Selecting the College Football Playoff field not as simple as it seems

0:48 | College Football
Penn State rallies past Wisconsin to win Big Ten
Sunday December 4th, 2016

Between Tuesday night and Friday afternoon, the prediction of a scenario involving the results that actually played out Friday and Saturday would have drawn a yawn. Why would the College Football Playoff selection committee even bother showing up to its meeting room at the Gaylord Texan hotel given these scores? The committee wouldn’t even have to touch the top four it released Tuesday (1. Alabama 2. Ohio State 3. Clemson 4. Washington). Everyone could vote as soon as the games ended Saturday night and catch an early flight home.

After Saturday night? It doesn’t feel so certain at all. Perhaps we’re scarred from 2014, when the committee ranked TCU No. 3 in its penultimate ranking and then dropped the Horned Frogs to No. 6 after they won by 52 points. Perhaps we couldn’t completely trust the committee after that moment. It told us what we suspected when it was determined the committee would release multiple rankings. Everything before the first Sunday in December is for entertainment purposes only, and the rules that governed those early rankings may not apply the same way to the only ranking that matters.

Based on what committee chair Kirby Hocutt said Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday’s deliberations should be easy at the top. No. 1 Alabama hammered Florida in the SEC title game and finished as the only undefeated team in the Power 5. Second-ranked Ohio State, which didn’t qualify for the Big Ten title game and finished its season 11–1, didn’t play Saturday. Third-ranked Clemson beat Virginia Tech 42–35 in the ACC title game. Fourth-ranked Washington crushed Colorado 41–10 Friday night to win the Pac-12 title. Since, according to Hocutt, there was a “razor thin” margin between Washington and No. 5 Michigan, which also didn’t play, and a slightly wider margin between Michigan and Big Ten championship participants Wisconsin (No. 6) and Penn State (No. 7), that should be it, shouldn’t it? The Final Four should be set, right?

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But what if it isn’t? What if Hocutt is telling the truth about the “clean sheet of paper” the committee allegedly uses every time it begins deliberating? Can it be swayed? We go now to the Saturday night stump speech of Penn State coach James Franklin. “What I know is we just won the toughest conference in college football,” Franklin told Fox after his Nittany Lions came back from 21 points down to beat Wisconsin 38–31. “It’s on you now, committee.”

Indeed it is.

The key argument now is whether Ohio State should get in over a Penn State team that beat the Buckeyes and won the Big Ten title. The committee’s previous rankings suggest that’s what will happen.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s comments on ESPN’s College GameDay made it seem the league office had abandoned its championship game participants in favor of WOOOOOOOOO, BUCKEYES AND WOLVERINES. When the playoff was formulated, Delany wanted only conference champions allowed into it. This, presumably, was to keep the SEC from overrunning the playoff. Delany should have had a little more confidence in his own league. At any rate, Delany has ditched that deeply held belief because he’d like a team from his league to win the national title, and Ohio State’s résumé suggests the Buckeyes are that team. “I lost that election four years ago," Delany said Saturday morning on the GameDay set. “I argued for the four best conference champions. That was not the decision. We lost that election. That election was four years ago. We have to understand that elections happen, certain ideas are adopted and we're at a different place now. It's four best teams. And conference championships are there to help sort that cluster out, as well as head-to-head as well as strength of schedule.”

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

But maybe Delany wasn’t throwing the future champion Nittany Lions under the bus. In those comments, he said he thought Alabama and Ohio State had done enough to make the playoff. He never said anything about Washington or Clemson. And perhaps Delany is on to something with this line of thinking. What if this isn’t an Ohio State-Penn State argument? If the committee is willing to allow the first non-conference champion into the bracket, why wouldn’t it be willing to consider two teams from the same conference? What if this is really an Ohio State-Clemson-Washington-Michigan-Penn State argument with three spots available for those five teams? We keep assuming the committee must choose one of three Big Ten teams, but what if it decides to stiff the champion of another conference to accommodate the champion of the Big Ten? That, after all, is exactly what the committee did two years ago.

Choose three from these five resumes, which are offered in no particular order. For the wins against CFP committee top 10 teams, we’ll use the most recently released rankings.

Team A

Record: 12–1

Strength of schedule: 40

Wins against FBS teams that won at least nine games: Four (two home, one road, one neutral)

Wins against CFP committee top 10 teams: Zero

Conference champion: Yes

Win streak: Three

Team B

Record: 10–2

Strength of schedule: 53

Wins against FBS teams that won at least nine games: Three (three home)

Wins against CFP committee top 10 teams: Three

Conference champion: No

Win streak: Zero

Team C

Record: 11–2

Strength of schedule: 50

Wins against FBS teams that won at least nine games: Three (two home, one neutral)

Wins against CFP committee top 10 teams: Two

Conference champion: Yes

Win streak: Nine

Team D

Record: 12–1

Strength of schedule: 54

Wins against FBS teams that won at least nine games: Two (one home, one neutral)

Wins against CFP committee top 10 teams: One

Conference champion: Yes

Win streak: Three

Team E

Record: 11–1

Strength of schedule: 26

Wins against FBS teams that won at least nine games: Five (three home, two road)

Wins against CFP committee top 10 teams: Three

Conference champion: No

Win streak: Five

So which three did you choose? Team A is Clemson. Team B is Michigan. Team C is Penn State. Team D is Washington. Team E is Ohio State.

Before looking at those résumés, I would have assumed the committee would simply stick with its previous top four. Now I’m not so sure. When I looked at those résumés blind, I considered Team E solidly in and had A, B, C and D fighting for the final two spots. That would put Ohio State in the playoff and could create an Alabama vs. the Big Ten bracket if Penn State and Michigan beat out Washington and Clemson.

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The latter is unlikely, but in the blind analysis, Team A and Team D would make the weakest cases to someone who doesn’t care about conference titles and slightly stronger cases to someone who cares about them deeply. Those teams are Clemson and Washington. Team C (Penn State) would impress the committee members who like big wins and who like conference champs. But could they get over those two losses when the other conference champs have one?

I don’t know the answer. Neither do you. The only people who know are in that room in Grapevine, Texas, munching on room service cookies and splitting hairs. They’ll reveal their results Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Until then, the rest of us will have to wait and wonder.

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