The first College Football Playoff rankings come out tonight (6 PM CT, ESPN) and Iowa will make their first-ever appearance on those rankings. (The CFP rankings only debuted in 2014 and last year's Iowa football season was... well, let's just not talk about it.) The only CFP rankings that really matter are the ones at the end of the season, but these rankings at least give us an idea of what the CFP committee is thinking and how they're assessing teams. Since they're the ones who will be selecting the playoff teams (as well as the match-ups for the other New Year's Six bowls), that insight is certainly a bit more valuable than the rankings in the AP and Coaches Polls.
Iowa sits at #10 and #11 in the aforementioned AP and Coaches Polls as of this week -- but where might they rank in the first CFP rankings of the season? There's reason to think that they might be higher than they are in the traditional polls.
Our CFB Playoff Expert @CFBHeather just told me she thinks Iowa might be the biggest surprise of tomorrow's rankings— Chris Hassel (@hasselESPN) November 2, 2015
I honestly wouldn't be too surprised to see 1. LSU, 2. Clemson, 3. Michigan State, 4. Ohio State. I think Iowa could be top 7.— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) November 3, 2015
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg also thinks Iowa could rank a bit higher than expected:
So why might Iowa rank higher in these rankings than in the AP and Coaches Polls? Well, for one thing the selection committee isn't as bound to preseason perceptions as the pollsters. For another, they tend to give credit to undefeated teams over one-loss teams, as The Power Rank's Ed Feng notes:
However, the committee doesn't care about preseason polls, and its first rankings from last season sorted the top teams by losses. This suggests it will rank these two Power Five programs above all one-loss teams. I bumped the Hawkeyes and Cowboys over one-loss Notre Dame, Florida, Alabama and Stanford.
Strength of schedule is an important (if somewhat ambiguous) metric (and it's worth reading this ESPN article discussing SOS) and one that could cut for and against Iowa. It could help them now because they have one of the better to-date resumes among the undefeated teams (see below), but it could also end up hurting them at the end of the season because overall Iowa's SOS isn't going to be stellar. Again, while there's been much hand-wringing about who Iowa plays in November (and who they don't play), their resume-to-date is very good -- and better than many of the teams ahead of them in the traditional polls, as CBS' Jerry Palm explains:
Iowa may seem like a surprising selection for the top four, but they are the only team among the unbeaten with three wins over major conference teams that are already bowl-eligible. LSU also has three wins over currently bowl-eligible teams, but one of those is Western Kentucky. The other nine undefeated teams have a combined total of six wins over teams that are already qualified for a bowl. Clemson and Memphis have two each. Michigan State and Ohio State have the others.
3. Iowa (8-0) -- This is probably a peak position for the Hawkeyes, who don't have a marquee win but do have good wins over Pitt, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
A #3 ranking would be some pretty heady territory for Iowa football. (It would also certainly cause no small amount of outrage among the denizens of the college football interwebs, which could be entertaining... or infuriating, depending on your feelings about that sort of thing.)
They key for Iowa remains simple: just win, baby. Iowa's November schedule isn't going to offer much to boost Iowa's resume -- Indiana and Purdue are having typical Indiana and Purdue seasons and Minnesota and Nebraska are having major regression seasons -- and that won't do much for the perception of Iowa as the season progresses. But as long as Iowa keeps winning, that won't matter much.