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Championship Saturday Could Bring Some Unprecedented College Football Playoff Scenarios

Can a Big 12 or Pac-12 champion jump into the top four? What happens if Ohio State and LSU lose? The selection committee will face some difficult choices after conference championships have been decided.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In many ways, the 2019 College Football Playoff picture is the dream scenario of the people who run the event. For the first time since its inception in 2014, every Power 5 conference championship game is meaningful from a playoff perspective, as teams from each of those conferences could make the four-team field if they win their big games this weekend. However, for the sixth consecutive year, we enter the weekend before the release of the final rankings completely unsure of how the committee will react if presented with a variety of likely scenarios.

We have five years of data on the committee’s behavior, and we still aren’t sure what it’s looking for from the four playoff teams. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee has tons of hard-and-fast rules, clarifies which metrics it considers important, and, of course, is obligated to give dozens of automatic bids to teams that win their conference championships. The CFP committee, meanwhile, remains intentionally vague about how it picks teams. The official selection criteria on the CFP website literally starts with the sentence “ranking football teams is an art, not a science,” like it was written by a high schooler assigned to write a five-paragraph essay about ranking football teams but didn’t read anything about the topic until after dinner the day before the assignment was due. (It follows up with “in any ranking system, perfection or consensus is not possible,” which does not exactly instill confidence.) Comparisons of the committee’s past decisions show it often contradicts itself. FiveThirtyEight tried to build a model to predict the committee’s behavior, and while I often rely on its work analyzing sports with concrete win/loss paths to playoffs, its college football methodology involves trying to mathematically account for how much the committee tends to overvalue Notre Dame. Bless their hearts.

Perhaps no topic has caused as much confusion as the committee’s opinion about conference championships. The committee’s stated criteria mentions several times that it is supposed to value conference titles, but only when ranking “comparable teams,” and that it shouldn’t matter whether a team is a conference champion if it is “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.” In 2014, the committee made the shocking decision to choose Big Ten championship-game winner Ohio State over Big 12 regular season co-champions TCU and Baylor (they shared the title despite Baylor winning the head-to-head matchup). The Buckeyes vindicated the committee’s decision by beating Alabama and Oregon to win the inaugural CFP national championship. The committee made another controversial decision involving the Buckeyes in 2016 when 11-1 Ohio State made the playoff after 11-2 Penn State won the Big Ten championship—apparently the two teams weren’t “comparable,” even though Penn State won the head-to-head matchup between the schools. (The Buckeyes lost 31-0 to Clemson in the semifinal.) In 2017, the committee clearly favored an Alabama team that didn’t participate in the SEC title game over the winners of the Big Ten and Pac-12 championship games; in 2018, Notre Dame got in over Big Ten and Pac-12 championship winners despite not being in a conference.

This is the first year when every championship game truly matters. In the SEC, both LSU and Georgia are currently in the committee’s top four. The Big 12 title game is between Oklahoma and Baylor, both of which could make the playoff with a win. In the ACC and Big Ten, Clemson and Ohio State are undefeated and hoping to stay that way with a conference championship. In the Pac-12, 11-1 Utah is fighting for a playoff spot. Since Notre Dame isn’t in the title picture, and there are no one-loss teams that missed their conference championship games, it seems like every team who could make the playoff is playing championship weekend.

However, there are still many unanswered questions about how the committee will behave. Would the committee invite a team to the playoff if it lost its undefeated season in a conference title game? Or would a 12-1 team whose only loss came in a conference championship game be considered less worthy than a 12-1 team who won its conference championship and whose only loss came on the road in the regular season? We don’t know. Since the playoff was introduced, only two undefeated teams have lost conference title games (2015 Iowa and 2017 Wisconsin), and both instantly plummeted out of the playoff picture. But Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson feel different, and two of them are facing formidable opponents in their conference title matchups. (Sorry, Virginia.)

I believe the committee will treat championship weekend as a sort of proto-playoff, each game serving as an eliminator for the team that loses. After all, the committee has never invited a team to the playoff after it lost a conference championship game—just teams like 2016 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama, which didn’t qualify for their league’s games. I like the vibe that sets up—personally, I want an eight- or 16-team playoff, but I can dig a four-team playoff decided by a win-or-you’re-out championship weekend. However, there’s also a strong case for including some of the teams that lose this weekend based on their yearlong excellence.

All this sets up an unusual weekend for college football fans. Each game is exciting, but because the committee has been so unclear about exactly what it values, we’re not sure what the stakes are for each team—we just know that they’re high. All that’s left is to watch really good college football teams play for their conference championships, and find out which of those conference championships mattered and which ones didn’t. Not so bad!

ACC Championship Game: No. 3 Clemson (12-0) vs. Virginia (9-3)

What happens if Clemson wins?

Dabo Swinney will give a dramatic press conference about how nobody believed in Clemson—fact check: basically everybody believes in Clemson—and the 13-0 Tigers will go to the playoff for the fifth straight year.

What happens if Clemson loses?

Quite frankly, we don’t have to worry much about this. Virginia is playing in its first-ever ACC championship game—somehow, it is the seventh team to represent the seven-team ACC Coastal Division in the title game in the last seven years. Truly, the Coastal is a socialist wonderland ruled by the proletariat, providing equal access to the championship game to all of its worker-teams. Unfortunately, that seven-year sharing spree has coincided with the Coastal being crushed year after year by the iron fist of the totalitarian ACC Atlantic division, which has won eight ACC title games in a row. Clemson is favored by 28 points.

