Column: A zero- or one-loss Big Ten champion will likely never be excluded from 4-team playoff
On paper, Alabama (first overall), Clemson (second), Oklahoma (third) and Florida State (fourth) probably deserve to be ranked ahead of rebuilding/reloading Ohio State (No. 5 overall) in the season-opening Amway Coaches Poll.
(Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa are also part of the Amway top 15.)
The same holds true with No. 6 LSU, given that it returns the best pure runner in college football (Leonard Fournette), two explosive receivers (Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural), a rock-solid offensive line and a defense that’s stacked with future NFL stalwarts.
However, from a Big Ten perspective, there’s no early cause for concern. For starters, it’s a preseason poll; and, secondly, it’s implausible to imagine the conference being shut out of the four-team playoff — all things being equal.
Without question, it’s a haughty, arrogant statement to proclaim. But heading into Year 3 of the College Football Playoff experiment — a system which automatically promises national-semifinal exclusion for at least one Power 5 conference — I’ve become supremely confident about two annual projections:
- The CFP committee won’t include two teams from one conference in the same four-team playoff, with the lone exception being Notre Dame (technically part of the ACC) during a special season.
- The Big Ten and SEC — the nation’s biggest power brokers in the realms of money, prestige, tradition, visibility and influence — would never be left out of a playoff, provided the respective conference champion has zero or one seasonal defeat.
THE FINER POINTS
Let’s tackle the first point in detail:
In 2011, LSU (SEC champion) and Alabama finished the regular season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 overall, respectively, and subsequently squared off in the BCS title game.
In hindsight, the 2011 Crimson Tide (which had an overtime loss to LSU in November) probably had a better resume than both No. 3 Oklahoma State (which had a late-season loss to lowly Iowa State) and No. 4 Oregon (which had close defeats to LSU, Southern California); but still, College Football Nation wasn’t entirely thrilled to watch an intra-conference rematch for the BCS championship.
As a result, the College Football Playoff committee established bylaws and a protocol that prioritized the following: 1) Championships won, 2) Strength of schedule, 3) Head-to-head results (if applicable) and 4) Comparative outcomes of common opponents (minus margin of victory).
The “championships won” component remains the key to everything: Hypothetically, if a one-loss non-champion from the SEC or Big Ten were in direct competition with a one-loss Pac-12 champ, the latter would always get the nod, thanks to the bonus-points aspect of capturing the league title. It’s a good safeguard to prevent multiple conference entries in a four-team playoff.
Of course, Notre Dame and the ACC champion could both qualify for the playoffs, thus booting two other Power 5 leagues from the national semifinals. Yes, the independent Irish are contractually bound to play five ACC schools every year (as part of its all-sports agreement), but they also wouldn’t face Clemson or Florida State every season. The Tigers and Seminoles have claimed the ACC’s last five titles.
Take 2016, for example. Notre Dame and the ACC champion could potentially go undefeated on parallel paths, but never meet during the season — since the Irish aren’t eligible for the ACC title game.
Regarding the SEC and Big Ten … as mentioned above, these conferences continually raise the bar for college sports in terms of shaping policy, generating record-setting revenues, breaking annual attendance marks, brokering landmark deals for TV and league-owned cable networks, and, ultimately, attracting eyeballs to the premium events.
Call it an Eastern/Central Time Zone bias, but it’s hard to deny the far-reaching influence of the Big Ten and SEC.
Just look at the CFP’s current selection committee: Four members have extensive Big Ten ties (Barry Alvarez, Lloyd Carr, Jeff Long, Tyrone Willingham) and two members have strong affiliations with the SEC (Long, Bobby Johnson).
Throw in the valuable input of the Midwest-based Herb Deromedi — the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history — and the Big Ten/SEC representation covers 46 percent of the voting committee.
The only factor the CFP committee cannot control or overlook? If/when the SEC or Big Ten champ has two or three losses on its seasonal resume. At that point, power, influence and money can advance a so-called compromised league only so far.
IS CFP EXPANSION THE ANSWER?
In a perfect world, college football’s ultimate tournament would include eight teams — every Power 5 champion, the top-ranked Group of Five school (Houston, as a hypothetical) and two other wild cards, regardless of conference affiliation.
In that scenario, the national outcry would be significantly quieter than the current, inescapable conundrum of shoehorning five conference champions (plus Notre Dame, during elite-level seasons) into four semifinal slots.
But here’s the reality check: The NCAA already has trouble filling its 40 bowls (excluding the national championship) – so much so that some teams with losing records, such as Nebraska and Minnesota who were each 5-7, filled out last year’s holiday dance card.
In other words, if two – or even four – more teams were added to the playoff mix in future years, more 5-7 schools would partake in the bowl system. And frankly, that’s not good for the long-term health of the non-premium bowls.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.