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Mock College Football Playoff 2013

Here it is, what the College Football Playoff would look like if we had it this year.

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RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The BCS is going out not with a bang but with a whimper. At the end of October, it looked like we could have some all-time chaos with undefeated teams in each major conference, but none of that potential held together over the final month. Instead, the national championship game is going to be the sole undefeated team against the most accomplished one-loss conference champion. The BCS does get less controversial than this, but not by much.

Underneath it is actually an armageddon scenario for the College Football Playoff. FSU is still secure, but then there are four one-loss teams vying for the other three semifinal spots. Three of them have conference championships to their names—Auburn, Michigan State, and Baylor—and then there's Alabama, the eye test champion of the four which only lost on an incredibly rare play after time had expired.

The CFP founders have not shackled the selection committee to a strict set of rules for picking teams. Instead, it laid out "principles" that it should follow. They are, in the order on the website, "conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory), and other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team's performance during the season or likely would affect its postseason performance".

The HTML underlying that section is an unordered list, but it is telling that the CFP did not lay out these factors alphabetically. There is something in this listing that implies that the conference championship is the most important factor.

The appropriate value to place on conference championships was one of the more contentious issues as the playoff was taking shape. The SEC and Big 12 argued that the semifinals should contain the best four teams regardless of whether they had won conference championships. This fact comes as no surprise given that they have been the best two leagues at getting multiple teams in the top four of the final BCS rankings. For example in 2008, a playoff projects to have been a pair of teams from each of those conferences.  On the other side, early on the process both the Pac-12 and Big Ten floated the idea of restricting the spots of a four-team playoff to only conference champions.

Ultimately, neither side won out completely. The semifinals will not consist only of conference champions, so the SEC and Big 12 got something. The selection committee has a directive, however, to strongly consider conference championships when picking teams, so the Pac-12 and Big Ten got something. The value of priorities here is completely subjective, so there is no one definitive answer to this conundrum.

If conference championships matter most, then the top four would not include Alabama. If picking the best teams is most important, then Bama sails in easily based on both F/+ and Sagarin's "real" Predictor rating. If strength of schedule is most important, then FSU, Baylor, and Michigan State end up fighting for the final two spots. If you go by who has the "best loss", then there's paradoxically a case to be made for putting Bama above Auburn in the pecking order. Those Tigers do well if you go by who is the hottest team at the end, but given their dreadfully slow start in September, they suffer if you go by who was consistently the best over the entire season.

I don't expect the selection committee to issue any comments about this year's field of teams. However, it would be very constructive to have them get together and hash this situation out now before the system goes live next year. The stakes are low, given that their decision would carry no weight, so they really should work on this problem while they have that safety net.


The mock playoff below is based on the BCS standings, so it makes no assumptions on how the selection committee would handle this year's problems. If the committee did crank out rankings that match what the BCS has, then this is how the playoff would go.

The situation described here is if the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl hosted the semifinals. That setup is what we're going to have next year in 2014. There is a rotation though, so in 2015 the Orange and Cotton Bowls will host the semifinals, and in 2016, the Fiesta and Chick-fil-A Bowls will host the semifinals. That rotation will continue for at least 12 years, which is the length of the initial College Football Playoff contract. I will outline the other scenarios at the end, because they will have different teams in different games.

Semifinal A

No. 1

No. 4

Sugar Bowl

FSU Michigan State

The first semifinal is going to be the No. 1 team against the No. 4 team in the site that is most advantageous to the No. 1 team. For the top-ranked Seminoles, that's the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. They'll play the fourth-ranked Spartans of Michigan State.

Semifinal B

No. 2

No. 3

Rose Bowl

Auburn Alabama

The other semifinal will be No. 2 versus No. 3. Yes, based on the final BCS rankings, that means we would get an Iron Bowl rematch between Auburn and Alabama out in the Rose Bowl. I'm not sure the locals in Pasadena would quite know what to do with them.

Contract Bowl



Orange Bowl

Clemson Ohio State

The Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowls are "Contract Bowls" in the new CFP parlance. It means that when they are not hosting a semifinal game, contracts, and not the judgment of the selection committee, will govern which conference will have participating teams in them. The Sugar will have an SEC and a Big 12 team, the champions if possible. The Rose will have a Pac-12 and a Big Ten team, the champions if possible. The Orange will have an ACC team, the champion if possible, paired up with the highest ranked available team out of the SEC, Big Ten, and Notre Dame. The Sugar and Rose Bowls get to pick their SEC and Big Ten teams before the Orange fills that spot in years when the Fiesta and Chick-fil-A Bowls host the semifinals.

With the ACC champ otherwise occupied, the next available team for the Orange Bowl is Clemson. It will face Ohio State, which fulfills the standard for the other slot.

It's worth noting that this game will have that SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame slot eight times in the 12 years of the CFP deal. By contract, an SEC team must appear at least three times, a Big Ten team must appear at least three times, and Notre Dame can appear no more than twice. That stipulation won't matter early on, but it will become increasingly important as time goes on.


The other three major bowls are called "Host Bowls" in the new lingo. The only contractual requirement for them is that the highest ranked team of the so-called "Group of Five" mid-major conferences—the American, CUSA, the MAC, the MWC, and the Sun Belt—must appear in one of them somewhere.

