College football’s championship weekend has come to mean two things: One, plenty of teams are taking home some hardware; two, the long, winding road to the playoff is finally at its conclusion. Before we break down the possibilities, let’s map out the schedule of all this weekend’s nationally televised games:
Friday, Dec. 1
|8||Pac-12: No. 10 Southern Cal vs. No. 14 Stanford||ESPN|
Saturday, Dec. 2
|Noon||AAC: No. 20 Memphis at No. 14 UCF||ABC|
|Noon||MAC: Akron vs. Toledo||ESPN|
|Noon||C-USA: North Texas at Florida Atlantic||ESPN2|
|12:30||Big 12: No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 TCU||Fox|
|4||SEC: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 6 Georgia||CBS|
|4:30||SWAC: Alcorn St. vs. Grambling||ESPNU|
|7:30||Troy at Arkansas St.||ESPN2|
|7:45||Mountain West: No. 25 Fresno St. at Boise St.||ESPN|
|8||ACC: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 7 Miami||ABC|
|8||Big Ten: No. 8 Ohio St. vs. No. 4 Wisconsin||Fox|
The playoff selection committee’s chore for noon Sunday, when it will release its rankings that determine the four-team field, could turn out to be incredibly easy. It’s possible it will have four conference champions out of the Power Five leagues with either zero or one losses. Another possibility is a giant train wreck featuring four power-conference champions with multiple losses.
There are 12 teams worth looking in on at this stage, and only eight of them have a realistic chance to land a spot in the national semifinals. Just five can feel secure they are in full control of their fate come Saturday.
Win and in
* Clemson. The defending national champions will meet Miami in the ACC title game, and a third consecutive conference title will get the job done for the Tigers (11-1).
While its mid-October loss to Syracuse only looks more puzzling in retrospect (even while factoring quarterback Kelly Bryant’s injury limitations), Clemson would own victories over Auburn, Miami, N.C. State and Virginia Tech, plus secondary triumphs over the likes of Louisville and South Carolina, if it prevails Saturday. Few could argue the Tigers’ inclusion.
* Oklahoma. The Sooners would probably be all set for the playoff if the Big 12 didn’t insist upon chasing the Ghost of 2014. Instead, it added a conference title game roughly a nanosecond after it was allowed to do so, and Oklahoma (11-1) now must defeat Texas Christian a second time to earn a playoff berth.
A victory gives the Sooners a win at Ohio State, two defeats of TCU and a rivalry triumph over Oklahoma State. A lousy second half against Iowa State won’t be enough to keep them out of the playoff at 12-1.
* Wisconsin. An undefeated power conference champion isn’t going to get left out, no matter how crummy its division (Big Ten West) or how underwhelming its nonconference schedule (better-than-expected Florida Atlantic, plus Brigham Young and Utah State). If the Badgers beat Ohio State to get to 13-0, they’ll be playing on New Year’s Day in the semifinals.
* Auburn-Georgia winner. If Georgia avenges its 40-17 loss on Nov. 11 to the Tigers, it would be 12-1 with a victory at Notre Dame and a split with Auburn. That’s more than Alabama can claim (more on the Crimson Tide later), and it should be enough for the Bulldogs to hopscotch Nick Saban’s team as well as Auburn.
If Auburn claims its first SEC title since 2013, it will be 11-2 but with two victories over Georgia and one over Alabama in the last three weeks. Those teams were a combined 22-0 against non-Auburn competition. The Tigers would be the first two-loss team to earn a playoff spot in the event’s four-year history, but their 14-6 defeat at Clemson in September warrants more clemency than any stumble on the board.
You might notice that comes out to exactly four teams. A Clemson-Oklahoma-Wisconsin trifecta on Saturday greatly reduces the selection committee’s headaches.
Win and maybe in
* Miami. The committee has the Hurricanes (10-1) pegged at No. 7, but they would presumably leapfrog Clemson with an ACC title game victory. But would they vault Alabama? Would they maintain their modest edge over Ohio State if the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin?
Bottom line: The Hurricanes are far from out of it. But the chances for Mark Richt’s team have been hurt by the limitations of the ACC Coastal beyond Virginia Tech; Notre Dame’s loss to Stanford; and — you’ll read this again later — a victory over Florida State that failed to retain much value beyond bragging rights. If Miami gets left out at 11-1, it will have its Black Friday no-show at Pittsburgh to blame.
* Ohio State. With a victory over Wisconsin, the Buckeyes would become the most polarizing team under discussion. Ohio State (10-2) was manhandled at home by Oklahoma and demolished, 55-24, at Iowa in what was clearly the Super Bowl for a 7-5 Hawkeyes team. The Buckeyes only played six bowl-bound teams (the Badgers make seven). Can an emphatic victory — perhaps not of the 59-0 variety, but a plenty convincing one — generate some recency bias in favor or Urban Meyer’s team?
There’s also this quandary: If things get chaotic, what justification is there for an 11-2 Ohio State team to earn a spot over an 11-2 Oklahoma team it was thumped by on its own field?
This much is certain: Life gets measurably easier for the committee if Ohio State takes a third loss.
Needs help but can’t help itself
* Alabama. The committee dropped the Crimson Tide to No. 5 after its loss to Auburn left it without a trip to the SEC championship, so it stands to reason it needs some assistance. The committee is going to do as it pleases, but it would still be nearly impossible to defend vaulting 11-1 Alabama over Auburn, Clemson, Oklahoma and Wisconsin if they all won.
(If it somehow happened, what would be the point of the much-hyped weekly rankings releases? Wait, don’t answer that).
The Crimson Tide’s hopes hinge on at least one of Clemson, Oklahoma and Wisconsin losing. An Oklahoma loss probably helps the most, since 10-2 TCU is buried in the rankings and probably won’t benefit enough from any reassessment to leapfrog Jalen Hurts and Co.
What stands out about Alabama is the absence of high-end victories. It knocked off 9-3 Louisiana State, 8-4 Mississippi State and 9-3 Fresno State, but its opening-week blockbuster victory over Florida State was devalued by the Seminoles’ struggles. In retrospect, the second-worst thing the Crimson Tide did this season, besides losing the Iron Bowl, was injuring Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois.
Not in, even with a win
* Central Florida. An undefeated regular season got the Knights a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game opposite Memphis (good for them) and will probably get Coach Scott Frost a shiny new job (good for him). It also got them a No. 14 ranking from the playoff committee this week.
Central Florida will get a New Year’s Six trip (perhaps to the Peach Bowl to face the SEC title game runner-up?) if it wins the AAC, but it will have a disappointing Sunday if it expects a spot in the semifinals.
* Southern California and Stanford. Even if there’s a ton of chaos (say, a Miami-Ohio State-TCU victory combo), how does an 11-2 Southern California ranked No. 10 by the committee realistically expect to vault either Miami or Ohio State — who would each bag better victories this weekend than the Trojans under this scenario — or a one-loss Alabama bunch?
Everybody in the Pac-12 has at least two losses, and the league’s playoff hopes effectively ended when Stanford handled Washington last month. The winner of the Pac-12 title game receives a pleasant trip to Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl.
* Texas Christian. The Horned Frogs face the same quandary as Southern Cal, only starting from a spot lower. They would get to 11-2 by snagging a split with Oklahoma, but the committee doesn’t think too much of a cannibalized Big 12. TCU enters the week with only one victory over a committee-ranked team (Oklahoma State), so a short trek to the Cotton Bowl might be the best it can do.
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