After 14 weeks in the 2014 regular season, it all comes down to the final week of the year.
At stake? Conference championships, bowl slotting and, most importantly, setting up the field for the first-ever four-team College Football Playoff.
What’s known on the latter front is that, if they both win, Alabama and Oregon will fill two of those four slots. Outside of that, and without even mentioning the (very real) possibility of one or both of those two teams being upset in their league title games? Everything and anything else is decidedly up for grabs.
So many possibilities, myriad scenarios, with nothing certain except for disappointment for those who think things are indubitable. Now, for but a few of those possibilities and scenarios, and mindful that this was written before the Pac-12 championship game Friday night…
What to make of the College Football Playoff committee dropping still-unbeaten Florida State from No. 2 after Week 9 to No. 3 after Week 11 to No. 4 after Week 14? The only thing that can rationally be made of it is that, even if FSU beats Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game, the team and fans alike could — and maybe should — be nervous until the playoff matchups are announced Sunday night as nothing is assured.
Weeks ago I would’ve wagered a sizable chunk of money that there was no way an unbeaten FSU would be left out of the playoffs; now, there’s no way I’m touching that bet. While it still doesn’t seem possible, it’s more of a possibility than most thought it would be even a month ago. The only thing the Seminoles can control is (soundly) beating up on the Yellow Jackets. Another struggle in a close win could prove to be the postseason death knell for the ‘Noles, especially if the other teams nipping at their heels impress. And if the committee continues on its current ranking tack.
TEXAS TWO-STEPPIN’ TO THE PLAYOFFS… OR NOT AT ALL?
There might not be a conference with more to gain or more to lose in Week 15 than the Big 12.
TCU is currently sitting at what most observers deem a comfortable No. 3, with Baylor lurk
ing a couple of spots back at No. 6. If TCU easily handles Iowa State as expected… and if Baylor is impressive in taking care of No. 9 Kansas State… and if both Florida State and Ohio State lose in their respective conference championship games, the lone Power Five conference without a league title game would (likely) find itself with two of the four teams in the playoff field, opening up the potential for an All-Big 12 national championship game.
Conversely, there’s certainly a scenario in which both teams could be shutout of a playoff berth altogether. All that has to happen for that Big 12 doomsday scenario to transpire would be for Ohio State and Florida State to take No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 11 Georgia Tech, respectively, to the proverbial woodshed while TCU loses to Iowa State — or possibly even “wins ugly” — and Baylor either outright trips up against or just eases past K-State. Such a series of events, as unlikely as they may be, would leave that Power Five conference on the outside of the playoff window looking in.
Of course, Baylor, which beat TCU head-to-head earlier this year, could end up leapfrogging TCU and land in the playoff field as the lone Big 12 rep. Or TCU can continue to impress the committee and hold serve. Again, so many possibilities, and just for this one conference.
One more thing: if the seemingly impossible happens and the Big 12 whiffs completely on a spot in the playoffs, look for the conference to quickly ditch its “One True Champion” mantra and petition the NCAA for a waiver that would allow it to contest a league championship game with less than 12 teams and two divisions. And, yes, I’m only slightly kidding.
Despite the season-ending injury sustained by star quarterback J.T. Barrett, and thanks to Mississippi State’s loss, Ohio State actually climbed to the cusp of the CFP Top Four to No. 5. Whether they can move any higher with a backup quarterback, when the committee’s own protocol calls for “key injuries that… likely will affect its postseason performance” to be taken into consideration, will prove to be a significant and high-profile test case for the 12-person group that’ll select the four playoff teams.
If OSU squeaks past Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, would that be enough to move them past any of the four teams currently ahead of them, or even keep them ahead of Baylor? Would Barrett’s replacement, Cardale Jones, need to “impress,” whatever that means, in his first start to force the committee’s hand into doing something they may have done if the season-long starter had been in the game? Or, will the committee penalize a Barrett-free Buckeyes regardless? Again, these are unanswerable at the moment, but all of the factors surrounding OSU’s playoff résumé will make for one hell of a discussion for the CFP committee Sunday… and for its protocols in general moving forward.
PLAYOFF PARTY CRASHERS?
Don’t sleep on either Arizona or Georgia Tech — both 10-2 — as teams that could potentially show up banging on the playoff door at two in the morning, a six-pack-turned-three-pack of Natty Light Tall Boys tucked under one arm and a woman of questionable morals under the other, screaming “WHO WANTS TO PARTY!?!?”
Is it likely? No. But it’s certainly possible. If Tech beats Florida State, it will have a six-game winning streak heading into Sunday’s D-Day, with the last three — No. 4 FSU, No. 14 Georgia, No. 18 Clemson — coming against teams ranked in the CFP Top 20. Arizona, with a win in the Pac-12 title game, would have a similar résumé, carrying three straight wins against No. 2 Oregon, No. 17 Arizona State and No. 23 Utah as part of a five-game winning streak heading into Selection Sunday.
