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Lions are fourth in playoff

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State is ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff for the first time, landing in the No. 4 såpot.

The Nittany Lions are No. 5 in both the AP and coaches polls, so many may have assumed that’s where they would be in the season’s initial CFP rankings, released late Tuesday night.

The Lions, however, came in ahead of defending national champion Clemson, which is No. 5 in the CFP rankings. A close look at the resumes of both teams up to this point clearly favors Penn State, and the playoff selection committee recognized that.

“The committee felt that Penn State was a notch above (Clemson),” Rob Mullens, the committee chair, said during ESPN’s telecast of the rankings.

Ohio State is No. 1 in the CFP rankings, followed by LSU, Alabama and Penn State.

LSU plays at Alabama this weekend, so that game will decide a lot of things in the playoff race.

Penn State travels to Columbus to face the Buckeyes in two weeks, so the Lions’ hopes essentially come down to that game. Penn State travels to undefeated Minnesota this week, but the Gophers’ schedule is so weak that they are only No. 17 in the CFP rankings.

“When you look at Penn State’s resume with wins over Michigan and at Iowa, those are marquee wins,” said Mullens, who also pointed out the Lions have held seven of their eight opponents to 13 points or less.

Michigan is No. 14 in the CFP, while Iowa is No. 18.

Clemson, on the other hand, does not have a win over a team currently ranked in the CFP. Its best win came at home against Texas A&M, but the Aggies have struggled to a 6-3 record.

Penn State’s strength of record — a metric used to determine how a team has played against its competition — is No. 2 in the country. Clemson is No. 8, and the Tigers are hurt by a one-point win over a North Carolina team that’s just 4-5.

A case can be made that Penn State should be ranked No. 3, ahead of Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s schedule has been weak so far, with no wins over teams ranked in the CFP. Their best win came against Texas A&M.

ESPN broadcaster Jesse Palmer mentioned during the broadcast that Alabama’s resume up to this point is worse than both Penn State and Clemson. Still, the Tide have routed everyone and don’t have the puzzling blemish of a close victory over a bad team, as Clemson does.

There is still so much football left to be played that these initial CFP rankings have to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it is historic that Penn State is in the top four for the first time.

The Lions were No. 5 in the final CFP rankings at the end of the 2016 regular season, missing out on the final playoff spot to Washington. That had been Penn State’s highest ranking since the playoff system began in 2014.

Coach James Franklin was asked Tuesday how he views the playoff rankings during the season while preparing for upcoming games.

“We are completely focused on Minnesota,” he said. “Preseason rankings mean nothing. Middle-of-the-season rankings mean nothing. At the end of the season, people will count up where we’re at and where they have us and tell us where we’re going to go, and we’ll be excited about going there.”

There was a comical situation that occurred Tuesday night during the ESPN broadcast of the CFP rankings.

Franklin sent out his weekly focus-on-the-opponent tweet — “Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota” — at 9:38 p.m., smack dab in the middle of the ESPN announcers discussing the Lions and why they deserve to be in the top four.

The Gophers surely were hoping to be ranked higher than No. 17 as an undefeated team, but the committee just hasn’t bought into them yet. Minnesota didn’t play a Power 5 team in its non-conference schedule, and its five Big Ten wins have come against teams with a combined record of 15-25.

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