upside:

The Dawgs remain healthy locks to reach the four-team Playoff … if they run the table from here, presuming signature victories over Missouri, Auburn (road), Texas A&M and then either Alabama or LSU in the SEC title game.

**On the down side … Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Michigan (Oct. 26) would likely hinder Georgia’s hypothetical case as a two-loss, non-SEC champion (East champ only).

In other words, it puts indirect, but eminently tangible pressure on the Dawgs to be letter-perfect from this point forward.

OKLAHOMA (7-1)

RANKING: 8

BREAKDOWN

Yes, Utah currently owns a higher ranking in the AP poll; and Auburn (close road losses to Florida, LSU) and undefeated Baylor might be more deserving at this point.

But we’re going with a gut feeling here, since Oklahoma (No. 1 scoring offense nationally) still bears the look of a Playoff team and viable title contender.

Plus, ranking Oklahoma over Baylor likely adds more juice to next Saturday’s showdown in Waco, Texas.

About The Managing Editor

Jay Clemons remains the only sports writer on the planet to capture Cynposis Media’s national award for Sports Blog Of The Year (beating out NBA.com, MLB.com, PGATour.com, The Players’ Tribune in 2015), along with the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s pre-eminent award for Best Writer (2008). Through the years, Mr. Clemons has been a key figure with numerous blue-chip sports/media brands, namely the Detroit Lions, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and the NBC/Universal family. With Sports Illustrated (2006-11), Clemons served a triple role with SI.com‘s heralded football coverage—editing Peter King’s famed ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column, penning award-winning pieces for NFL and then writing/narrating scripted videos within the NFL and baseball realms. In 2013, Clemons’ first year with the company, FOX Sports South enjoyed a monumental increase of approximately 34 million Web hits in a 12-month cycle—merely posting 11 million hits the previous year. 

Then, over a two-month span in 2014, FOX Sports South amassed 19.5 million Web hits—a 60-day record for any FOX affiliate. And in 2015, Clemons claimed the aforementioned Cynopsis Media award on FOX Sports’ behalf, the company’s only national writing award during that period. Clemons, a graduate of Michigan State University  and Wayne State University, has been an on-camera Web-TV host for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. In 2015, he also became the first-ever sports journalism professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

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