In the College Football Playoff's first year, so much is unknown about how it will work. Which stats or pieces of data will carry the most weight with the playoff's selection committee? As it continues over multiple seasons, the media and fans will learn more about what individual results from a season mean and whether teams with a certain number of losses or a lack of a conference title can still get into the top four. For now, all everyone can do is speculate, but that's pretty fun, too. SI.com's Colin Becht, Martin Rickman and Ben Glicksman analyze some of the more interesting cases that the committee could confront and which teams that have already lost a game or two can still hope to be playing at night on Jan. 1.
Colin Becht: As the first eight weeks has shown, this season may lack that true dominant team that easily dismisses all challengers in its path like Florida State last year. That parity at the top means a wider batch of teams can claim to be the best in the country -- or, more importantly, among the best four in the country. Already only three Power Five teams remain unbeaten while many other squads who had high expectation have suffered not just one defeat, but a second as well. Preseason favorites like Oklahoma and UCLA are already in the two-loss club, as are LSU, USC, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. And don't forget two-loss teams like Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri are still alive in their respective weakened divisions.
Martin, among all the teams with two losses right now, which ones seem to have the best shot at reaching the College Football Playoff?
Martin Rickman: Wow, if you start to stare at that group, it's slim pickings, isn't it? Oklahoma has two losses in a Big 12 conference that might get shut out of the playoff entirely. LSU could work its way into the conversation if it managed to beat Ole Miss and Alabama back to back (both home games, too) and somehow win the SEC West if the Tigers got help, but do you really feel confident in that happening? USC's loss to Boston College looks worse by the week, but the Trojans could make a big statement if they won out, got that Notre Dame win at the end of the year and then pulled out a win in the Pac-12 title game over, say, Oregon.
Honestly I'm starting to think it's a team with one loss right now who ends up with two losses that will force the issue rather than a team already sitting on two losses making a run the rest of the way. That gets into prognosticating on a whole other level. Ben, do you see any teams with one loss who will still have a case if they drop another one before the season ends?
Ben Glicksman: Of the current one-loss teams, I think the one in the best position is Auburn. Its schedule is something of a gauntlet -- it still has games remaining at Ole Miss (Nov. 1), at Georgia (Nov. 15) and at Alabama (Nov. 29) -- but that should also give it a slightly larger margin for error, assuming a two-loss team does indeed get into the playoff. Remember, the Tigers beat fellow playoff contender Kansas State 20-14 on the road on Sept. 18. That could prove critical, particularly if Auburn and Kansas State boast identical records at season’s end.
The current two-loss team at the top of my list would be Oklahoma. While the Sooners seem out of contention now, they could possibly re-enter the picture if they win out. They lost 37-33 to TCU after failing to convert a crucial fourth-and-one, and they fell 31-30 to Kansas State after missing two short field goals and an extra point. In a season in which the unpredictable is the norm, anything seems possible.
Colin, in this spirit of reckless speculation, how many two-loss teams do you think end up making the field? How many teams, if any, do you think finish unbeaten?
Becht: After surviving tough tests from Clemson and Notre Dame, I think Florida State will finish the regular season undefeated for the second straight year. The Seminoles' matchup with Louisville next Thursday will be tough as the Cardinals rank No. 2 in defensive F/+, but Louisville just doesn't have the offensive firepower to hang with Florida State for a full game. Marshall will also likely run the table, but the Thundering Herd's weak schedule will keep them out of the playoff discussion even if it gets down to considering them against two-loss teams. As for the other Power Five unbeatens, I can't see either Mississippi State or Ole Miss surviving the season without a loss. One of them will lose the Egg Bowl, and the Bulldogs still must travel to Alabama while the Rebels face LSU and Auburn.
It's hard to see any two-loss team making the playoff, though if any team could do it, it'd be an SEC squad. Still, even with SEC West teams beating up on each other, two teams will likely emerge from the conference with only one loss -- the SEC has had at least two teams with one regular season loss or fewer every season since 2011 -- and both of those teams will get playoff bid. Add in an undefeated Florida State and a one-loss Oregon or Notre Dame, and there's simply no room for any team with two defeats.
Of course, chaos could always ensue to open the door. Ben, you bring up an interesting case with Auburn and Kansas State. In playoff's first year, we don't know how the selection committee will weigh overall records against head-to-head results against strength of schedule or any other point of comparison. One very interesting test case would be if the final playoff bid comes down to a two-loss Auburn and a one-loss Kansas State. Would the committee side with the Tigers' win over the Wildcats in Manhattan? Or would Kansas State's better record and conference championship allow it to overcome that head-to-head defeat? These are the situations that will shape two-loss teams' access to the playoff. How should the committee handle them, Martin?
