Road to the College Football Playoff: Is this the calm before the storm?

Alabama head coach Nick Saban (right) talks with Daniel Wright as he walks off the field during the second half against Missouri, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (L.G. Patterson/AP)
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Alabama head coach Nick Saban (right) talks with Daniel Wright as he walks off the field during the second half against Missouri, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (L.G. Patterson/AP)

Credit: L.G. Patterson

Credit: L.G. Patterson

The AJC’s weekly update on the CFP

With only one of the top five teams — and two of the top eight — playing this week, the College Football Playoff selection committee likely won’t gain additional clarity.

No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson don’t have games Saturday because the ACC decided to clear their paths to the league title game. No. 4 Ohio State won’t play because its game against rival Michigan was canceled by COVID-19 cases within the Wolverines’ program. No. 5 Texas A&M won’t play because of COVID cases in Mississippi’s program. No. 7 Iowa State has completed its 10-game regular-season schedule. And No. 8 Cincinnati won’t play because of COVID cases within its program.

So it goes in college football amid a pandemic.

“At the beginning of the year,” CFP selection committee chairman Gary Barta said this week, “the committee talked about the fact that 2020 was going to be a unique year.”

The only top-eight teams currently scheduled to play Saturday are No. 1 Alabama, which visits Arkansas, and No. 6 Florida, which hosts LSU. Alabama is favored by 32 points and Florida by 23 points.

This weekend could be the calm before the storm in the playoff selection process.

The conference championship games Dec. 19 will provide the last pieces of the puzzle for the selection committee, including Alabama vs. Florida in the SEC, Clemson vs. Notre Dame in the ACC, Ohio State vs. Northwestern in the Big Ten and Iowa State vs. Oklahoma in the Big 12. The Big Ten on Wednesday rescinded its six-game minimum to be eligible for the conference title game, putting Ohio State (5-0) in the game.

Credit: GatorVision

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Florida football coach Dan Mullen discusses winning the SEC East division after win Dec. 5, 2020, in Tennessee.

Credit: GatorVision

“The conference championship games next week will have huge implications for the playoff,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a close observer of the playoff selection process.

At this point, the most difficult scenario for the CFP would be if Florida upsets unbeaten Alabama, Clemson defeats unbeaten Notre Dame to avenge an earlier loss to the Fighting Irish, and Ohio State beats Northwestern.

Under that scenario, there would be a good case to be made for the playoff to include the winners and losers of the Alabama-Florida and Clemson-Notre Dame games, as well as Ohio State. But there would be room in the field, of course, for only four of those five teams. Who would be left out?

Then there’s another tricky scenario: Say Alabama beats Florida, Notre Dame beats Clemson and Ohio State beats Northwestern.

Under that scenario, Florida and likely Clemson would be out of the playoff. But then who would join Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State as the fourth team in the field? It could come down to Texas A&M (if the Aggies finish 8-1, losing only to Alabama) or maybe Iowa State (if the Cyclones win the Big 12 championship). Iowa State’s problem is that it has two losses, and no two-loss team has made the CFP in the event’s six-year history. That’s the same problem Clemson would face if it loses for the second time this season to Notre Dame.

The simplest scenario for the CFP -- and the most likely, according to oddsmakers -- would be for Alabama to beat Florida, Clemson to beat Notre Dame and Ohio State to beat Northwestern in conference championship games. If that happens, the teams ranked in the top four this week almost certainly would reach the playoff, albeit with tweaks to the order in which they are ranked.

In general, the differences in number of games played -- Ohio State half as many (five) as Notre Dame and Clemson (10 apiece) – has made the selection committee’s work more complicated this year than in the past. The lack of non-conference games as a differentiator is another complication.

“Certainly, the committee has taken into account, and talked a lot about, the differences in games,” Barta said. “But at the end of the day, to be over-simple about our job, it’s just to identify … for the playoffs the best four.”

That may mean relying on the “eye test” – what the 13 committee members see when they watch teams play – even more than in past years, Barta acknowledged.

The committee will rank the teams two more times this season, Tuesday and Dec. 20. The playoff bracket will be determined by the Dec. 20 rankings.

BEYOND THE PLAYOFF ….

The CFP selection committee also will set the matchups for three bowls that aren’t part of this season’s playoff, including Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. A pairing of Georgia vs. Cincinnati is a strong possibility for the Peach if the No. 9 Bulldogs (6-2) win their two remaining regular-season games and the No. 7 Bearcats (8-0) beat Tulsa in the American Athletic Conference Championship game.

ESPN college football analyst Joey Galloway opined on air this week that a Georgia-Cincinnati game in the Peach Bowl would be the most interesting “New Year’s Six” bowl matchup to him outside the playoff.

The CFP committee will choose the teams for the Peach, Cotton and Fiesta bowls after placing the four highest-ranked teams in the playoff semifinals, which this season will be played in the Rose and Sugar bowls, and after the Orange Bowl selects its matchup of an ACC team vs. an SEC or Big Ten team. Many analysts are forecasting a Florida-Miami matchup in the Orange Bowl if the Gators lose the SEC Championship game.

The Peach Bowl is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Jan. 1, preceding the two national semifinal games on ESPN.

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