It hasn’t happened yet, but surely it has to happen eventually. Some conference has to get two teams into the College Football Playoff at some point, right? After looking at which conferences could get left out of this year’s playoff last week, let’s consider which leagues have the best chance of sending multiple teams.
So far, of course, no conference has been able to place two teams in the top four. The Big 12, despite being left out of the inaugural playoff, came the closest to getting multiple bids in 2014 while the Big Ten had the best shot in ’15. Here’s who could actually pull it off this season:
The ACC has the perfect recipe for getting multiple teams into the playoff: a group of potentially elite teams, all of which are clustered in the same division. For any conference to have a shot, there needs to be fewer than four Power 5 conference champions with one loss or fewer. If that happens this year, it could open the door for an 11–1 team that finishes second in the ACC Atlantic.
With Clemson, Florida State and Louisville all expected to contend for a conference title, one could easily claim the Atlantic with an undefeated record (as Clemson did last year) while another loses to eventual champion and no one else (as Florida State would have done last year had it not been upset by Georgia Tech). The undefeated conference champion would be a strong candidate for the No. 1 seed in the playoff, and the 11–1 runner up could leapfrog a 10–2 champion from another conference. This is particularly true if, for example, Clemson were to lose a close game on the road at Florida State this year and the Seminoles went on to run the table (the same is true of Louisville losing narrowly at Clemson and the Tigers going on to an undefeated season).
The ’Noles and Cardinals are particularly well positioned to make the playoff with 11–1 records as they each will face challenging non-conference schedules. Florida State will battle Ole Miss in Week 1 and hosts Florida to end the regular season while Louisville travels to Houston on Nov. 17.
Big 12: Sell
The lack of a conference championship game boosts the Big 12’s chances of sending multiple teams to the playoff. While the other power conferences saddle a potential playoff contender with a loss in their league title games, the Big 12’s No. 2 team escapes unscathed.
That said, the conference’s round-robin scheduling still ensures the No. 1 and No. 2 teams meet during the regular season, so for the Big 12 to send two teams to the playoff, its runner up would have to win out apart from its loss to the conference champion. This makes the Big 12 similar to the other power conferences; however, at least in the Big 12 that second playoff contender wouldn’t have to either survive with only one loss over 13 games (the path of a team from the opposite division as the conference champion in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC) or be limited to teams in the same division as the conference champion.
Structural matters aside, this seems unlikely to be the year the Big 12 sends multiple teams to the playoff simply because the conference seems unlikely to produce two teams with records of 11–1 or better. The disruption of scandal and a coaching change undoubtedly hampers Baylor’s chances of a playoff-caliber season. TCU returns 10 starters, including just three on offense, likely slowing the Horned Frogs from the 42.1-points-per-game pace they set last season. Defending conference champion Oklahoma brings back many of the key pieces, particularly on offense, to make another run, but the Sooners must contend with a grueling non-conference schedule that includes dates with Houston and Ohio State before beginning Big 12 play. Someone of course will emerge from the pack as the Big 12 champion, and that team will likely use its challenging course to prove its playoff worth. However, expecting two teams to escape with top-four-caliber résumés seems unwise.
Big Ten: Hold
Similarly to the ACC, the imbalance of the Big Ten’s power towards its East Division increases the conference’s chances of sending two teams to the semifinals. Being the second-best team in a loaded division simply is a better path than being the best team in a weak one. Just ask Iowa, whose 12–0 regular season last year wasn’t enough when the Hawkeyes came up just short in the Big Ten championship game.
Still, as with the other conferences, the Big Ten would need its East Division champion to win the conference with a perfect 13–0 regular season while the division runner up went 11–1. The Big Ten’s move to nine conference games this season hinders the likelihood of that happening, but the conference’s top-heavy nature makes it possible. Ohio State and Michigan are likely to open the season in the preseason top 10 with Michigan State not too far behind. If the Buckeyes beat Oklahoma on the road or the Spartans take down Notre Dame in South Bend, both would offer persuasive playoff cases even with 11–1 records and lacking a conference title.
I questioned whether the Pac-12 will get even one team in the playoff last week, so I’m certainly not buying two. Stanford was the only team in the conference to finish the regular season with two losses or fewer last season, and with Washington expected the rise into contention this fall, the Pac-12’s parity has only increased.
It also doesn’t help that the Pac-12 boasts some of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. USC takes on Alabama and Notre Dame, UCLA faces Texas A&M and BYU on the road and Stanford opens the season with the always tricky Kansas State before later traveling to Notre Dame. Nine conference games plus a league championship game already put the Pac-12 at a disadvantage for playoff bids; the aggressive out-of-conference scheduling only exaggerates that disadvantage.
The strength at the top of the SEC means the conference always has a chance of sending multiple teams to the playoff. That strength hasn’t worked out yet because of cannibalization, but with no shortage of teams who appear to be contenders at the start of the season, the possibility is still there. Alabama could win the conference again with a one-loss LSU or Ole Miss riding the Crimson Tide’s coattails into the top four.
There’s one more interesting scenario that could result in two SEC teams in the semifinals. While the clearest route to multiple playoff bids is a one-loss division runner up, an SEC divisional crossover game presents another possibility. Alabama travels to Tennessee on Oct. 15, a matchup featuring two playoff contenders and the favorites of the SEC West and SEC East, respectively. If Tennessee were to win that game and go undefeated in the regular season but lose a rematch to the Tide in the SEC Championship Game, the playoff selection committee could be faced with a nightmare scenario.
In this hypothetical, the Volunteers would have one loss, coming to another playoff team, along with several other quality wins. That’d make a seemingly strong playoff case. However, Tennessee would also lack a conference title and would be entering the postseason coming off of that lone defeat. With only two years of playoff data, it’s impossible to predict how the selection committee would judge the Vols. But for those who enjoy chaotic playoff scenarios, the accusations of SEC bias if Tennessee did make the field would be fantastic.