Rickman: Ideally the committee would use margin of victory, but they already said they won't use that, so now we're going off the eye test presumably, some stats we're not quite sure about because there hasn't been a ton of transparency and a strength of schedule metric that is a little flawed. There's no right answer here and there's also no precedent. This year is Year 1 and the college football playoff is in beta, and no matter how many times you do mock exercises it isn't a substitute for the real thing. The more teams have a case, the messier this thing could potentially get.
But getting back to your original question, we already know the committee is going to try and put in the four "most deserving" teams. And that conference championships matter. So it's entirely possible even if Kansas State and Auburn have the same record but Auburn doesn't win the SEC while Kansas State does win the Big 12 (without a conference championship game, mind you) that the Wildcats could get in despite losing to the Tigers during the regular season. If that happens, there's your apocalypse scenario.
Ben, is it a foregone conclusion that the SEC gets two teams in right now? Or will the committee do its best to get four different conferences (with the potential for a one-loss Notre Dame if the Fighting Irish can win out) in there?
Glicksman: It’s not a foregone conclusion by any stretch, but I think it’s extremely likely that two SEC teams get into the playoff. For as much talk as there has been in recent years about SEC superiority, the league has been that dominant in 2014, with five teams -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and Ole Miss -- still very much alive in the national title hunt.
Again, we’re getting WAY ahead of ourselves, but consider this improbable but remotely plausible scenario: Alabama wins out to finish 12-1 as the SEC champ; Mississippi State finishes 11-1 with its only loss coming at Bama on Nov. 15; Ole Miss goes 11-1 with its only loss coming in the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29; Oregon, Notre Dame, Michigan State, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor all finish with two losses. Could three SEC teams, alongside Florida State, make the field? Well, yes. Yes they could.
(I am fully aware this is ridiculous, but, hey, possibilities!)
Colin, what about the opposite end of the spectrum? Despite how good the SEC has been thus far, is there a way the conference gets shut out of the playoff entirely?
Becht: Shockingly yes, if that parity at the top of the SEC that you mentioned, Ben, eats the conference alive. It's hard to imagine -- and as I mentioned earlier it's rare for the SEC to cannibalize this badly -- but despite the strong consensus that the SEC is the nation's best conference this year, there are scenarios in which the playoff selection committee would be hard-pressed to slot an SEC team in the top four. (Wouldn't the Finebaum show the next day be so fun?) Consider the following set of results:
- In the remaining SEC games, Alabama beat Mississippi State and loses to Auburn. Auburn beats Alabama but loses to Ole Miss. Ole Miss beats Auburn but loses to Mississippi State and either LSU or Arkansas. Mississippi State beat Ole Miss but loses to Alabama. Georgia wins out except for a loss to Auburn. In the SEC Championship Game, Georgia beats Mississippi State.
- Florida State finishes the regular season undefeated.
- Notre Dame doesn't lose another game, soundly beating Pac-12 South champ Arizona State, Louisville and USC.
- Oregon wins out for the rest of the season, leaving the Pac-12 champion Ducks with one loss that came when their starting left tackle was injured.
- Michigan State wins out for the rest of the season, finishing the year with a Big Ten title and a lone defeat to Oregon.
In this scenario, the playoff committee would have an undefeated conference champion (Florida State), two one-loss conference champions with respectable losses (Oregon and Michigan State), a one-loss independent whose lone defeat was to the undefeated Seminoles (Notre Dame) and a smattering of two-loss SEC teams, including an SEC champion that went 1-1 in its only two games against elite competition. Which of the one-loss teams would be thrown out? Which two-loss SEC team would get pulled in? That'd require a pretty bold decision by the committee in its first year. This hypothetical doesn't even factor in the three Big 12 teams with only one loss so far, any of which could potentially win out to jump into the playoff mix.
So yes, it would take a near perfect storm of SEC cannibalism combined with a lack of chaos in the other Power Five conferences, but it is still possible the SEC could spend the evening of New Year's Day watching other conferences battle for berths in the national championship game. Of course this would never actually happen because as soon as selection committee chairman Jeff Long announced the SEC-less playoff field, mass revolts would break out across the South demanding the playoff be immediately expanded to eight teams (with the four additions all coming from the SEC).