4 themes that will shape which teams make the College Football Playoff

The playoff race entering last year’s conference championship weekend was so dull that three of the top four teams could've lost and still made the four-slot College Football Playoff.

Indeed, No. 3 TCU did lose in the Big 12 title game and maintained its No. 3 spot behind No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Michigan. The only noteworthy thing that happened was No. 4 USC lost in the Pac-12 title game, allowing the committee to move a No. 5 Ohio State team — which didn’t even play a game that weekend — into the playoff field.

Essentially, it was light work for the committee.

That was then. This year might be chaos.

Eight teams remain in playoff contention this weekend. That includes unbeatens Georgia, Michigan, Washington and Florida State, ranked 1-4. Then there are one-loss teams Oregon, Ohio State, Texas and Alabama, which run 5-8. All but the Buckeyes play this weekend.

None can afford a defeat.

This is what conference championship weekend was supposed to be — wall-to-wall meaningful games — yet almost never is. Here in the final season of the four-team playoff, it’s better late than never. Next year will make nearly every title game meaningful, due to automatic bids, seeding/byes and home-field advantage.

But myriad interesting scenarios might emerge this year that would keep the committee up late Saturday night. It’s entirely possible that all eight teams could wind up with one loss.

In general, the most likely arguments will revolve around four major themes:

1. What to do with a 13-0 Florida State team that would, obviously, be an undefeated ACC champion but would enter the playoff as a significant underdog due to the injury to starting quarterback Jordan Travis? Almost no one would consider FSU one of “the four best teams,” which is what the committee is tasked with determining. However, how do you leave out the Seminoles?

2. How will the committee factor head-to-head competition, namely the fact that Texas defeated Alabama 34-24 in Tuscaloosa back in September? If it’s a choice between the 12-1 SEC champion Crimson Tide (coming off ending Georgia’s 29-game win streak) and the 12-1 Big 12 champion Longhorns, could the committee actually discount the result of an on-field game?

3. Does the committee have to place the SEC champion in the field, even if it's a one-loss Alabama club? The SEC has won 13 of the past 17 national championships, including four consecutive. Three times during that stretch, the championship game has been an all-SEC affair. This is the dominant conference in the sport. How legitimate is a playoff without an SEC team?

4. Do losses count more than wins? Namely, is whom you lost to (and how) more important than whom you beat (and how)?

TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA - SEPTEMBER 09: Quinn Ewers #3 of the Texas Longhorns reacts after defeating Alabama Crimson Tide 34-24 at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The best way to predict the above scenarios — or any scenario — is to look at what the committee has done over the nearly 10 years of its existence. It’s similar to handicapping an expected Supreme Court decision based on the past decisions, leanings and writings of the justices.

Start with this: If the results break the wrong way, the job is impossible. Why anyone signs up to attempt this remains a mystery. While conspiracy theories will fly regardless of the decision, the committee might really be trying to make the best choice from a slew of bad options

Second, what the committee says is meaningless. It can say anything. It will do only one thing. The system is so loaded up with criteria and data that nearly any decision can be justified by criteria and data.

On Tuesday’s selection show, ESPN’s Rece Davis asked committee chair Boo Corrigan why 11-1 Oregon was ranked two spots above 11-1 Texas, even though the Longhorns have a better victory (over Alabama), more victories over ranked teams (2-to-1) and a strength of schedule nearly 40 spots higher?

“The way they played an Oregon State team that we really respect as a group, held them to seven points as opposed to 34, which they have averaged on the year,” Corrigon said. “The season Bo Nix is having, 78% completion percentage.”

Completion percentage? “Respect” for the 20th-ranked Oregon State Beavers? Whether you agree or disagree with the rankings, these are shaky reasons. In short, they just like Oregon better. That’s how this works.

So here are some thoughts on the committee:

• It’s risk-averse. In theory, it’s there to produce the best playoff field possible, but in reality, these are mostly college administrators (or retired coaches) who want to make the most easily explained decision to minimize blowback from a thankless job.

This is seen in the weekly rankings, in which they generally sort the teams based on the number of losses. In the five weekly rankings this season, the teams have been almost exclusively grouped with the unbeatens, then the one-loss teams, then the two-loss teams. Out of 75 potential slots, only three times has a team with more losses jumped a team with fewer losses (all involved Louisville).

That suggests that if Florida State gets to 13-0, the Seminoles will be in. It doesn’t matter who is or isn’t better, it is what the explanation can be. In this case, the committee can point to the one-loss teams and note that they didn’t do something tangible — win all their games — as a reason to be left out.

• Additionally, the most important factor in ranking teams is whom they lost to, not whom they defeated. That explains why Oregon (with a loss to No. 3 Washington) and Ohio State (with a loss to No. 2 Michigan) are ranked two spots higher than Texas (loss to No. 12 Oklahoma), despite the fact that the Longhorns have the best victory (at No. 8 Alabama).

As such, if the debate Sunday comes down to Alabama and Texas, Alabama would have the best win — over current No. 1 Georgia, which is a two-time reigning national champion and was on a 29-game winning streak.

But Texas still beat Alabama head-to-head, and so the easiest and most defensible position for the committee that would be facing intense backlash is to point to that direct result. If they went with the Crimson Tide, they’d need to use some sideways logic — i.e. head-to-head didn’t determine who was better or the SEC must get in.

This committee — not to mention the ones before it — has not indicated that it would use such an aggressive thought process.

It’s not that it would or wouldn’t be wrong, it’s just that Alabama over Texas or any one-loss team over unbeaten Florida State would be bold, and the committee just doesn’t do bold.

Here on a most anticipated conference championship weekend, we shall see, though — both on the field and in the committee room.