The College Football Playoff: Two Teams from the Same Conference? Not So Fast…

This year is the first college football season with a playoff at the end of the year rather than the top two teams being pitted against each other to play for the national title. Four teams will be chosen by a selection committee, independent of any rankings and polls. It is no longer the BCS, a combination of media, coaches and computers, or any other system for that matter, choosing who plays each other at the end of the season.

Auburn Universiy's mascot, Aubie the Tiger. Picture from WikiMedia.

Auburn Universiy’s mascot, Aubie the Tiger. Picture from WikiMedia.

In theory, the selection committee can pick whoever they please. Now, we all doubt they will pick four teams from the same conference or a team that has more than one loss. So we wondered all off-season, “Who will they pick?” Two SEC teams? Which Power 5 conference(s) get left out? These are intriguing hypotheticals to entertain, especially given the committee’s emphasis on strength of schedule.

At the end of almost every sports season, we tend to think the champion is invincible going into the next season. The Seahawks blew out the Broncos in the Super Bowl last season, and nobody in their right mind would pick anyone else to win it all this year given how dominant they were. Florida State won the national championship last season, going a perfect 14-0 without even playing a closely contested game until their championship game against Auburn. Their best player, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston returned for another season; how could they not repeat as champs, or at the very least make it to the playoff?

In reality, it’s hard to do. We always think last year’s champion will be unstoppable the next season, but rarely do teams repeat as champions. Knowing Florida State would be favored in every single game they played this year, I still picked against them to make the playoff. Why? It’s just hard to do that two seasons in a row. Upsets happen. Some of Florida State’s players from last year left for the NFL, Jameis Winston could get injured or suspended, their defense looks much worse, etc. It’s next to impossible to go undefeated two seasons in a row.

But I also don’t think two SEC teams will get in to the playoff. No ACC team in the playoff? Only one SEC team in the playoff? As weak as the Big Ten is, surely one of their teams won’t make it, right? So how does my prediction add up? Which four teams get in, and from what conferences? Here you go, in order of likelihood.

The Alabama Crimson Tide. Picture from WikiMedia.

The Alabama Crimson Tide. Picture from WikiMedia.

1. Alabama or Auburn

The best team from the SEC is a lock. Not necessarily the conference champion, though. The West Division is clearly superior to the East Division, as we’ve seen South Carolina and Georgia both struggle early. The East has no shot at getting a team in the playoff. If there is a one loss team in the West (I doubt that anyone makes it through that gauntlet of a division undefeated), I like their odds. The only thing is if the East upsets the West in the conference championship game, the West Division’s champ could be stuck at two losses. Now we must ask ourselves, should there be another one loss team from the West who missed out on playing in the conference championship game via tiebreaker, do they deserve to make the playoff? In other words, should a team be punished for having to play another quality opponent in the conference championship game at the end of the season? I have a feeling all of this will sort itself out. Somebody will emerge as a one loss or, less likely, undefeated powerhouse from the SEC West. Their spot in the playoff is a lock. All in all, I think the conference beats up on each other too much for there to be multiple one loss squads, and I don’t think a two-loss team sneaks into the playoff. It would be a bad look for the new playoff system to exclude another Power 5 conference champion on behalf of a two loss team which didn’t win its division or conference. We’re probably looking at the winner of the Iron Bowl, Alabama vs. Auburn, for this first spot.

OklahomaSooners20070901_EnterField

2. Probably Baylor. Maybe Oklahoma.

I think the next safest pick is the Big XII champion, so long as they have one loss or less, which I think they will (Side note: The Big XII wants to be re-branded as the Big 12. I don’t like their new marketing initiatives so I will keep calling them the Big XII). I’m not as high on Oklahoma as many others seem to be, even if they do have their biggest challenger, Baylor, at home. Baylor is my favorite from the Big XII. Oklahoma’s Quarterback, Trevor Knight, has not been forced yet to take a game into his hands and win it for his team. Oklahoma relies heavily on great defense and an emerging run game. Knight has looked solid and reliable, but I’ll take Baylor’s Heisman candidate Quarterback Bryce Petty over Knight any day. Baylor’s defense, despite playing cupcake opponents thus far, looks incredibly stout. I think they’ll win in Norman and probably finish undefeated.Now, what could be an interesting scenario is if Baylor goes 12-0, OU goes 11-1 with just a close loss to Baylor. Could they both sneak in? Possibly, but I’m not sure the Big XII’s reputation (widely regarded as the third best conference in college football) is good enough to get a one loss team in which didn’t win their conference. I’m not so sure Oklahoma will avoid a second loss to Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma State, etc. either. I think they’re much more upset-prone than Baylor. What could throw a wrench in this is if dark horse Kansas State winds up winning the Big XII or beats Baylor and/or OU but doesn’t win the Big XII.

Baylor University's McLane Stadium. Picture from WikiMedia.

Baylor University’s McLane Stadium. Picture from WikiMedia.

