The Big 12 was the first to experience it. The Pac-12 suffered the same fate last season. Five Power 5 conferences, four College Football Playoff spots; someone has to get left out. It’s perhaps the best argument for why playoff expansion is inevitable, but for now it’s an always entertaining topic to debate: Who will be left out this year?
Of course, there’s always the possibility that multiple conferences could get shut out. A Group of Five team (possibly Houston this year) or independent (Notre Dame is always a threat) could make a run or one conference could claim two spots. It hasn’t happened yet, but two years of data is hardly conclusive. So which conferences are most likely to be on the outside looking in when the 2016 playoff field is set? Let’s play Buy/Sell/Hold to assess their chances.
Perhaps the biggest factor working in the ACC’s favor is that it’s the least likely power conference to cannibalize itself. With eight conference games and a power balance that significantly tilts toward the Atlantic Division, there’s no smoother path to the playoff than winning the Atlantic. The ACC is getting deeper and made some strong coaching hires this off-season, but it’s still a top-heavy league. That’s an asset towards guaranteeing a playoff berth. Expect the winner of Clemson-Florida State to reach the playoff for the third straight year (but keep an eye on Louisville, too).
Big 12: Sell
It doesn’t take a hired research company to determine how the lack of a conference championship game affects the Big 12’s chances of sending a team to the playoff. If the conference’s champion has two losses, it’s likely out no matter what. If it has one loss and at least one other power conference champion has two losses (like Stanford last year), the absence of a Big 12 championship game—and therefore the absence of a risk of losing that championship game—is a boon. But if the Big 12 champion has one loss and all other power conference champions have one loss or fewer (like in 2014), the missing 13th data point proves detrimental. Luckily these scenarios will be moot by next season when the Big 12 adds a league title game. But for this season, the lack of a conference championship game is likely to help. As I’ll get to below, I think there’s a decent chance at least one Power 5 conference champion will have two losses. That means the Big 12 just needs to get one team through 12 games with only one loss. The crisis at Baylor hurts the Bears’ chances of being that team, but it may improve the Big 12’s shot of sending a team to the playoff by clearing the path a bit for either Oklahoma or TCU.
Big Ten: Hold
The Big Ten’s move to join the Pac-12 in playing nine conference games plus a league title game is commendable, but it won’t help Jim Delany’s league make the playoff for a third consecutive year. Cases like 2015 Iowa, which came inches away from making the playoff thanks in part to a regular season schedule that didn’t include Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan, will be harder to find. And even for the teams in the tougher East Division, an extra crossover game (plus five road conference games every other year) will likely be tougher than the fourth non-conference game they would have played.
Still, all is not lost for the Big Ten’s postseason hopes because several teams could be up the task. Michigan and Ohio State are the obvious favorites (though the Buckeyes face the added challenge of a trip to Oklahoma in Week 3), but defending champ Michigan State can’t be counted out and Iowa returns the bulk of its squad from last year’s surprising run. The degree of difficulty has increased for the Big Ten, but the conference only needs one team to be up to the challenge.
History appears likely to repeat itself, much to the Pac-12’s chagrin. Last year at this time, there were comparisons between the Pac-12 South and the SEC West. This year the Pac-12 South is unlikely to put a team in the top 10 of the preseason rankings. That said, it’s not that the Pac-12 has plummeted in quality; it’s just that the conference is full of good or very good teams and few great ones. The battle between Stanford, Oregon, Washington and Washington State in the Pac-12 North should be compelling, and the South remains wide open, too. But with plenty of depth and a shortage of clearly elite teams, all signs point to a year like last year. The Pac-12’s champion will emerge well tested but saddled with two losses that leave it safely outside the top four.
The playoff’s foundation gave birth to concerns of an SEC takeover. Surely, the conference would get at least one team in every year, but could it get two? Or even three? So far the SEC has come closer to getting zero bids than multiple. Had Arkansas’s crazy overtime lateral not saved it from a seemingly sure defeat to Ole Miss on Nov. 7 last year, Alabama would have been shut out of the SEC title game and, presumably, the playoff as well. Two years ago, the Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes appeared to be on the ropes when they trailed Auburn 33–21 early in the third quarter.
Entering this year, though, the SEC’s chances of avoiding a shutout look pretty good. There’s no reason to doubt Alabama’s dominance after another national title and an off-season that saw much of the Tide’s draft-eligible talent opt to return. And while the SEC West remains tough, each of Alabama’s challengers faces at least one key concern. A one-loss SEC champion is all but assured of a playoff berth, and Alabama’s road to that mark looks simpler than in the past two years.