Chaos is not an all-or-nothing proposition. And there will be no “nothing” when the College Football Playoff selection committee unveils the national semifinal field Sunday.
That’s cause for celebration because last year we got nothing. When Clemson, Alabama and Michigan State won their conference championship games while Oklahoma rested with its Big 12 title already secure, they made last year’s selection show about as dramatic as C-SPAN.
This year, with Ohio State seemingly guaranteed a playoff berth despite not even winning its division, we’ll have some controversy. Even though the Buckeyes’ top four spot is largely expected, it’s still bizarre. When I listed the outcomes to root for to create chaos when the season’s first playoff rankings came out, I didn’t even imagine this scenario: A division runner-up could make the playoff while the conference champion, potentially a team that beat the division runner-up head-to-head and in the standings, gets left out.
But let’s get greedy. What else can happen to blow up the playoff and make the selection’s job impossible? You can probably guess that it basically revolves around the playoff favorites playing this weekend—Alabama, Clemson and Washington—losing. If they win, the playoff field will be pretty clear; the Crimson Tide, Buckeyes, Tigers and Huskies will make it with only minor squabbles over seeding. If they lose, we get some chaos. Let’s rank the potential upsets by the amount of playoff controversy they would create.
1. Colorado beats Washington
The Pac-12 championship game tops the list of potential chaos creators because among the Pac-12, SEC and ACC title games, the West Coast one is the only game in which the underdog still has a shot at the playoff. No. 8 Colorado needs to leapfrog some teams to make that happen, but a victory over Washington in Santa Clara, Calif., would be a good start.
It would guarantee a dramatic three-way race for the final spot in the playoff to join Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. Would the selection committee pick No. 5 Michigan, opting for two Big Ten teams, neither of which won its division, let alone its conference? Or would it pick the Big Ten champion, either Wisconsin or Penn State, both of which lost to the Wolverines? Or would it go with Colorado, which also lost to Michigan, and would have only two wins over ranked opponents even after beating Washington?
The committee would be forced to either ignore head-to-head and select someone other than Michigan or ignore a conference championship and pick the Wolverines.
2. Virginia Tech beats Clemson
This upset would bring a lot of the same decisions for the playoff committee as a Colorado win but in a simpler format because Virginia Tech still wouldn’t sniff a playoff bid even with a win. The debate would come down to Michigan against the Big Ten champion (and possibly the Big 12 champion, but why would the committee suddenly bump up No. 9 Oklahoma or No. 10 Colorado when either No. 6 Wisconsin or No. 7 Penn State will add a marquee victory and conference title on Saturday?).
That’s still pretty good because, again, the committee would either have to ignore the Wolverines’ head-to-head victory over Wisconsin or Penn State (a blowout victory in the case of the Nittany Lions) or dismiss the Big Ten champion even favor of two teams that didn’t finished lower in the standings.
Let’s also consider the scenario in which both of these upsets happen. Suddenly there are two spots available to distribute among Michigan, the Big Ten champion and Colorado. That presents the potential for truly epic playoff chaos: three Big Ten teams.
Michigan could argue that its head-to-head win over Colorado makes its résumé better than the Buffaloes. Meanwhile the Big Ten champion would match Colorado’s conference title but from a tougher conference. It’d be relatively logical and yet simultaneously inconceivable. This was many fans’ nightmare scenario when the playoff was created, but the assumption was always that the SEC would take over the field.
3. Florida beats Alabama
Though perhaps the most stunning result, this would be the least likely to reset the playoff race simply because Alabama would still likely finish in the top four. At best it would jostle the seeding a bit though it’s not particularly clear who would be more deserving of the No. 1 spot even if the Crimson Tide did lose.
Regardless, even though Alabama would still make the playoff and would do so deservedly, it would feel strange for a team to lose its final game of the season, lose a conference title, and the make the playoff anyway.
4. Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma
The Bedlam game is unlikely to impact the playoff because it’s hard to see how a win for either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State gets the victor into the top four. Still, a win for the Cowboys is the preferred result from a chaos standpoint.
Why? First, a third loss by Oklahoma would harm Ohio State’s résumé, which uses the Buckeyes’ victory over the Sooners in Norman as a quality win. Perhaps if Ohio State’s case collapses just enough while Penn State absolutely decimates Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, the selection committee will be forced reconsider its conclusion that the gap between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions isn’t close and elevate James Franklin’s squad due to its head-to-head win over Ohio State and its conference title. That’d be a major surprise on Sunday.
More realistically, an Oklahoma State win would add to the controversy simply because the Cowboys deserve to have one loss right now instead of two. Yes, they could have played better against Central Michigan to take the game out of the officials’ hands, but nevertheless if the end of their Sept. 10 meeting had been officiated correctly, the Cowboys would have won.
An Oklahoma State team that finished the season 11–1 with a Big 12 title would occupy a much different spot in the playoff debate. That may not be good enough to get the Cowboys in over Washington or Clemson if both teams win their conference titles, but Oklahoma State would certainly have an argument. So if the Cowboys beat Oklahoma on Saturday, don’t expect their fan base to sit quietly Sunday while they finish no better than seventh in the rankings.