A former professor of mine, Dr. Stan Baldwin, asked the following question on Facebook after last week’s games: “What if, at the end of the season you have 5 undefeated teams, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, Notre Dame. And just to make it more interesting, [a one-loss Georgia whose only loss is to Alabama in the SEC championship game]. Who will be the four teams in the playoffs?” For today’s Playoff Picture, I’ll take a brief break from our regularly scheduled format (I’ll go over my bowls for the week with Brian Hall on the Spread Offense podcast) and take my best stab at answering this excellent, albeit premature question.
First, it’s worth noting that this scenario, while fun to play with, is extremely unlikely. Since the playoff started in 2014 only three teams have entered the playoff undefeated total. It would have been four had UCF gotten in last year but we won’t go there. In fact, we have to go all the way back to 2009 to get the last time two undefeated teams squared off to determine a national champion, which also happens to be the last time five FBS teams finished the regular season undefeated (Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State) and a sixth (Florida) lost its first game in a conference championship game. That being said, let’s entertain the notion that this actually does happen for a moment and go résumé-by-résumé to determine who would be left out, and furthermore try to actually seed and place the playoff games.
Taking the teams in order mentioned, we will start with Alabama. As mentioned in last week’s column, Alabama has been going full “scorched earth policy” on everyone they’ve played this year to the point that who they are playing is only modestly relevant. However, to date the only team they have played that’s even sniffed the top 25 is Texas A&M. Their remaining schedule looks like this: Arkansas (awful), Missouri (pretty good but not top 25), Tennessee (debatably worse than Arkansas), LSU (good), The Citadel (shouldn’t even count), Auburn (good) and Georgia in the SEC Championship game in this scenario (good). That’s not a fantastic schedule, but with the clout Alabama has built in the college football world and the way that they have been winning games I have to think that Alabama is getting the benefit of the doubt in this situation.
I’ll go ahead and address Georgia here. I’m sorry, but if there are five undefeated Power Five teams, including Notre Dame, then there’s a zero percent chance that a one-loss conference runner-up gets a playoff spot. There would be a riot in the streets in 80% of America if that happened, especially if it was an SEC team again. It would be kind of like if a reality television star/business “mogul” who has a documented history of racially questionable comments, degrading women and bragging about his morally dubious behavior got elected president….oh wait. Too soon?
Ohio State took and passed its first major test of the season last weekend with a one-point road win over Penn State in Happy Valley. That’s probably the best win of the season so far. The Buckeyes augment that with a 12-point win over a TCU team that is at least decent, and looked considerably better than that before two disappointing performances against Texas and Iowa State, respectively, in the last two weeks. Ohio State’s remaining schedule looks like this: Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska (none of which are good and only two of which are decent), Michigan State (not good despite their top 25 ranking), Maryland, at Michigan (who is Jekyll and Hyde but their Jekyll is a good team…I think), then whomever they play in the conference title game which I’m assuming will end up being Wisconsin. Ultimately, this is a strong enough resume to get them into that top four, and the seeding will be determined by the amount of “style points” they can add.
Oklahoma opened up the season like gangbusters by just thrashing Florida Atlantic and UCLA. Kyler Murray looked like a stud and Heisman candidate, the defense looked vastly impoved and the running game looked to be solid with Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon. Since then, the Sooners have been pushed to overtime by Army (who put out an excellent blueprint for beating Oklahoma by the way), lost Rodney Anderson for the season to an ACL injury and watched the defense revert back to the major liability it was a season ago. They do benefit from having upcoming games against perennially overvalued Texas (this weekend by the way), TCU (a shot at the valuable “common opponent” game to compare against Ohio State), Oklahoma State (who we think might be good?) and West Virginia (who is good). Also, the Texas Tech game might actually end up helping their case as shocking as that seems to say about a team that lost to Ole Miss by twenty in their season opener. Then, they will get a rematch against one of these teams in a conference title game. Ultimately, I think this would be enough to get Oklahoma a spot in the playoff for a second straight year.
For a team that’s still undefeated, Clemson has faced plenty of turmoil already this season. They barely escaped Syracuse last weekend after a week that saw their incumbent starting quarterback leave the program after losing his job to a true freshman. That true freshman, who did happen to be a five-star recruit at least, then proceeded to get concussed in what was supposed to be his first full game as a starter. All that to say, things are a little dicey for Clemson: their best win to date is a two-point win over Texas A&M (whom Alabama beat by 22 points for reference), the only team left on their schedule who is currently ranked is N.C. State (23rd presently) and the ACC seems content to try to race the Pac-12 to the bottom of the Power Five conference rankings. The only thing that might be in Clemson’s favor here is the fact that the committee might find it difficult to deny an undefeated team that has made the three consecutive playoffs a spot in this year’s playoff field. That’s one of those things that shouldn’t matter, but pretending it doesn’t is just naive.
Last but not least, Notre Dame put an impressive stamp on its résumé last Saturday with a three-touchdown win over previously unbeaten Stanford. That’s a nice feather in the Irish’s cap to go along with their season-opening win over Michigan, who might be good sometimes (see above). Notre Dame also probably benefits from playing five ACC teams, three of which overlap with Clemson’s conference schedule, which gives a reasonable sample of common opponents to compare with the Tigers. What will ultimately hurt Notre Dame is the lack of a conference title game which a) gives them one less game to convince the committee and b) means that they won’t be playing on the last weekend before the final decision is made. Recency bias shouldn’t matter, but once again, it would be naive to ignore that it exists. That being said, I believe that Notre Dame’s twelve game résumé would be enough to bump it ahead of Clemson who ends up getting hurt by the relative weakness of their conference and a failure to really shine in their top non-conference game. However, I do believe the recency bias and loss of a game that conference championship weekend provides the other three teams would probably leave Notre Dame at the four seed.
So, here’s what I believe happens if Dr. Baldwin’s scenario comes to fruition:
Cotton Bowl- #1 Alabama vs. #4 Notre Dame
Orange Bowl- #2 Ohio State vs. #3 Oklahoma
Georgia represents the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. Clemson ends up in the Peach Bowl playing an undefeated UCF, and the state of South Carolina along with a good chunk of the Eastern Seaboard loses its freaking mind.
Thank you to Dr. Baldwin for providing the question that fueled today’s column. If any readers out there have any questions they’d like addressed in future columns feel free to shoot them my way either via Facebook comments to this post, tweet @samuelpouncey or email email@example.com.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Getty Images