Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 27, 2016

The College Football Playoff Comes Into Focus

The National Football League may be struggling with a significant decline in television ratings this season, but judging by the extent of coverage that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the game at the collegiate level. Between the national networks, major sports cable outlets and regional networks tied to specific conferences, a viewer could scarcely avoid college football games on both Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. For almost all major programs this was the final week of the regular season schedule. For those leagues large enough to have them next weekend will bring fans the conference championship games, and then it’s on to the seemingly endless parade of bowl games, eventually culminating in the three games of the College Football Playoff (CFP), the postseason tournament that will crown a national champion in January.

Since it began in 2014, the CFP has been generally well received, if for no other reason than the fact that the one game Bowl Championship Series that preceded it was so widely despised. Because it provided a shot at the national title to just two teams and relied heavily on computerized rankings to determine the championship game’s contestants, the BCS almost always resulted in controversy.

In contrast the CFP selection committee, thirteen people who are a mix of current athletic directors and former coaches, players, media members and school officials, looks at strength of schedule, head-to-head results, conference championships and that oldest measure of success, a team’s record. Beginning midway through the college regular season, the selection committee releases weekly rankings of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Once the final rankings are released after next weekend’s games, the top four teams will be headed for the two CFP semifinal games, this year at the Peach and Fiesta Bowls on New Year’s Eve. Beyond the top four the ranking will also determine the participants in the other major bowl games (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton).

Heading into this weekend’s contests, the top four teams in the CFP rankings were Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson. But with the games of college football’s so-called rivalry weekend now complete, the one certainty is that the list will change when the new rankings are announced on Tuesday evening.

The traditional matchups that cap the regular season for many programs are always a favorite for students and alumni, and they are certainly good for TV ratings; but many of the rivalries are in fact increasingly one-sided. Number one Alabama rolled over Auburn 30-12, winning the intra-state Iron Bowl for the third straight year. USC crushed a Notre Dame squad that might best be described as hapless. But even in good times the Fighting Irish seldom put up much of a fight against the Trojans, with Southern Cal winning eleven of the last fifteen matchups. In the Big Ten Wisconsin beat Minnesota for the thirteenth consecutive time. The most closely watched game of the weekend was thoroughly entertaining, with Ohio State edging Michigan in double overtime, after knotting the score with a field goal with just one second remaining in regulation. But history suggests the outcome was not in much doubt. It was OSU’s fifth straight win over Michigan, and the fourteenth in the last sixteen games against its archrival.

Ohio State’s 30-27 victory dropped Michigan to 10-2 and all but guaranteed the Wolverines will fall out of the top four in the CFP rankings. The likely beneficiary is Washington. The Huskies began the weekend ranked fifth, and easily dispatched Washington State 45-17 to finish first in the North Division of the Pac-12 Conference. With Clemson also winning big, a 56-7 rout of South Carolina, the conventional wisdom is that the only change in the top four this week will be Washington replacing Michigan.

That leaves just next weekend’s conference championship games as the last chance for an upset to shuffle the rankings. According to the odds makers, a loss by Alabama in the SEC title tilt would be an upset of historic proportions. The early line has the Crimson Tide favored by more than three touchdowns over Florida. The only remaining undefeated team in any of the Power Five conferences, Alabama may be given similar odds right through to the national championship game, since the Tide’s suffocating defense has now gone more than fourteen quarters since last allowing a touchdown.

Clemson and Washington are also favored in the ACC and Pac-12 championship games, though not so overwhelmingly. Both are about one touchdown choices over opponents Virginia Tech and Colorado. If both emerge unscathed along with Alabama next week, the selection committee would seemingly be hard pressed to drop them from the top four (assuming of course that Washington goes into the top four this week).

Which brings us to Ohio State, and the one bit of controversy in this year’s rankings. The Buckeyes are guaranteed to not lose next weekend, because they won’t be playing. The Big 10 championship game will be between Wisconsin and Penn State, because the latter finished with an identical conference record as OSU, but won the head-to-head matchup back in October. So if the current rankings hold, one of the four participants in this year’s College Football Playoff won’t even be the champion of its own conference. No doubt that doesn’t sit well with fans of Wisconsin and Penn State, ranked sixth and seventh respectively as of last week.

But the argument for Ohio State, and it’s a strong one, is strength of schedule. The Buckeyes played half of the eight other teams in the top nine of the rankings, and emerged with a record of 3-1 against those four quality opponents. Three of those games were on the road. No other highly ranked squad, including Alabama, can boast of a similarly daunting schedule.

While the three-point loss to Penn State cost it the Big 10 East title on a tiebreaker, Ohio State likely remains the top choice of the selection committee among Big 10 teams. Perhaps if either Wisconsin or Penn State roll to a big win next weekend the conference might get two nods, but only if one of the other key conference championship games ends in an upset. Besides, until Alabama shows some sign of weakness, all of the other schools look to be playing for participation prizes. At this point the Crimson Tide would probably be favored if matched against the Cleveland Browns, and maybe two or three other NFL squads.

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