We always knew the College Football Playoff would produce controversy. Just as the BCS left the third-ranked team griping about why it belonged in the national champion, the fifth-ranked team in the playoff rankings will inevitably have its own case for inclusion in the semifinals.
One of the toughest potential situations the playoff selection committee could face is if No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 7 Oklahoma both win their two remaining games. If No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State all avoid a crippling defeat, that’d force the committee to choose between the one-loss Fighting Irish and one-loss Sooners.
Who would deserve the No. 4 spot in this case? SI’s college football experts offer their picks.
Andy Staples: Too close to call (but a slight edge to Oklahoma)
The answer to that may depend on how those games we’re giving to the two teams get won. Because right now, it’s a tossup. Yes, the committee is supposed to compare common opponents. Yes, Notre Dame crushed Texas and Texas beat Oklahoma. But that’s only a part of the equation. If Oklahoma can pull this off, it will have three wins in consecutive weeks against excellent teams. The Sooners would look very much like Ohio State did going into the playoff last year. If Notre Dame wins out, it’s likely the Fighting Irish will have a win against both participants in the Pac-12 title game (Stanford and USC) and might have wins against both participants in the American Athletic Conference title game (Navy and Temple). The advanced stats will almost certainly favor Oklahoma because Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State are way up there in the efficiency rankings. The eyeball test will be tougher. After all, Notre Dame came within two points of the committee’s No. 1 team on the road. If you’re only two points away from No. 1 at the No. 1 team’s house, shouldn’t you be in the top four? This is the question. I think if pressed I would have to go with Oklahoma in that situation because of how difficult it is to win three games like that in consecutive weeks. A team that can do that could do exactly what Ohio State did in the playoff last year.
Pete Thamel: Notre Dame
Look at the comparative Texas scores. It's not close.
Brian Hamilton: Too close to call (but a slight edge to Notre Dame)
It always, always depends, right up until the last relevant data point is set. Did Oklahoma throttle TCU and Oklahoma State by 60–0 scores? Did the Sooners eke by on a fluke? Did Boston College make Notre Dame's offense look vulnerable? Did the Fighting Irish run roughshod over a Stanford team that is as physical a unit as they'll have seen all year, or did they barely stumble out of Palo Alto? How did Temple end the season? How did Tennessee end the season? There are countless variables left, even with only two games remaining on the schedule. All things being equal, and if it came down to one eency, weency data point of the shared opponent (Texas), my hunch is that the committee would use that as its explanation to include Notre Dame. But even if both teams end up 11–1, how they got there will be the more important information, and it likely won't come down to the one result against a common foe.
Lindsay Schnell: Notre Dame
Given the shared common opponent of Texas, it absolutely has to be the Fighting Irish. But a part of me wonders if Texas were to beat Baylor in Waco on Dec. 5 and Baylor were to beat Oklahoma State and TCU ... does that change things? Who knows. But given Notre Dame's beatdown of the Longhorns compared to Oklahoma laying a giant egg (even though it is a rivalry game and weird things happen in rivalry games) Notre Dame would have the edge.
Zac Ellis: Notre Dame
Picking a nonconference champion over a conference champion might set a dangerous playoff precedent, but I'll go with the Irish. They beat Texas (even with Tyrone Swoopes at quarterback), which went on to beat Oklahoma. That means Notre Dame's one loss—at No. 1 Clemson by two points—would be better than the Sooners'. Oklahoma might have gotten the nod if it played in a conference title game, an important 13th date point against Notre Dame's 12-game schedule. But in this instance I don't think the Sooners' nonconference schedule—Tulsa, Akron, Tennessee—is lightyears ahead of the Irish's Group of Five opponents, which include Navy and Temple squads that are currently 16–3 overall. That's why I give Notre Dame the playoff nod even if it throws college football into chaos (which, let's be honest, would be fun).
Joan Niesen: Notre Dame
Here, I'm relying most heavily on the strength of those losses; Oklahoma's will be to Texas, Notre Dame's to Clemson, the country's No. 1 team. Right there, the Fighting Irish hold a distinct advantage. I don't care that the Texas loss was perhaps a fluke for the Sooners; way back in September, Notre Dame trounced the Longhorns 38–3. To compound all this, despite Notre Dame's lack of a conference, its schedule still looks stronger to me than Oklahoma's, and in this scenario, it will have gone 4–1 over its top opponents: Clemson, Stanford, Navy, Temple and Pittsburgh.
Colin Becht: Notre Dame
I don’t think reducing both teams’ seasons to just how they played against Texas provides an accurate assessment of either. However, I’d still vote for an 11–1 Notre Dame over an 11–1 Oklahoma. We’ll see where their opponents rank by the end of the season, but based on current ranking, Notre Dame would have three wins over ranked opponents (Navy, USC and Stanford), same as Oklahoma (Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State). The Sooners deserve credit for two of those coming on the road and their hypothetical victory over Oklahoma State being better than any of the Irish’s wins. However, Oklahoma’s advantage in quality wins would still be smaller than Notre Dame’s advantage in quality of loss. The difference between losing at No. 1 Clemson by two points and falling to a Texas team that likely won’t make a bowl is too vast for the Sooners to make up.
Chris Johnson: Oklahoma
Finishing with one loss would require Oklahoma to beat three teams ranked in the top 20 of this week's rankings (Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State) in its final three games. Notre Dame, meanwhile, will have faced ACC doormats Wake Forest and Boston College before a meeting with Stanford. In selecting Ohio State at the expense of a Big 12 team for the final spot in last year's playoff, the committee showed it values squads finishing on a strong note. That would help the Sooners. So would the committee's stated emphasis on conference championships, as the Irish do not belong to a conference. Ultimately, those factors should carry more weight than Notre Dame's win over an opponent (Texas) that Oklahoma lost to more than a month ago.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Oklahoma
Recency bias and the “eye test” inevitably alter how the selections are made, and Oklahoma running the gauntlet of Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State would do more than enough to erase its uncharacteristic loss to Texas. The Sooners’ profile is awfully similar to Ohio State’s last season, so the committee likely wouldn’t mind one “hot” hand in the fourth spot.
Notre Dame needs USC to win out and Stanford to win the Pac-12 title for its résumé to be fortified. Even that may not be enough.
Ben Estes: Notre Dame
Oklahoma’s strong finish against the Big 12’s backloaded schedule wouldn’t be enough to better Notre Dame’s résumé. The Irish narrowly falling to No. 1 Clemson on the road is a much more respectable result than the Sooners’ loss to lowly Texas (a team Notre Dame routed). Plus, Notre Dame would have wins over potential conference champions Stanford and Navy, as well as USC and Temple. Though Oklahoma State would qualify as an impressive win, Oklahoma beat Baylor with the Bears using a backup QB, and TCU could be without Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson when the Horned Frogs and Sooners play. An undefeated Sooners team would have the edge, but with both at one loss, the Irish would clearly have a sounder playoff case—and no, I don’t buy Oklahoma winning its conference as a reason to elevate it over independent Notre Dame.