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Carson: Thinking like the playoff committee

| Monday, November 21, 2016

There are five zero- or one-loss Power Five teams left in college football this season. Two of them play each other this week, while the other three are all from different conferences. Conventional wisdom says this will be easy enough, right? If Alabama, Clemson and Washington win out, they’re in the four-team playoff, while the winner of the Michigan/Ohio State showdown this week takes the final spot.

Fortunately, at least in my eyes, things might not be that easy this week. Part of the appeal of each college football season, for me, is seeing how the committee will handle certain situations. This is still just the third year of the College Football Playoff system, and while we’ve gotten glimpses of the committee’s thinking, it hasn’t had to answer to a true dilemma yet. In 2014, it picked a one-loss champion, Ohio State, over a pair of one-loss co-champions, Baylor and TCU. Any of those three would have been a solid choice. Last year, it picked the only four real options. It was cut-and-dry, one might say.

This year, that might not happen. Aside from just pure chaos that sends a team like Colorado to the playoff, I’ve got three scenarios I’d love to see the committee have to give an answer to.

Penn State wins the Big Ten

Ohio State, which will likely remain No. 2 in Tuesday’s rankings, doesn’t control its own destiny for a conference title, thanks to Michigan’s loss at Iowa last weekend. If the Buckeyes and Penn State both win, it’s the two-loss Nittany Lions heading to Indianapolis to play either Wisconsin or Nebraska in the Big Ten championship, not Ohio State. If either the Badgers or Cornhuskers would be victorious there, it’s no contest in my mind. Ohio State, despite not winning its own division, beat both potential West division winners and would clearly make the playoff ahead of the other.

But if Penn State wins, the Nittany Lions suddenly pose a problem to Ohio State — solely because the Nittany Lions are Ohio State’s one loss. I’d still expect the committee to take Ohio State over Penn State, but it presents a question: Would an 11-2 conference champion get in over an 11-1 non-champion it beat? The alternative question would be if 11-2 Penn State, with a win over No. 2 Ohio State and a top-10 Wisconsin team, could sneak in over a 12-1 Washington side.

The Oklahoma State problem

For a second year running, Oklahoma State is kind of randomly sitting there with a path to the playoff as the season draws to a close. If Clemson or Washington slip up, it will effectively guarantee a two-loss team makes the playoff field, and if the Cowboys beat Oklahoma in two weeks at Bedlam, they’ll be the 10-2 Big XII champion.

Typically, I wouldn’t be as interested in this situation — the Pokes would likely be one of a number of two-loss teams vying for the No. 4 seed — but the way in which Oklahoma State picked up one of its losses is significant. Remember back to the second week of the season, when Central Michigan downed the Cowboys on a play that never should’ve happened. The Chippewas were improperly given an untimed down, which they used to score and win the game.

Would the committee, when evaluating a number of two-loss teams, give an edge to a Cowboys team that probably should’ve been a one-loss contender, not a two-loss one?

An avenger

One of the neat things about conference-title games is that they often give teams a chance to avenge a loss from earlier in the season. Oregon did this two seasons ago against Arizona in the Pac-12’s title game, but the Ducks were firmly in the field with a win anyway.

If Washington gets another chance at USC in two weeks, and this time wins, will it help secure its spot in the playoff four? It would not have played a team this season it didn’t beat. The same question applies for Wisconsin, which could avenge a loss to either Michigan or Ohio State. Would avenging one loss be enough to push the two-loss Badgers into the final playoff spot?

Down the road, if the committee has to answer here, it’ll help inform us how to watch the Big XII — a conference which will guarantee an “avenging” opportunity on the first Saturday in December.

Above all else, over the next two weekends, I’m pulling for chaos. But if we can learn something about the committee’s decision-making process, too? That’d be lovely.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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