College Sports

September 4, 2014

First major playoff bracket test surfaces Saturday in Oregon

Coaches wonder how the selection committee will view the result of a rare top 10 nonconference matchup.

One week into the first playoff chase in major-college football history, a potential sticking point already has surfaced in efforts to seed the postseason bracket.

Seven teams received first-place votes in this week’s Associated Press poll, the most in any set of Top 25 rankings since the one released on Sept. 7, 2008. No. 1 Florida State still rules the roost with 46 first-place ballots. But the Seminoles fell in the estimation of voters, surrendering 11 first-place votes to other teams in the wake of last week’s 37-31 victory over unranked Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Although it will be a different panel of voters who set the four-team field for the inaugural College Football Playoff, the decision belongs to a 13-member selection committee. The fact that seven schools, including No. 9 Texas A&M (two votes), are considered the nation’s best team by at least one AP voter heading into the second Saturday of the season suggests how difficult it is to separate elite teams from one another this season.

Eventually, some mandatory matchups between top-10 teams will surface during conference play to help committee members gauge the playoff hopefuls. But those games are rare in nonconference action, with the biggest of the season set for Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

No. 7 Michigan State (1-0), last year’s Rose Bowl champion, meets No. 3 Oregon (1-0) in what might be the only voluntary showdown between top-10 teams during the 2014 regular season (5:30 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4).

That raises a couple of important questions: Will the loser of Saturday’s game in Eugene be rewarded by selection committee members for tackling such a difficult September game in quest of a playoff berth? Or will the loser be downgraded as a playoff hopeful in efforts to thin the field when it is time to finalize the bracket?

No one will know until Dec. 7, when members of the CFP selection committee release the four-team bracket of teams that will compete to claim the first national championship of the playoff era on Jan. 12 in Arlington.

Bill Hancock, CFP executive director, repeatedly has said committee members seek to seed the four best teams, regardless of conference affiliation. But it will be up to each of the 13 committee members to digest the merits of a high-profile September loss against the merits of a September rout of an FCS foe when playoff hopefuls are compared against one another in confidential discussions.

For now, coaches at Oregon and Michigan State are left to wonder if they have enhanced their teams’ playoff paths by adding an extra hurdle to the September schedule that other contenders do not face.

“Any time you lose one game, now the nitpicking can begin,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “One of the things that makes college football so great, and one of the things that makes it difficult, is that kind of perfection area. I think it will be a good test for that committee. It will be interesting to watch. Hopefully, we’re doing our part to be in the mix.”

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said: “It’s a big football game on national TV. I think we embrace those situations. But we can’t control [outsiders’ perceptions]. I sort of shrug my shoulders and go.”

What is unique to this game, beyond the unseasonably warm forecast for Autzen Stadium (97 degrees at kickoff), is that no other top-10 teams in this week’s AP poll are slated to meet in nonconference play. Poll shifts could change that. But as of today, the most compelling nonconference matchups involving national title contenders include No. 5 Auburn at No. 20 Kansas State (Sept. 18) and No. 16 Notre Dame at No. 1 Florida State (Oct. 18).

Already, coaches of title contenders have begun politicking to extol the virtues of their teams, leagues and nonconference schedules in efforts to curry favor with poll voters and CFP committee members. It will be a season-long habit, said ABC/ESPN announcer Chris Fowler.

“There will be no shortage of posturing on many fronts. It will be interesting to see how the committee reacts to that,” Fowler said. “I believe in the integrity of the committee. Fans think people cannot operate without biases, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I do believe 13 humans getting together and selecting the top four teams is the best way we’ve had [to settle a championship].”

Baylor coach Art Briles, whose team will not face a ranked opponent in nonconference play (SMU, Northwestern State, Buffalo), expects the 10th-ranked Bears to be a playoff team if they win a second consecutive Big 12 title. Multiple SEC coaches have said the winner of that conference, which has produced seven of the last eight national champions, should be in the playoff field regardless of final record.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit disagreed.

“I don’t really care about conference championships,” Herbstreit said. “I want to get the best four teams. I don’t care where they play. I hope the committee won’t get caught up in that. But those are the kinds of discussions and arguments that, in my opinion, are going to get very heated.”

Also on the list: whether Saturday’s loser of the Oregon-Michigan State game is helped or hurt by tackling such a daunting September challenge.

Notable nonconference games

No. 7 Michigan State at No. 3 Oregon, Saturday: Potential knockout game in nonconference play for two top-10 teams.

No. 11 UCLA vs. Texas (Arlington), Sept. 13: The Bruins’ toughest nonconference test before tackling a rugged Pac-12 slate.

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, Sept. 13: Volunteers have SEC pedigree but lack talent of elite Tennessee teams from yesteryear.

No. 5 Auburn at No. 20 Kansas State, Sept. 18: Both teams have 12 days to prepare for a Thursday night statement game on national TV.

No. 16 Notre Dame at No. 1 Florida State, Oct. 18: FSU meets the highest-ranked opponent remaining on its regular-season schedule.

Already played: No. 12 LSU edged No. 18 Wisconsin, 28-24, and No. 6 Georgia defeated No. 23 Clemson 45-21 in nonconference openers last week.

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