Just a week before revealing its final four-team bracket, the College Football Playoff selection committee faces its biggest challenge yet.
In the three previous seasons of the playoff, three of the five power conferences had clear-cut, one-loss or undefeated teams that went on to win their championship games. In the first year of the playoff, 2014, the only disagreement about the committee’s final judgment was over the semantics of the “13th data point” that put Ohio State in over the Big 12 co-champions Baylor and Texas Christian. In 2015 and 2016, the committee was so confident about two 11-1 teams that it telegraphed ahead of time that each would make it in.
This year is much messier, and this past weekend’s games, starting with No. 2 Miami’s loss to Pittsburgh on Friday and including Saturday’s Iron Bowl, in which top-ranked Alabama lost to Auburn, did not help. Alabama fell to fifth in the Associated Press poll, and Miami to seventh.
The next round of playoff rankings will be released Tuesday night, but never before, it seems, have so many teams been alive for the four spots with only the conference championship games to go. Georgia. Auburn. Miami. Clemson. Wisconsin. Ohio State. Oklahoma. Maybe even Texas Christian and Alabama, the latter on pedigree alone.
The potential for chaos exists despite the fact that never before in the playoff’s three completed seasons has one of the five power conferences dug itself so deep a hole as has the Pacific-12, which features two teams with at least two losses, Stanford (9-3) and Southern California (10-2), in its title game on Friday night.
Although Stanford slammed the door on Notre Dame (9-3) on Saturday night, 38-20, the biggest news in the Pac-12 over the weekend may have been the return of Chip Kelly, who, several years after making Oregon into a national title contender and then departing for the N.F.L., was hiredSaturday by U.C.L.A.
As the Bruins (6-6) settle for a midtier bowl, the committee will watch the five power-conference title games play out and then release its final rankings on Sunday, Dec. 3, seeding first versus fourth and second versus third in the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, Calif., and the Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans. The priorities that day will be to give the top-ranked team home-field advantage and to try to avoid a rematch — which could become a surprisingly germane detail.
Given where their teams are currently ranked, two of the championship games are effectively national quarterfinals, with their winners all but guaranteed semifinal berths. The winner of the Southeastern Conference game — in Atlanta, between Auburn (10-2) and Georgia (11-1) — is in. So is the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference game in Charlotte, N.C., between Clemson (11-1), which boasts an early-season win over Auburn, and Miami (11-1).
Two more title games promise playoff spots should the right team win them. Unbeaten Wisconsin (12-0) plays Ohio State (10-2) for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis, and despite the Badgers’ generally weak schedule, it would be all but unfathomable for the committee — which serves a playoff that was created precisely to ensure undefeated power-conference champions can play for all the marbles — not to include Wisconsin in the final bracket with a win. Similarly, Oklahoma (11-1), with victories over Ohio State and its own conference championship opponent, Texas Christian (10-2), on its résumé already, is a virtual shoo-in with a win and the Big 12 championship.
But what if the “wrong” teams win those latter two games? Who fills the remaining two spots?
Cross off Notre Dame and Stanford, with their three losses (even if one wonders whether Stanford, which has won eight of its past nine games, is better than its record). The same is true for Penn State; the committee has seemed strangely ill-disposed to the Nittany Lions (10-2), ranking them behind Ohio State even though Penn State’s two losses came to two ranked teams — the Buckeyes and Michigan State (9-3) — on the road by a combined 4 points.