In the second paragraph of the first page of the guidelines for the College Football Playoff selection committee is a sentence fans should probably keep in mind as the sport descends into November chaos.
The playoff is directed to: “Establish a committee that will be instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree.”
It continues that when teams are comparable, the four criteria listed to break the tie are championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and comparative outcomes of common opponents. And in a situation where the committee were to consider a team that didn’t win a conference championship, it would have to be “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.”
In other words, for all that happened Saturday with the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams all losing, it’s quite possible that very little actually changed. Because despite the ranking reshuffle that will take place Sunday in the Amway Coaches Poll and Tuesday when the committee releases its new top 25, it’s worth remembering that until proven otherwise, conference championships are still what drives this system.
And Clemson, Michigan and Washington all still control their own destinies with regard to conference titles. It’s also why Louisville, despite possibly cracking the top four this week, still faces very long odds to make the playoff.
Let’s consider these one at a time.
Clemson: The Tigers finish their ACC schedule at Wake Forest. If they win that one, take care of rival South Carolina and then beat Virginia Tech in the conference championship game, they’re likely still in due to the strength of wins against Louisville, Florida State and Auburn.
Michigan: The shocking 14-13 loss at Iowa leaves the Wolverines at 9-1. They have no margin for error. They must beat Indiana and win at Ohio State, which would put them in the Big Ten championship game. If they do all that, Jim Harbaugh’s team will be in the playoff.
Washington: This is where it gets a bit more controversial. Saturday’s 26-13 loss to surging Southern Cal means the Huskies are just 1-1 against top-25 teams and played a poor non-conference schedule (Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State). Still, if they win out, which would include wins at Washington State and against either Colorado or USC in the Pac-12 championship game, they’re probably going to get in but it’s far from certain.
Of course, the losses by those teams Saturday bolstered hopes for a different group of teams.
Ohio State: Let’s say the Buckeyes finish up at 11-1 with wins against Michigan State and Michigan. That’s pretty good. But here’s the problem. Because of Michigan’s loss to Iowa, Ohio State is now exposed to the possibility of losing the Big Ten East division title to Penn State in a tiebreaker, which means they wouldn’t be a conference champion. At that point, the Buckeyes’ résumé would include wins at Oklahoma (which could come in handy, as we’ll explain later), at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan. It’s possible the committee will look at the number of top-25 wins and see a stronger overall résumé than, say, Washington or even Penn State.
Penn State: At that point, however, wouldn’t Penn State be able to say, “What about us?” Though the Nittany Lions would have two losses (they lost 42-39 to Pittsburgh in Week 2 and were blown out at Michigan in Week 4), they’d have a win head-to-head against Ohio State plus let’s just say Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Could you really jump any Big Ten team over Penn State after it won one of the toughest divisions in football?
Louisville: The Cardinals are rooting hard for Clemson to lose to Wake Forest next week. Because short of that, they have no shot to be a conference champion. Louisville’s 43-point win vs. Florida State in September was a tremendous win and bolstered the Cardinals’ reputation significantly. The problem is, it’s their only good win, and Florida State isn’t going to finish in the top 10. How can Louisville demonstrate that they are “unequivocally” better than one of the conference champions with a win over Florida State, a close loss at Clemson and not much else?
Oklahoma/West Virginia: Maybe the Big 12 isn’t dead after all. These two teams will play in Morgantown, W.V., this coming weekend with the winner emerging as the favorite to win the Big 12. If there are more upsets, there’s a chance the committee will give Oklahoma credit for scheduling Houston and Ohio State in the non-conference schedule. The problem, of course, is the Sooners lost both of those games and at that point the head-to-head comparison with Ohio State might hurt them.
So the real question in all these scenarios is how much conference championships are actually worth. We’ve been told the committee considers them heavily, an assertion that is backed up by the playoff’s brief history. All eight teams that have made it won their conferences.
Is this the year they throw that out the window and take a longer look at the likes of Ohio State and Louisville? If so, it would be a significant break with precedent, which is worth keeping in mind as we see more chaos in the coming weeks.
Until proven otherwise, conference championships trump everything else, which means Saturday was fun and surprising but far from a seismic event.