Through five weeks, more uncertainty remains about who will make the playoff than the last two seasons. A few big questions remain.
Is the Big 12 really eliminated?
No. Absolutely not. 12-0 Baylor or 12-0 West Virginia are near certainties to make the playoff. First, they would be conference champions. Per the committee’s rules, champions are given weight over non-champions. Read that link if you doubt this. The committee is obligated to prefer a champion to a non-champion. 11-1 Louisville would have to be clearly better than 12-0 Baylor or 12-0 West Virginia.
An undefeated team is not getting left out unless there are somehow four other undefeated teams. That’s not happening. I seriously doubt either Baylor or West Virginia makes it through a season undefeated. In the first two years of the playoff, only Clemson in 2015 and Florida State in 2014 have been undefeated. But if Baylor or West Virginia makes it through the regular season undefeated, the committee- many of whom are the same members as last season- showed with Florida State in 2014, even if they moved them all the way down to #4 before the last ranking that season, they still kept them in the field.
Oklahoma also has an outside shot to make the field. Last season, Alabama or Oklahoma losing on the final Saturday would have ensured a two-loss playoff team. This season feels like we will not have a two loss team in the field, especially given Washington’s strong chance to emerge with only one or zero losses in the PAC-12, Houston having a head to head victory over Oklahoma, and the SEC likely to have a team given precedent. But suppose Houston wins out, the ACC Champion has two losses, Washington collapses and loses two games. Then, the SEC Champion, Ohio State, and Houston would be in the field. But among two loss teams, Oklahoma would only have losses to playoff teams and would have run through the Big 12. This scenario is nearly impossible, but Oklahoma can dream.
Will an undefeated Houston make the field?
I’d want to see rankings, but I believe they have a strong chance. They would have wins over Oklahoma and Louisville. Perhaps Oklahoma loses a few more games, and Louisville loses another to be 9-3. Still, those are pretty good wins. If Washington loses a game, then Houston’s undefeated resume would be close. The PAC-12 should be getting attacked more than it has so far. Stanford was just demolished. Oregon is heading into the tank, and USC may have a head coaching vacancy. Washington also has one horrendous non-conference schedule.
The first ranking of Houston will be a major clue about how the committee wants to treat the Cougars. My guess is that they will make the field if they finish undefeated.
What about two teams from one conference?
I think that’s pretty unlikely this season. First, Washington is in a strong place to win the PAC-12 with one or zero losses. They looked excellent against Stanford, and as I mentioned, that conference is a disaster. Ohio State and Michigan look like the class of the Big 10, especially after Wisconsin could not beat Michigan. That would leave 12-1 or 13-0 conference champions in two leagues. Additionally, the SEC not making the playoff is something I’ll believe when it happens.
Houston would then lurk, and Baylor or West Virginia could finish 11-1 and win the conference. Maybe you think none of these things are that likely, but it takes a lot for a non-champion to make the field
What could be some disaster scenarios for the committee?
Imagine this one: Tennessee loses to both Texas A&M and Alabama, but then comes back and wins the SEC Championship Game. Imagine the disaster the committee would face if Alabama goes 11-1 but beats Texas A&M, loses to 10-2 Tennessee, and Texas A&M finishes 11-1. Who would you put in the field then? Tennessee with two losses as champion? Texas A&M with the head to head win over Tennessee and the fewest losses? Or Alabama with the earlier wins over both and the better non-conference resume?
Baylor or West Virginia finish 11-1 and Houston finishes 12-0. Both those teams also beat Oklahoma. Does Houston have a better resume? I’d want to see how both teams looked in games. That one would be tough. Washington would also be interesting to compare to Houston at 11-1.
The ACC and Big 10 could also have their own SEC title game catastrophe. In the Big 10, Wisconsin could win the Big 10 West at 10-2 with their two losses to Michigan and Ohio State. Then the Michigan-Ohio State winner- let’s say Ohio State for simplicity- would play Wisconsin in a rematch at 12-0 with wins over both Michigan and Wisconsin. But if they lose and are 12-1, would Ohio State still have a better claim than 11-2 conference champion Wisconsin or 11-1 Michigan?
In the ACC, Clemson could finish 11-1, lose to 10-2 Miami in the championship game, and then we’d be left wondering about Louisville’s resume and head to head loss to Clemson.
There are a ton of permutations of the above scenarios with any conference. The main takeaway should be this: there is a ton of football left and almost all of these teams will lose at least once. If Baylor can go 12-0, they’re almost assuredly in. Going 12-0 is insanely difficult.
Projecting the field:
My current playoff would be:
Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, Washington
End of the season projection:
Alabama, Ohio State, Washington, Houston