Three picks were pretty easy. The fourth, however, merits a discussion.
This summer I went through every FBS team’s schedule and predicted winners and losers. This led to me being able to put together my official conference and division standings predictions without totally guessing on an order. As I went through with my summer gut instincts, a few teams began to rise as obvious playoff contenders while some others fell by the wayside. Michigan has been getting a ton of love, but I ended up slotting them in the middle of the Big Ten East after marking down my wins and losses. Washington also failed to live up to the hype in my Excel spreadsheet, although Tennessee managed to come out on top of the SEC East.
As I went through picking games, some names that emerged as very likely playoff contenders were not all that unfamiliar to you. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Stanford, Florida State all seemed to be legitimate playoff hopefuls and contenders. Houston and Boise State became my top Group of Five picks, with Western Michigan turning in a very impressive season as well before I dropped them in the MAC championship game. With my conference champions crowned, it came time to ranking them in order to determine which four teams I would slot in the College Football Playoff. My top three picks were pretty obvious, although I would entertain the possible re-seeding of my second and third teams without much debate (because honestly, it doesn’t matter which way you go with No. 2 and No. 3 in the playoff seeding). It was the fourth pick I expected to have a tough call to make. I just did not realize how tough this call would be until jotting down the teams I considered to be in contention. In the end, we have our first crack at a doomsday scenario that could lead to playoff expansion sooner rather than later.
Here is how I see the playoff field being set.
1. LSU (Projected to go 12-1 and win the SEC championship)
My thought son LSU are based on the premise this team comes back ready to finish the job it could not a year ago. My game-by-game predictions call for the Tigers to get tripped up at home by a dangerous Ole Miss team, but regroup following the bye week to score a revenge win against Alabama. It was against Alabama in Tuscaloosa a year ago where LSU’s national title hopes and Leonard Fournette’s Heisman campaign hit a brick wall. While I concede the idea that betting against Alabama is rarely wise, I’ll stick with my hunch here in saying LSU gets the win at home to regain its footing in the SEC West and manages to stay atop the rest of the way (at Arkansas the following week is equally dangerous). A one-loss SEC champion seems as solid a lock for a spot in a four-team playoff almost any year, and his year is no exception. Keep that in mind for later.
2. Ohio State (Projected to go 12-1 and win the Big Ten championship)
My team to beat in the Big Ten has one of the best coaches in the game (Urban Meyer) and a quarterback I believe is capable of joining Fournette in New York (J.T. Barrett). The Buckeyes have some key holes to plug, but the Buckeyes have recruited well before Meyer arrived and have dominated upon his arrival. Simply put, Ohio State should be just fine. Ohio State will be the best team on the field in no fewer than 11 games, with a road game at Oklahoma the possible lone exception. This is a game I expect Ohio State to win, however, and it will fuel their championship hopes the rest of the way. While I do think they get tripped up on the road somewhere (I’m picking at Wisconsin, although at Penn State is one to watch as well before getting to Michigan State), I do not see anything getting in their way en route to Indianapolis. With a 12-1 record including wins over Oklahoma, Michigan and Michigan State and a Big Ten title, the Buckeyes should be in prime position to lock down the second seed in the playoff.
3. Florida State (Projected to go 12-1 and win the ACC championship)
The ACC once again comes down to Clemson and Florida State. While the defending ACC champion Tigers have the ACC’s best player (Deshaun Watson), Florida State has the better overall roster (highlighted by Dalvin Cook). Florida State also gets the key division battle with Clemson at home in Tallahassee, and that is important. Florida State’s playoff profile will get an early boost with a win in Orlando against Ole Miss, but an early upset on the road at Louisville reduces the margin for error for Jimbo Fisher and his Seminoles. They’ll take care of business by rolling through the rest of the ACC, edging Clemson and demolishing Florida before topping whatever team manages to come out of the ACC Coastal Division (Miami?). At 12-1, there is no chance Florida State misses the playoff cut.