3. Probably Oregon. Maybe UCLA.

The best team from the Pac-12 is also a near lock. Widely regarded as the second best conference in college football, they’ve got plenty of teams in the top 25. Oregon and Stanford are the perennial favorites from the north division. Oregon won a game against top ten ranked Michigan State this season fairly convincingly with their typical high powered offense led by Heisman candidate Quarterback Marcus Mariota. To me, this solidified them as a contender this year. Stanford, on the other hand, lost a very ugly game to USC earlier this year. They were on USC’s half of the field multiple times but consistently failed to score any points. I was pretty disappointed with both teams, but I really don’t see Stanford scoring enough points to hang with Oregon this year. I think Oregon is likely undefeated but maybe has one loss and wins the Pac-12 north division. The three best teams from the south division heading into the season were presumed to be UCLA, USC and Arizona State. USC looked equally awful against Stanford and lost to an underwhelming Boston College squad. At that point, it looked like a two horse race between UCLA and Arizona State. Well, just last weekend UCLA whooped Arizona State 62-27.

UCLA v. Oregon in 2013. Picture from dailyemerald.com.

UCLA v. Oregon in 2013. Picture from dailyemerald.com.

UCLA is now the clear favorite in the south. I think what will essentially happen is they will meet Oregon in the conference championship game as a play-in to the first college football playoff. It’s worth noting that Oregon and UCLA play in the regular season as well. But if they match up again in the conference championship, both as one loss teams or one of them as an undefeated team, the winner should go to the playoff. I give the slight nod to Oregon.

4. Admit me into an insane asylum.

Here we go. Who’s the fourth team in? Another solid team from the SEC west? Doubt it. Defending champion and currently top ranked Florida State? Unlikely. The Big Ten champion, likely Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska or Ohio State? Nope. Y’all might think I’m crazy, but stay with me for a second. The fourth slot will go to Notre Dame (no conference affiliation), BYU, Marshall, or East Carolina. I know, I know. “Marshall? Is this guy serious?”

I’ll admit it’s highly unlikely, but it could happen. I’ve already laid out why I don’t think a second SEC team gets in. I think the Big Ten was going to struggle to get a team in even if Ohio State Quarterback Braxton Miller stayed healthy. He’s out for the season, and Ohio State has already lost a game. Michigan State lost their bout with Oregon. Wisconsin lost their big non-conference game with LSU. Nebraska is the only undefeated team left in the conference, and they needed a miracle to fend off McNeese State. I’m not even sure there will be a one loss team from this conference at the end of the year. It’s far more likely even the conference champion has two losses. There’s no way a two loss team from the fourth best conference gets in.

Picture from Flickr.

Picture from Flickr.

With Florida State, they have no choice but to go undefeated. A one loss team from the ACC, the weakest Power 5 conference top to bottom, won’t have enough credibility to get in. I’m not convinced they can go 13-0 again. When is the last time a college football team won 27 straight games? That’s essentially what they have to do if you go back to their 14-0 run last year. I’m not convinced Jameis Winston won’t get suspended for at least another game. I’m not convinced he won’t suffer an injury which could sideline him. Even with him healthy and playing, Florida State struggled with Oklahoma State (probably the fourth or fifth best team in the Big XII) and North Carolina State. With Winston suspended, Florida State took Clemson to overtime and was handed a game that looked like Clemson refused to try and win. Throw in the fact they play a Notre Dame squad that has been rolling so far this season, and I think they’re bound to lose at least once, maybe even twice. On the topic of Notre Dame…

They could possibly go undefeated. They play a very tough schedule, even without a conference championship game, including matchups against Stanford (this weekend), Florida State (in Tallahassee), Arizona State and USC. Admittedly, they could drop one of these. If Florida State beats Notre Dame, this could serve as a hindsight play in game. I might hop off the Notre Dame bandwagon and start looking elsewhere for my fourth slot. But I think they’ll beat Florida State and I think they’re for real. Even with one loss, they could sneak in given how brutal their schedule is. 11-1 against their slate is just as impressive as a one loss team from the SEC in my opinion.

Picture from bloguin.com

Picture from bloguin.com

The next likely in my opinion is BYU. They are currently ranked in the top 20 and are undefeated. They will be favored to win every game they play this season, and I think they’ll do it. Their quarterback, Taysom Hill, is a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy. For them, it all depends on how everything else unfolds. If BYU is sitting at 12-0 and a lot of SEC, Pac-12 and Big XII teams have at least two losses and teams from the weaker ACC and Big Ten have at least one loss, I think they could find their way in like the Boise State and TCU teams from the past who showed they could compete with the big dogs in BCS bowls.

Another small conference team that could go 12-0 is Marshall. I know it’s early, but they are 4-0. They won 10 games last year and 3 of the 4 they lost were very close. They ended the season by winning their bowl game against Maryland pretty handily. They should be favored in every game they play this season, except against Top 25-ranked East Carolina. And that leads me to my final underdog pick.

Currently 3-1 with their only loss coming at the hands of South Carolina by 10 points, East Carolina could run the table the rest of the way and finish 12-1. It would still be a long shot from there, but if the playoff committee wants a feel good, underdog, small conference type of team to be represented then it could be East Carolina. This would really only be possible if the Power 5 underwhelm and don’t have quality conference champions to offer up. But if I’ve learned anything from being a college football fan, it’s that anything can happen (see: “Michigan vs. Appalachian State, 2007”).

About Kyle Jacobson
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