The SEC announced its schedule yesterday, with their first week of games still slated to start on September 26. The ACC is primed to begin play on September 12. The Big 12 marks the third Power-5 conference still intending to play in what will be a wild and wacky college football season, should we make it all the way through. In total, 6 of 1`0 FBS conferences are currently planning to play, while the Big 10, Pac-12, Mountain West, and MAC have all cancelled towards fall football. Though they hope to play a spring season, it looks somewhat improbable that the situation will be clearly better just 5-6 months from now. While some vaccines have reached Phase 3 of testing, the timeline still seems crunched if that is indeed what these conferences await. It’s too early to tell whether their intended spring season will pan out; for now, the focus is on the six conferences still seeking to play. And while each conference at this point seems to be moving forward with a conference-only (or close to) schedule, there’s a major question to be answered. How will the College Football Playoff look? Will we see a temporary one-year expansion? Will the committee simply have to say which conference’s match-ups they value more? Will a Group-of-5 team get a chance. Here’s a few possibilities to consider.
3 Conference Champions and a Wild Card
At the moment, barring any further announcement from the CFP, this seems like the most likely option. The Big 12, ACC, and SEC champions will all get an automatic berth, while a wild card berth will go to one non-champion. While this leaves the door open for a Group of 5 participant, the likelihood would be that this berth goes to one of the Power-5 conferences’ runners-up. It also leaves open the possibility of one diviison – namely the SEC West – getting two playoff teams. The ACC, at least for this season, has eliminated the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions, leaving them with just a 15-team conference, meaning the top two teams will clash for the title. The same can be said for the Big 12, while the SEC has maintained their two 7-team divisions. As has been the case for a while now, the SEC West remains the considerably stronger division of the two, and they have had a non division champion make the CFP. Could we get LSU and Alabama into the Playoff?
In this format, the Group of 5 is a clear loser. Even with a reduced playing field, they have next to no chance at attaining a postseason berth in this set-up. Even an undefeated run from a team like Memphis or Appalachian State would carry very little weight with zero, or maybe one, power-5 opponents. A Power-5 team with an appearance in the conference championship will almost certainly get that fourth and final bid.
Winners from this format, in my mind, are Notre Dame and Georgia. These are two teams that are currently favored to be in their conference championship, but not win. Had every Power-5 conference been in action this fall, this would almost disqualify them from playoff consideration. However, in this format, an appearance and competitive showing in the conference championship game could gift them that final slot. I didn’t list a Big 12 team, because I believe it is unlikely that a 10-team conference will be given two playoff spots, while one from the 14-team SEC and 15-team ACC are chosen. Also, there isn’t a clear 2nd-best team in the Big 12 at this moment. Texas is generally considered Oklahoma’s biggest challenger, but that could just be preseason “Hook Em” Texas bluster. Oklahoma State and Iowa State figure to be competitive, while Baylor looks to recapture the magic that almost had them in the Playoff a year ago. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is a unanimous favorite to be in the ACC Championship with Clemson, while Georgia also figures to have a very good chance at representing the SEC East for a fourth straight season in the SEC title clash. This format gives the Irish and the Bulldogs a far brigher outlook when it comes to playoff possibilites.
4 Conference Champions
An interesting and improbable idea. This idea made a few headlines when South Florida coach Jeff Scott floated out this tweet:
Could the Committee consider the AAC a “power-4 conference” for one season, giving a Group-of-5 team an automatic bid into the Playoff. This seems naturally unfair to Power-5 teams playing much more grueling schedules. The AAC certainly has some talent at the top in Memphis, Cincinnati, and UCF, but it’s simply not the same as having LSU, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida (such is the schedule of Texas A&M). This elevates the AAC to a status that it doesn’t seem to quite merit at this point, and while it would be a fun underdog story, such darkhorse tales tend to not fare as well in football, particularly at the collegiate level. Think about this way: Would you rather see Alabama or Clemson taking Notre Dame or Georiga in the Playoff, or would you be more likely to tune in to see one of the afoementioned powerhouses take on Memphis. Seems unlikely, no matter how good they are.
The AAC is a major winner in this format, while Conference USA and the Sunbelt Conference are left completely out to dry. Mainly, I think of Appalachian State, who may be one of the best group-of-5 teams this year, being given no chance at a Playoff berth, while the AAC is somewhat arbitrarily granted Power-4 status and a Playoff berth. And while the last system was a postitive, Notre Dame and Georgia will also frown upon this format, as their playoff hopes will now square on them beating favored opponents and national championship favorites in their conference championships.
“The Best Four”
The Playoff committee couold simply stick with their current system, which, hypothetically, selects the best four teams every single season. While this often brings in Power-5 champions, there’s been a few notable examples of non-champions cracking the four team field. The reason I view this as unlikely, is that the committee will have to essentially publically state with their selections that they value the other conference. Yes, Oklahoma has historically and recently been a very good team that looks like world-beaters inside the Big 12, only to faint on the big stage. Will the Playoff Committee naturally assume the Big 12 is again an inferior conference, thus looking for extra SEC teams ti fill out the bracket. The SEC has been the only conference to get two playoff berths in one season, and so this system likely benefits them far more than other conference. With a conference-only schedule, it seems very likely that should a second berth come from one conference, it would be an SEC Team.
In my mind, the biggest winner of this scenario is LSU. I think the Tigers enter this season as likely the 2nd-best team in the SEC to Alabama. However, may formats would disqualify a 9-1 LSU team from the Playoff; however, if Ed Orgeron’s squad looks convincing in their nine wins, they could be deemed one of the ‘best four’ teams here without making their conference championship.
The biggest loser of this situation would possibly be Oklahoma. While the Committee is never supposed to take past years into consideration, it’s getting hard to ignore the eggs that the Sooners lay on the big stage. Will they be wholly convinced that an Oklahoma team, possibly with 1 loss, is one of the best four teams. I wouldn’t count on it right now.
An Expanded Format
An expanded format may be unlikely to think about, but it could be a way to smooth out the inevitable wrinkles that will come with trying to select a playoff field. An 8-team playoff that guaranteed a berth to both participants in each conference championship game, plus two wild card berths, with one reserved for the best Group of 5 champion, has some interesting merit. It really ensures that we get the best teams – with a Group of 5 underdog – and the possibility for a deserving team that didn’t quite make a conference title game. This format would be hardpressed to exclude a deserving team, but there are some drawbacks. For one, it pretty much devalues the conference championship game, which becomes a ceremonial trophy with only an effect on seeding. For a team like Notre Dame, who doesn’t really have a vested interest in winning conference titles as a program, if they were to reach the ACC Championship against Clemson, would they be willing to start their stars in a game that had little affect on their future chances?
Some other interesting formats include a 5-team playoff that includes 3 Power-5 champions, one Group-of-5 champion, and a wild card. This way, the conference champions get a bye, while likely the Group of 5 representative takes on the wild card in a playoff-opening quarterfinal clash. This puts value on winning your conference title, but opens up a path to the playoffs without doing so – a key factor for teams like Notre Dame, Georgia, and LSU (assuming Alabama as the favorite this season).
In all likelihood, the Playoff will have to have either a guaranteed spot for a Group of 5 school, or simply maintain their “best teams” vernacular. Any system that only allows Power-5 champions or conference championship participants would be admitting to the obvious – that no Group of 5 team will ever get a playoff berth under the current system. While it’s true, the Committee won’t want to make a format that directly excludes them either.
The Committee has its biggest challenge ahead in 2020 – from comparing conference strengths, to determing a fair format, and everything else, they face some very tough decisions this coming season. Can they minimize the drawbacks and give us a CFP worth watching?