Is the College Football Playoff Race Down to Three Conferences?

Following Houston’s impressive season-opening win against then #3 Oklahoma, there was a five-week stretch where for the first time in the history of the College Football Playoff system, it seemed possible for a team from the “Group of Five” conferences (the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) to make the playoffs.  However, with a 46-40 loss at Navy on Saturday, the hopes of the little guys of the FBS came crashing down.

By no means are the Navy Midshipmen a bad football team.  Their potent triple-option offense can be a nightmare for opposing defenses, and at 4-1, the Navy are well on their way to a 5th straight 8-win season.  In fact, they just cracked the Top 25 in the AP Poll with their victory against the Cougars.  However, while the AAC has its fair share of competitive teams including Navy, Houston, Memphis, and South Florida, as a whole the conference is much weaker than the members of the Power Five (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC).  To have a realistic chance at a spot in the national semifinals, a Group of Five team needs to run the table and have a few quality wins on their resume.

To Houston’s credit, they scheduled well with matchups against Oklahoma and Louisville.  However, Oklahoma has disappointed for a team ranked #3 in the preseason polls, and Louisville’s loss to Clemson makes a potential win against the Cardinals less appealing also.  With all this in mind, Houston would need to sweep the second half of their schedule and be the beneficiaries of several upsets in order to rejoin the conversation.

Houston’s loss saw them drop seven spots to #13 in the new AP poll, remaining above the last two undefeated Group of Five teams, #15 Boise State and #24 Western Michigan.  Even with the loss, Houston likely remains the Group of Five team with the greatest chances of making the playoffs, showing the importance of strength of schedule.  The AAC is the strongest of the five conferences, and Oklahoma and Louisville are on a different playing field when compared to Boise State and Western Michigan’s opponents, none of which are currently ranked.  This alone makes it nearly impossible for either of those teams to make the playoff, as they will never have an opportunity to prove themselves on a national stage and pick up a signature win.  Combined with how neither of them began the season ranked, they simply won’t have enough time to move up in the rankings.

Unfortunately, it’d take a lot of things to go wrong in order for Houston, Boise State, or Western Michigan to make the national semifinals.  However, are the Group of Five the only conferences with their hopes hanging by a thread?  Is there a strong chance that just three conferences will make up the four-team playoff?

In terms of overall strength, the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC are the best conferences in college football, and it’s not even close.  They currently hold nine of the top 10 spots in the AP Poll, including four from the Big Ten, and 16 of the top 25.  However, while these conferences all have great teams, the lopsidedness of the rankings is due just as much to the uncharacteristic weakness of the Big 12 and Pac-12 this season.

In the Big-12, 5-0 #11 Baylor and 4-0 #20 West Virginia are the only teams without multiple losses.  At this stage, Baylor looks to be the conference favorite, although even they’ve looked bad at times, needing to come back from a 14-point 4th quarter deficit to beat Iowa State.  West Virginia has yet to really be tested and shouldn’t be expected as to finish the season as highly ranked as they are today.  Oklahoma entered the season at #3, but took two quick losses to Houston and Ohio State.  They’ve looked strong since and could easily win the Big 12, but I wouldn’t count on them running the table and even a 2-loss Oklahoma would be a playoff long shot at best.  It might’ve looked like Texas’ comeback year after their double-OT win against Notre Dame to start the year, but the Longhorns have lost their last three, allowing 48 points per game in the process, and while the victory against Notre Dame seemed big when they were ranked #10, the Fighting Irish have arguably been the disappointment of the year at just 2-4.

The Pac-12, on the other hand, has simply been the Washington show.  At #4, the Huskies are the conference’s only team in the top-20 and along with Utah, one of just two ranked teams.  Washington has been beating up on everybody this year, including wins over the traditional powerhouses Stanford and Oregon the last two weeks by a combined score of 114 (yes, 114) to 27.  In my opinion, quarterback Jake Browning is a big-time Heisman candidate, and the Huskies have as good a chance as any of the 11 remaining unbeatens to have a perfect regular season because they simply don’t have the difficult matchups down the road that ACC, Big Ten, and SEC competitors have where they have to beat up each other.  Oregon lost the national championship game just two years ago, and are now just 2-4.  Stanford has gotten destroyed the last two games, UCLA is just 3-3, and all the other teams seemed to just be beating each other up.  This is clearly Washington’s conference to lose.

So let’s compare the Big 12 and Pac-12 with the rest of the Power 5 conferences.  The ACC is clearly led by the Heisman favorites, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.  Clemson won when these teams played each other, but Louisville is far from done, and a win against Houston should bring them back in the mix.  Behind the favorites, #17 Virginia Tech is a team to watch out for, having just beaten the then #17 North Carolina Tar Heels 34-3 on the road.  #14 Florida State and #16 Miami should also challenge for New Year’s Six Bowl Games.

The Big Ten, the only conference with three undefeated teams (Ohio State, Michigan, and Nebraska) has four ranked teams, but all are ranked in the top 10.  The previous three, along with Wisconsin, are all contenders although Ohio State and Michigan are both clearly two of the best teams in college football and the most likely combination of teams from the same conference to make the playoffs.  The problem, of course, is that these teams have to go up against each other.  Michigan has the easiest remaining schedule, already defeating Wisconsin, not playing Nebraska, and facing Ohio State on the final day of their regular season, while Ohio State still must play all three teams.  Regardless of what happens, we should see multiple teams with one or fewer losses and legitimate claims to be one of the nation’s best four squads.

Lastly, the SEC is, as usual, the deepest conference, with seven ranked teams and two more (Georgia and LSU) just outside the top 25.  The level of talent, recruiting, and coaching here is unbelievable, and the SEC West especially looks insane this year, with five ranked schools.  In the SEC, easy matchups are hard to come by, and every week presents its own challenge.  They might not have the best top-end this year, but overall this is still the conference to beat.  Alabama will remain the #1 team in the nation until beaten, and #6 Texas A&M and #9 Tennessee have the best chances of taking them down.

When it ultimately comes time for the selection committee to choose the four teams to compete for the national title, I think it will be very difficult, although technically not impossible, for either Washington or Baylor to miss the playoffs with an undefeated record (if you remember, in 2014 I advocated leaving out an undefeated Florida State for a one-loss TCU).  However, if both of these teams finish with a loss, the committee will have a serious decision to make.  Should a one-loss Washington or Baylor get in over, say, a Michigan, Louisville, or Alabama if they have one loss but don’t win their conferences?  While we’d have to see how these teams perform down the stretch, I wouldn’t necessarily think so.

And what if Washington and Baylor aren’t the ones who win their conference in the first place?  It’s a harder sell for Washington, but Baylor could easily lose the conference to Oklahoma.  I don’t think a conference champion, especially a 2-loss one, deserves a spot in the playoffs over a seemingly better second-place team from another conference.

As we currently stand, the Big 12 is in serious trouble.  The conference as a whole has really come apart this year, and their Baylor, their only serious hope, is ranked just #11, far behind the leaders of all other major conferences, which are all in the top five.  Washington is in a better position, but the weakness of the Pac-12 means any loss threatens to either move Baylor or a second-place team (Michigan the likeliest) ahead of them.  In fact, if the selection committee met today, I think Michigan would probably make the top four over Washington.  However, words can’t describe how important their game against Ohio State will be.  Even if they lose, how strong they looked in the loss will have a big part to play in how the end of the season plays out.  One thing, however, is clear: there seems to be a far greater chance this year than in the previous two that we could see just three conferences represented in the College Football Playoff.

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