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Predicting the College Football Playoff committee’s toughest decisions

With just three weeks remaining in college football’s regular season, a chaotic race for the College Football Playoff has become clearer, and the number of teams with hopes of reaching the final four has dwindled. After eight seasons with the current playoff system in place, there is an unofficial hierarchy of qualifications that shape the Committee’s decisions. In order of teams in the group being most likely to make the playoff to least likely, they are:

  1. Undefeated Power Five conference champions/undefeated Notre Dame: 11/11 teams with this resume have been selected
  2. One-loss Power Five conference champions: 16/19
  3. One-loss Power Five teams with no conference championship: 3/7
  4. Undefeated Group of Five conference champions: 1/7

No team that did not fall into one of these groups has ever made the playoff, and based on these criteria, there are eleven teams still fighting for a national championship this season. Given the unlikeliness of the committee to ever leave out the SEC Champion, especially one with wins over both Alabama and Georgia, two-loss LSU makes the number of contenders twelve.

While the playoff was established with hopes of giving every deserving team a shot at a national title (something that the BCS system often failed to do), annual debates over the final playoff spot remain inevitable. This year, in particular, there are very few teams that have the ability to establish themselves as playoff “locks” over the final weeks of the season. It appears increasingly likely that the committee will have to choose between several similar candidates rather than there being a clear-cut top four that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.

With that being said, here are some of the most challenging decisions that the committee could face, with predictions on which team would likely be selected in each scenario based on playoff rankings from this season as well as past selections.

Tennessee (11-1) vs Oregon (12-1, PAC-12 Champion)

It is certainly plausible that Tennessee and Oregon could both reach the playoff. However, in the reasonably likely scenario that No. 1 Georgia, the Big Ten champion, and No. 4 TCU all remain undefeated, both teams would have legitimate claims to just one available spot. The committee indicated that Tennessee holds the edge by ranking the Volunteers at No. 5, one spot ahead of Oregon. However, winning a conference championship has historically been a major factor for selection, and only the Ducks have that opportunity. In 2014, TCU was ranked No. 3 entering the season’s final weekend. But the Big 12 had no championship game at the time. The Horned Frogs were passed over for Ohio State, who was ranked No. 5 but won the Big Ten Championship. We could see a similar outcome this year.

While Tennessee has impressive wins over Alabama and LSU, Oregon has already beat UCLA and can earn quality wins against Utah and either USC or UCLA in the PAC-12 title game down the stretch. Each team’s loss came against Georgia. While Tennessee looked more impressive in defeat, that should not be a significant differentiator ,as the Bulldogs beat both teams soundly.

Ultimately, the decision may come down to Tennessee finishing its season against unranked Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt while Oregon faces multiple highly-ranked teams. This would go against the committee’s historical preference for the SEC. But the resume of an Oregon team riding a twelve-game winning streak and winning a conference title should be just strong enough to leapfrog them past Tennessee and into the playoff.

Verdict: Oregon

UCLA (12-1, PAC-12 Champion) vs Clemson (12-1, ACC Champion)

Three one-loss teams remain in the hunt to win the PAC-12 Championship. No. 6 Oregon and No. 8 USC have currently ranked ahead of No. 10 Clemson. Given the Tigers’ unimpressive schedule and dismal performance against Notre Dame, if the Ducks or Trojans were to finish the season with just one loss, it would be nearly impossible for Clemson to pass them. Where the debate gets interesting, though, is in pitting Clemson against No. 12 UCLA. The Bruins’ weak non-conference slate and unremarkable eye test dragged it far below its conference counterparts in this week’s rankings.

Regardless, UCLA would have a strong case to surpass Clemson by winning its final four games. Two weeks from now, UCLA will face USC. Winning that game alone might be enough to push them ahead of the Tigers. Beating an elite Oregon team in the PAC-12 Championship would be icing on the cake. Coupled with impressive wins against Washington and Utah earlier in the season, UCLA would have several quality wins. Clemson, even by beating North Carolina in the ACC Championship, simply cannot compare.

Verdict: UCLA

LSU (11-2, SEC Champion) vs Tennessee (11-1)

This is likely a scenario that the committee looks at with dread due to the vitriol they would receive from the fanbase of whichever team was not selected. No team with two losses has ever reached the playoff. But to leave out an SEC Champion would be just as shocking. Conversely, it is hard to look past Tennessee traveling to Death Valley and obliterating LSU by a score of 40-13. And the Volunteers having just one loss could ultimately be a deciding factor.

A similar situation arose during the 2016 season when Penn State defeated Ohio State during the regular season to earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten title to finish 11-2, but were snubbed from the playoff. Instead, 11-1 Ohio State, who Penn State had beaten head-to-head, made it in. This year, the Volunteers hold an even greater advantage than Ohio State did that year. Tennessee beat LSU while the Buckeyes lost to Penn State and still reached the playoff.

If the season were to play out in this fashion, there is a strong chance that both teams would be in the top-four. With only one spot to fight for, precedent gives Tennessee, with the head-to-head advantage and one fewer defeat, the edge.

Verdict: Tennessee

TCU (12-1, Big 12 Champion) vs USC (12-1, PAC-12 Champion)

For No. 4 TCU, the path to the playoff is simple: finish the season undefeated, and they’re in. A loss would make it difficult for the Horned Frogs to make the top four — but not impossible. A 12-1 TCU team would likely fall behind Oregon if the Ducks were to win the PAC-12 Championship. But the Frogs would have a viable case against a 12-1 USC. It is difficult to see why the committee thinks so highly of No. 8 USC. The Trojans have struggled defensively and are 0-1 against ranked opponents this season.

However, they will certainly have a chance to prove themselves in the coming weeks. They are staring down a three-week gauntlet against UCLA, Notre Dame and, if they reach the PAC-12 Championship, likely Oregon. Comparatively, TCU has consistently played tight games in the unspectacular Big 12. While the Frogs hold a clear edge to this point, USC has a chance to pick up three signature wins. Doing so should earn them the right to play for a national title. TCU controls its own destiny. But one slip-up will likely have them on the outside looking in.

Verdict: USC

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.