To those who see the work of the College Football Playoff selection committee as solving a grand logic problem more than just the selection of four good teams, the final weekend of the season offers one tantalizing question:
Is Clemson in the playoff even if it loses Saturday to North Carolina, at least if it's a close loss, maybe on a late field goal or in overtime?
That seems to be the scenario that isn't getting much traction during the endless debate over who is going to get in when the field is officially announced on Sunday.
Everyone agrees that if Clemson, currently 12-0 and ranked No. 1 in each week of the committee's poll, beats UNC for the ACC title, the Tigers are in.
The debate seems to be about if the Tar Heels can climb into the top four by beating Clemson to finish 12-1. That would require overcoming two non-conference victories over teams from the old Division I-AA, a loss to 3-9 South Carolina and the general mediocrity of their division of the ACC.
"If we beat the No. 1 team in the country – and Clemson is the No. 1 in the country and a consensus No. 1, and they've stayed No. 1 for a long time – if that happens, then I believe our team is deserving," Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora argued.
Well, maybe, although fans of Stanford and Ohio State are arguing otherwise.
Really, though, the most fascinatingly awkward position the committee would find itself in is what to do with Clemson. Since the playoff committee experiment is just in its second year, and so far little has been done via weekly rankings or last year's final decision that shows it is bound by consistency, then no one can reasonably predict the outcome.
Here's the situation, though: If Clemson acquits itself well but loses, it would finish 12-1, with strong victories over Florida State (10-2) and Notre Dame (10-2), both of whom should finish in the top 10 of the final poll.
It's unlikely any other team would be able to make such a statement.
Obviously there are many ways to judge strength of schedule, but Clemson would rate comparatively well in any of them. The nebulous eye test? The committee has loved them all season. Quality of loss? Very good, although the committee hasn't shown that matters much when rating Oklahoma (defeat to potential eight-loss Texas) and Michigan State (defeat to seven-loss Nebraska).
About the only negative would be a lack of a conference title, which may or may not matter.
Well, that and the timing of the loss. Should that matter, though?
If the committee is truly considering the full breadth of the season, as it claims, then no. Then again, the committee basically says it considers everything, which is impossible but a good talking point.
A year ago, TCU went into the final weekend ranked No. 3, won its game by 52 points to earn a share of a conference title (officially at least) and was promptly dropped three spots and out of the playoff. Not saying that was correct or incorrect, just that no one can predict what will happen.
All of that would make the Clemson scenario quite the conundrum for the committee.
Right now it appears only three non-top-four teams have much of a case to slip in. (Florida, after the debacles of the past few weeks, feels too far gone even if it could add a victory over Alabama to one over Ole Miss.)
One contender is North Carolina, which gets its crack at Clemson. One is Stanford, which has two losses but can win the Pac-12 and add another quality victory with a second win over USC.
Then there is Ohio State, which is 11-1 and, like it did last season, looked brilliant in its final game, a throttling of Michigan. The problem is that's the Buckeyes' only top-line victory – and even then the Wolverines have three losses. A weak slate of games, lots of uninspired play in winning them and no shot at the Big Ten title game truly hampers their case.
While the committee might balk at putting Clemson in with a loss the night before the selection, could it really choose the less-accomplished Buckeyes, who lost their second-to-last game, over the Tigers?
If Clemson keeps it close, Ohio State feels boxed out.
Then again, who knows? Can a committee that looks to many to be heavily influenced by the thinking of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez actually get past the natural resistance of rewarding a team after a defeat (should Clemson lose)?
Don't know. Doubt the committee does either. It certainly would be wild to find out, though.
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