It all comes down to two. Two games will determine whether you can spend your Sunday afternoon gleefully watching rage spew across social media from spurned fan bases or whether the College Football Playoff selection committee will get to heave a great sigh of relief, knowing their top four selections are predictable and safe.
We essentially know No. 3 Oklahoma will finish in the top four as it already has the Big 12 championship and can’t lose a nonexistent conference title game (unlike with TCU last year, the Sooners won’t have to share their conference title.) With Iowa at No. 4 and Michigan State at No. 5, the winner of the Big Ten title game will surely join the Sooners in the playoff.
If No. 1 Clemson beats No. 10 North Carolina and No. 2 Alabama beats No. 18 Florida, then chaos is the first loser of this year’s playoff. The Crimson Tide and Tigers will deservedly make the playoff, and even fans of the teams just outside the top four will have a tough time arguing why their team should have gotten in.
We can’t have that. That’s much too neat, tidy and boring, even if the semifinal matchups it’d produce would be entertaining. For chaos to prevail in the final playoff rankings, it must first prevail on Saturday. Here’s your Championship Saturday rooting guide to playoff controversy.
North Carolina beats Clemson or Florida beats Alabama or both
This is the only scenario worth pondering. There are several interesting sub-cases to consider, but without Clemson or Alabama getting upset, nothing else matters much. But if one of them goes down, the fourth spot in the playoff becomes a tossup.
No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Stanford could both jockey to get in. The Buckeyes only have one loss, and if Michigan State beats Iowa, that loss would be to a playoff team on a last-second field goal. The defending champs are also riding high off their 42–13 beatdown of No. 15 Michigan in the Big House, their best performance of the season.
The Cardinal, however, could claim a conference championship by beating No. 20 USC on Saturday. That would also give them three wins over ranked opponents (No. 8 Notre Dame and USC twice) to Ohio State’s one (Michigan). And while the teams they lost to (Northwestern and Oregon) aren’t as good at Michigan State, both rank in the top 16 of the committee’s top 25.
There’s also the possibility of No. 10 North Carolina if it can take down Clemson. Like Ohio State, the Tar Heels also boast only one loss, but they could additionally tack on a 12th win and a conference championship Saturday. Their strength of schedule also isn’t all that different from Ohio State’s, though both are far behind Stanford’s. North Carolina’s résumé gets weighed down by its awful Week 1 loss to 3–9 South Carolina and two wins over FCS opponents, although an upset of Clemson would at least finally give the Tar Heels a victory over a ranked opponent.
The last case to consider is the loser of its conference championship game. Alabama would surely miss the playoff if it picked up its second loss of the season to a Florida team coming off a dismal 27–2 defeat to Florida State last week.
But Clemson could still make a case for inclusion if it fell to North Carolina. The Tigers would have to counter the head-to-head advantage the Tar Heels would hold on them, but that’s not impossible if they lose a close game. Clemson would have the same record as North Carolina and could point to its superior strength of schedule and two quality wins (Notre Dame and No. 9 Florida State) to the Tar Heels’ one. Keep in the mind this is the same playoff committee that placed TCU ahead of Baylor for nearly all of last season’s rankings despite the Bears’ 61–58 win over the Horned Frogs.
Basically it’s all or nothing for playoff controversy. If Clemson and Alabama win, no team can gripe about why it should have gotten in. But if one—or both—lose, up to four squads will undoubtedly complain. So, come on, Tar Heels and Gators! Unlock the rage!