When it comes to the College Football Playoff rankings, no one knows more of what the playoff committee is thinking than ESPN’s Heather Dinich. It’s her job.
Dinich has worked for ESPN since 2007 and has been the exclusive reporter for the College Football Playoff since it began in 2014. She is the only reporter that has exclusive access to the committee and its members throughout the six weeks before it announces its final rankings, which this year will be on Dec. 8.
The CFP’s first rankings for the 2019 football season will be released on Tuesday and Dinich is already in Dallas talking to the committee, trying to get an idea of what its first rankings might look like.
Dinich told The Clemson Insider it appears LSU and Ohio State might be the top 2 teams when the CFP ranking is released Tuesday night at 9 p.m., on ESPN, but who is ranked No. 3 and No. 4 is the biggest question mark right now.
“If we are going to talk about surprises in this first ranking, Clemson could be ranked higher than everybody thinks,” she said. “That is because they are number one in defensive efficiency and number seven in offensive efficiency.
“Clemson is one of the most interesting teams that is going to be debated, not just with Alabama, but also with Penn State.”
Following Saturday’s 59-14 win over FCS foe Wofford, the Tigers improved to 9-0 on the year. Their strength of schedule, according to the Sagarin Ratings, sits at No. 64, just five spots back of Alabama’s, which is 59.
Both teams are 1-0 against teams ranked in the top 30 and Texas A&M is that team for both.
As for Penn State, its strength of schedule is No. 39, but it too has a 1-0 mark against top 30 teams. Both Alabama and Penn State are 8-0 after having an open date on Saturday.
However, Dinich says the “eye test” should give Clemson the advantage over Penn State in the committee’s eyes.
“Honestly, if you break it down, Clemson is more talented than Penn State. If you look at their skill players, Penn State is very good defensively, but so is Clemson. They are number one in defensive efficiency which is extremely impressive,” she said.
In fact, the Tigers’ dominance on defense this year might be what gives them the edge over both Alabama and Penn State.
“My biggest question, for the committee, is what we have seen from Alabama offensively with a healthy Tua (Tagovailoa) and those wide receivers, that ‘eye test,’ does that pass or outweigh, I should say, what Clemson has done on the road and against Texas A&M,” Dinich added.
Though Alabama’s strength of schedule is a little bit better than Clemson’s, to this point, the Tigers still have three road wins at Syracuse, at North Carolina and at Louisville. The Crimson Tide has just two road wins at South Carolina and at Texas A&M.
Also, Clemson’s win over Texas A&M trumps Alabama’s win over Duke as wins against non-conference Power 5 opponents. The Tigers also have a non-conference Power 5 opponent remaining on the schedule, at South Carolina on Nov. 30, where the Tide does not. Their other non-conference games were against Group of 5 opponents New Mexico State and Southern Miss.
Granted, Clemson beat FCS foe Wofford on Saturday, who is 5-3 and is still in the middle of the SoCon Championship race and is battling for a playoff spot. However, Alabama’s final non-conference game is against FCS foe Western Carolina, who is 2-7 on the season.
Heading into Week 11, Clemson’s nine opponents have an overall record of 38-31 (.551), not counting their nine losses to the Tigers, while Alabama’s opponents are 28-33 (.459), not counting their eight losses to the Crimson Tide.
“I think it is also fair to call Alabama’s strength of schedule into question because their best non-conference win is against Duke. Whereas Clemson is still clinging to that A&M win just like they did last year,” Dinich said.
As for Clemson’s one-point win at North Carolina, Dinich doesn’t feel the CFP Committee will hold that against the Tigers because, in the end, they still won the game and it was on the road.
“I think that is one thing they will consider, a close road win. That is really the only close win they have played,” she said. “To go into the committee rankings with those lopsided wins, and by the way, a win at Louisville, who we are learning is not a bad team.”
Though everyone likes to talk about how dominant Tagovailoa and the Alabama offense has been, no one is seeing Clemson’s defense has been just as dominant. Though quarterback Trevor Lawrence has thrown eight interceptions and the offense sputtered at times early in the year, the defense yielded just one touchdown off those eight interceptions and that came with six seconds left in the game against Texas A&M, when they were ahead by 21 points.
Dinich says the CFP Committee has relative offensive and defensive statistics they use to determine their rankings, especially when two teams are so close in comparison.
“The point is they also have statistics they like. They are going to have it broken down in front of them and they will consider all of that,” she said. “I think what people forget is that we get so caught up in talking about strength of schedule and that is just one piece of the puzzle. How they look at a close win at North Carolina is one piece of the puzzle. How Texas A&M looks right now is part of it, as well, and how they finish as well.
“Clemson’s place in this top four and how it measures up against Alabama might be one of the bigger questions.”
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