College Football Playoff: Contenders and Pretenders

Alabama remains the top team in the nation, Michigan still can’t beat Ohio State, and Notre Dame solidified its standing as a legitimate playoff team. With the regular season all wrapped up, only the conference championships separate us from another enthralling bowl season.

Like or dislike the committee, their decisions have been more correct than not since the inception of the College Football Playoff in 2014. Thus far, we know a few things about the agenda of the committee: a team does not have to win its conference to qualify (as evidenced by Ohio State in 2016 and Alabama last year, which is good news for FBS Independent Notre Dame); a two-loss team will not get in, and strength of schedule and conference absolutely matters (looking at you, UCF).

What can easily be concluded is that Alabama and Clemson, if they do win the SEC and ACC Championship games next weekend, will retain their spots. The real debate will be if and where Notre Dame belongs in the top four, or whether UCF deserves a spot after likely winning the AAC Championship and finishing with an unblemished record for the second year in a row.

There’s also Oklahoma and Ohio State who have conference championships to play for. Ohio State advanced to sixth in the country after a demolition of Michigan, and Oklahoma and Heisman candidate Kyler Murray moved to fifth after emerging victorious in an epic shootout against West Virginia.

The conference championships that have the most impact on the Playoff are as follows:

ACC:  Clemson vs Pittsburgh

SEC: Alabama vs Georgia

Big 12: Oklahoma vs Texas

Big Ten: Ohio State vs Northwestern

AAC: University of Central Florida vs Memphis

I believe Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Central Florida will win their conferences. Notre Dame is undefeated. Here’s where the real debate begins.

Naturally, strength of schedule isn’t the end-all-be-all, but it does identify the competition that CFB hopefuls have played against all season and whether it measures up to counterparts.

As I mentioned before, Alabama and Clemson should remain right where they are if they win their conferences. Notre Dame has defeated several teams that are or were ranked, and that includes two lopsided wins against Syracuse (#12 at the time) and Stanford (#7 at the time). They defeated Michigan, a team that is currently #8. Their strength of schedule, according to teamrankings.com, ranks 27th out of 130 teams.

Many have argued for UCF’s inclusion, and even favor them over the Fighting Irish. That is blasphemy to me, because their best win came against Cincinnati, and played in a conference in which the combined record of their opponents is 62-69, coupled with the fact that their strength of schedule, also according to teamrankings.com, ranks 71st.

UCF deserves recognition for two straight perfect regular seasons for sure, but they are not on par with Notre Dame, or with any of the Power Five teams.

Now there remains Ohio State and Oklahoma. Similar to last year, Ohio State’s lone defeat (a very one-sided affair) came at the hands of a mediocre team, this time to a 6-6 Purdue team. On the other hand, the Buckeyes defeated Penn State (#9 at the time, #14 now), obliterated a Michigan team that was on track for the Playoff and is still #8 in the country; blew out Michigan State when the Spartans were #18, and Ohio State should also win the Big Ten.

Ohio State has a decent-looking resume. Oklahoma’s “best” win came back on Saturday against West Virginia (#13 at the time, #15 now), and the Sooners edged incumbent #23 Army and #24 Iowa State. Their lone defeat was against #14 Texas.

So the dilemma is this: if Alabama, Clemson win their conference championships, and if those two and Notre Dame are ranked one, two and three respectively, and if Ohio State and Oklahoma also win their conferences, then which team should occupy the fourth spot?

Assuming all of those things occur, then I believe Oklahoma should get the final spot. Ohio State has had a slightly more difficult schedule, but the blowout loss to Purdue will linger, especially because Oklahoma’s loss to Texas will be viewed as a “quality loss”. Remember, Alabama didn’t even win its own division last year, but usurped Ohio State due largely in part to Ohio State getting crushed by Iowa.

Ultimately, I see the Playoff featuring Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma, in that order. Being undefeated, having conference championships and good SOS rankings will expedite the process for ‘Bama and Clemson. Notre Dame has often dominated high-ranked competition, and Oklahoma, if they can avenge their Week 6 loss to Texas in the Big 12 Champoinship, will have the benefit of the aforementioned “quality loss”. UCF’s weak schedule and Ohio State’s loss to a medicore team will be the undoing of those two teams, though the answers that really matter will come December 2nd.

 

 

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