Roundtable: Who should make the playoff if Alabama or Clemson loses?

Assuming that Oklahoma and the Big Ten champion each claim a spot in the College Football Playoff, if Clemson or Alabama loses its conference championship game, who should make the playoff?
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The College Football Playoff selection committee last night released its final set of rankings before the four-team field is revealed. We have a pretty good idea of which squads will get in: No. 3 Oklahoma; the winner of the Big Ten championship game between No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State; No. 1 Clemson if it beats No. 10 North Carolina in the ACC championship game; and No. 2 Alabama if it beats Florida in the SEC championship game.

While both the Tigers and the Crimson Tide are favorites in their respective matchups, either squad would make the committee’s life more difficult by losing. That’s the focus of this week’s roundtable. If the Gators or Tar Heels pull upsets this weekend, who should make the playoff? SI’s college football experts weigh in:

Andy Staples: Stanford

If the committee wants to send the message that scheduling matters, it would put Stanford in the top four assuming the Cardinal beat USC in the Pac-12 title game. Jeff Long made it quite clear that North Carolina playing two FCS teams was going to be an anchor for the Tar Heels. If the committee makes a move that clearly rewards a team for playing a tough schedule and punishes a team for playing an easy one, then it will likely inspire teams to schedule better out-of-conference games in the future. That would give us better games to watch.

Now, is this what I think would actually happen in this scenario? Nope. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if the committee chose Ohio State because it simply thinks the Buckeyes are better than the other contenders. 

Brian Hamilton: Stanford

This requires the Cardinal winning the Pac-12 title against USC.  If Stanford does that, it will combine a solid résumé with solid end-of-season momentum, the sort of combination the playoff selection committee should be in the business of rewarding.  Don't care that Ohio State might be more empirically talented.  Stanford challenged itself in the non-conference, playing two teams (Northwestern and Notre Dame) that would win 10 games, and split those meetings. The Cardinal have won four out of five against teams in the Sagarin Ratings top 30, and they would be the champion of a conference that sends 10 teams to bowls.  This looks a lot like a team the playoff directives are supposed to favor.

Lindsay Schnell: Stanford

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If North Carolina thumps Clemson a la Ohio State over Wisconsin in 2014, it would be tough to leave out the Tar Heels regardless of their schedule. That being said, I think Stanford would deserve the spot. Yes, the Cardinal have two losses. But the defeat to Northwestern happened early in the year, and teams are allowed one "what the hell just happened?" game. As for the Oregon loss, the Ducks are undoubtedly the best three-loss team in the country, and everyone knows Oregon's season would have been different if quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. had been healthy all fall (like he was against Stanford). The Cardinal also have a terrific non-conference schedule. So I'd take Christian McCaffrey & Co.

Zac Ellis: Stanford

We expect the Pac-12 to miss the playoff entirely, but a loss by Clemson or Alabama could change things. If Stanford beats USC this weekend, can you dismiss a conference champion that played the 16th toughest schedule in the country, per Sagarin Ratings? The Cardinal have two losses, but they came against currently ranked teams (No. 14 Northwestern and No. 16 Oregon). Meanwhile, Stanford would have three ranked wins in No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 20 USC (twice) along with a conference title. That's a better resume than, say, Ohio State or North Carolina.

Joan Niesen: Stanford

It's hard to give a definitive answer now based on all the other dominoes that have to fall this weekend, but here goes nothing: First of all, I'm just going to assume Alabama beats Florida because, well, does Florida even field an offense lately? So let's say Clemson loses. That would leave two scenarios: One in which North Carolina and Stanford both win conference championships, and one in which only UNC does. In the first scenario, I'd give the nod to Stanford. Its strength of schedule trumps UNC's, and the fact that it’d be a conference champion in this scenario trumps Ohio State. In the second, I'm picking the Tar Heels. Yes, I know two of their presumptive 12 wins came over FCS teams, but beating Clemson, who's been at the top of the rankings for weeks, has to count more than that, doesn't it? And sorry, Ohio State. Not making the conference championship keeps you out of here in my book. Maybe I just want some new blood.


Ben Glicksman: North Carolina

This is quite possibly the least likely scenario, as North Carolina was slotted 10th in the committee rankings released Tuesday night. But if the Tar Heels down Clemson in the ACC title game, especially in a lopsided affair, I am of the opinion they would be worthy of a playoff berth. They would meet most of the necessary criteria. Conference champions? Check. Finished strong? Check. Take the team name out of the equation, and North Carolina’s offense has basically been Baylor’s: The Bears average 7.47 yards per play, first in the nation, while Carolina averages 7.46, second in the FBS.

The big knock on North Carolina is its strength of schedule, which sits at No. 63 in the Sagarin ratings. But even that isn’t as egregious as it seems. While Stanford sits at an impressive No. 16, the rest of the contenders—Ohio State is No. 61, Iowa is No. 62—have résumés that are about equal.

The Tar Heels are suffering from a problem historically more common among mid-majors: Their success feels like a fluke, so therefore we don’t trust it. But with the exception of a tight victory at Virginia Tech in coach Frank Beamer’s final game in Blacksburg, the Tar Heels have dominated every foe in their path for two months. If they do the same against Clemson, they should roll into the four-team field.

Colin Becht: Stanford

Assuming the Cardinal beat USC, they’ll before more deserving of a playoff bid that Ohio State, North Carolina and whichever of Clemson or Alabama loses its conference title game in this hypothetical. Stanford would have three quality wins (Notre Dame, USC twice) to Ohio State and North Carolina’s one (the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan, the Tar Heels’ hypothetical win over Clemson), and both of the Cardinal’s losses are reasonable, something that definitely can’t be said of UNC’s defeat to South Carolina. Stanford is already the top-ranked two-loss team in the playoff rankings, and an extra win and a conference title should put it past Ohio State. The only way the Cardinal wouldn’t deserve a playoff spot if Clemson or Alabama loses is if the Tar Heels so thoroughly dominate the Tigers that they pull a 2014 Ohio State and leave the committee with no choice but to include them.

Chris Johnson: Stanford

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If it wins the Pac-12 championship game, Stanford would have three victories over top-20 teams (No. 20 Southern California twice and No. 8 Notre Dame), and two "quality" losses (vs. No. 16 Oregon and at No. 14 Northwestern). Looking at the three Big Ten squads (Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State) ranked above the Cardinal: Either the Hawkeyes or Spartans likely would fall out of contention with a loss in the Big Ten title game. And Stanford would have a stronger schedule (16th vs. 61st in the Sagarin ratings) than the Buckeyes and the same number of victories (11). Meanwhile, North Carolina remains a long shot even if it beats Clemson in the ACC title game because the Tar Heels suffered a bad loss to South Carolina and count two wins over Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

Gabriel Baumgaertner: Ohio State

The Buckeyes have scuffed through most of the year and let their internal disputes leak into the public, but it’s awfully difficult to relegate a team that has only lost to one of the nation’s best. Plus, maybe the selection committee will start to swoon again after Ohio State’s dominant showing against Michigan.

Ben Estes: Stanford

It comes down to Stanford or Ohio State for me (unless North Carolina absolutely dominates Clemson in the ACC title game, in which case the Tar Heels would merit stronger consideration). Assuming they beat USC, I give the Cardinal the edge because they’d have won their conference and they’ve looked like a high-performing team for a greater portion of the season than Ohio State, even accounting for Stanford’s two losses. The Buckeyes suddenly have momentum because they finally played to their potential against Michigan, but I don’t think they should be rewarded after putting up too many unimpressive performances throughout the year and an abysmal one in their most important game of the season against Michigan State (and not even making it to their conference title game).