It’s August. The top of the college football picture looks muddled. This seems like a year that could produce multiple two-loss conference champions. Would this open the door for a one-loss conference loser to get into the playoff – 11-1 FSU if Clemson wins the ACC? – Don’t count on it.
For all its earnest busywork, the college football playoff committee’s decision has little independent value. They can’t defend a controversial decision. The committee will naturally drift toward the path of least resistance. Presented with a controversial, difficult choice between TCU and Baylor in 2014, the committee went for Ohio State.
The playoff is run by the five power conference champions. The path of least resistance will, almost always, be to choose four of those conference champions. Any other outcome threatens the stability of the system itself. It would take a spectacular case to overcome that inertia.
Notre Dame could go 12-0 and do it. 11-1 would be a much harder case for them. Houston would need to be 12-0 with two quality wins over Oklahoma and Louisville to enter the discussion. A non-Power 5 champion may face an even greater burden.
We could come up with situations where a one-loss conference loser was among the four best teams.
Florida State could lose narrowly at home to Clemson, and still offer a strong résumé with non-conference wins over Florida/Ole Miss and road wins against Louisville and Miami.
The SEC could offer us another Game of the Century conundrum. Alabama loses at LSU. But, they still have wins over USC, Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Tennessee away from home.
Maybe it’s 2014 again in the Big 12. TCU beats Oklahoma. Both finish 11-1. Oklahoma has non-conference wins over Houston and Ohio State and looks like the better team.
Maybe it’s 2006 again in the Big Ten. Michigan and Ohio State enter the Game 11-0. One team wins by a field goal.
But, an important question for the committee, is not whether one of those teams has a case. But, what the ramifications are for choosing them over someone else. It’s not a guarantee won-loss record would vault a one-loss team ahead of a two-loss champ.
Let’s say the Pac 12 has another two-loss champion this year. That could be Stanford at 11-2 against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Does the committee screw over the Pac 12 again for having too many good football teams? Twenty of 26 media members thought that would happen. Do they do it for a team that did not win its conference? It’s hard to see how the Pac 12 would not clamor for expansion to 8 teams.
Picking a one-loss non-champ would have two of those cases. How does the Big 12 feel getting glossed over for the second time in three years? How would the SEC feel if it was their two-loss conference champion that went through the toughest conference.
The committee works when things go smoothly. That’s how their performance is judged. Dumping two Power 5 champions for a non-champion would be the bumpiest road the committee could take. Unless there are 10-3 champions, expect the committee to side against doing so if at all possible.