However, if the Tigers did lose, I think it would be enough to knock them out of the playoff due to the stunningly easy schedule they played this year. Somehow, Clemson didn’t play any FBS teams that finished the regular season with a record better than 7-5. The Tigers rank 80th in the strength of schedule metric used by Sports-Reference, putting them lower than 62 of the other 63 Power 5 schools and about half of the Sun Belt conference. Virginia is not just the only team Clemson has played this year currently ranked by the playoff committee, but is also one of just two teams that have been ranked by the committee at any point this year. (Wake Forest was 19th for one week.) I don’t particularly blame Clemson for this—it’s in a power-conference division with Florida State and scheduled a nonconference game against Texas A&M, in addition to its annual nonconference game against South Carolina. It seems like that should’ve gotten the Tigers at least one game against a 9-3 team, but nope.

Even though Clemson has been dominant, I have to think that a neutral-site loss against the only decent team it’s played this year—and not an elite team at that—would knock the Tigers out of the playoff.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Big Ten Championship Game: No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (10-2)

What happens if Ohio State wins?

The Buckeyes are headed to the playoff, and the Heisman Trophy voters get to decide whether to invite Justin Fields, Chase Young, or J.K. Dobbins to New York City to link up with former Buckeye Joe Burrow at the award ceremony.

What happens if Ohio State loses?

A 12-1 OSU would provide an unprecedented scenario for the committee. Like I said, no team that has lost a conference championship game has ever made the playoff, but Ohio State is currently no. 1 in the rankings with wins over three top-15 teams. I suspect the Buckeyes would make the playoff. However, if Wisconsin were to win thoroughly—a reverse of the 59-0 game from 2014 that vaulted the Buckeyes into the playoff—I could see the committee giving a spot to 11-2 Wisconsin for avenging its road loss to the Buckeyes. That said, Wisconsin lost its regular-season matchup to Ohio State 38-7, so maybe we shouldn’t be too on edge about this.

Big 12 Championship Game: No. 6 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 7 Baylor (11-1)

What happens if Oklahoma wins?

The Sooners are locked in a résumé battle with 11-1 Utah. Right now, Utah is ranked fifth, just one spot ahead of Oklahoma. However, the Sooners have a matchup with Baylor, which is ranked in the top 10, while the Utes have a matchup with Oregon, ranked 13th. I think that another win over a top-tier team could bump Oklahoma past Utah for the final playoff spot.

I’m basing this on past precedent—after all, in each of the past two years, 12-1 Oklahoma made the playoff, and Pac-12 teams did not. But maybe that’s a bad idea. The only consistent choice the committee has made in the first five years was including Alabama, and it’s not doing that this year. (A true bummer that we won’t get a Jalen Hurts vs. Alabama revenge game.)

What happens if Oklahoma loses?

The Big 12 is the one league where both teams have roughly equal chances of getting into the playoff. If Baylor wins, it will end the season at 12-1, with a neutral-site victory over the Sooners, the only team that beat the Bears during the regular season. That sounds a lot like 2017 Georgia, which got blown out by Auburn but made the playoff after beating the Tigers in the SEC championship game. Baylor’s regular-season loss to Oklahoma also had an element of flukiness to it: The Bears went up 28-3 and blew the lead—pause for Falcons jokes—so hey, they’re at least capable of going up 28-3 on Oklahoma! Right now, the committee sees Oklahoma and Baylor as neck-and-neck—they’re ranked at no. 6 and no. 7, respectively, so it’s possible the committee would treat Baylor roughly the same as Oklahoma in a head-to-head battle with Utah.

Then again, the Bears could get bitten by their comically weak out-of-conference scheduling, which included matchups against Rice, UTSA, and Stephen F. Austin, teams that went a combined 10-26 in weak conferences.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Utah at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 5 (11-1) Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon (10-2)

What happens if Utah wins?

As previously noted, Utah will be judged alongside the winner of the Big 12 game. I think the committee includes 12-1 Oklahoma over 12-1 Utah. Utah needs to win on Friday night and then hope for chaos in some of the other games—a Baylor win would help, and maybe the committee would consider a 12-1 Pac-12 conference champion over a 12-1 LSU or Ohio State that didn’t win its league?

What happens if Utah loses?

While the other four championship games all feature a favorite that could hypothetically make the playoff with a loss or an underdog that could qualify with a win, the committee would simply ignore the Pac-12 if Oregon wins. (Again.) But hey, listen—the Pac-12 dominates water polo. Both men’s and women’s!

SEC Championship Game: No. 1 LSU (12-0) vs. No. 4 Georgia (11-1)

What happens if LSU wins?

The 13-0 Tigers make the playoff and can get in front of a TV to watch the Dr Pepper Can Toss contest at halftime of the later championship games.

What happens if LSU loses?

The SEC game will almost certainly be the most competitive of the five title games—yes, LSU has been one of the strongest teams in the country all season, but outside of its flukey loss to South Carolina, Georgia has been almost as good. SP+ projects that the Dawgs have a 44 percent chance to win this game. And they’ll be a lock for the playoff if they beat LSU.

The question would be how the committee views LSU. As of yet, the committee has never put two teams that faced each other during the regular season into the playoff. On the one hand, LSU’s résumé would be excellent even with a loss—the Tigers would be 12-1, and their only defeat would be to another playoff team. But why should the committee put a team in the playoff if it just lost to one of the other teams in the playoff in a high-stakes neutral-site game?

Conference championship games were important before the playoff, and they’re still some of the most meaningful games of the year, even if some of the teams involved are far removed from the playoff race. I’d still watch all of this weekend’s games regardless of the national title implications. But if the committee included both LSU and Georgia in its title field, it would essentially be admitting that conference championship games carry no additional significance to the playoff—that they’re just one of 13 equal data points. I don’t think the committee will make that statement—after all, the committee is primarily comprised of people affiliated with major conferences, and major conferences make money off conference title games.

But I don’t know for sure what choice the committee will make. Six years in to this system, nobody does.