FOX Four: Alabama back in College Football Playoff, Ole Miss drops out
Welcome to the FOX Four.
To prepare for the inaugural College Football Playoff, we’ve assembled our own 13-member committee that will present its ranking of the top teams after each week from now through the end of the season.
How it works: Each member will submit an individual top 10, which we’ll compile to get an average score and then publish our official FOX Four rankings from highest to lowest (average score in parentheses). Though this ranking puts special emphasis on the first four teams – our current playoff picks after the most recent week of the season – we’ll list a top 10 so you can see how the committee has prioritized the second batch of teams that could impact the playoff discussion.
Number of first-place votes will break ties. If two teams have the same number of first-place votes, we’ll proceed to the subsequent place until the tie is broken.
Our 13-member committee: Tim Brando, Charles Davis, Bruce Feldman, Joey Harrington, Joel Klatt, Matt Leinart, Stewart Mandel, Ryan Nece, Petros Papadakis, Brady Quinn, Rob Stone, Clay Travis and Dave Wannstedt.
"We know fans want transparency in their playoff rankings," said committee chairman Stewart Mandel. "Not only will you see our Top 10 each week but you’ll get explanations from our committee members why the teams are ranked where they are."
Below the top 10, look for brief analysis from college football analyst Coy Wire on one team primed to rise and one ready to fall in the rankings.
Next week on FOX & FOX Sports 1 (all times ET): Stanford at No. 5 Oregon (7:30 p.m., FOX), No. 19 Oklahoma at Iowa State (Noon, FS1), Kansas at No. 12 Baylor (4 p.m., FS1), Texas at Texas Tech (7:30 p.m., FS1), No. 18 Utah at No. 15 Arizona State (11 p.m., FS1).
1) MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (9.82)
Mississippi State went on the road in Week 9 to Kentucky, and while it didn’t look dominant in a 45-31 win, the Bulldogs remained undefeated. As Matt Leinart notes, QB Dak Prescott and RB Josh Robinson form the best 1-2 punch in college football. But as multiple committee members noted, it’s not MSU’s offense that causes concerns. “They will need to step it up on defense soon or they won’t be No. 1 very long,” Ryan Nece said.
Brady Quinn: “They are last in the SEC in pass defense and need to find a way to get more pressure on opposing QBs or play better coverage downfield. Either way, they won’t be able to hang with more talented teams – Alabama, in particular, in a few weeks.”
Joel Klatt: “We’re starting to see some vulnerabilities with the MSU defense after giving up 31 points and 500 yards to Kentucky. The only team to give up more yards to Kentucky this year was Tennessee-Monroe! Prescott is also struggling after posting back-to-back games with a passer rating under 115 and throwing only two TDs with three INTs in his last two games. One more performance like this and they will no longer be my No. 1 team even with a win.”
2) FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES (9.18)
The Seminoles were off this week, so they hold firm in the No. 2 spot. Dave Wannstedt, who ranked FSU No. 1 overall, gives the ‘Noles credit for being the unbeaten defending champs and for beating their toughest conference opponent (Clemson) without their best player (Jameis Winston). FSU hasn’t looked that impressive in 2014, but as multiple committee members noted, it continues to find ways to win and at some point how the ‘Noles look winning games matters less than the fact nobody has beaten them.
“While this team is a shell of the 2013 version, they are still unbeaten,” Klatt said. “This team, if it stays intact, should find itself in the playoff. Jameis has been lights-out, especially in crunch time.”
Stewart Mandel, among others, has FSU on upset alert this Thursday night at Louisville.
3) OREGON DUCKS (6.82)
Oregon went to the Bay Area and beat Cal 59-41 and now jumps up one spot from No. 4 after Ole Miss lost at LSU. With an offensive line continuing to get healthier, we’re seeing just how explosive the Ducks can be. “Freshman tailback Royce Freeman has had three consecutive 100-yard games and leads the Pac-12 with 13 touchdowns,” Joey Harrington said. “His emergence has given Oregon a dominant ground game to complement the best quarterback in the country.”
Rob Stone: “If they win out, it will be impossible to keep them out of the playoffs. Folks on the East Coast need to make a point to watch this team more.”
