We used to struggle to figure out what the BCS computers valued when it came time to determine who would play in college football’s national championship game. Now, we have to understand the mind-set of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which is run by humans and relies on something far more complicated than any computer algorithm: logic.
Through the first three years of the playoff’s existence, three trends emerged that seem to provide insight into what guidelines the committee might use when selecting teams—you know, besides the publicly listed selection criteria.
1. No team with two losses has made the playoff. Penn State came close when it finished 11-2 in 2016, but 11-1 Ohio State made the playoff instead—even though the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes and won the Big Ten championship. Penn State’s two losses apparently overrode the fact that the committee is supposed to use head-to-head results and conference championships as factors in its decision-making process.
2. Two teams from the same conference have never made the playoff. Sure, the first-ever rankings released by the committee featured three SEC teams in the top four, but things have always worked themselves out by season’s end. Each of the three playoffs to date has featured four representatives from four separate power conferences.
3. No team has ever made the playoff after losing to another team in the playoff field. Nobody wants a repeat of the LSU-Alabama title rematch from the 2011 season.
These weren’t actual committee’s guidelines, though; they are just scenarios that haven’t happened yet. And this year it seems possible that one, two, or all three could become a reality. So which trend is most likely to end when the final rankings are announced December 3? And which would make the most sense to install as a real selection committee rule?
The Two-Loss Scenario
Will it happen this year? Several teams are in good shape to make the playoff at 11-2. If Auburn simply wins out, it will almost certainly make the field as an SEC champion with a victory over Alabama and two wins over Georgia. (I wrote “simply wins out,” as if beating Alabama and Georgia in back-to-back weeks is simple.) It also seems possible that two-loss Ohio State could jump a one-loss Wisconsin team by beating the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game, although the Buckeyes would need some other results to break in their favor as well. The latter hypothetical would surely go over well with Penn State fans.
Should it be possible? The two-loss limit is arbitrary. It’s entirely possible that a season could unfold in which there aren’t four zero- or one-loss teams from power leagues. In that event, it’d be hard to argue against a two-loss team making the field.
We’re not facing that conundrum this season (at least not yet), although it seems like some two-loss teams are flat-out better than zero- or one-loss teams. It has just so happened that in the first three years of the playoff, the gulf between teams deemed worthy of making the field and teams that were excluded involved a record with multiple losses. Things probably won’t always shake out that way in the future, and that’ll be fine.
The One Team Per Conference Scenario
Will it happen this year? For much of this year, there was talk of Georgia and Alabama making the playoff, with the presumption being that both would be undefeated heading into the SEC title game. Given Georgia’s loss to Auburn in Week 11, that possibility now seems unlikely. Still, the SEC could get two teams in: If Georgia were to win the SEC, the Bulldogs could make the field along with one-loss Alabama—regardless of whether the Crimson Tide’s lone loss comes against Auburn or Georgia. And if Auburn wins out, the committee could include the 11-2 Tigers as well as the 12-1 Alabama team that lost in the Iron Bowl.
There’s also a small chance that both Clemson and Miami could sneak into the field if the former beats the latter in the ACC championship game and both finish 12-1. It feels more likely that the Hurricanes would be left out, though, given their unconvincing strength of schedule.
Should it be possible? I don’t think the committee should give a damn about which leagues are or are not represented in the playoff. If one of the best four teams in the country happen to be from the Sun Belt? It should be in the playoff. If one of the four best teams happens to be part of a league that already has a team in the playoff? It should be in anyway. I’d be just fine with a scenario in which a power-conference champion makes the playoff along with a team from that league’s other division.
The Potential Rematch Scenario
Will it happen this year? In three of the four hypotheticals laid out in the last section—Georgia beating Alabama in the SEC title game and both making the playoff; Auburn beating Alabama in the Iron Bowl and both making the playoff; and Clemson beating Miami in the ACC title game and both making the playoff—a team would be in the field in addition to a team that already beat it. There’s also the possibility that both Ohio State and Oklahoma could make the field in spite of the Sooners planting their flag in the Buckeyes’ field following a 31-16 win in Week 2, and that both Clemson and Auburn could make the field despite the defending national champion Tigers sacking the non-defending national champion Tigers 11 times in a 14-6 victory that same day.
Should it be possible? If I were in charge of the committee, the one guideline I would make sure to abide by is preventing two teams that already played in a given season from appearing together in the playoff. Hell, the Alabama-LSU rematch was the impetus for the creation of the playoff system in the first place.
Would this rule be fair? No. It’s certainly possible for two of the best four teams in the country to play each other at some point in the regular season or in a conference championship. A game is just a single data point, and winning one contest doesn’t necessarily make one squad better than the team that it beat. Otherwise, the transitive property champion would be real, and in addition to giving a shiny metal football lipstick tube to Clemson last January, we also would have given one to Pitt, and to the teams that beat Pitt—congrats to my Northwestern Wildcats on their first-ever national championship.
But college football isn’t a sport of rematches. It’s about teams playing an opponent and then having 364 days to gloat or suffer. For example, Saturday is the Iron Bowl, the game where this happened in 2013. Eight days after that, in the final BCS rankings of the season, Auburn ranked second and Alabama ranked third. If the sport were already using a playoff format at the time, the two programs would have played again in a semifinal at a neutral site. No matter who would have won that hypothetical game, it would have taken away from the majesty of a historic play wrecking an opponent’s season in an instant.
Excluding losers of head-to-head matchups from the playoff field wouldn’t always make sense: Alabama was definitely one of the best four teams in 2013, with a 11-1 record and a freak loss to a 12-1 team. But it would preserve the beauty and silliness of our beautiful, silly sport.