Coming into championship week in college football this week it appears the four-team College Football Playoff is nearly set. Oklahoma, 11-1 and champion of the Big 12, appears to be locked into one of the four available playoff spots with no more games to play. The winner of the Big Ten championship game between undefeated Iowa and 11-1 Michigan State appears to be a playoff qualifier, with the Big Ten champion getting one spot. As long as top-ranked and undefeated Clemson and once-beaten Alabama come through with wins in their respective conference championship games, the field is set. Right?
But what if Clemson loses? What if Alabama loses? Who gets in then?
A Clemson loss would make for a pretty good case for North Carolina. The Tar Heels would be ACC champions with a 12-1 record, capped by the win against Clemson. A 12-1 ACC champion would seem like a very ideal playoff candidate, although aside from the hypothetical Clemson victory, what else is there to show? The ACC Coastal was a relatively weak division this year, although Pittsburgh didn’t have a terrible season and Miami somehow strung together a better season that it seemed might be possible earlier in the year. North Carolina’s biggest hurdle is having played two FCS opponents, which was a result of some scheduling obligations beyond their control forcing them to fill the schedule with an extra game against an FCS opponent. But does it really matter UNC played two FCS schools when they ripped through their division down the stretch and would have beaten Clemson?
Stanford is a rising candidate as well, despite having two losses. If the Cardinal get by USC in the Pac-12 championship game, they will have just the kind of late push needed to sneak into the argument and hope having a Pac-12 championship is what pushes them ahead in the end. A win against Notre Dame helps, but Stanford also lost twice, once to Oregon at home and once on the road at Northwestern. Oregon and Washington State aside, Stanford was fairly dominant in Pac-12 play, but two losses puts them behind the pack depending upon whom you ask.
Then there is Ohio State. The Buckeyes are defending champions, but what happened last year should have absolutely no bearing on what happens this season. The only loss suffered by the Buckeyes came two weeks ago against Michigan State, and it is fair to suggest Ohio State has not exactly been a dominant force all season long. It did, however, score better wins during the regular season than North Carolina will claim (well, besides Clemson under these scenarios), and one of those wins came on the road against one of North Carolina’s division rivals, Virginia Tech. If comparing similar opponents, Ohio State’s performance against the Hokies was also superior to the victory UNC had in Blacksburg. Advantage, Ohio State?
You can make an argument for all three options discussed above,but it is clear one of two things needs to happen to start opening the door for the Cardinal, Tar Heels or Buckeyes. Clemson or Alabama needs to lose. UNC will get a chance to do what they need to do against Clemson, but otherwise folks in Columbus and Palo Alto will be rooting hard for an SEC championship game upset by Florida. The higher-ranked team in the SEC Championship Game has won five straight times and 17 out of 23 seasons.