So much information and so few conclusions — such is the norm in college football. In the second edition of the college football playoff, the competition for one of the four slots is more intense this year than last year. Surprising to few but worrying to many is the idea that champions of two major conferences could very likely be left out of the committee’s top four.
With the Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference forming the Power Five, at least one champion is guaranteed to be left out. This year, that distinction will certainly fall to the Pac-12 after Stanford University lost to Oregon State University this week. Stanford’s loss ensures that the Pac-12’s champion will have a minimum of two losses, and a two-loss conference champion is not going to supersede any one-loss or undefeated champion.
The big winners from Stanford’s loss were the top-tier Big 12 teams, such as Texas Christian, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Because of the Big 12’s back-loaded schedule, all the top teams in the conference are in the process of playing each other, which essentially means every week contains at least one de facto elimination game. Currently, Oklahoma State is the conference’s lone undefeated team after knocking off TCU two weeks ago and surviving a scare on the road against Iowa State. However, the rival Sooners from Oklahoma are charging hard and scored an impressive road win at Baylor University last Saturday.
Last year, the Big 12 was left out of the playoff because it refused to crown a conference champion after Baylor and TCU each finished with one loss. Baylor beat TCU 61-58 earlier that season, but the conference refused to use that as a tiebreaker. After some long-overdue meetings, the conference finally decided to live up to its slogan, “One True Champion,” by endorsing the head-to-head as the tiebreaker that would produce an actual champion.
None of these technicalities will matter if Oklahoma State runs the table and finishes undefeated. Its final two games are against Baylor and Oklahoma, and a perfect record that includes several wins against top-tier teams would be more than enough ensure a place in the top four. However, if that does not happen, then the decision will become both highly complicated and highly subjective.
Another factor that makes this year’s playoff ranking different is Notre Dame. Notre Dame, for reasons of money and pride, does not play in a conference, but rather plays a major portion of its schedule against ACC teams. Currently, the Fighting Irish are ranked in the committee’s top four and their only loss this season was to the committee’s No. 1 team, Clemson, by two points on the road. If the Irish also win out, they would finish at 11-1 and have wins against at least three teams currently in the AP’s top 25.
Assuming that no upsets occur among the committee’s top three teams — Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama — the dilemma persists about who would claim the final spot — a one-loss Big 12 champion or a one-loss Notre Dame. While the committee does care about conference champions, it would matter more if there were an actual championship game, and the Big 12 is the only Power Five conference that doesn’t play such a game.
The committee takes into account strength of schedule. By most metrics, Notre Dame has played a tougher schedule than any potential Big 12 champion. Inherently, though, despite all of the data that is available, it is a subjective realm. The so-called “eye test” is used by a wide swath of the committee’s members, especially former coaches and media members. Whether a team looks the part could determine its fate, but if every coach looks for different things and there is no measurable standard, then whomever is excluded will have a legitimate grievance.
The potential for Notre Dame to bump out another conference champion also puts the value of said conference championships into question. A conference championship is one of the major criteria the committee uses, but if a team that does not play in a conference by choice is rewarded with a playoff spot, then it brings the validity of the selection process into question. This would be antithetical to the purpose of the playoff, because the playoff was designed to replace the controversial Bowl Championship Series that relied on a combination of mathematical algorithms and media polling.
One simple solution could be to expand the playoff to eight teams. Each Power Five conference champion and the highest-ranked non-Power Five team could be given spots and the committee could decide the other two wildcard spots and the seeding of the eight teams. This might be a bit difficult logistically, and some changes would have to be made to the bowl season, but it is a pragmatic approach that could pacify nearly everyone.
Regardless of what happens in the season’s final two weeks, the committee will have to make several difficult choices. As minute as the differences between teams may be, the impact is great as the stability of the new system surely hangs in the balance.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.