Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, and Clemson were the top four teams in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season released Tuesday night, four days before the Volunteers and Bulldogs square off on the field.
Michigan was fifth, followed by Alabama and unbeaten TCU.
Tennessee is No. 1 in the CFP rankings for the first time, starting ahead of a group of teams that have become regulars at the top of the selection committee's top 25. The Volunteers have already beaten the Crimson Tide and LSU, which was ranked 10th.
Tennessee has been one of the season's biggest surprises, starting the season unranked in the AP poll and jumping out to an 8-0 start for the first time since the Vols won their last national title in 1998.
"We've tried to enjoy the journey," second-year Tennessee Coach Josh Heupel told ESPN. "Three years ago, it didn't look like this."
Heupel took over after Jeremy Pruitt was fired following a 3-7 season.
Only one team that has been No. 1 in the committee's initial rankings has not made the playoff, but only about half the teams in first top four managed to finish there.
The committee began its weekly in-person meetings Monday at a hotel in Grapevine, Texas, and revealed the first of six weekly rankings.
The final rankings that set the CFP field of four are set for Dec. 4. The 13-person panel is led by a first-time chairman Boo Corrigan, the athletic director at North Carolina State.
Corrigan said there was some consideration for Ohio State and Georgia as No. 1, but Tennessee's victories against Alabama and at LSU won the day.
The Buckeyes' explosive offense and overall dominance gave them a slight edge on Georgia.
He said Michigan's weak nonconference schedule (Hawaii, Colorado State and Connecticut) and Clemson's 5-0 record against teams with winning records gave the Tigers the nod for the fourth spot.
"The wins at Wake [Forest], at Florida State, over N.C. State, over Syracuse, really did push [Clemson] over the top," Corrigan said.
Clemson had its streak of six straight playoff appearances snapped last year, but is well positioned to get back, with no ranked opponents left before a likely ACC title game against North Carolina. No unbeaten Power Five champion has ever missed the playoffs.
Oregon was eighth followed by Pac-12 rival Southern California at ninth. Both likely need to run the table to have a chance at the playoffs and even then that might not be enough. The Ducks will have to overcome a 49-3 loss to Georgia in their opener. The Trojans have a bad defense and won't get much of a bump by beating Notre Dame.
The highest ranked team from outside the Power Five conferences was Tulane at No. 19. The highest ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences earns a spot in New Year's Six bowl.
The CFP semifinals are scheduled to be played at the Fiesta and Peach bowls on Dec. 31, with the championship game set for Jan. 9 in Inglewood, Calif.