Chaos Theory: Week 11 rooting guide to maximum playoff controversy

Want the College Football Playoff to be as chaotic and controversy-filled as possible? Here's what to root for in Week 11.
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A week in and one of the desired outcomes of the rooting guide to playoff chaos is already gone. With Memphisno longer undefeated and no Group of Five team ranked higher than No. 20 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, it feels safe to say that this year’s final four will belong exclusively to the Power 5.

But never fear, there’s still plenty of potential playoff chaos to cheer for. As a reminder, here are some of the scenarios that could produce maximally entertaining playoff controversy:

• Notre Dame earns consideration for a top four rankings. This isn’t based on any particular affinity for the Fighting Irish, but because of their status as an independent, their inclusion would mean at least two Power Five conference champions must be excluded.

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The SEC gets shut out of the playoff. Similar to Notre Dame, this isn’t based on any animosity towards the SEC. But its collection of some of the most fervent fan bases in the country and the most fervent detractors in the country means its exile from the playoff would produce a wonderful mix of rage and schadenfreude. Just imagine the callers on The Paul Finebaum Show the next day.

All of the playoff contenders just lose a lot. You try to pick from a group of two-loss teams, each with some baffling defeats in the season’s final weeks.

So how do we get Jeff Long and the rest of the playoff selection committee sweating bullets as they try to come up with a rational explanation for their picks? Here’s what to root for in Week 11:

Mississippi State beats Alabama, Arkansas beats LSU

Just when the SEC seems to have settled on the Crimson Tide as its playoff favorite after their domination of the Tigers last week, what happens if Alabama falls on the road amid a deafening shrill of cowbells?

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The Tide play at 3:30 p.m. ET, so their defeat would immediately move LSU back into the lead of the SEC West. The Tigers’ only loss this season is at Alabama, so if they win the SEC title at 12–1, their playoff selection would be nearly guaranteed. But what if Les Miles’s squad, still beaten down physically and emotionally after its loss to the Tide, drops another game against a physical Arkansas?

Not only would this leave no SEC West team with fewer than two losses, but it would also bring Ole Miss back into the division title conversation. In fact, the Rebels would control their own destiny in the division heading into their Nov. 21 matchup with LSU.

If Florida, which only has one-loss and has already clinched the SEC East, wins out, it’d likely make the playoff. But if whoever came out of the two-loss mess in the SEC West defeats Florida in Atlanta, the committee could be stuck weighing an 11–2 (or 10–3 in the case of Ole Miss) SEC champ against a 12–1 Pac-12 champ or an 11–1 Notre Dame.

Notre Dame beats Wake Forest, Stanford beats Oregon

By taking down Pittsburgh last week, the Fighting Irish completed the tough part of their schedule before their regular season finale against the Cardinal in Palo Alto. Other than getting caught looking ahead—and even then it’d take some major mistakes—there’s no reason Notre Dame should lose to Wake Forest or Boston College (though the Irish did nearly lose to Virginia in Week 2).

Stanford still has a little more work to do. The strongest playoff résumé for the Irish rests on the Cardinal entering their matchup with Notre Dame at 10–1, losing and then rebounding with a victory in the Pac-12 title game. For that plan to stay on track, Stanford must defeat Oregon on Saturday and Cal next week.

Notre Dame moved up to No. 4 in the playoff rankings this week, but there’s no guarantee the Irish will stay that high. As Baylor and Oklahoma State look to continue their unbeaten streaks against ranked opponents over the next two weeks, the winner of their showdown next week could jump the Irish while Notre Dame plays lesser foes.

After what happened to TCU last year, it’ll be particularly enjoyable watching a team fall out of the top four without losing when the team that benefits is a Big 12 squad. If Notre Dame eventually flips it back to retake the playoff spot, the controversy will be even sweeter.

Iowa State beats Oklahoma State

A double-overtime loss to Iowa State cost the Cowboys a shot at the national championship in 2011. The Cyclones have a chance to recreate the misery on Saturday.

But what happens if Oklahoma State falls to Iowa State and then beats an undefeated Baylor and a two-loss Oklahoma (this assumes the Bears beat the Sooners on Saturday)? The Cowboys would close the season with three of the biggest wins of the year but also a horrendous loss. Is that a net positive or negative?

Baylor beats Oklahoma, TCU beats Kansas

A separate Big 12 scenario that would be fun to watch the committee sort out is if the conference ends up with three one-loss teams. That’s Bob Bowlsby’s worst-case scenario as the Big 12’s contenders play out their November round robin.

TCU suffered the first loss of the head-to-head showdowns, falling to Oklahoma State last week. But the Horned Frogs have a chance to bounce back against Kansas before taking on Oklahoma and Baylor to close out the season. TCU could win both of those while Baylor beats Oklahoma on Saturday and Oklahoma State next week. A Cowboys win in Bedlam would leave them, the Bears and the Horned Frogs all with one loss. That would send them into the conference’s new tiebreaker rules (no more co-champs in the conference of “One True Champion”).

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The three teams would all have the same conference record and would have beaten all the same conference foes, except each other, against whom each team would have identical 1–1 records. That would send them to step three in the Big 12’s tiebreaker rules: scoring differential in games amongst them. Right now, Oklahoma State has a plus-20 margin from its 49–29 victory over TCU, but we’ll need the rest of the results to know how that plays out.

Regardless, the Big 12 would once again be stuck hoping 11–1 with no conference title game is sufficient to send a team to the playoff. Imagine the anger in the conference if that’s not good enough. Imagine the anger in some other conference if it is.

South Carolina beats Florida, Illinois beats Ohio State, Maryland beats Michigan State, Syracuse beats Clemson, Minnesota beats Iowa, Arizona beats Utah

Individually, these results have the potential to knock a playoff contender out of the race. But if enough of them (or similar results in the next few weeks) happen, they can push this season towards 2007 levels of chaos. Is a one-loss Ohio State more playoff-worthy than a one-loss Clemson or a two-loss Florida? Who knows? The committee hasn’t had to consider such ridiculous scenarios yet. These upsets aren’t likely to happen (O.K., Syracuse over Clemson may be mathematically impossible), but they hold the key to the most playoff pandemonium of all.