Playoff Picture Becomes Crystal Clear

Would you believe that this entire college football season actually hinged on one crazy, pig-sooie of a play? The one that saved Alabama’s bacon.

Remember that wild lateral on fourth-and-forever in overtime that Arkansas pulled off to keep the game alive against Ole Miss? By surviving that play and then going on to beat the Rebels on a two-point conversion, the Hogs did the Crimson Tide – and the playoff selection committee – a huge favor.

Without that play – and that loss – Ole Miss, not Alabama, would have won the SEC West and been set to play for the conference championship. The SEC title game would’ve featured a pair of two-loss teams – with Florida having already beaten Ole Miss 38-10 earlier in the season – while Alabama stayed home.

Would the committee have the guts to leave the Crimson Tide out of the playoff because they failed to win their conference, and possibly the SEC entirely? Or would it take ‘Bama because, well, it’s ‘Bama, as the BCS did in 2011 to set up an all-SEC final with LSU?

We’ll never know now. And because of that single, bizarre play, the committee’s job next weekend is actually pretty easy because the playoff picture is now crystal clear.

Oklahoma is in, after throttling Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 outright. The Big Ten champion is in, so the Iowa-Michigan State title game is essentially a play-in. If both Clemson and Alabama win their respective conference title games (both teams are heavy favorites), they’re in. That’s your playoff field right there.

Should either Clemson or Alabama stumble, against North Carolina or Florida, respectively, then Stanford is next in line, provided it can beat USC for the Pac-12 title. Ohio State, with one loss but no conference title, would be next if the Cardinal also falter.

The only other team in the picture is North Carolina, which has a bad loss (to South Carolina) and two wins over FCS teams. But if the Tar Heels upset Clemson and all the other dominoes fall, they’ll sneak into the playoff.

As for the rest of the New Year’s Six bowls, here are the rules and our projection follows:

* The Rose Bowl will match up conference champions from the Big Ten and Pac-12, and if a champion is selected to the playoff, the Rose Bowl has the sole discretion to pick another team from that conference.

* The Sugar Bowl will match up conference champions from the SEC and Big 12. The SEC replacement will be the highest ranked team by the playoff committee while the Big 12 uses its own tiebreaker to determine the replacement team.

* The selection committee will determine the rest of the matchups for both the playoff games (Cotton and Orange) and also the Peach and Fiesta. The highest-ranked Group of Five champion is guaranteed a berth – and that will come out of the American Athletic title game between Temple and Houston.

With these protocols in mind, here’s how we see things shake out:

Orange Bowl (playoff): Clemson vs. Michigan State

Cotton Bowl (playoff): Oklahoma vs. Alabama

Rose Bowl: Stanford vs. Ohio State

Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Baylor

Peach Bowl: Houston vs. Florida State

Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Iowa

Most likely, 10 of the those 12 teams will be ranked in the committee’s final top 10, with Baylor edging out TCU based on the Big 12’s own tiebreaker. The two teams that are out of the top 10 will be the Group of 5 representative and the SEC replacement team in the Sugar Bowl.

Yup, the “toughest conference in college football” really is anything but this year. While Alabama might be a playoff-worthy team, the rest of the conference is one jumbled mess of mediocrity. Should the Tide throttle Florida as expected, all SEC teams except Alabama will have at least three losses.

It’s even questionable whether Alabama deserves its current No. 2 ranking since it has defeated no team in the committee’s own top 20. It’s all the more reason that the Tide were fortunate that Arkansas pulled off that miracle play against Ole Miss.

Pac-12’s bowl lineup

With Washington’s victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup, the Pac-12 has a record 10 bowl eligible teams. But unless Stanford sneaks into the playoff, the Pac-12 has only seven bowls contracted to take conference teams, including the Rose Bowl.

But fear not, because of a dearth of bowl eligible teams (more later), every one of these 10 teams will go bowling, and here’s where we see them go:

Rose: Stanford

Alamo: USC

Holiday: Oregon

Foster Farms: Washington State

Sun: Utah

Las Vegas: UCLA

Cactus: Cal

Poinsettia: Washington

Armed Forces: Arizona State

Heart of Dallas: Arizona

How to fill up all these bowl spots?

As of Saturday, only 75 teams gained bowl eligibility for the 80 slots in 40 bowls. Kansas State, South Alabama and Georgia State can become bowl eligible next week though all three will be underdogs in their games.

So what happens if there aren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill the slots? The NCAA had set a provision that a 5-7 team may be selected if it finished in the top five of Academic Progress Rate (APR) last school year, but the problem is that all five of those teams are already bowl eligible.

It is widely assumed that then the bowls needing teams would just go on down the APR list, though the NCAA has declined to confirm that’s the case. But since that’s all we have to go by, the highest rated 5-7 teams in APR order are:

Nebraska (985), Kansas State (976, if it loses to West Virginia), Missouri (976), Minnesota (975), San Jose State (975), Illinois (973), Rice (973).

We don’t know if this order will be strictly observed, and never mind how to break an APR tie. But chances are, the remaining slots will be filled by Power 5 schools listed above (sorry, Spartans and Owls), as they will be much more attractive for TV and ticketing purposes for desperate bowls.

The committee will announce the NY6 bowl pairings at noon ET on Sunday, and the rest of the bowl pairings will trickle out throughout the day.

Game of the Week

Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36: In what was essentially a game for a spot in the playoff on-deck circle, the Cardinal stunned the Irish on Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard field goal as time expired in a wild affair. Notre Dame had taken the lead with just 30 seconds remaining, but couldn’t hold on. This ending also saved the committee from having to pick between a one-loss Notre Dame and a one-loss Oklahoma and justify that decision.

Player of the Week

Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: A week after lambasting his own coaching staff following a crushing loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes’ junior running back let his legs do all the talking, rushing for 214 yards and two TDs as Ohio State manhandled arch rival Michigan 42-13.

Our Rankings

The last meaningless committee rankings will be unveiled this week. And we expect the top 10 to look like this:

1.Clemson, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Alabama, 4. Iowa, 5. Michigan State, 6. Stanford, 7. Ohio State, 8. Notre Dame, 9. North Carolina, 10. Florida State.

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