College Football Playoff – Five Questions for the Committee

College Football Playoff – Five Questions for the Committee


When the College Football Playoff was introduced more than a decade ago, and the sport’s championship grew from two to four teams, there were still some questions the system’s creators couldn’t answer — or had great difficulty answering.

What was the value of winning a conference title when two SEC teams could get in and two Power 5 conference champions were out? When do head-to-head results matter? And at what point are they discarded? How do you measure a team's schedule strength? And how much was strength of schedule derived from the perceived strength of a competitor's own conference?

When the 12-team CFP is unveiled this fall, it will again be a learning curve for everyone — fans, coaches, players, media and the selection committee. The committee's work — and its protocols — remain virtually unchanged, but an unprecedented field of 12 teams naturally raises new questions for the group responsible for ranking the country's best teams.

In the spirit of the new CFP format, which will guarantee playoff spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions, here are five questions for the committee.

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1. Will there be a change in programme-wise evaluation with the restructuring of the conference?

Top national title contenders aren’t used to losing — but some coaches also hope that will change, and that could make things difficult at the committee meeting.

The committee has historically rewarded teams that play tough opponents, and holds wins against the CFP's top 25 teams in high regard. However, with 18 teams in the Big Ten and 16 in the SEC, some CFP contenders now have a more difficult path to their own conference championship game. The SEC and Big Ten's rigorous schedules will make it even more difficult for those respective leagues to produce undefeated or even one-loss conference champions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 2014, 14 of the 20 teams that have appeared in the SEC Championship Game have suffered one or no losses. During that same time period, 11 of the 20 Big Ten teams that have played in the league championship game have suffered one or no losses.

Now?

According to ESPN's preseason FPI, only three teams have at least a 10% chance of finishing the regular season undefeated (Oregon, Notre Dame and Georgia), and none have more than a 20% chance of going 12-0. The only other time during the CFP era when no team had more than a 20% chance of going undefeated was 2016, and Alabama was the only Power 5 team to finish 12-0 that year.

What will that mean in Selection Central, when teams from those leagues lose multiple times and are compared to teams from the ACC and Big 12 — whose teams have better records but who face lower-ranked opponents?

“Do I think there will be a lot of teams that lose in the playoffs? Yes, that's definitely going to happen,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “How do you differentiate? I leave that up to the committee. That's why we have this system. … There will be debate about which football team is left out. At the end of the day, everybody has a chance to go out on the field and perform and play and earn the right to get in. Somebody will be left out that maybe shouldn't be in. … That happened to us in a four-team playoff. Probably three times I thought we were one of the best four teams, but we just couldn't earn it on the field.”


2. How many teams from the SEC and Big Ten will fill out the bracket?

Using the previous year's final CFP rankings with conference realignment in place for 2024, the Big Ten and SEC would jointly hold 10 of the 12 spots.

SEC champion Alabama would be joined by Texas, Georgia, Mizzou and Ole Miss. Big Ten champion Michigan would be joined by Washington (the Pac-12 champion in 2023), Ohio State, Oregon and Penn State.

There is no limit on how many teams from a conference can qualify for the playoffs, but there are fixed spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions. Most likely they will usually include the champions of the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and Group of 5 winner. In 2023 those winners were Florida State (ACC), Michigan (Big Ten), Alabama (SEC), Texas (Big 12, now in the SEC) and Liberty (out of Conference USA, the highest-ranked G5 winner).

How many times will the conference champions of the ACC and Big 12 be their sole representatives?


3. How difficult will it be to decide the ranking of the 8th and 9th teams in front of the number 1 team?

The four highest-ranked conference champions will receive first-round byes. Everyone else will play a first-round game on the higher-seeded team's home campus. The winner of the game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds will face the nation's best team in the quarterfinals. The loser will go home. Is this something the committee will think about — either intentionally or unintentionally — when it prepares its final rankings on Selection Day?

Remember, these games will be played on December 20 and 21 this year, which can be very cold on some campuses — especially in the Big Ten. (According to Accuweather.com, the high temperature in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last December 20 was 38 degrees and the low was 21 degrees.)

How much will they benefit if they are hosting a team from the South?

Last year, in a 12-team field, Oregon hosted Mizzou. Autzen Stadium has a distinct home-field advantage because of its smaller size and location. The winner of that game would have faced No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Michigan.


4. What will be the criteria for ranking the top champions of Group 5?

Last year, the selection committee's most controversial ranking outside the top four was the decision to place undefeated Liberty at No. 23, which guaranteed the Flames a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Liberty earned the Group of 5's coveted bid to a New Year's Six bowl without beating a single Power 5 opponent. The Flames had the easiest schedule in the country (No. 133) when entering the postseason last year, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Eight of Liberty's 12 regular-season opponents finished with losing records. It was a decision that blatantly defied the committee's typical reverence for strength of schedule and was inconsistent with its rationale in the rest of its top 25 rankings.

If there were a 12-team playoff in 2023, Liberty would have a spot in the field as the Group of 5 champion, and the Flames would have edged out No. 12 Oklahoma for the spot. Was Liberty's selection last year an anomaly? Or is going undefeated for the Group of 5 regardless of strength of schedule the committee's new standard? If so, does that apply to the rest of their top 25?

In a four-team playoff, the best Group of 5 champion also faced a nearly impossible standard to reach the CFP—an undefeated record that included wins against Power 5 opponents and CFP Top 25-ranked teams. In 2021, Cincinnati, then a member of the American Athletic Conference, was the only team to reach the CFP semifinals in the decade of four-team playoffs.

The criteria for getting into the 12-team field will be scrutinized very closely because there's a chance that the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion will beat out a strong contender at No. 12. Remember, it's not the committee's top 12 teams. It's the five highest-ranked conference champions and the seven highest-ranked teams after that. So if that fifth champion is ranked outside the top 12, the unlucky 12th team will be snubbed to make room for them.

In case the fifth champion is not ranked, the Selection Committee will rank the Group-5 champions separately and then declare the top school along with the top 25 as the highest ranked champion of Group-5.

Liberty will never face a Power 4 opponent again. Will that make a difference?


5. How will the playoff path change for the Independents?

Notre Dame isn't the only one affected by the new format. Oregon State and Washington State will also be considered independents this fall, as they no longer have a Pac-12 Conference championship game to play in.

If any of these schools qualify for the 12-team tournament, they cannot receive a first-round bye because they cannot finish as one of the four highest-ranked conference champions. They must play a first-round game and must win four consecutive games to win the national title.

In the past, not having a conference title game was a pro-con situation for the Irish. If they were already in the top four before Selection Day, the Irish didn’t have to risk losing and being eliminated. However, if they were on the bubble, there was no further opportunity to impress the committee against a ranked opponent. Notre Dame had to sit and wait and hope for help while everyone else was competing.

Now?

The Irish should be in contention most times, if they don't end up with more than one loss – maybe two – depending on their schedule, results and how everyone else is doing. There's a lot less pressure to go undefeated even without a conference title. However, they still have to beat marquee opponents like Texas A&M, Florida State and USC and avoid an upset from Marshall.

Oregon State's best chance will be against rival Oregon on September 14, as most of the Beavers' opponents are Mountain West Conference teams through the Scheduling Alliance. Washington State will face rival Washington, Texas Tech, and Oregon State. Both former Pac-12 teams should leave no doubt that they are playoff-worthy against unranked opponents as they may have limited opportunities for CFP Top 25 wins.



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