Playoff selections hinge on conference championship games

The Road to the College Football Playoff: A weekly update

Like tens of millions of other viewers across the country, the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee will watch the conference championship games this weekend.

Then they’ll turn off the TVs in their meeting rooms at a Grapevine, Texas, resort and determine which four teams will get a chance to play for the national championship.

Their answer is due by early Sunday afternoon.

Depending on how four games unfold Saturday, the committee’s task can become relatively simple -- or extremely complicated.

The committee members will watch the Big 12 title game between No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 14 Texas beginning at noon. They’ll turn to the SEC title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Georgia at 4 p.m. Then they’ll split their attention between two 8 p.m. games: No. 2 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh for the ACC title and No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 21 Northwestern for the Big Ten crown.

The committee’s work would be simplest if Alabama solidly beats Georgia, Clemson beats Pittsburgh and either Oklahoma or Ohio State – but not both – win. Under that scenario, the committee presumably would select three undefeated teams – Alabama, Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame (which is idle this week) – plus either Oklahoma or Ohio State (whichever wins Saturday) as the four-team field.

But there are other scenarios that would make the committee’s task much more complicated.

Say Georgia beats Alabama. In that case, the Bulldogs would be in the playoff. But would Alabama, which has been ranked No. 1 all season, also remain in the top four? Imagine the outcry in Norman, Okla., and Columbus, Ohio, if a one-loss SEC runner-up makes the playoff over a one-loss champion from the Big 12 and/or Big Ten.

Say Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State all win. That seemingly would leave the committee to choose between Oklahoma and Ohio State for the final spot alongside Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame.

But say Alabama beats Georgia in an extremely close game, similar to the Crimson Tide’s overtime victory over the Bulldogs in last season’s national championship game. Could Georgia remain No. 4 in that case? It presumably would depend on what happens Saturday with Oklahoma and Ohio State.

We ran the various scenarios by Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a close observer of the playoff selection process.

He thinks Alabama may well be in the playoff, even if it loses to Georgia. “I don’t see a scenario where Alabama drops out of the top four,” he said.

If Georgia loses and the committee is faced with a choice between a Big 12 champion Oklahoma and a Big Ten champion Ohio State for the final spot in the playoff, Stokan thinks the Sooners could get the nod despite their weak defense because of a slightly stronger schedule and Ohio State’s 29-point loss to 6-6 Purdue. Entering the conference championship games, the committee regards Oklahoma slightly above Ohio State, ranking the Sooners one spot ahead of the Buckeyes this week.

As for Georgia reaching the playoff if it loses a down-to-the-wire game to Alabama, Stokan thinks that could happen only if both Oklahoma and Ohio State lose Saturday. Otherwise, a conference championship would be the “differentiation point” to put Oklahoma or Ohio State in the playoff, he predicted. If Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State all lose Saturday, then the Bulldogs “would have a good case” for the fourth spot in the field, Stokan said.

After Saturday’s games are finished, the selection committee will discuss and debate how to rank the teams, probably far into the night. They’ll reconvene Sunday morning to finalize their rankings, which will be released on ESPN during a “Selection Day” show starting at noon.

The top four teams in the rankings will be placed in the playoff semifinals, which will be played in the Cotton and Orange bowls Dec. 29. The No. 1 team will play the No. 4 team in one semifinal, with No. 2 vs. No. 3 in the other.

In the hours after the playoff teams are chosen Sunday, all of the other bowl matchups will be  determined, starting with the Rose (Pac-12 vs. Big Ten) and Sugar (SEC vs. Big 12).

Georgia could wind up in the Sugar Bowl against Texas or Oklahoma if the Bulldogs lose to Alabama. The SEC said its highest-ranked non-playoff team will go to the Sugar, and Georgia currently is ranked five spots above No. 9 Florida and six spots above No. 10 LSU.

After the Rose and Sugar matchups are set, the CFP committee will select the teams for the Peach and Fiesta bowls.

Peach candidates to varying degrees include Michigan or Penn State from the Big Ten, Florida or LSU from the SEC, Oklahoma if it loses the Big 12 title game, Pittsburgh if it wins the ACC title game and possibly Central Florida (although the CFP committee’s stated preference is to avoid sending a team to the same bowl two years in a row and UCF was in the Peach last season). Georgia would be a Peach possibility only in the remote scenario of the Bulldogs falling behind Florida or LSU in the rankings.

The Peach Bowl has no input into its matchup, having ceded that authority to the CFP as part of the deal to host a playoff semifinal once every three years.