Analysis: Logic limited to explain Iowa's No. 9 ranking

Chad Leistikow
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is leading an 8-0 team.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Hours before Tuesday’s first College Football Playoff rankings were to be aired, Kirk Ferentz panned the ESPN-televised unveiling as meaningless.

“I throw it kind of in the category of August polls,” Ferentz said. “Doesn't mean a lot right now. But it's been great for the game. It's been really good for a lot of people to talk about.”

Well, it certainly got people talking.

Ferentz’s 8-0 Hawkeyes were ranked ninth in the initial poll — the seventh-highest out of 11 FBS unbeatens. But trying to figure out what ninth means right now, well, good luck.

How CFP committee chairman Jeff Long justified the 12-person panel’s first top 25 on national TV made little sense when actually compared to the, you know, rankings.

The most puzzling comments were how No. 4 Alabama and No. 10 Florida — both 7-1 — were separated by six positions. Even though Florida throttled 7-2 Mississippi by 28 points and Alabama lost to the Rebels at home by six, Long justified Alabama’s position because it has “three wins against teams that have a .500 or better record, and Florida has two.”

If you’re an Iowa fan, you’re counting in your head — wins over 6-2 Pittsburgh, 7-2 Wisconsin, 6-2 Northwestern. Yep, that’s three wins against .500-or-better teams, two on the road, and that doesn’t count the domination of 7-1 and No. 2 FCS-ranked Illinois State.

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Here are Alabama’s .500-or-better wins: 7-2 Wisconsin (on a neutral site), 5-3 Georgia and 6-2 Texas A&M. Oh, and just as a reminder, Alabama has a loss. Iowa doesn’t. In fact, the Crimson Tide were ranked ahead of seven unbeaten teams, including No. 6 Baylor (8-0), No. 8 TCU (8-0) and No. 14 Oklahoma State (8-0).

Why not as much love for those three Big 12 Conference unbeatens? Long explained, “They have their strength of schedule in front of them. As you know, we rank to this point in time and those teams just haven’t played their strong teams yet.”

If that is the criteria — ranking to this point in time — then that’s another slap in the face to Iowa. As you may have heard from an assortment of national talking heads by now, the Hawkeyes’ remaining schedule is a punch line — 4-4 Indiana, 4-4 Minnesota, 2-6 Purdue and 3-6 Nebraska stand between Iowa and 12-0 and a spot in the Big Ten Conference title game.

But Iowa has actually played a solid schedule compared to their zero-loss Big 12 peers — the third-best among all unbeatens, if you believe the decades-trusted Sagarin ratings, at 47th in the FBS.

It’s probably a good thing Iowa center Austin Blythe said he would skip the ESPN spectacle. Iowa had meetings until 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, anyway.

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If players flipped on the HDTVs at the Iowa Football Performance Center, then they would have been just in time to hear this pearl of wisdom from ESPN analyst David Pollack, a former Georgia defensive standout justifying Alabama’s No. 4 ranking by watching tape.

“If you made a case to me that Alabama is the best team in the country, you could make that case to me and I could not refute it,” Pollack said. “They win the national championship in recruiting every single year. They’re so talented.”

Whoever supplies Ferentz with his motivational research, clip that one out and save it. That’s your money quote. Someone paid by ESPN thinks a team’s recruiting ranking means more than on-field losses.

Last week, Ferentz shared with his team off-the-mark point spreads in advance of Iowa’s 31-15 win over Maryland. Tuesday, Ferentz came to his weekly news conference armed with facts from last year’s inaugural playoff poll, in which three of the top four didn’t make the national semifinals and eventual national champion Ohio State was listed at No. 16.

So he’s right, they’re meaningless. But this message was issued from the CFP committee, not to mention anyone else associated with the ESPN telecast, to the Hawkeyes: show us something more.

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That plays right into Iowa’s hands. It’s gotten to 8-0 by lifting weights, practicing and playing on Saturdays with a chip on its shoulder.

“We just talk about it as a team, understanding we’ve gotten to this point by understanding one game at a time,” Blythe said. “We’ve just got to keep that mentality and keep preparing every week and finish the week 1-0.”

Even before Tuesday night, Hawkeye fans understood that the only way to make the College Football Playoff would be to leave Lucas Oil Stadium on the night of Dec. 5 with a 13-0 record, which would likely count a final win over either Ohio State (No. 3) or Michigan State (No. 7).

So for now, the CFP rankings talk should mostly be treated as hot air. But if Iowa gets to 13-0 and that still isn’t good enough … then you’ll really have something to talk about.

The top 10: 1. Clemson (8-0), 2. LSU (7-0), 3. Ohio State (8-0), 4. Alabama (7-1), 5. Notre Dame (7-1), 6. Baylor (7-0), 7. Michigan State (8-0), 8. TCU (8-0), 9. Iowa (8-0), 10. Florida (7-1).