Not every committee member is sold on Oregon quite this high, though. Said Clay Travis: “The Ducks score a ton of points, but they also give up a ton. I feel like Alabama, Auburn and probably Georgia — even though I have them ranked below Oregon — would beat the Ducks on a neutral site.”
4) ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (6.09)
The Crimson Tide are playing as well as anybody right now, Leinart said. ‘Bama went to Knoxville last weekend and beat Tennessee 34-20 in a game in which it clearly didn’t execute as well as it could have. Leinart: “Blake Sims has been very impressive this year. He and Amari Cooper are the best QB/WR duo in college football.”
Charles Davis: “This is an improving team that has it all still in the front of them – LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn. Win out and they are in, no questions asked.”
As good as Alabama can appear, however, not every voter is sold that Nick Saban’s team is worthy of a playoff spot. Klatt: “This team is the best in the country when it wants to be, but they do not play their best all the time, and complacency makes even the greatest athletes and teams normal. They look normal far more than they should.”
Tim Brando: “There’s no way Alabama should they be in the top four, but I guarantee you they will be. The Tide always get the benefit of the doubt, and while losing to Ole Miss, it will take a second loss to keep the Tide out of the playoff. They aren’t better than Georgia or Auburn but will be ranked higher. Never fails.”
5) AUBURN TIGERS (5.27)
Auburn got a scare at home against South Carolina, but the important thing is the Tigers won 42-35 and avoided the second loss that would have eliminated them from the playoff race.
Mandel: “The Tigers’ defense struggled at home against South Carolina, but the win at K-State and blowout of LSU look better every week.”
Quinn: “Auburn continues to take care of business and dominates games by playing at their tempo. They don’t turn the football over, play sound defense and run the football. Nick Marshall is hitting full swing at the right time. Look out for this team to run the table and win the SEC.”
6) TCU HORNED FROGS (4.09)
TCU put up 82 points – yes, 82 – against Texas Tech last weekend and now positions itself as possibly the team to beat in the Big 12. Harrington makes a good point that while everyone is focused on the offensive explosion, TCU’s defense gave up only one score in the second half and one sustained TD drive the entire day.
Klatt: “82 points — 82!!! I know that Texas Tech is awful on defense, but it is hard to score 82 points on air. Trevone Boykin is quickly becoming a legitimate Heisman contender, and TCU is the team that NO ONE in the Big 12 or across the country wants to see right now. They take the No. 1 scoring offense in the country to face WVU, which will have played three different top-five teams at the time of the game. TCU’s secondary will be tested by Kevin White and Mario Alford. If I set the over/under at 100, which direction would you go? I’ll take the OVER.”
Nece: “TCU leapfrogs up the leader board because their offense is unstoppable. Boykin is playing out of his mind and looks superhuman. The only team that can stop TCU is TCU.”
7) MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (4.00)
The Spartans pounded rival Michigan 35-11 on Saturday and now move forward to bigger and better things. They’re off this week before welcoming Ohio State to East Lansing in a game that will likely decide who the Big Ten will send to the playoff if it gets any team in at all at the end of the year. Wannstedt ranked the Spartans fourth and said: “Their only loss was on the road to the No. 3 team. Michigan State is the most complete team – offense, defense, special teams and coaching – in FBS.”
Stone (had them sixth): “Sparty has a swagger that I think will get them eventually into the top four. The bye week comes at a perfect time ahead of their game against Ohio State. Win that one, and they could bump up a couple spots in my book.”
Travis: “The Spartans crushed Michigan, but unfortunately for Sparty, just about everyone who watched Ohio State play Penn State is now convinced that the rest of the Big Ten is garbage. So how much credit will Michigan State get for dominating a bad conference?”
Petros Papadakis: “As long as they win out, the Spartans are in great position for the playoff.”
8) NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH (3.09)
The Irish had the week off after losing at Florida State in Week 8, so they hold steady in the eighth spot. Notre Dame continues to be a topic of much debate within the committee, as it is ranked as high as No. 3 and as low as out of the top 10. The difficult thing about Notre Dame is its “best” game was the close loss at FSU. Road games at Arizona State and USC will provide opportunities for the Irish to build their case a little more. Here are two committee members who are higher on the Irish, with both ranking ND fourth:
Feldman: “I was really impressed with how the Irish dominated the line of scrimmage at FSU and came about as close as possible to knocking off the defending champs. ND’s win over Stanford looks OK. And, the Irish do deserve credit for not scheduling any FCS or Division II teams. Ever.”
