When it was initially conceived, one of the worries about the College Football Playoff selection committee was that it would be so controversial, members might be subjected to threats from crazy fans.
But six years into the Playoff era, it’s actually gone the other way. The job of picking the four Playoff teams has been so easy, so free of real drama, that the committee exists at this point to provide structure and formality to the process, not make any tough decisions.
In that sense, the committee has been pretty lucky. Every time, the eye test and the data has matched up to produce a playoff with four teams that were either unbeaten or had one loss. We haven’t really had a legitimate snub, much less one so egregious that the decision-makers were moved to scrap the current system.
But there’s one possible outcome Saturday that could spark the swift detonation of the four-team Playoff structure. If Notre Dame beats Clemson for a second time in the ACC championship game, the selection committee will face the most difficult choice in the history of the Playoff and create outrage no matter which path it takes.
As the committee affirmed Tuesday night with its last rankings update before the official selections on Sunday, there is a clear top four heading into the championship games.
It seems as if No. 1 Alabama is going to be in the Playoff win or lose Saturday against Florida. For No. 2 Notre Dame, which already owns the best win of the season over Clemson, only an unimaginably lopsided loss in the rematch could knock them out. Likewise, Clemson at No. 3 is in with a win. And though Ohio State has played only five games, the committee keeping the Buckeyes at No. 4 suggests they’ll be in as long as they take care of business against Northwestern.
So what happens if Notre Dame pulls out a competitive win over Clemson in the ACC championship game, similar to their 47-40 overtime classic on Nov. 7?
Based on the history of the CFP, Clemson at 9-2 would be out. No two-loss team has ever made it in. But there’s also never been a two-loss team that still plausibly looked like one of the best four teams in the country.
Even with two losses, the committee’s options to replace Clemson would not be particularly appealing. Since there’s no evidence the committee would seriously consider Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina for the fourth spot, it leaves us with only two potential options: Southern Cal or Texas A&M.
The Trojans can wrap up a 6-0 season with a win over Oregon in the Pac 12 title game, but they’ve needed an unusual amount of luck to get there as three of their wins have come on touchdowns in the final minute (including one over a winless Arizona team). Nothing about what USC has done on the field thus far inspires confidence they’d be competitive against an Alabama, Ohio State or Notre Dame, which is reflected in the committee ranking them No. 13 this week. For all intents and purposes, USC is out.
Texas A&M has been No. 5 for several weeks, and many people would expect the 7-1 Aggies (with one more game against Tennessee pending) to simply slide up a spot. But outside their win over Florida in Week 3 (which lost some value with the Gators’ awful performance last weekend against LSU), there’s not much meat on that résumé, either. And if Texas A&M got in as No. 4, it would likely be matched up against Alabama in the semifinals — a team it already lost to 52-24. Outside of the SEC footprint, does anyone in the country want to see Alabama-Texas A&M, part 2 instead of Alabama-Clemson?
Meanwhile, the Tigers’ argument here would be simple: While Notre Dame’s temporary addition to the ACC during this pandemic season meant they had to play an ACC championship game against a top-four team, A&M had the luxury of risking nothing because it already lost its division and didn’t have to play a championship game. In fact, if the SEC had done the same thing as the ACC and eliminated divisions this year, A&M would have already had its second shot at Alabama and could have settled it on the field instead of being able to backdoor its way into the Playoff.
Ultimately, a Clemson team with two losses to Notre Dame would have a powerful argument in a head-to-head comparison with Texas A&M: They’re just a better football team.
Isn’t that what the committee is supposed to identify?
At the same time, it would also be the end of the Playoff as we know it. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Here’s the truth: The four-team Playoff has always been a beauty contest, not a reward for winning a particular number of games or even a conference. Week after week in these rankings, we see how the committee slots teams based on the eye test and reverse-engineers the logic to justify what it does. In the end, the vague parameters surrounding the process allow the committee to say they picked the “four best” based on the “body of work,” which is pretty much the end of the argument. They can do whatever they want. It just so happens that all of those calls so far have been pretty easy to justify.
They may not be so fortunate this time.
Given its mission and its latitude, the committee absolutely could — and maybe should — pick a two-loss Clemson team that didn’t win a conference championship over a one-loss Texas A&M team that didn’t win a conference championship.
But if the committee went that route, the howling from the SEC would be immense. The Pac-12 probably wouldn’t be too thrilled, either. And for the Big 12, which will be left out of the playoff for a third time in seven years, it’s hard to imagine a lot of remaining enthusiasm for a four-team system.
The other choice isn’t too appealing, either. Including a Texas A&M team that lost by four touchdowns to a fellow playoff participant would confer permanent privilege on the SEC that, in this case, it would have done little to deserve. Deep down, everyone except extreme SEC partisans would know that the committee picked an inferior ball club.
The answer, of course, is an eight-team playoff where five power conference champions get automatic bids and a committee makes three at-large selections. It doesn’t guarantee better matchups — in fact, a lot of the quarterfinals could be blowouts — but it pretty much eliminates the endlessly frustrating eye test vs. record debate.
If Clemson loses to Notre Dame, there will be significant stakes attached to that argument. And no matter which way it goes, there could be enough unhappy people to finally decide there’s a better way to identify a national champion.