The more I look at the latest College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, the more I realize that only two teams can save the inaugural installment of the new postseason format.
Four teams appear to be in the running for the fourth and final spot in the semifinals. Mississippi State has been inhabiting the fourth spot ever since its loss to Alabama, but TCU, Ohio State, and Baylor are also in the running as one-loss Power 5 teams. Each of these four teams has issues with being that fourth team, given that the criteria the committee is directed to use to sort out teams includes conference championships, strength of schedule, and head-to-head competition:
- Mississippi State already lost to Alabama, and despite the close final score, it wasn't that close of a game. It wasn't a last-second or even last-possession loss. Putting the Bulldogs in will only invite accusations of devaluing the regular season, because hey: didn't the Tide already eliminate MSU once? Plus, State's non-conference schedule consists of Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, and UT-Martin. Sure MSU is in the really tough SEC West, but it didn't play one of the division's best two teams (itself) and drew Kentucky and Vandy from the East. With no win over Bama and Texas A&M, Auburn, and Ole Miss sagging to the finish line, just how impressive is their record after all?
Edited to add: Judging from feedback from the comments and on Twitter, I was not clear with my comments on MSU. Here's a second try. The argument I'm setting forth is based on the committee's stated logic and my projection of how it's going to change. One of the things the committee does is count losses and go from there. Right now it's using nonsensical language to justify MSU in fourth, but if both MSU and Bama win out, the Bulldogs' best wins will be over teams with no fewer than four losses.
TCU's best wins will likely end up being over teams with three losses (K-State, Oklahoma). Both of those two are also likely to finish ranked ahead of any of MSU's conquests in the final rankings due to loss counting. Keeping MSU in fourth would defy the rankings the committee puts forth and make no internal sense, not to mention the cries of SEC bias. I'm looking at a national scope here. SEC folks would be fine with Mississippi State in fourth under these circumstances, but the rest of the nation likely wouldn't. For the system to "work", everyone must be happy with it, not just fans from one region.
The arguments for and against all four of these teams are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. This is not a good way to compare teams. Yet, this is how it gets done in the media, among most fans, and, apparently, in the committee's room.
- TCU has arguably looked the best of any of these teams at times this year, but its narrow win over Kansas in which it trailed a fair bit of the game is one of the worst performances too. It doesn't have a schedule strength problem, as it played Minnesota out of conference and has four teams currently in the rankings on its slate. It does have issues with the other two criteria though, as it lost to Baylor and won't be the Big 12 champion if both it and the Bears win out. The fourth criteria, which I didn't list above, is results against common opponents. Maybe that could help make the case in the Horned Frogs' favor, but it's going to be very tough for the committee to put one team in the playoff ahead of another team that it both lost to and is the conference champ.
- Ohio State has been getting better as the year has gone along and is very good now. Its win over Michigan State is the second best of any, behind Baylor's defeat of TCU, and the Big Ten Championship game against Minnesota or Wisconsin will give the team a third game against a ranked opponent to match Mississippi State and Baylor*. OSU's glaring problem is that its home loss to Virginia Tech looks more and more ghastly as time goes on, and the excuse of J.T. Barrett being unexpectedly pressed into service ran out of steam for good when Wake beat the Hokies. Even if OSU ends up the only one-loss team out of the four of these, that loss combined with the Big Ten's currently bad reputation will cause many fans to hold their noses when looking at the playoff field.
- Baylor has the win over TCU and the tiebreaker for the Big 12 championship in its favor, but the committee is clearly punishing the Bears for their non-conference slate of SMU, Buffalo, and Northwestern State. The committee's words say that scheduling isn't the top concern, but its actions say otherwise. Baylor does have another ranked team to go in Kansas State, but so do Mississippi State (Ole Miss) and Ohio State (Minnesota or Wisconsin). Is solely playing and beating K-State and securing the title of Big 12 champ enough to jump BU three spots?
*Note: Mississippi State might knock Ole Miss out of the rankings and end up with only two ranked opponents by the end of this. It also might pick up a fourth if the Rebels remain in and LSU or Arkansas, the top two also-receiving-votes teams in the AP Poll, sneak into the 20s somewhere. I'm going with three for now, but it could be anywhere from two to four.
Two teams have the ability to clear all of this up: Ole Miss and Kansas State. If the Rebels beat Mississippi State and the Wildcats beat Baylor, there will be a simple solution to all of this: put TCU at No. 4 and be done with it. OSU's loss to Virginia Tech would sap any sympathy for the Buckeyes outside their home state, and the Frogs' game against Minnesota means that the committee isn't rewarding bad non-conference scheduling.
The College Football Playoff having a controversy-free first year won't necessarily mean anything. The BCS didn't have any controversy regarding its national championship game selections in its first two years, and it ended up totally reviled. A neat ending to this season won't insulate the Playoff from future criticism.
Still though, the CFP has a chance to be a cleaner system. Its selection process for the other major bowls will eliminate the pitfalls the BCS actually did run into in its first two years (and a few other times in its history), with those controversies undermining the system even if the title game participants were fine.
I know those in charge of the system would love to have it "work" here in its first year. The best chance of getting that outcome is if Ole Miss and Kansas State save the day.