College Football Playoff teams only as good as their conferences

This season, more than ever, strength of schedule could mean strength of conference — though the 13 College Football Playoff selection committee members likely would never publicly admit it.

Over the past six seasons of the playoff, committee chairs have insisted that the group ranks teams, not conferences, but during a season in which there aren’t any marquee nonconference matchups to help compare contenders, the only ranked teams to boost résumés are conference opponents.

Instead of comparing Oregon and Ohio State with a head-to-head matchup, for example, those two teams will have to impress the committee with wins against opponents from their own conference. That means fans should hope their league has multiple teams ranked by the committee come Selection Day on Dec. 20.

That part of the picture slowly began to take shape in Week 5, as Pitt’s loss to unranked NC State on Saturday brings into question whether the Panthers are a top-25 team. Clemson hosts Pitt on Nov. 28. As of now, Alabama’s schedule is extremely strong with six opponents ranked in the top 25, but will it stay that way through December? The Tide handled No. 13 Texas A&M with ease, Arkansas beat No. 16 Mississippi State, and Georgia outplayed No. 7 Auburn soundly.

Is the SEC West as deep as its five top-20 teams currently indicate?

Florida again looked like a top-four contender in its win against South Carolina, but if it beats Texas A&M on Saturday, how far will the Aggies drop? It becomes a Catch-22 when a win against a ranked opponent knocks that team out of the top 25. It has always been one of the most subjective aspects of the process, but how deep a conference is has always mattered.

Is the ACC Clemson — and Notre Dame — and everyone else? Or will No. 12 North Carolina and No. 8 Miami keep it interesting? Will Oregon play any regular-season games against ranked opponents?

If a Group of 5 conference is ever going to crack the code to the CFP, it is going to have to face multiple ranked opponents from its league because of the limited number of opportunities against Power 5 opponents. No. 25 Memphis losing hurt the American Athletic Conference, unless the Tigers can find a way to earn a top-25 spot by the committee when its rankings begin next month.

The committee’s protocol for choosing the top four teams remains the same, but the résumés will look starkly different. Still, fans will likely hear committee chair Gary Barta, Iowa’s athletic director, mention the usual justifications for ranking teams they have heard in the past: number of wins against CFP top-25 teams, number of wins against opponents with records above .500.

That looks like it’s going to be a problem for the Big 12 …

Is the Big 12 done?

We can stop talking about Oklahoma and the playoff. Yes, it’s a wildly unpredictable year, but with the Sooners’ second loss and Texas losing at home to TCU on Saturday, the Big 12 is already in the worst playoff position of the Power 5 conferences. (The Pac-12 and Big Ten haven’t played yet, but they also haven’t squandered anything yet, either.)

If Texas beats OU next week, how impressive would it really be?

OU lost to Iowa State, which lost its opener to Louisiana. Last week the Sooners lost to Kansas State, which lost to Arkansas State. And then there’s Texas, which needed overtime to beat Texas Tech, and lost at home Saturday to TCU.

Even Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger knows not to talk about the “big picture” right now.

“We shouldn’t even be thinking big picture right now with the amount of small mistakes that we made,” he said. “We’ve got to come in tomorrow and get better. Obviously we’ve got a big one this week [against Oklahoma] and you’ve got to focus on the next one.”

Yes, it’s a terrific rivalry game, but that appears to be the extent of its implications right now.

Why isn’t the CFP expanding right now?

Because just getting through this season in the midst of a pandemic is difficult enough. The CFP management committee met on Sept. 30 for what was its first meeting since all 10 FBS conferences announced plans to play football this fall.

Considering the uneven schedules the committee will have to evaluate, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott asked his fellow FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to consider an eight-team playoff for this season that would include five Power 5 conference champions as automatic qualifiers.

“They decided that doing that now would be such a significant change, and come with so many challenges, especially given the timing with the season already underway, that they concluded that the best outcome would be to make no changes in the format,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN.

Scott still accomplished something important this week: He got his peers to at least consider an eight-team playoff. Although it didn’t have enough support, sources said it did have some support, and it was an important conversation because it was the first time a Power 5 commissioner said publicly that he raised an eight-team format to the group.

This late in the season, though, that kind of drastic change to the playoff system would likely need overwhelming support — if not unanimous — and that wasn’t the case this week.

How high can BYU climb?

Tight end Carter Wheat and BYU are off to a strong start this season, but the Cougars may have a hard time making the playoff even if they run the table. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

BYU has imposed its will in three straight wins against overmatched opponents, but what if it keeps cruising? Would the selection committee give it serious consideration for a semifinal spot?


According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, if BYU runs the table, the Cougars have a 35% chance to make the playoff. That’s encouraging, but as of now, BYU doesn’t face a single ranked opponent. It does have two difficult road trips — a Friday night at Houston on Oct. 16, and Nov. 7 at Boise State — but that won’t stack up against the likes of what a Power 5 conference champion had to overcome.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives BYU at least a 63% chance to win each of its remaining games. The Cougars have been impressive on both sides of the ball through their first three wins. BYU has allowed 24 points in its first three games, the fewest points allowed by the Cougars in the first three games since 1951. Friday’s win against Louisiana Tech was BYU’s third straight game with at least 500 yards of total offense.

The committee pays attention to all of those things — but it also considers who those achievements came against. With no Power 5 opponents or conference championship game, the independent Cougars are still a long shot for the CFP.

Can the Pac-12 start hot?

With its Nov. 7 start, Pac-12 teams will have played a whopping three games before the selection committee reveals its first of five rankings on Nov. 24. Alabama, if it doesn’t have any disruptions from the virus, will have played eight. Clemson nine.

Alabama and Clemson will be in true “November” form.

It will have been about 10 months since Oregon last played a game (Jan. 1) when the Ducks open at home against Stanford on Nov. 7. With only seven games, the Pac-12 has fewer opportunities to impress the selection committee and almost no flexibility to account for coronavirus disruptions, and the conference will be under pressure to shake off the rust quickly.

When No. 14 Oregon opens its season at home against Stanford, it’s going to feel like a must-win situation for the Ducks, who are the league’s only ranked team and top playoff hope right now.

Every game, though, will carry that weight.

Meanwhile, ASU and USC will open the season at 9 a.m. PT on Nov. 7 — the earliest kickoff for a USC home game since the early 1950s, when complete records are available. If either of those teams hopes to enter the discussion — or even the CFP Top 25 — there’s no time to sleepwalk through their opener.

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