This has been the question on many people’s minds since day one of the College Football Playoff. Can any conference get two teams in?
Or course, when the question was first asked and the playoff first started, the assumption was that it would be the SEC under consideration for getting that second team most years. Now, one year into the playoff, and we have learned that it is not a given that the best teams come out of the SEC and that the SEC is not always the most likely to have two of the top four teams. The biggest thing that the CFP taught us last year, though, was that a conference that is clearly not the best overall (the Big Ten) can definitely have the best team in the country.
CFP Implications: Two Teams from One Conference in the Playoff?
We are sitting at the beginning of week three of the 2015 season. It is way too early in the year to really identify the main Playoff contenders, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. It also is late enough in the season that we can begin to get a read on who some of the very top teams are. It is also late enough for us to look at who has the best chances of placing multiple teams near the top of the rankings. Of course, the elephant in the room is that upsets almost always happen. We can pretend that seasons will go chalk, but at the end of the year (except in 2009), they never do. So while it’s fun to lay out the likeliest scenarios now, we should always remember that even the likeliest of scenarios after week two is still not very likely in the long run.
We learned an important lesson last year. Each of the four Playoff participants were conference champions. Many are therefore assuming that the four CFP teams will (almost) always win their conference. This is a bad assumption. First and foremost, a sample size of one is no sample at all. Most importantly, though, it was obvious last year that the Playoff participants would be conference champions. There were no other options. Three teams had pretty slam-dunk resumes: Alabama and Oregon were a consensus top two and Florida State was an undefeated Power Five conference champion. Those three are all from different conferences. The only three other teams even in the discussion at the end (Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU) were all from a different conference than those three. The way last season played out, we were guaranteed representatives from four different conferences. It would be foolish to expect that to happen every year. When the CFP was first announced, Bill Hancock strongly hinted that a conference could get multiple teams in (he implied that if the CFP were in effect in 2014, Alabama would have made it in even after their loss to Auburn). Again, don’t let circumstances from a small sample size fool you into thinking that that is the status quo.
When the season started, there were two conferences we could pinpoint as the most likely to have two contenders in the Playoff race: the Big Ten and the Big XII. This article will mostly focus on the Big Ten, so let us quickly discuss the Big XII’s playoff situation. In short, TCU and Baylor are both top five teams right now and neither are expected to lose any games except when they meet each other. If Baylor loses to TCU, their case is very weak. They will have a maximum of two ranked wins (if the Big XII can get to four ranked teams at the end of the year, which is possible but not likely) and will have one of the worst nonconference schedules in all of FBS. It is highly unlikely that the committee puts them in.
If, on the other hand, TCU is looking to be the second entrant, things become more interesting. They will also have a maximum of two ranked wins in conference, but they also have a nonconference road win over Minnesota. Depending on how well the Golden Gophers do this season, that could be important. It is unlikely to be enough, though, unless chaos reigns supreme in the rest of the country. The same goes for Oklahoma. If they can finish 11-1 with a loss to Baylor, they will have a similar resume to what we expect of TCU.
The far more interesting case to discuss, though, is the one that the committee will have to think most about. What happens if Michigan State is 11-1, with their only loss being a close one to the undisputed top team in the country, and having their resume bolstered by the best nonconference win in all of college football this year? What if Oregon also ends 12-1? Who gets precedence then?
The last question is the one I want to grapple with. The committee will essentially have to decide how to reward these big nonconference games. Putting Oregon in would send the message that winning the match-up doesn’t matter, which would strongly reduce the incentive teams have to schedule big nonconference games. Putting Michigan State in sends a message that a loss to a good nonconference team can still keep you out of the Playoff, potentially scaring teams from scheduling these games in the future. It is a situation that I am sure the committee (and the heads of the CFP) don’t want to have to deal with.
This year, though, I think the decision could be relatively easy for the committee. Michigan State may very well be one of the two best teams in the country. Mark Dantonio has done a heck of a job building that program. The problem for Michigan State in 2015, though, is that it will be very hard to build a Playoff resume without beating Ohio State. The Spartans have that huge nonconference win over a likely Top 5-10 team. But it will also quite possibly be the only win over a ranked team the Spartans earn all season. In short, MSU will almost certainly be a top five team this year; their resume, on the other hand, might not show it.
If the Big Ten wants to put two teams in the Playoff, the rest of the conference needs to do their part. Michigan State has built the program and the team that can get into the Playoff even if they don’t beat Ohio State. But unless other teams step up, the Spartans won’t have the resume to show it. Right now, the only Big Ten East team without a nonconference loss (other than OSU and MSU) is… Indiana. Indiana is not going to end up ranked this season. One of those teams that picked up a loss already needs to go 9-3 just to have a chance to be ranked. Michigan has a chance, but it would require a win over BYU. The Spartans do get Nebraska in cross-divisional play, and the ‘Huskers could definitely go 10-2 or 9-3 and earn a ranking spot. Also, Air Force has the definite potential of being another 10-win nonconference opponent. Maybe Michigan State can sneak a second ranked opponent out of their nonconference play, but that’s also unlikely.
I will quickly point out that Ohio State is less likely to get in if they don’t win the Big Ten. They would be lacking a conference title and, depending on where Virginia Tech ends up, have zero wins over ranked teams. It would also be an excellent chance for the committee to send the message that each year is judged on its own merits; being the defending champions means nothing.
Remember, the warning, as always, is that we cannot judge teams in a vacuum. Which teams have a chance at getting in–and which conferences have a chance of putting two teams in–will always depend on what the situation looks like throughout the rest of the country. So if you’re a fan of Michigan State and you want to see your team in the Playoff even if they lose to the Buckeyes: root for chaos everywhere else.