In the brief-but-promising three-year history of the College Football Playoff, never has a single conference sent two teams to the national semifinals, and never has a two-loss team gained admittance.
Might both be on tap this season?
Put another way: Say you are a member of the College Football Playoff committee, and you are presented three teams for the final two spots. They are: a one-loss Alabama that did not play for its own conference championship, a Big Ten champion Ohio State that carries two losses, and a Big 12 champ Oklahoma that beat the Buckeyes in Columbus.
Who do you leave at home?
This might be a better conversation than a column, but we have time to kill before the latest rankings are revealed Tuesday night, so grab a beer at the bar and let’s parse this out.
(Hint: We’ll get to a point where you want an eight-team playoff. At least. Really.)
We know that last week’s rankings — in order, Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson — will look radically different this week, what with Georgia and Notre Dame losing by a combined 81-25 on Saturday, and Miami (solidly) and Auburn (tangentially, but with a path) now in the middle of the discussion. But we also know that there are some tasty possibilities — possibilities for controversy and chaos — over the next three weeks.
How to sort through it? First, let’s list the teams who would absolutely make the playoff if they win their remaining games.
Certainty gives you Alabama, which would be an undefeated SEC champion, and either Miami or Clemson, which face each other in the ACC championship game Dec. 2. But you also could add Auburn and Georgia, because Auburn winning out would give it wins over both Alabama and Georgia, the latter in the SEC title game, and Georgia winning out would give it a win over either an unbeaten Alabama or the same Auburn team that just waxed it, 40-17.
Wisconsin winning out would give the unbeaten Badgers, questioned for their questionable schedule, quality victories over Michigan and Ohio State. Ohio State winning out would give the Buckeyes, already with a victory over Penn State, wins over Michigan and (previously undefeated) Wisconsin — an updated résumé, and impressively so.
Oklahoma winning out almost certainly would give the one-loss Sooners two wins over either TCU or Oklahoma State (whichever wins the tie-breaker for second-place in the Big 12), and one win over whichever of those two teams doesn’t make the Big 12 championship game. (Remember: There is a Big 12 championship game this year, even if the Big 12 consists of only 10 members — while the Big Ten consists of 14.)
Anyway . . .
It would seem that the path to two teams from the same conference ending up in the four-team playoff is relatively easy to see, if you consider the concept of Alabama losing a regular-season game relatively easy to see.
The Crimson Tide has two chances to lose: Nov. 25 in the Iron Bowl at Auburn (and whose hair doesn’t stand up just thinking about that game?), and, should it survive, the following week in the SEC title game against Georgia.
Now let’s be honest: Isn’t an 11-1 Alabama, even one that doesn’t play for its conference championship, still one of the best four teams in the country? Heck, Ohio State didn’t play for its conference title a year ago and was still admitted. (Forget that the Buckeyes used that appearance to commit a 38-0 sin against Clemson. They were in, and B1G champ Penn State, which beat Ohio State, was out.)
But even if Alabama loses and is deemed by an eye test to be worthy, the other three spots can fill up quickly, can’t they? The SEC champion — be it Georgia or Auburn — would have to be in. Sure, the Tigers have two losses, but they were to Clemson by one possession and at LSU by four points, sins made forgivable by what would be a victory over Alabama and two wins over Georgia, which would likely be Georgia’s only two losses.
Another spot would have to go to the ACC champion, right? Assuming it beats Virginia and Pittsburgh the next two weeks, Miami would be unbeaten, have a win over defending national champ Clemson and a trouncing of Notre Dame. Clemson is the defending national champ and would be handing Miami its first (only) loss of the year. The ACC title game is a de facto national quarterfinal.
(Except, if Clemson wins, what do you do with one-loss Miami? Forget that for a moment.)
A third spot would go to 12-1 Oklahoma, because the Sooners beat Ohio State in Columbus. And wouldn’t a fourth spot go to the Big Ten champion, be it unbeaten Wisconsin or Ohio State, even if the Buckeyes have those two losses – at home to Oklahoma and at Iowa, both ugly?
Put it still another way: How do you pick four of 12-1 Georgia, 12-1 Alabama, 13-0 Wisconsin, 12-1 Clemson, 12-1 Miami and 12-1 Oklahoma?
(Perhaps here is a place to insert little ol’ Central Florida, which is unbeaten in nine games — with an average margin of victory of 27.9 points. The Knights, however, had the gall to not be ranked in the preseason (ceding the American Athletic Conference stage to South Florida) and then to be ravaged by Hurricane Irma, causing a rescheduling of a game against Memphis and the loss of a game against Georgia Tech.
And this might be a good place to allow ourselves some time to plea for a 16-team playoff — or even an eight-team playoff — that might allow the Knights a shot. Think that’s extravagance, or would detract from players’ (ahem) studies? Remember that the Football Championship Subdivision has a 24-team tournament, which requires the eventual champion to win at least four but as many as five games, that spans from late November to early January, with an off week to boot. Not only can it be done. It is being done.
But Central Florida, even if it finishes 12-0, stands no chance, and there’s only a four-team playoff for the highest level of college football. So.)
What we have here is a path to argument — pull-your-hair-out, eyes-bulging argument. Let’s hope for that. Because if we get it, we might be forced — again — to consider the arguments for expanding the playoff. Don’t give me the argument that the regular season would thus become meaningless. The regular season would again come down to these final few weeks of mayhem, filled with consequences from coast to coast.
And then we’d be treated to a holiday season’s worth of can’t-miss appointments, rather than the month-long lull we stare at now.
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