Elite teams from top leagues plot different routes in CFP title chase

08/23/2014 6:35 PM

11/12/2014 8:05 PM

In this inaugural season of the College Football Playoff era, the salvos of summer will soon give way to on-field results used to seed a four-team bracket that will produce this year’s national champion.

This much we know: the first national champion of the playoff era will be crowned Jan. 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

And it would be a stunner if that champion does not play in one of the Power Five conferences recently given enhanced autonomy in future governance decisions by the NCAA (SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC).

Teams from those five leagues grabbed all but one of the available spots in The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25 rankings. Of the top 40 teams that received votes in the poll, 36 hail from Power Five leagues.

That translates to a stacked deck in the playoff race for Power Five schools. But the bickering already has begun between coaches and administrators from those leagues who do not want their conference champion sidelined when members of the CFP selection committee announce the four playoff participants on Dec. 7.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby called his league’s nine-game, round-robin schedule a “better path to the playoffs” because each member plays every other member during the regular season. The 10-member league has no championship game at the end of the regular season because it is not divided into divisions.

The other four conferences in the Power Five have season-ending championship games because their leagues feature 12 to 14 members and are divided into two divisions.

The Pac-12 plays nine conference games; the SEC, Big Ten and ACC play only eight league contests.

The disparate approaches have triggered some preseason posturing from coaches. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team won last year’s national title and is ranked No. 1 in both preseason polls, called it “ridiculous” that the Big 12 does not stage a championship game while the other Power Five leagues have one.

“Every conference should have to have one,” Fisher said.

Baylor coach Art Briles, whose team won last year’s Big 12 title, responded that Fisher “needs to worry about the ACC. Don’t come to Texas telling me how to do my business.”

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, a former Oklahoma offensive coordinator, likened the Big 12 approach to a golfer playing only 17 holes during a round.

“They post a score but don’t have to play No. 18,” Wilson said.

The give-and-take has been prevalent this summer, with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops firing several shots at the SEC, which plays only eight league games but has produced seven of the past eight national champions. Stoops’ Sooners defeated Alabama 45-31 in last year’s Sugar Bowl after taking exception to what he called “SEC propaganda” about that league’s recent success.

“I’m just stating facts,” Stoops said. “Every now and then, a few things need to be pointed out.”

The bottom line, at this point, is that no one knows which approach — round-robin schedule (Big 12) or conference championship game (SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC) — is most likely to be rewarded in December by the 13-member CFP selection committee.

But speculation is rampant.

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit believes a league championship game will help teams that play one.

“Having that extra high-profile game at the end will be a factor [to committee members] when some teams don’t have that game,” Herbstreit said.

ABC/ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said: “The Big 12 is on an island and a lot people view that as a disadvantage. But I think playing one more conference game and playing a challenging nonconference schedule, with the exception of Baylor, does work in your favor if you are the Big 12.”

Fowler excluded Baylor because the Bears’ 2014 nonconference slate includes matchups against SMU, Northwestern (La.) State and Buffalo.

Where they’re ranked

Conference Top 25 Highest ranked member (Rank)
SEC 8 Alabama (2)
Pac-12 6 Oregon (3)
Big Ten 4 Ohio State (5)
Big 12 3 Oklahoma (4)
ACC 3 Florida State (1)

Outside the Power Five

A look at teams from outside the Power Five conferences that could factor into this year’s national title race:

School AP rank Comment
Notre Dame 17 Best among the independents
UCF Unranked Fiesta Bowl champs favored in The American
Marshall Unranked C-USA favorite could finish undefeated
Cincinnati Unranked Co-favorite with UCF in The American
Boise State Unranked Favorite to win Mountain West
BYU Unranked Capable independent

Arlington’s Big Six

The defending national champs from Florida State open the 2014 season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington and hope to end it there in the CFP national title game on Jan. 12, 2015. Below is a look at this year’s six-game schedule of high-profile college games at AT&T Stadium:

Saturday, Aug. 30: Oklahoma State vs. Florida State

Saturday, Sept. 13: Texas vs. UCLA

Saturday, Sept. 27: Texas A&M vs. Arkansas

Saturday, Nov. 29: Texas Tech vs. Baylor

Thurs., Jan. 1: AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic

Monday, Jan. 12: College Football Playoff national championship game

Key games

Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: Potential knockout game in nonconference play for two teams ranked in preseason Top 10.

Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: The top two teams in the SEC East face off in a potential matchup to settle the division title.

Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11: The respective divisional favorites in the Pac-12 meet in a possible preview of the league title game.

Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8: Potential matchup to decide the Big 12 title between a pair of preseason top 10 teams.

Florida State at Miami, Nov. 15: Projects to be the top-ranked Seminoles’ toughest road trip of the regular season.

Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The winner of this game has advanced to the past five national championship games, claiming four titles.

Conference championship games, Dec. 5-6: Titles will be decided between division winners in SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC.

Games we won’t see

These matchups won’t be played this season, potentially clouding the CFP title race:

UCF vs. Cincinnati: The co-favorites in the American Athletic Conference do not meet during the regular season and the 11-team league has no championship game. As a result, both schools could finish with undefeated records and impact the playoff picture.

Wisconsin vs. Ohio State/Michigan State: The Badgers do not play either of the two East Division co-favorites (or traditional power Michigan) in efforts to claim the Big Ten’s West Division title. The same holds true for Iowa in its efforts to win the West.

Alabama vs. Georgia/South Carolina: The Crimson Tide does not play either of the East Division co-favorites in regular-season play.

Notre Dame vs. Michigan State: Long-standing rivalry takes a hiatus this season in the wake of realignment.

Oregon vs. USC: The two Pac-12 powers will not cross paths during the regular season.

Unranked but dangerous

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs, led by underappreciated QB Dak Prescott, return 54 lettermen and 18 starters from a 7-6 team that won its last three games, including a 44-7 rout of Rice in the Liberty Bowl.

Marshall: The Thundering Herd, 10-4 last season, should be favored in every regular-season game. Led by standout QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall could be 13-0 and Conference USA champions when the committee sets the playoff field.

Iowa: A veteran QB (Jake Rudock) and a user-friendly schedule could help the Hawkeyes reach double-digit victories after last year’s 8-5 finish.

Texas Tech: If QB Davis Webb stays healthy and key JC signees emerge on defense, the Red Raiders have the playmakers and schedule to be a surprise Big 12 contender.

UCF: The Fiesta Bowl champs lost QB Blake Bortles to the NFL Draft but remain the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference. Nonconference wins over Penn State, Missouri and Brigham Young (possible) could carry the Knights back to another major bowl.

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