So far, through two years of the CFB Playoff format with four teams selected by committee, only conference champions have been selected. Things have worked out well, relatively, to abide by the stated goal of taking conference champions when close decisions need to be made.
So far, the biggest controversy was Ohio State over Baylor and TCU from the Big 12 in 2014, where the committee took neither of the co-champs from one conference, in favor of the hot team that won the Big Ten (and won the title).
But that preference, and that ease of decision, may be coming to an end in 2016. Conference champs have usually been clear-cut. The closest case was Michigan State last year over Ohio State, but the Spartans won head-to-head and had no other losses.
After Michigan’s loss last night, though, the Big Ten could realistically produce a champion that does not include either Ohio State or Michigan even reaching the title game. Penn State holds the tiebreaker over Ohio State, and just needs to beat Rutgers and Michigan State, and have Ohio State beat Michigan, and the Nittany Lions will be representing the Big Ten East.
Other than “they won the tiebreaker” though, the case to take them is pretty slim compared to other candidates. They will have split with Michigan and Ohio State, losing in a blowout at Michigan and on the blocked field goal return at home. They will have lost one more game than Ohio State, against Pittsburgh. They will have played the easiest non-conference top opponent, with Ohio State going to Oklahoma and Michigan playing Colorado. And they will have played by far the easiest cross-conference schedule, playing only Purdue on the road from the West, and avoiding Wisconsin.
I looked at recent results of the Top 10 final teams by the committee rankings, and how they did against different levels of teams (using SRS) and differentiating between home/road/neutral. Here are the expected wins by a top 10 team playing same schedule so far, compared to the actual wins of several contenders.
Alabama should be a slam dunk for the playoff, even if they were to somehow get upset in the SEC Championship Game. The average Top 10 team would be 8-2, as Alabama has played several top teams on the road or at neutral sites.
Ohio State is 2nd, thanks to that win over Oklahoma among other results, to offset their loss. I included Western Michigan not because I think they are one of the best four, but if enough teams finish with 2+ losses, they get in the conversation.
Penn State is down in the same area as USC, and other than having that likelihood of a tiebreaker win, the case is slim. The Nittany Lions may get to test the Committee and their priorities this year.