Hundreds of thousands of fans in stadiums around the country will watch college football’s conference championship games this weekend, as will tens of millions of television viewers. But the most important audience may be 13 people gathered around TV screens at a hotel in Grapevine, Texas.
The members of the College Football Playoff selection committee will assess what happens in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 title games before setting the playoff field with their last rankings of the season Sunday.
“Obviously, this weekend’s conference championship games will be crucial in determining the final rankings,” said Rob Mullens, chair of the selection committee. “… We’re looking forward to watching the games, measuring the outcomes.”
After Saturday’s games are completed, the committee – consisting of former coaches, current athletic directors and others – will discuss and debate how to rank the teams, probably deep 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 will reach the playoff, with the Nos. 1 and 4 seeds meeting in one semifinal and the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the other. One semifinal will be played in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, the other in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.
Whether the Peach Bowl gets the 1-vs.-4 game or the 2-vs.-3 game will be determined by the selection committee Sunday. The protocol for deciding which matchup goes to which semifinal site calls for the committee to give “preference” to the No. 1 seed, “weighing criteria such as convenience of travel for its fans, home-crowd advantage or disadvantage and general familiarity with the host city and its stadium.”
Peach Bowl Inc. CEO Gary Stokan, who won’t get advance notice from the playoff committee of his game’s matchup, said he thinks seven teams are realistically still in the playoff picture entering the conference championship games – Ohio State, LSU, Clemson, Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor. Those teams were ranked one through seven, in that order, by the committee Tuesday.
Stokan said his two biggest playoff-related questions entering the conference championship games are: “If LSU beats Georgia, does LSU move up from No. 2 to No. 1? And if Oklahoma beats Baylor, does Oklahoma move ahead of Utah? Obviously, both (questions) have ramifications for us in the semifinal game.”
Here’s a look at how each of the “Power 5” conference championship games figure to affect the playoff:
Who, when, where, TV: No. 2 LSU (12-0) vs. No. 4 Georgia (11-1), 4 p.m. Saturday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, CBS.
If LSU wins: It would be in the playoff as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and Georgia almost certainly would drop out of the top four. That would open a playoff spot for either the Pac-12 or Big 12 champion.
If Georgia wins: The Bulldogs would be in the playoff, and LSU would still be expected to make it, too, on the basis of its schedule strength.
Who, when, where, TV: No. 3 Clemson (12-0) vs. No. 23 Virginia (9-3), 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Charlotte, N.C., ABC.
If Clemson wins: It would be in the playoff for the fifth consecutive season.
If Virginia wins: That would be a major shocker -- Clemson is favored by 28 points -- but if it happened the Tigers would have to sweat out the committee’s decision because of concerns about their weak schedule.
Who, when, where, TV: No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (10-2), 8 p.m. Saturday, Indianapolis, Fox
If Ohio State wins: The Buckeyes would be in the playoff as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The committee would have a close call between Ohio State and LSU for the top seed if both win Saturday.
If Wisconsin wins: Ohio State would still make the playoff, albeit as a lower seed, because of its strong schedule and dominance throughout the regular season. Wisconsin isn’t in playoff contention at this point.
Who, when, where, TV: No. 5 Utah (11-1) vs. No. 13 Oregon (10-2), 8 p.m. Friday, Santa Clara, Calif., ABC.
If Utah wins: The Utes would be in prime position to move into the top four -- and the playoff – provided LSU beats Georgia to knock the Bulldogs out of the No. 4 spot. Unless, that is, the committee decides to vault Oklahoma or Baylor ahead of Utah.
If Oregon wins: The Pac-12 would be shut out of the playoff.
Who, when, where, TV: No. 6 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 7 Baylor (11-1), noon Saturday, Arlington, Texas, ABC.
If Oklahoma wins: The Sooners could make the playoff, depending on what happens elsewhere. Oklahoma needs LSU to beat Georgia and Oregon to beat Utah. A Clemson loss also could help the Sooners. If LSU, Clemson, Oklahoma and Utah all win, the committee would face a tough choice between Oklahoma and Utah for the final playoff spot.
If Baylor wins: The Bears have a viable path to the playoff – if they beat Oklahoma, Oregon beats Utah and LSU beats Georgia.
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