It is Championship Saturday in college football, which could translate to chaos for the College Football Playoff selection committee if the right series of upsets materialize.
Of the top 10 teams in this week’s CFP rankings, six are competing in conference championship games that could alter the projected postseason pecking order established Tuesday by committee members. Depending on Saturday’s results, at least six “firsts” in playoff history could unfold for CFP contenders. We’ll outline those momentarily.
The only certainty, at this point, is this: The final CFP rankings will be released Sunday (11 a.m., ESPN) and the top four teams will play for the national championship, beginning with two semifinal games on Dec. 31. One semifinal matchup will be played in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
As things stand, No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1), the Big 12 champion, is the only team within the projected four-team playoff bracket with an open date Saturday.
Elsewhere, No. 1 Clemson (12-0) meets No. 10 North Carolina (11-1) in the ACC title game. No. 2 Alabama (11-1) faces No. 18 Florida (10-2) to settle the SEC championship. The Big Ten title will be decided in a battle between No. 4 Iowa (12-0) and No. 5 Michigan State (11-1).
Another team on the playoff fringe, No. 7 Stanford (10-2), meets No. 20 Southern California (8-4) in the Pac-12 championship game. Other top-10 teams with playoff hopes and open dates include No. 6 Ohio State (11-1), last year’s national champion, and No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2).
Based on records, rankings and matchups, it is hard to project any two-loss team other than Stanford making enough headway in Sunday’s final rankings to become a playoff team. But lots of difficult decisions could be on the docket for the 12 committee members during overnight meetings in Grapevine before the playoff bracket is finalized.
A year ago, the top six teams in the final set of regular-season rankings all won their games on Championship Saturday and CFP members still tweaked the final pecking order for the playoff bracket. TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 despite a 55-3 victory over Iowa State, allowing Ohio State to move into the No. 4 spot in the playoff field after routing Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game.
With that much bracket movement following a final weekend of victories by 2014 playoff contenders, imagine the 2015 chaos that could unfold with multiple upsets.
Here are some potential playoff firsts:
No ACC team in bracket. A loss by top-ranked Clemson to No. 10 North Carolina in the ACC title game could make that happen. The Tar Heels have a long way to climb, even with a victory, and CFP committee members have been critical of North Carolina’s nonconference schedule (two FCS opponents) and season-opening loss to South Carolina, a 3-9 team.
No SEC team in bracket. If Alabama falls to Florida, the SEC will crown a two-loss champion and the league would have no other candidate with fewer than two losses to make the field without a league title to its credit. It is unlikely that Florida can climb into the top four, even with an upset of Alabama.
Two-loss team makes playoff field. This seems most likely to happen for Stanford, which could win the Pac-12 title with an 11-2 record. The Cardinal would need losses by teams ranked above them, but those possibilities exist. Last year’s playoff participants included undefeated Florida State and three league champions with records of 12-1 (Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon).
Non-champion makes the playoffs. Ohio State, which cannot win the Big Ten title, could move from No. 6 into the four-team bracket if enough upsets occur. Jeff Long, chairman of the CFP selection committee, stressed Tuesday that CFP protocol “clearly says there can be more than one team from a conference in the final four, so that’s definitely a possibility.” With the Big Ten title game between No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State serving as an elimination game for one team ranked ahead of Ohio State, the Buckeyes might need only one more upset to return to the playoffs after winning last year’s national title as the No. 4 playoff seed.
Final-week loser makes the playoff. Do not rule out the possibility that top-ranked Clemson, with a flukish or controversial loss, could fall only as far as No. 4 in the final rankings and remain in the playoff mix. Asked about that possibility, Long said: “Certainly it is possible. But I don’t know all the other factors that would play into it.”
Idle team earns top seed: With a Big 12 championship in hand, Oklahoma could improve its playoff seed by sitting home and watching higher-ranked teams fall. The right losses could put OU at No. 1 by Sunday morning. A year after Long cited the lack of a Big 12 championship game as a factor that worked against TCU and Baylor in 2014 deliberations, he said the Sooners could benefit from being idle this weekend. Long said: “A conference championship game can help or hurt you, depending on the circumstances of that particular season. This season is very different than last season.”
One upset-related scenario seems unlikely. Barring a change of heart by committee members, do not expect North Carolina to reach the playoff bracket even with a win over top-ranked Clemson. In comparisons between the 10th-ranked Tar Heels and No. 6 Ohio State, Long said: “North Carolina and Ohio State, in the multiple strengths-of-record metrics we look at, they’re not close. It’s clearly in Ohio State’s favor … There’s multiple things in there that have held North Carolina back.”
Saturday’s key games
Florida vs. Alabama, 3 p.m., KTVT/11
Stanford vs. USC, 6:45 p.m., ESPN
Clemson vs. North Carolina, 7 p.m., WFAA/8
Iowa vs. Michigan State, 7 p.m., KDFW/4