Yes, there are myriad things at stake on Championship Saturday, especially for those conferences (I see you, Group of Five) that have no shot whatsoever (again) of earning one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff. Yes, conference championships, even for those with the larger postseason prize in their collective sights, still mean something. It still means something to proclaim yourself as the champion of your conference. Bragging rights and all.
It also still means something for whichever Group of Five school claims the New Year’s Six berth, which will be earned on the field Saturday by either Memphis, Cincinnati or Boise State — or even Appalachian State.
That said, how much of a difference will it all really make when it comes to the playoffs?
Sitting at the desk in my mom’s basement (she’s dead but it’s still hers when it comes to my job description), the following alert from ESPN came across my phone sometime Thursday afternoon: “Ranking the conference championship games by CFP impact.” That got me thinking, which is dangerous in and of itself: Should I upgrade my iPhone to one of the new 11 models or just keep my current XS?
A short time later, I actually started thinking about the question posed to me by the World Wide Leader. So, I figured I’d sketch something out in my own head — again, a frightening proposition — and this is how it started, ranking the conference championship games when it comes to playoff importance, from most to least.
No. 5 Utah (11-1) vs. No. 13 Oregon (10-2)
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
In the five-year history of the CFP, the Pac-12 has qualified exactly twice — the inaugural year in 2014 with Oregon and in 2016 with Washington. That’s the fewest number of appearances among the Power Five conferences. Coincidentally or not, the reputation of the Pac-12, at least when it comes to football, is significantly lower than the other P5s, even as the Big Ten (three) and Big 12 (three) only have one more CFP appearance than the Left Coast league.
That’s why the Pac-12 is desperate for three things to go down this weekend, one Friday night and two the next day. One, Utah beats Oregon, and beats them impressively. Two, LSU beats Georgia in some form or fashion, regardless of how impressive. Three, Baylor beats Oklahoma.
To paraphrase the great Adrian Cronauer, the Pac-12 is in more desperate need of a playoff appearance than any white man in history.
No. 7 Baylor (11-1) vs. No. 6 Oklahoma (11-1)
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Tex.
By the time Baylor and Oklahoma take the field at Jerry’s World early Saturday afternoon, both schools will have a better idea where they fit in the playoff picture. If Utah beats Oregon the night before, they both know they’ll need to be impressive in a win (to go along with an LSU win over Georgia later on in the afternoon) to get in. If Oregon beats Utah, both teams will know that they merely need a win by any means necessary (to go along with an LSU win over Georgia later on in the afternoon) to earn a spot.
One potential fly in the ointment: The committee hasn’t thought much of Baylor for most of the season. There are some who believe that a 12-1 Baylor could lose a playoff berth to an 11-2 Oregon; I can’t see that, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Then I got to thinking some more and, after taking a couple of Aleves because the process of thinking ofttimes hurts, dove further down the postseason rabbit hole and came up with exactly how to arrange the next tier of conference championship games as they pertain to playoff relevance:
No. 20 Cincinnati (10-2) at No. 17 Memphis (11-1)
Liberty Bowl Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.
Hawaii (9-4) at No. 19 Boise State (11-1)
Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho
- Conference USA
UAB (9-3) at Florida Atlantic (9-3)
FAU Football Stadium, Boca Raton, Fla.
Miami (OH) (7-5) vs. Central Michigan (8-4)
Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
- Sun Belt
Louisiana (10-2) at No. 21 Appalachian State (11-1)
Kid Brewer Stadium, Boone, NC
No. 23 Virginia (9-3) vs. No. 3 Clemson (12-0)
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
No. 4 Georgia (11-1) vs. No. 2 LSU (12-0)
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
- Big Ten
No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (10-2)
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
Get the point?
A loss — close or near-blowout — in their respective games Saturday will not knock either Ohio State or LSU out of the playoffs. An absolute evisceration? Potentially. The selection committee has made it clear that those two teams are head and shoulders above everybody else in the field except for Clemson, and they’re probably still only a half-head or so above the defending national champions, who will ride a 27-game winning streak into the weekend.
A close loss will not knock Clemson out, either. A blowout? Possibly, but, still, you put a 12-1 Clemson’s résumé up against a 12-1 conference champion Oklahoma/Baylor or a 12-1 conference champion Utah, and my guess is the committee opts for the non-conference champion Tigers — especially if the Big 12 and/or Pac-12 title games are close and/or sloppy affairs.
Such a gridiron Armageddon as laid out above, though, seems highly unlikely, at least when it comes to the oddsmakers. Clemson and Ohio State are both significant double-digit favorites — the Tigers are currently at -28½, the Buckeyes at -15½ — while LSU is a solid touchdown favorite.
So, getting back to the original premise: Yes, Championship Saturday still matters greatly — except, by and large, when it comes to the playoffs. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong that. At all.
Now, with that decided, let’s move on to the matter of getting rid of the conference championship games — and divisions in every league — altogether and use this weekend as the opening round of a 16-team playoff…