Any conference champion that cannot participate in its contracted spot due to its bowl being in the semifinals will have a guaranteed spot elsewhere in the system. That fact means that Big 12 champ Baylor and Pac-12 champ Stanford would have automatic bids to be in the Host Bowls. So would UCF, thanks to the Group of Five clause. The at-large teams to fill in the rest of the spots will consist of the highest ranked available teams, and they are Missouri, South Carolina, and Oregon.

Among the guidelines for placing teams is a directive that conference champions will get the preference to go to a nearby bowl. It also states that geography will be a big consideration, as will avoiding regular season rematches as possible. Keeping those heuristics in mind, let's fill out the field.

Host Bowl Central

Big 12 Champ


Cotton Bowl

Baylor Missouri

Due to conference champions getting preferential treatment, Big 12 champ Baylor would basically be assured of a spot in the Cotton Bowl. For the other slot, Missouri makes the most sense, so the Tigers are the pick.

Host Bowl West

Pac-12 Champ

Group of Five

Fiesta Bowl

Stanford UCF

Thanks to conference champions getting preferential treatment, Pac-12 champ Stanford is a lock for the Fiesta Bowl. Stanford and Oregon played in the regular season and South Carolina and UCF played each other in the regular season, so we have two rematches to avoid. There's only one way around it.

Host Bowl East



Chick-fil-A Bowl

Oregon South Carolina

Because South Carolina has a higher ranking than UCF does, I gave the geographic priority to the Gamecocks. They get to play near home against the Ducks in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, putting UCF into the Fiesta.


Rose-Sugar semifinal scenario, conference champs edition

If the selection committee did decide to make the semifinals consist of only conference champions, then this is how things would likely turn out. For this I kept the BCS rankings as-is, only I moved Baylor up to No. 4 and Alabama down to No. 5 to achieve that hypothetical semifinal situation.

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Baylor

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Michigan State

Orange Bowl: Clemson (ACC) vs. Alabama (SEC/B1G/ND)

Cotton Bowl: Oregon (at-large) vs. Missouri (at large)

Fiesta Bowl: Stanford (Pac-12 champ) vs. UCF (Group of Five)

Peach Bowl: South Carolina (at large) vs. Ohio State (at-large)

The semifinal changes explain themselves. Alabama goes to the Orange Bowl instead of Ohio State here, as the Buckeyes would no longer be the highest ranked available team from the SEC, Big Ten, or Notre Dame. Stanford is still a lock for the Fiesta, and Missouri still makes sense for the Cotton. Ohio State is closer to Atlanta than Glendale or Arlington, and again we can't have a regular season rematch of South Carolina and UCF, so I put the Buckeyes in Atlanta. The Gamecocks still pull rank for the other Chick-fil-A Bowl spot, leaving UCF once again in the Fiesta to avoid the Stanford-Oregon rematch.

Orange-Cotton semifinal scenario

Full explanation of this scenario here.

Orange Bowl: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Michigan State

Cotton Bowl: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Alabama

Rose Bowl: Stanford (Pac-12 champ) vs. Ohio State (Big Ten)

Sugar Bowl: Missouri (SEC) vs. Baylor (Big 12 champ)

Fiesta Bowl: Oregon (at-large) vs. UCF (Group of Five)

Peach Bowl: South Carolina (at-large) vs. Oklahoma (at-large)

After the semifinals are set, the Contract Bowls get to pick their teams. The Rose Bowl gets its Pac-12 champ in Stanford, and it gets Ohio State to replace Michigan State. Similarly, the Sugar Bowl gets its Big 12 champ in Baylor and a replacement team in Missouri from the SEC.

Now we have two bowls left to fill, and No. 11 Oklahoma comes into the picture because No. 12 Clemson no longer gets a bid to the Orange. South Carolina still gets the Chick-fil-A over the lower ranked Knights, and I arranged Oregon and Oklahoma geographically. I could also see Oklahoma to the Fiesta given that bowl's old tie with the Big 12 and the fact OU is above Oregon in the rankings, but I'm not sure the old ties will hold sway.

Fiesta-Chick-fil-A semifinal scenario

Full explanation of this scenario here.

Peach Bowl: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Michigan State

Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Alabama

Rose Bowl: Stanford (Pac-12 champ) vs. Ohio State (Big Ten)

Sugar Bowl: Missouri (SEC) vs. Baylor (Big 12 champ)

Orange Bowl: Clemson (ACC) vs. South Carolina (SEC/B1G/ND)

Cotton Bowl: UCF (Group of Five) vs. Oregon (at-large)

When the Fiesta Bowl and Chick-fil-A Bowl host semifinals, there are no decisions for the selection committee to make beyond ranking the teams. Three of the four non-semifinal bowls are Contract Bowls, so the committee exercises no discretion over those matchups. One of the spots in the remaining bowl, the Cotton, must go to the Group of Five representative, meaning there can only be one at-large team.

The Orange Bowl would want to avoid taking South Carolina to face Clemson, and it does have an exemption to take the second-highest ranked team out of the SEC, Big Ten, and Notre Dame in order to avoid a regular season rematch. Whichever team gets passed over must get a spot elsewhere. If that happened, the Orange would grab LSU and South Carolina would play in the Cotton. Problem is, that would set up another regular season rematch with South Carolina and UCF. In all likelihood, the folks in charge would decide the South Carolina-Clemson rematch is more palatable and make that one happen. Plus, that would keep the higher ranked Oregon in the field over the lower ranked LSU.