College football had a chaotic weekend, with Clemson, Washington and Washington State all taking their first loss in surprising fashion. It has opened the door for the possibility that the SEC and Big Ten could sweep the four Playoff berths. The four teams this scenario is built around are Alabama-Georgia out of the SEC and Penn State-Ohio State from the Big Ten.
The SEC side of the equation is already in pretty good shape. If Alabama and Georgia both go 12-0, their matchup in the conference championship game will be so meaningless it might be the first such game at the college level where the coaches rest starters to keep them healthy. There’s also likely some room for error if one of these teams comes in at 11-1 and that team wins the title game, thereby leaving the Selection Committee with two 12-1 SEC candidates.
It’s the Big Ten side that’s more interesting. Ohio State and Penn State, out of the Eastern Division, are joined by undefeated Wisconsin from the West as serious contenders. However, for the two-team parlay to work, it likely has to be the two teams from the East and it certainly has to be with Penn State as runner-up.
Wisconsin’s schedule is not good enough to lose a conference championship game and still make it. Ohio State has already lost to Oklahoma—and besides, last year they got the benefit of the doubt from the Committee as a non-conference champ and promptly laid an egg against Clemson in the Playoff semi-finals.
Therefore, for this scenario to work for the Big Ten, Ohio State has to win out and finish 12-1 as the conference champs. Penn State has to win all games except for their visit to Columbus on October 28 and finish 11-1. If all that happens, here’s how the rest of the national landscape would need to shake out…
*The Big 12 and the ACC Coastal Division each have unbeaten teams (TCU & Miami) along with notable one-loss contenders (Oklahoma and Virginia Tech). Both leagues are notorious for beating each other up. It’s simply necessary for the cannibalism to continue for them. Given the balance in both, I think it realistic that no one survives with fewer than two losses.
*The Pac-12 must do the same. The events of this week already reduced the one-loss teams here to USC, Washington and Washington State. We’re still two weeks from November. It’s unlikely the Pac-12 produces a 12-1 champion.
*Notre Dame must lose again. I like what the Irish have going this season, but they aren’t running the table the rest of the way.
*Here’s the hard part—Clemson still realistically controls its destiny. The Tigers must lose one more time and there’s a couple of caveats—if that loss comes to one-loss N.C. State, then the Wolfpack must also lose somewhere else. And if Clemson were to lose the ACC Championship Game, then the Coastal champ must have already taken the two losses discussed above. It’s a lot to have happen, but hardly out of the question.
*I’d like to tell you that the winner of South Florida-Central Florida, the two unbeaten teams in the American Athletic would also have to lose somewhere else. But the dismissiveness the Power Five conferences have to anyone outside of it is well-established. I don’t condone it, but it’s reality. Even at 13-0, neither of these teams are getting a shot to validate themselves in the Playoff.
If all this happens, I think an 11-1 Penn State team would get in. They would have wins over both Michigan and Michigan State. At least one of those, if not both, will look good. They already have wins over Iowa, which could win nine games and Indiana, which could win eight. Presumably their loss to Ohio State would be a competitive one.
The Selection Committee opened the door for this scenario last year when they took runner-up Ohio State over Big Ten champ Penn State. What I’m suggesting is actually less radical—in this case, you aren’t completely ignoring the conference champion, simply adding to them.
And let’s also be frank—the SEC and Big Ten drive revenue in college football and ESPN would love to have all four of the teams come from these leagues. If circumstances make it justifiable, I think the Committee will make it happen.