The competitors in the 2017 College Football Playoff chase can see the finish line. On Friday and Saturday, accomplished teams around the country will compete in conference title games. For the Power 5 leagues, almost all of these contests will have a direct impact on the composition of the national semifinals; in most corners of the Group of Five, spots in less prestigious bowls will be at stake. After revealing its penultimate set of rankings on Tuesday, the selection committee will process the results from this weekend and unveil the field of four on Sunday afternoon. Here are six playoff-related questions to consider in the days ahead.
1. Which team(s) are definitely getting in?
There are two matchups that will effectively function as playoff play-ins: The SEC championship game, between East division winner Georgia and West division winner Auburn, and the ACC championship game, between Atlantic division winner Clemson and Coastal division winner Miami. Whichever two teams emerge from these meetings are going to receive an invitation to the playoff. The selection committee would have a lot of explaining to do for hordes of justifiably irked fans if that’s not the case.
In the Big Ten title bout, should Wisconsin knock off Ohio State, the Badgers almost definitely would cinch a bid as an undefeated Power 5 champion. The Buckeyes can’t lock up a berth with a win over Wisconsin, but they’d be in a good spot heading into Sunday. The Big 12, which is staging a title game for the first time since 2010, is a win-and-in proposition for Oklahoma, but that wouldn’t hold for TCU, ranked 11th this week, if it upsets the Sooners.
2. Alabama’s not actually going to get denied, is it?
There are eight teams with realistic hopes of claiming one of the four slots: No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 5 Alabama, No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 Miami and No. 8 Ohio State. (Sorry, USC, TCU and UCF. It’s almost certainly not happening.) Among those squads, Alabama is the only one that will not play this weekend, after Auburn won the Iron Bowl on Saturday to claim the SEC West and earn a spot in the conference championship game. The Crimson Tide have looked like one of the best teams in the country for much of the season, and the selection committee has recognized it as such by ranking it either No. 1 or No. 2 the four weeks prior to this one.
Beneath the Crimson Tide’s aura of invincibility and unparalleled track record of success in the CFP era lies a thin CV that hinges on early-November wins over LSU and Mississippi State, ranked 17th and 23rd this week, respectively. Fresno State entered the rankings on Tuesday at No. 25, but the Bulldogs have to play at Boise State again this weekend for the Mountain West title. At the time, Alabama’s 24–7 whipping of Florida State in the teams’ much-hyped season-opener looked like the sort of out-of-league conquest that would carry a lot of weight with the committee, but the Seminoles are still fighting for bowl eligibility. The biggest head-to-head quandary may pit the one-loss Crimson Tide and the two-loss Buckeyes if the latter takes the Big Ten. As selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt noted on Tuesday, the committee sees “very little separation” among the teams ranked No. 5 (Alabama) through No. 8 (Ohio State). Safe to assume either of those fan bases would be totally cool with their favorite programs being left out.
3. Which results would make the committee’s life easy?
If the following teams win their games this weekend, the committee shouldn’t have that much to argue about: Clemson (ACC), Oklahoma (Big 12), Wisconsin (Big Ten) and Georgia or Auburn (SEC).
4. What needs to happen to maximize controversy?
Here’s one wild scenario. Start with TCU taking out Oklahoma at AT&T Stadium in the afternoon. Next, let’s say Miami hands Clemson its second loss of the year in Charlotte. And finally, Ohio State hands Wisconsin its first loss of the season in Lucas Oil Stadium, which would put the Buckeyes firmly in the mix for a bid.
As alluded to above, in this scenario the Hurricanes would have nothing to worry about, nor would the SEC champion. Yet that still leaves half the spots in the field. Both the Sooners and Tigers would have strong cases on account of their robust résumés, but they also would both have two losses. By contrast, Alabama counts only one L, and despite not even winning its own division, has charmed the committee over the years, including this one, with its efficient play on both sides of the ball.
This could become a fascinating case study in the importance of the so-called “eye test.” Does the manner in which a team wins matter more than who and where those wins came against? If it does, that would benefit the Crimson Tide, whose inclusion despite a flimsy body of work and uninspiring finish to the season would serve as fresh material for conspiracy theorists. To focus on one comparison, Alabama would not have accomplished nearly as much as an Ohio State team that wins the Big Ten, which would own victories over three squads currently ranked in the committee’s top 16 (Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State).
5. Which team(s) can afford to lose this weekend?
None of the eight realistic playoff contenders mentioned above are assured a spot if they fall this weekend. That includes Wisconsin, the only undefeated team remaining in the Power 5 conferences.
Two squads, however, won’t necessarily be eliminated if they slip up on Saturday. With a loss to Miami, Clemson would fall to 11–2, but it would still have a lot to recommend it, including three wins against teams currently ranked in the committee’s top 25 (No. 2 Auburn, No. 22 Virginia Tech, and No. 24 NC State), two of which came on the road (the Hokies and Wolfpack); the highest-ranked victory of any team still in the CFP picture, if Auburn beats Georgia; and one of its defeats (at Syracuse on Oct. 13) partially offset by the fact that starting quarterback Kelly Bryant left with an injury before halftime.
Oklahoma, despite its shaky defense, also should factor into the committee’s deliberations even if it can’t take down TCU for the second time this season. For starters, the Sooners arguably would be a more deserving candidate than the Horned Frogs. Hocutt noted in a teleconference on Tuesday that the committee has been impressed with TCU’s defense, whereas the Oklahoma ranks 73rd nationally in yards allowed per play. And, unlike the Sooners, the Horned Frogs would have a league crown to counterweigh Oklahoma’s non-conference road victory over Ohio State. But that same W could elevate the Sooners over Ohio State if the Buckeyes win the Big Ten. In any case, Oklahoma and Clemson can forestall these potential debates by handling business on the field on Saturday.
6. Which team is getting the No. 1 seed?
That hasn’t been settled yet, but either Clemson or Auburn, pegged No. 1 and No. 2 in this week’s rankings, would make a lot of sense if they triumph in their league title tilts. Perhaps Oklahoma (No. 3) could have an argument if its defense fares well in a convincing win over TCU.