The current equilibrium in college football is delicate and subject to go awry on any given game day, but this weekend — conference championship weekend — the playoff selection committee and millions of fans could be forced into a very awkward and unanticipated situation: a nonconference champion making the playoff instead of a conference champion. Given the committee’s self-imposed emphasis on conference championships, this weekend has the potential to jeopardize the legitimacy of college football’s latest mechanism to crown a champion.
Out of Alabama (12-0, 8-0 SEC), Ohio State (11-1, 8-1 Big 10), Clemson (11-1, 7-1 ACC) and Washington (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) — teams set up to advance to the college football playoff — three have something in common: They are probably going to be conference champions.
Awkwardly, Ohio State is idle this weekend because it lost the Big 10 East to Penn State (10-2, 8-1 Big 10) on a head-to-head tiebreaker. At No. 2 in the rankings, the Buckeyes are surely safe despite what happens around them. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions or Wisconsin Badgers, one of which will be the Big 10 champion, will probably not make the playoff. To make things more complicated, the Lions and Badgers both have to climb over a Michigan Wolverine (10-2, 7-2 Big 10) team that beat them both but lost to Ohio State and Iowa (8-4, 6-3 Big 10) near the end of the season.
It did not have to be this complicated this year. The selection committee created its own problem by essentially making being a conference championship a requirement to be a playoff team. Back in 2014, the Big 12 had two stellar teams that ended the season tied atop the standings. TCU and Baylor each had one conference loss, but the conference lacked a championship game. The Big 12 conference chose to declare each team a co-champion, and as a result, the Big 12 was left out of the top four and was not represented in the college football playoff.
The committee specifically cited the lack of a championship game and the emphasis it places on conference championships as a deciding factor. With Ohio State essentially guaranteed a spot, two of college football’s Power Five conference champions will be excluded from the playoff.
For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that Alabama and Clemson, both of which are double-digit favorites, will take care of business on Saturday and win the conference. With Ohio State snug at No. 2 and not playing, it also seems to be safe. That leaves one playoff spot for the winner of the Pac-12, Big 10 and Michigan. Sorry, Big 12 — your best teams, Oklahoma (9-2, 8-0 Big XII) or Oklahoma State (9-2, 7-1 Big XXII), were just not good enough.
The absolute worst scenario for the selection committee would be Colorado (10-2, 8-1 PAC 12) beating Washington and Penn State beating Wisconsin. Ranked fourth in the current standings, the Huskies have no margin for error — if they lose, they will not be selected to the playoffs. It is highly unlikely that Colorado would then make the jump from No. 8 to No. 4. It would have to jump Penn State and Wisconsin, one of which must win, and Michigan — the same Michigan that beat Colorado by 17 points earlier in the season. If this happens, the selection committee has an entirely new problem of justifying how it can rank a team that lost a head-to-head matchup ahead of the winner. You can already hear Jim Harbaugh and his army preparing for war.
The Penn State situation is eerily similar. Michigan blew Penn State out and beat them by 39 points. Even if Penn State beats Wisconsin, the committee cannot ignore that much of a thrashing just because Michigan is not playing for a conference title. Ultimately, the committee shot itself in the foot by caring about conference championships. The aim of the playoff should be to enable the four best teams in the country to compete for a national title, regardless of conference. If that is two SEC teams and a Big 10 team, for example, so be it. If Clemson and Washington lost, I would be fine with three Big 10 teams making the playoff.
However, because the committee does care about conference championships, the question remains: Is a two-loss conference champion more deserving of a spot than a one-loss team that did not make the championship game? Probably not. Wisconsin lost to Ohio State in a primetime game in Madison — the Badgers could not have asked for much more and even though the game went to overtime, they still lost. Penn State, to its credit, did beat Ohio State in Happy Valley, but blocking and returning a field goal for a touchdown is more of a fluke than something that is consistently replicable. On a neutral field, I would take the Buckeyes over either team.
In a strange way, then, the destiny of both Penn State and Wisconsin is out of each team’s respective control. Colorado will determine it all. Should the Buffaloes win, the Big 10 champion has an in as it will probably leapfrog Michigan and claim Washington’s current spot. Maybe none of this will matter, but that is not usually how college football works. Expect the unexpected this weekend, and embrace the anarchy. A little chaos is good every now and again.
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