In the eight-year history of the College Football Playoff, only one conference has ever gotten two member schools into the four-team field — the SEC.
In 2017, Alabama joined conference champion Georgia in the bracket. In 2021, Georgia followed SEC champ Alabama. In each of those years, the two teams met in the title game, each winning once. Previously, after the 2011 season, SEC teams Alabama and LSU met in the then-BCS title game (the Tide won).
This was in part because of the undeniable strength of the SEC and part because of the circumstances of how the season played out.
As college football approaches its stretch run, there is a significant possibility that one conference could net two playoff invites.
Except the most likely scenario may not be the SEC, but its rival — the Big Ten, a league that failed to place a team in 13 of the 16 BCS title games and was actually shut out of the playoff in 2018 and 2019.
This would be a script flip.
Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings should yield a top three of 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State and 3. Michigan. Or maybe the Buckeyes and Wolverines are flipped. We’ll see. TCU is likely fourth, but Tennessee could hold on there, too, despite losing to Georgia. That will be as significant as these promotional rankings can get at this point. Oregon is lurking also.
A lot can and will happen, but Ohio State (9-0) and Michigan (9-0) are barreling to the mega showdown the final week of the season in Columbus. Someone is going to win and move onto the Big Ten title game/cakewalk at 12-0, but the 11-1 loser might be plenty good enough to remain in the playoff field.
Or put it this way: If two unbeaten SEC teams met in Atlanta for the league title, would either really be in jeopardy of being eliminated?
Barring a blowout, probably not.
That 2017 Alabama team, which went onto win the national title, didn’t even reach the conference championship game and still made the playoff. It lost its regular season finale at Auburn, which finished the season with four losses.
Does the Big Ten command the same respect inside the committee room as the SEC? Probably not. Nor should it. This isn’t a banner year for the league, especially for usually reliable Michigan State and the teams in the West.
Still, as obvious playoff contenders fall off, what about the Big Ten?
Here’s how the race generally breaks down. This analysis involves predicting what the committee would do, not advocating for that specific result.
Notre Dame’s impressive victory over Clemson on Saturday likely eliminates the entire ACC. The Irish, who are only 6-3 on the year, also defeated one-loss North Carolina.
While not officially done, it would require something close to anarchy for either the Tigers or Tar Heels to get in.
TCU (9-0) controls its own path to the CFP. Go 13-0 and welcome to the playoff. It still has trips to Texas and Baylor, however, then Iowa State at home and a Big 12 title game showdown with maybe Kansas State. Could the Horned Frogs survive even a single loss with the committee? It might have a factual case, but it’ll be a fight.
There are three one-loss teams — Oregon, UCLA and USC. If any of them wind up 12-1 as the champs, they have an excellent case.
If they cut each other out at the knees — UCLA and USC will play each other and it’s possible the winner takes on Oregon in the league title game — then two losses won’t do it. The Ducks also still have to play Utah, Washington and Oregon State in Corvallis. USC has a visit from Notre Dame.
If the Georgia steamroller spins on, this may be a one-bid conference. The Bulldogs would likely get in even with a loss in the SEC title game.
LSU could win out and beat the Bulldogs in Atlanta and get in despite two losses. That’s how much winning the SEC matters — plus victories over the Tide and Dawgs.
Ole Miss (8-1) could win out (including over Bama this weekend), watch LSU stumble, get to Atlanta and beat Georgia. That would put the Rebels and (probably) the Bulldogs in.
Then there is Tennessee, which might finish 11-1, with its only loss at No. 1 Georgia. It could point to victories over Alabama and LSU and a non-conference win at Pitt. Of course, Bama and LSU could each wind up with three losses.
With no legit Group of Five contender, that leaves the Big Ten. Basically, if only three conference champions earn an obvious bid, then the Big Game loser in the Big Ten will have a case. If it comes down to one-loss, non-conference champs, then it is most likely to be Ohio State/Michigan vs. Tennessee.
The game would have to be close, of course. But if Michigan loses on the road by a play or two, is that a better loss than the Vols getting manhandled at Georgia?
The Wolverines have thus far won their games by an impressive 30.1 points a game. Or would Michigan be punished for a pathetic non-conference schedule (Colorado State, Hawaii, Connecticut) and essentially just a single good win (over Penn State)?
If Ohio State loses, it would have a home defeat, but it can point to a non-conference triumph over Notre Dame, plus a win at Penn State. The Buckeyes have a 30-point margin-of-victory average.
The last time these two met while undefeated was 2006. They were ranked 1-2 and after Ohio State won, 42-39, there was some talk that they should run it back in the BCS title game. Then-Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr, ever the gentleman, even if it was ill-advised in this case, refused to campaign to impressionable poll voters that his team should be No. 2.
“I don’t care to speculate,” Carr said. “It will be what it will be.”
Then-Florida coach Urban Meyer had no such reservations and actively campaigned for a BCS title game spot.
“Florida belongs,” Meyer said. “... [Michigan] had a shot … the country wants to see the SEC champion against the Big Ten champion …”
The Gators got the nod and blew out Ohio State, 41-14, for the title.
This time, perhaps, if a case is to be made, the Big Ten will be more aggressive in making it.