Brando: “Some might say I have ND too high? However, who has a better loss among the one-loss teams? No way the answer could be anything but Notre Dame.”
9) OLE MISS REBELS (2.36)
The dream of a perfect season ended in Week 9 for Ole Miss, as the Rebels lost at LSU. “Well, it finally happened — Bad Bo finally showed up,” Klatt said. “Ole Miss battled and was in a position to win the game save for a bad coaching decision made worse by an awful QB error to lose the game. The defense is still exceptional, but LSU was able to run the ball for over 260 yards on their way to over 400 yards of total offense. Auburn will test that defense even more, and the dream season is hanging in the balance this week.”
Feldman: “I really like the Rebs’ D, but it did give up over 260 yards rushing to a one-dimensional LSU team and lost. They also beat ‘Bama this season, and Bo Wallace played exceptionally well in that game, but he was dreadful in Baton Rouge Saturday night. It’s a stretch to think he’ll be closer to the ‘Bama Bo than the LSU Bo going forward in big games.”
Travis: “Put simply, I have no faith in Bo Wallace or the Ole Miss offense. Wallace was 14 of 33 and threw at least five passes that could have been intercepted by LSU. The final game sequence was downright unfathomable. We’ll see how the Rebels handle their first loss of the season because they are still very much alive. I think Auburn will beat the Rebels in Oxford, but if Ole Miss can beat Auburn, then the memories of this loss will fade quickly.”
10) KANSAS STATE WILDCATS (1.82)
Bill Snyder’s Wildcats methodically roll along, as Week 9 brought a 23-0 win against Texas. Klatt: “The Wildcats control their own destiny in the Big 12. They are the reliable Toyota Camry of college football that will always start and gets amazing gas mileage. They are the most sound team in the country, and trust me when I tell you that trying to beat them is a maddening proposition. The defense is as good as any, and Jake Waters plays within himself and the system.”
Stone: “The schedule gods are about to break out the whipping stick on the Wildcats. If they survive their gauntlet of road trips to TCU, West Virginia and Baylor, they HAVE to be a top-four team.”
Other teams receiving votes: Georgia (1.27), Arizona (one sixth-place and one 10th-place vote), Ohio State (one eighth-place and one ninth-place vote), Baylor (one ninth-place vote).
Teams with top-four votes: Mississippi State (13), Florida State (13), Oregon (8), Alabama (6), Notre Dame (4), Auburn (4), TCU (2), Michigan State (1), Georgia (1)
COY WIRE’S ONE UP, ONE DOWN
Trending up: Georgia
Stepping out of the 13-member committee’s top 10 to snag a team that will likely make an appearance in next week’s rankings. After an early stumble against South Carolina, the Dawgs have been rollin’. The offense is averaging 43 points per game — despite not having their best offensive weapon in Todd Gurlely the last two games — and the defense is really starting to shine. It took some time, but Georgia fans are seeing how much of a difference-maker Jeremy Pruitt — the team’s new defensive coordinator — is for this program.
After delivering the worst statistical season on defense in UGA history a season ago, the Dawgs’ defense is in the top-20 nationally in scoring and 16th in takeaways. All the controversy that has surrounded UGA’s football program and Gurley has galvanized the team, and the Bulldogs built up some serious momentum the past few weeks before resting up with a bye a week ago. They’ll face Florida in their rivalry game this weekend and likely come away with a huge win that should make even more noise to gain the attention of voters. The Dawgs are on the rise.
Trending down: Ole Miss
In their loss to LSU, Ole Miss’ defense gave up 264 yards rushing on 55 attempts. The key number there: 55. That’s a lot of reps for the Rebs’ defense against a smash-mouth run game and a big and bruising Tigers’ O-line that averages 313 pounds across the board. Now, the Ole Miss defense will face another physical challenge against Auburn’s up-tempo offensive scheme that will test the Rebels with a completely different — yet still unrelenting — run game.
The Tigers’ run game ranks ninth in the nation — averaging 281 yards rushing per game. While Ole Miss’ defensive line has depth, the emotional loss to LSU and two straight weeks trying to defend a challenging run game may mean that it will be up to Bo Wallace to win this game for the Rebels, and after last Saturday, his confidence will be at an all-time low.