4. Hmmm. Let’s discuss.
If the 2016 season plays out as I am expecting it to, there will be a few teams making a case for the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff. The fourth spot always brings debate, and in this case it is by design of course. The College Football Playoff loves the idea of debating who should be in and who should not. They have admitted such, so this is not an exaggeration. Last year’s playoff field may have been pretty easy to figure out, but we saw plenty of discussion about the fourth spot in the playoff two years ago, when Ohio State pushed past Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor.
Get ready for a whole new batch of debates this season.
I am now on record saying Houston will run the table this season. That means they will have a neutral site win against Big 12 champion Oklahoma and a Thursday night victory over the only team to beat Florida State, Louisville. That’s a pretty darn good-looking playoff resume, and may be the best a Group of Five program ever gets to making a case in a four-team playoff field. I also have Boise State running the table, but they will lack the credentials needed to keep up with Houston. The only problem is, Boise State is not the biggest hurdle standing between Houston and the College Football Playoff. It’s not even Big 12 champion Oklahoma or my Pac-12 champion, Stanford. And I’m not even discussing the Notre Dame variable to this complex equation. The threat is much more obvious for Houston.
At 11-1, with its only loss coming on the road against my No. 1 team (LSU), Alabama could potentially have the best case for inclusion in the College Football Playoff by a one-loss non-conference champion we have seen yet. This could be similar to what we saw with Ohio State last season, with the Buckeyes coming off a national championship run and losing just one game, in which they did not trail until after the clock struck zero. Last year’s Buckeyes lost at home to the eventual Big Ten champion, but given the playoff field we saw it would have been hard to argue, from the selection committee’s standpoint, that Ohio State belonged in the four-team playoff. Hindsight is 20/20, however, and Michigan State getting steamrolled by Alabama left many wondering if the Buckeyes would have fared better (they would). Still, this year’s Alabama team could be an even stronger candidate without a conference, or even a division, crown.
If Alabama rolls to a record of 11-1 the way I see it, they will have a close road loss at LSU. Nothing to be ashamed about here. They’ll also have wins on a neutral field against USC and on the road against Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Tennessee. They would also have wins against Texas A&M and Auburn, but it remains to be seen how valuable those wins might end up being. The SEC also gets the edge when it comes to overall strength of schedule. Houston may pick up wins against Oklahoma and Louisville, but Alabama has a clear advantage when it comes to conference schedule strength. If the question boils down to choosing an undefeated Houston or a one-loss Alabama, that makes for quite a wild debate in the south.
In 2014 the issue of brand recognition was a worthy one with Ohio State getting in the playoff field over both TCU and Baylor. There was no question the Buckeyes were the superior brand name and had a far better chance of attracting viewers than either TCU or Baylor. It was a concern many in the Big 12 mentioned, and although the selection committee may not have admitted it, it is hard to ignore the thought Ohio State may have gotten in in slight part because they are a bigger draw. I happen to think Ohio State got int because they were the best of the three options, but I would be naive to suggest some of the decision-making doesn’t come down to TV. And that it is what we could be discussing once again this season.
Houston is great. It is a great program on the rise and could soon be among the Big 12’s members. Alabama is an institution and one of the top brands in the game. Houston simply cannot compete with that. Alabama is likely also the better team on the field as well, which is what the selection committee must take into account. Conference titles are preferred by the selection committee when it comes to breaking ties, but could a one-loss Alabama still hold the edge over an undefeated Group of Five champion?
If I was on the selection committee and had to choose between the two, I would have to base it on which team I think would win on the field if Alabama and Houston squared off. As much as I would love to see a program like Houston reach the College Football Playoff, my brain tells me for multiple reasons Alabama would be the team that gets the nod, even if it does set a rematch with LSU in the semifinal. Houston will have to settle for another trip to the New Years Six lineup and hope to send a message in a head-to-head matchup with Clemson or Stanford.