College Football Playoff: Five questions for the committee

NCAAF

When the College Football Playoff was introduced more than a decade ago, and the sport’s championship evolved from two to four teams, even the system’s creators couldn’t answer some of the questions that arose — or they had a heckuva time trying.

What was the value of winning a conference title when two SEC teams could be in and two Power 5 conference champions were out? When do head-to-head results matter? And at what point are they dismissed? How do you measure a team’s schedule strength? And how much was a schedule’s strength derived from the perceived strength of a contender’s own conference?

When the 12-team CFP is unveiled this fall, it will again be a learning curve for everyone — fans, coaches, players, media and the selection committee. The committee’s task — and its protocol — remains mostly unchanged, but an unprecedented 12-team field naturally raises new questions for the group charged with ranking the best teams in the country.

In the spirit of the new CFP format, which will guarantee playoff spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions, here are five questions for the committee.

1. Will strength-of-schedule evaluations change with conference realignment?

Losing isn’t something the top national title contenders are used to — but even some coaches expect that to change, and it could make things tricky in the committee meeting room.

The committee has historically rewarded teams that play tougher opponents, holding wins against CFP top 25 teams in high regard. With the Big Ten expanding to 18 teams and the SEC to 16, though, some CFP contenders now have a more difficult path to their own conference championship game. The rigorous SEC and Big Ten schedules are going to make it even more difficult for those respective leagues to produce undefeated or even one-loss conference champions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 2014, 14 of the 20 teams that participated in the SEC championship game had one or no losses. During that same time frame, 11 of 20 Big Ten teams playing in the league championship game had one or no losses.

Now?

According to ESPN’s preseason FPI, only three teams have at least a 10% chance to finish the regular season undefeated (Oregon, Notre Dame and Georgia), and none have more than a 20% chance to go 12-0. The only other time during the CFP era that no teams had more than a 20% chance to finish undefeated was 2016, and Alabama was the only Power 5 team to finish 12-0 that year.

What will that mean at Selection Central when teams from those leagues have multiple losses and are being compared with contenders from the ACC and Big 12 — teams with better records but against fewer ranked opponents?

“Do I think there’s going to be teams with multiple losses in the playoff? Yes, most certainly there is,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “How do you differentiate? I’ll leave that to the committee. That’s why we have the system we have. … There’s going to be debate about what football teams get left out. Ultimately, everybody has a chance to go out on the grass and perform and play and earn the right to get in. Somebody’s going to get left out that probably shouldn’t. … We had that with the four-team playoff. There was probably three times I thought we were one of the best four teams but we didn’t earn it on the field.”


2. How many teams from the SEC and Big Ten will fill the bracket?

Using last year’s final CFP ranking with conference realignment for 2024, the Big Ten and SEC would have combined for 10 of the 12 spots.

SEC champion Alabama would have been in along with Texas, Georgia, Mizzou and Ole Miss. Big Ten champion Michigan would have been joined by Washington (the Pac-12 champion in 2023), Ohio State, Oregon, and Penn State.

There is no limit to how many teams from one conference can qualify for the playoff, but there are guaranteed spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions. Most likely those will usually feature the champions from the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and a Group of 5 winner. In 2023 those winners were Florida State (ACC), Michigan (Big Ten), Alabama (SEC), Texas (Big 12, now in the SEC) and Liberty (out of Conference USA, the highest ranked G5 winner).

How often will the conference champs from the ACC and Big 12 be their lone representatives?


3. How difficult will it be to rank the No. 8 and No. 9 teams with the No. 1 team looming?

The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn a first-round bye. Everyone else will play a first-round game on the home campus of the higher seed. The winner of the game between No. 8 and No. 9 will face the best team in the country in the quarterfinal. The loser goes home. Is this something the committee will think about — either consciously or unconsciously — as it compiles its final ranking on Selection Day?

Remember, these games will be played on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21 this year, which could be very cold on some campuses — particularly in the Big Ten. (According to Accuweather.com, Ann Arbor, Michigan, had a high of 38 degrees last Dec. 20 and a low of 21 degrees.)

How much of an advantage might that be if they are hosting a team from the South?

Last year, in a 12-team field, Oregon would have hosted Mizzou. Autzen Stadium has a distinct home-field advantage because of its smaller size and location. The winner of that game would have played No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Michigan.


4. What will the criteria be for ranking the top Group of 5 champion?

Last year, the selection committee’s most controversial ranking outside of the top four was its decision to slot undefeated Liberty at No. 23, which guaranteed the Flames a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Liberty earned the Group of 5’s coveted bid to a New Year’s Six bowl without beating a single Power 5 opponent. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Flames had the easiest schedule in the country last year (No. 133) entering the postseason. Eight of Liberty’s 12 regular-season opponents finished with losing records. It was a decision that blatantly defied the committee’s typical reverence for strength of schedule and was inconsistent with its justification throughout the rest of its Top 25.

Had the 12-team playoff existed in 2023, Liberty would have earned a spot in the field as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion, and the Flames would have bumped out No. 12 Oklahoma for the spot. Was Liberty’s selection an anomaly last year? Or is going undefeated the committee’s new standard for the Group of 5, regardless of schedule strength? If so, does that translate to the rest of their Top 25?

In the four-team playoff, even the best Group of 5 champions faced a nearly impossible standard to reach the CFP — an undefeated record that included wins against Power 5 opponents and CFP Top 25-ranked teams. In 2021, Cincinnati, which was then a member of the American Athletic Conference, was the only team to reach a CFP semifinal in the decade of the four-team playoff.

The criteria for reaching the 12-team field will be highly scrutinized because of the likelihood that the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion will bump out a strong contender at No. 12. Remember, It’s not the committee’s top 12 teams. It’s the five highest-ranked conference champions plus the next seven highest-ranked teams. So if that fifth champion is ranked outside of the top 12, the unlucky 12th team will be snubbed to make room for it.

If the fifth champion is not ranked at all, then the selection committee will separately rank the Group of 5 champions and then announce the top school as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion along with the Top 25.

Liberty again doesn’t face any Power 4 opponents. Will it matter?


5. How will the playoff path change for independents?

It’s not just Notre Dame that will be impacted by the new format. Oregon State and Washington State will also be treated as independents this fall, as they no longer have a Pac-12 conference championship game to play in.

If any of those schools qualify for the 12-team field, they can’t earn a first-round bye because they can’t finish as one of the four highest-ranked conference champions. They would play a first-round game and need to win four straight games to win the national title.

In the past, not having a conference title game was a pro-con situation for the Irish. If they were already in the top four heading into Selection Day, the Irish didn’t have to risk losing and falling out. If they were on the bubble, though, there wasn’t another opportunity to impress the committee against a ranked opponent. Notre Dame had to sit and wait and hope for help while everyone else was competing.

Now?

The Irish should be in more often than not if they finish with no more than one — maybe two — losses, depending on their schedule, results and how everyone else fares. There is far less pressure to go undefeated, even without a conference title. They still need to beat the marquee opponents, though, like Texas A&M, Florida State and USC, and avoid upsets to Marshall.

Oregon State’s best opportunity will be Sept. 14 against rival Oregon, as most of the Beavers’ opponents are Mountain West Conference teams through a scheduling alliance. Washington State faces rival Washington, Texas Tech and Oregon State. Both the former Pac-12 teams need to leave no doubt they’re playoff material against unranked opponents because they may have limited opportunities for CFP top 25 wins.

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