If the committee can drop an unbeaten team behind three one-loss teams, and keep one 10-1 team ranked ahead of another 10-1 team that already beat it on the field, surely their logic could find room for a two-loss team, right?
You want an apocalyptic scenario? Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor all lose, sending the committee members scrambling and likely breaking the Internet. It’s not probable, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Missouri’s defensive line has given good teams fits all season long, as the Tide will find out… and Arizona has already beaten the Ducks in Autzen this season… and the Buckeyes struggle against the run and Wisconsin is kind of good at that part of the offensive game… and the Seminoles have taken on the role of Houdini in maintaining its 28-game winning streak while Georgia Tech is a team that comes in supremely confident… and Kansas State is a very good defensive football team (held high-octane Auburn to 20 points and 359 yards) that’s very much capable of shutting down the Bears’ high-powered offense. So, you add all of that up and toss in a pinch of “any given Saturday,” and it’s certainly feasible that one… or two… or three… or four… or five of those scenarios come to fruition.
Or none of them. You make the call.
FLYIN’ LIKE A G5
Not only will four of the Power Five conferences decide champions Saturday — three with title games — so will two of the Group of Five leagues: the Mountain West and Conference USA. And, actually, both will have an impact on the matchups in the note that appears right below this one.
Marshall plays Louisiana Tech in the latter game, while Boise State squares off with Fresno State in the former. The highest-ranked team from the non-Power Five leagues that wins its conference earns an automatic bid to a marquee bowl; Boise State at No. 22 is currently the only G5 team ranked in the CFP Top 25, and a win by the Broncos would all but assure the MWC school of a marquee berth. A BSU loss and a win by 11-1 Marshall could give the Herd the G5 spot, or that spot could go 10-2 MAC champ Northern Illinois. A loss by both the Broncos and the Herd? That would shove the door wide open for NIU, or maybe even for the AAC’s Memphis and UCF (9-3 co-champions). With a win Saturday, Cincinnati could also join Memphis and UCF as co-champs and potentially be in the mix for the G5 slot as well.
MARQUEE MATCHUP PRIMER
Not only will Saturday’s action go a long way in deciding the playoff field for the two semifinal games (the Rose and Sugar bowls), it will also go a long way in determining which teams will play in the New Year’s Eve/Day marquee “rotation” games that, this year, will consist of the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls.
The Orange Bowl will feature the ACC No. 2 (or the ACC champ if it doesn’t qualify for the playoff) vs. the No. 2 team from either the Big Ten or the SEC (by contract, the champs from those two conferences are not permitted to play in the Orange Bowl). This year, the Cotton, Fiesta and Peach bowls — the three access bowls — will feature two at-large teams each selected by the committee or, in the case of one of those bowls, one at-large team vs. a Group of Five team.
Unlike the three contract bowls (Orange, Rose and Sugar), the playoff committee will slot the teams for the three access bowls based on the final CFP rankings. The CFP’s own criteria allows for matchups, against based on rankings, that take into consideration geography; competitiveness of the matchups; and what’s described as an “[a]ttempt to avoid rematches of regular-season games and repeat appearances.” With that in mind, here’s what the six marquee bowl matchups could look like based on the CFP rankings entering Week 15:
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 TCU
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Florida State
Orange Bowl: No. 11 Georgia Tech (ACC No. 2) vs. No. 8 Michigan State (Big Ten No. 2)
The following teams would then take up the final six spots in the other three bowls: No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Baylor, No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 Kansas State, No. 10 Mississippi State and No. 22 Boise State. Based on the factors listed above that would be utilized by the committee, here’s my best guesstimate as to how they’d be placed:
Cotton Bowl: No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 22 Boise State
Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Arizona
Peach Bowl: No. 10 Mississippi State vs. No. 9 Kansas State
So, in other words, if you’re a fan of a team somewhere in the Nos. 12-17 range and not playing Saturday (Ole Miss, Georgia, UCLA, Arizona State), you’re rooting for the likes of Ohio State, Kansas State and Arizona to lose to possibly open up a slot or two. If you’re a fan of No. 18 Clemson, you’re rooting for Georgia Tech to stumble so that you could possibly sneak through the Orange Bowl back door.
While only a handful of teams play meaningful games in Week 15, the repercussions from those games, thanks to the new CFP system, will reverberate for many, many more teams and its fan bases than might normally be the case. There will be rooting interests from coast-to-coast, with fans paying attention to games they normally couldn’t give two spits about. All of which proves, once again, what a great system this CFP thing already is… and what an even better system it’ll be when we get an eight-team playoff sooner rather than later.