The College Football Playoff Committee released its second set of rankings Tuesday. Clemson remains unrivaled at the top and will likely finish there. #2 Alabama helped clear up some of the fog by beating LSU which, accompanied by Ole Miss’ loss, now means the Tide controls its own destiny for the SEC Championship Game, and by default, a Playoff slot.
But these things never go quite smoothly. Here are some scenarios that are keeping Jeff Long awake at night. (All rankings are the Committee rankings as of 10 November 2015.)
The Big 12 might play itself out of contention (again)
Just like last season, when 11-1 Baylor and 11-1 TCU were only distinguishable by a 61-58 airshow and the Committee decided simply to pass on both, the 2015 Big 12 race does not appear likely to have a single clear winner.
Meanwhile, #12 Oklahoma (8-1), owners of the worst loss of the bunch (24-17 to Texas) have bounced back to win four straight games by an average score of 58-12.5. Whatever it was that Texas took advantage of, the Sooners seem to have fixed it, but they have to visit Baylor and Oklahoma State.
#6 Baylor (8-0), the surest bet before its quarterback went down, now has to win on the road against Oklahoma State and TCU (on a short week) with a true freshman quarterback. Mind, that freshman quarterback (Jarrett Stidham) looked just fine in his debut Thursday in about the toughest possible environment in which to make one’s debut against Kansas State (23-of-33, 419 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), but asking him to keep pace with two of the best offenses in the nation is a tall order.
And, lest we forget, #15 TCU (8-1) is still very much in the conference hunt. They visit Oklahoma and host Baylor.
The Big 12’s backloaded conference scheduling is sure good for one thing: it makes November VEEEERY interesting. It could also make it that much harder for a one-loss team to distinguish itself, leaving the Committee feeling unimpressed with any of the contenders. (It’s happened before, after all.)
And should the Big 12 feel like playing itself out, one conference above all stands to benefit:
The AAC is a Thing Now, Pt. 1: Navy
#20 Navy probably wasn’t on anyone’s radar until it throttled Memphis 45-20 Saturday. Now, the Midshipmen have a transitive victory over everyone in the SEC, and while the Committee isn’t likely to cite “team beat a team who beat a team who beat a team” as cause for a ranking, it could create an awkward scenario for the Committee, and by extension, the rest of college football.
Here’s why: Navy currently only has one loss: to #4 Notre Dame, whom we already know the Committee respects. S&P+ projects Navy to win out the rest of its regular season, meaning a 12-1 Mids team, with wins over ranked Memphis, Houston, and Temple, would have a compelling case to present to the Committee.
BUT TAYLOR, I can hear you all saying, THERE’S NO WAY THE COMMITTEE WOULD TAKE A ONE-LOSS NAVY TEAM OVER A ONE-LOSS BIG TWELVE TEAM YOU MORON
And you’re right: even a 12-1 AAC champion Navy team would not have the résumé to compete with an 11-1 Big 12 team, and I am a moron.
But here’s where it gets sticky: the annual Army/Navy game takes place the weekend after the Committee releases its final rankings. When Navy left independence to join the AAC this summer, the Committee realized it might face such a conundrum and put out a statement saying that were Navy in contention for a playoff bid the Committee would wait until after the Army/Navy game to release its final rankings. At the very least, if Navy is in contention for the coveted Group of Five spot, the Committee would wait to release the final New Year’s Six pairing.
Now that’s a wrench. Imagine being a Power Five team sitting on an 10-2, 11-1, or 12-1 record and having to wait a week to learn if you’re in a New Year’s Six bowl or not. The Army/Navy game, once essentially reduced to an exhibition, would become enormous.
We just finished spelling out Navy’s nightmare scenario, but that might take care of itself when Navy and Houston meet on November 27 . . . and #24 Houston, currently 9-0, could potentially win out. The Cougars would boast wins over ranked Memphis, Navy, and Temple teams, and a 34-0 win over Vanderbilt.
One of the chief reasons the BCS was benched in favor of the playoff was because of teams like Boise State in 2006, 2008, and 2009, TCU in 2009 and 2010, or Utah in 2008: the outsiders left looking in, who many felt deserved a shot at glory . . . or at least a better reward than meeting a 6-6 Pac-10 team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Last season the Group of Five’s representative was two-loss Boise State, which spared the Committee from having to tackle this issue in year one. But they could be headed for a tough decision here in year two.
Unfortunately for the Cougs, even if they finish undefeated, the Committee’s current respect for Notre Dame almost assuredly means even an undefeated Houston’s ceiling will be the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid. Inclusion of Notre Dame and Houston would mean the exclusion of three Power Five conference champions, and I don’t think the Committee wants to mess with that.
The Big Ten Champion might have a loss
Everyone is assuming at this point that between either Iowa or Ohio State, the Big Ten will produce an undefeated champion. But that may not necessarily happen. While Nebraska’s upset of Michigan State guaranteed that the Big Ten East won’t end with a three-way Buckeye/Sparty/Wolverine tie like we once imagined, Ohio State still has to beat Michigan State and win at archrival Michigan. A loss to either would open up the division race.
In the West, sure, Iowa is undefeated . . . but even if they win out, the Hawkeyes’ schedule isn’t doing them any favors. (Thanks a lot, Big Ten, for expanding to fourteen teams.) Northwestern and Wisconsin are currently ranked but have yet to play one another, and Wisconsin has to visit Minnesota. So potentially one, both, or neither could end up ranked. Also, Iowa has to survive a trap game at the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who apparently can’t beat Purdue but can beat Michigan State.
Why do I say all this? Because while an undefeated Big Ten champ is a lock for the playoff, a one-loss Big Ten champ may not be. The Committee would suddenly have to weigh its résumé against a myriad of other one-loss teams, and might find the Big Ten champ lacking. Ohio State, with wins over Michigan State or Michigan (and also carrying the cachet that comes with being the defending national champion), could probably absorb a close loss, win the conference crown, and still be fine. Iowa, which possesses no such cachet and would not have faced a ranked team until the conference title game, probably could not.
What are the odds that any of this actually happens?
Less than zero. But isn’t college football great?