• LSU beating Alabama wouldn't be the only to cause chaos in the College Football Playoff rankings. Here are the scenarios to give the playoff committee nightmares.
By Colin Becht
November 04, 2016

As the calendar turns to November and the College Football Playoff selection committee begins unveiling its weekly rankings, it’s time for another season of Chaos Theory.

For those new to this exercise, the idea here is to drum up as much controversy as possible for the selection of the top four teams that ultimately make the playoff. It’s an idea that was born in the BCS era with the altruistic hope of bringing down the system—which ultimately worked thanks to chaos of the all-SEC national championship game of 2012.

Though the BCS may be dead, the thrill of rooting for unbridled chaos remains. So instead of dreams of bringing down a selection system, we now simply hope to force the members of the playoff selection committee to make impossible choices that will undoubtedly incite hostility from certain fan bases.

Last year, these goals revolved around scenarios like a Group of Five team earning serious consideration for a playoff berth or Notre Dame finishing in the top four, both of which would have forced at least two Power 5 conference champions to miss out on the playoff. Neither of those hypothetical scenarios will come to pass this season, but that doesn’t mean the final five weeks of the season can’t inject some disorder into the playoff rankings and make selection committee members wish they’d never taken the job.

Here are some scenarios to root for:

• At least two teams from one conference make the playoff. So far, the playoff committee has been fortunate that no runner-up from a Power 5 conference has presented a compelling case. With the committee’s emphasis on conference titles as a criterion for selection, a non-conference champ will have to have an exceptionally strong résumé. Could whomever finishes second in the SEC West or Big Ten East do it? If they do, the conference champion who gets left out will certainly cry foul.

• The SEC gets shut out of the playoff. This is a carryover from last season and remains true every year. It’s not based on any enmity towards the SEC, but the fact remains that the conference’s collection of fan bases are some of the most zealous in the country. And those who don’t worship the SEC often hate the league with equal fervor. That passion ensures that were the SEC to get left out of the playoff, the mixture of fury and schadenfreude that would ensue would be unlike anything else.

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• All the playoff contenders just lose a lot. This is another scenario that’s part of the chaos rooting guide every year. Want to see new chairman of the playoff selection committee Kirby Hocutt do linguistic backflips to justify the selections? Force him to choose between a two-loss Big 12 champ and a two-loss Pac-12 champ.

With those scenarios in mind, here’s what to root for in Week 10 to create the most playoff dysfunction possible:

Penn State beats Iowa, Maryland beats Michigan, Ohio State beats Nebraska and Wisconsin beats Northwestern

Conventional wisdom holds that the winner of Ohio State-Michigan will make the playoff. But only the Wolverines have full control of their destiny for reaching the Big Ten title game. Even if Ohio State beats Michigan, the Buckeyes wouldn’t win the Big Ten East if Penn State wins out and the Wolverines drop another game during the season. So imagine that, Ohio State shakes off its loss to Penn State, beats Michigan in The Game, but is denied a chance to compete for the Big Ten championship because Maryland upset the Wolverines.

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In the Big Ten West, No. 10 Nebraska still has the clearest path to the playoff despite being ranked behind No. 8 Wisconsin because the Cornhuskers still lead the division. If they win out and take the Big Ten title, they’d surely climb into the top four. Losing to Ohio State this weekend would derail that, saddling Nebraska with another defeat while ceding control of the Big Ten West to Wisconsin.

Ultimately, this whole scenario is designed to maximize chaos in the Big Ten. The conference title game could match up two two-loss teams, Wisconsin and Penn State, while a one-loss Ohio State watched from Columbus. Could the two-loss Badgers, who fell to the Buckeyes at home, get into the playoff over Ohio State? Could the two-loss Nittany Lions get in despite a 39-point defeat to Michigan? Or could one-loss Ohio State get in over the Big Ten’s champion despite not even winning its division?

Cal beats Washington and Texas A&M beats Mississippi State

The biggest controversy from the playoff selection committee so far has been its decision to rank one-loss Texas A&M at No. 4 over undefeated Washington at No. 5. But much of the discussion surrounding that judgment has focused on the wrong hypothetical. Based on what we know about how much the committee values conference championships, Washington would definitely leapfrog Texas A&M if it wins the Pac-12 and both teams win out.


The bigger question the committee’s rankings leave is, what happens if the Huskies lose? As long as Washington beats Washington State in the Apple Cup, it could drop a game and still win the Pac-12 North, advance to the league title game and win it. But would 12–1 Washington get into the playoff over 11–1 Texas A&M, even if the Aggies don’t even advance to the SEC title game? Based on the committee’s first rankings of the season, it’s not clear the Huskies would get the spot. That’d put two SEC West teams into playoff and potentially set up a rematch of Alabama-Texas A&M in the Peach Bowl. Doesn’t the mere thought of that rile you up?

LSU beats Alabama, Mississippi State beats Texas A&M, Arkansas beats Florida, Vanderbilt beats Auburn and Kentucky beats Georgia

As things currently stand, it’s hard to see how the SEC gets left out of the playoff. If No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Texas A&M, No. 9 Auburn, No. 11 Florida or No. 13 LSU wins out, that team will very likely make the playoff, even the Tigers of both the Plains and the Bayou despite their respective two losses.

But we’ve got to start somewhere, so let’s start chipping away. LSU takes care on the only undefeated team in the conference, which damages Texas A&M’s résumé, too. The Aggies further play themselves out of contention with a stunning defeat to Mississippi State, as does Auburn with a collapse against Vanderbilt. Meanwhile Florida begins to choke away its lead in the SEC East with its second conference loss of the season.

Why is Kentucky winning important? Because the Wildcats making among the darkest ever of dark-horse runs to the SEC title would be one of the few scenarios in which the SEC champion would likely not finish in the top four of the rankings.

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LSU beats Alabama, Syracuse beats Clemson, Maryland beats Michigan and Cal beats Washington

We’ll close this with the nuclear option. Last week’s games trimmed the number of undefeated teams from nine to five. This would take care of all four remaining unbeaten teams in the Power 5.

Although none of them would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, the selection committee’s dream scenario is for all four to win out. This would allow for a controversy-free bracket of four undefeated power conference champions. If the Crimson Tide, Tigers, Wolverines and Huskies all lose, suddenly the committee is left with a messy landscape of one-loss teams and hot two-loss teams.

Obviously the odds of all four of these upsets happening is incredibly small. But even one would start tipping the scales towards chaos.

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