When the College Football Playoff standings were announced Tuesday night, one of the things that caught everyone's attention was that LSU and Alabama were ranked at No. 2 and No. 4, respectively. There's almost certainly not going to be another SEC West rematch -- the two teams play each other this weekend, and there are more credible contenders outside the SEC than there were in 2011 -- but the cries of "SEC bias" began almost immediately.
Less noticed was something else in the rankings: They set up a credible and not too far-fetched scenario where the SEC could end up with no team in the playoffs, regardless of what happens in Tuscaloosa this weekend. And it all could hinge -- in fact, it all probably will hinge -- on two SEC games.
The national context is important here. There is only one Power 5 conference, the Pac-12, that is now guaranteed to have a one-loss champion.
The Big 12 has no fewer than three undefeated teams (Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU), and while all of those teams have to play each other and each still has to play Oklahoma, one of them could certainly survive that stretch unscathed. And if one team does so, the Big 12 champion is in. Even with a loss, the Big 12 title holder is going to have a resume that's hard to deny, particularly now that the conference seems to have abandoned its Two True One True Champion(s) stance.
The Big Ten also has three teams without a loss. Ohio State is the most prominent of those, and has undefeated Michigan State and two-loss Michigan remaining on the schedule along with mediocre Illinois and Minnesota. Michigan State does have Penn State to worry about in addition to Ohio State, but no other opponent is likely to scare the Spartans. And Iowa, now 8-0, doesn't face another team with a record above .500; the Hawkeyes' four remaining opponents are a combined 3-14 in conference play. There are good odds that an undefeated B1G East champion could face an undefeated Iowa in the conference title game, ensuring that the Up North Conference sends a contestant to the playoff.
This weekend could all but decide whether the ACC has an undefeated champion. Clemson plays Florida State, and if the Tigers win that game, they are home-free unless they decide to start Clemsoning again. (As much as I hate to admit it, Dabo has a point; they haven't done that much lately.) Clemson's remaining ACC foes are 6-11 in conference play, and South Carolina -- as you may have noticed -- is what we who observe football like to call "not good." None of Clemson's potential ACC Championship Game opponents are currently ranked by the selection committee.
Barring a spectacular breakout of upsets in what's left of November -- which is admittedly quite a lot to assume about college football -- the smart money would be on at least two and perhaps three non-SEC Power 5 leagues producing undefeated champions. There's also a decent chance that the Pac-12 will end up with a one-loss title team, and that's something to keep in mind.
Here's the wild card that could upset the SEC's ticket to the playoffs: Ole Miss still controls its own destiny in the SEC West. The Rebels are a two-loss team and currently sit at No. 18 in selection committee's rankings. And they have an opportunity to win just enough to take the conference title and not enough to make the playoffs.
The first critical game after the GAME OF THE CENTURY between Alabama and LSU this weekend is when the Tigers travel to Ole Miss two weeks from now. The Rebels, who face Arkansas this weekend, get a bye week before hosting LSU. The Tigers, meanwhile, go from playing Alabama to a bruising game against Arkansas (in which LSU will likely still be favored) to a road game in Oxford. Win that game and, regardless of who won the GAME OF THE CENTURY, Ole Miss will seize control of the West. If only we had some recent history of an Ole Miss team upsetting a highly-ranked LSU team in Oxford ...
Even if the Rebels beat LSU, there's a landmine at the end of the season: Facing Dak Prescott in his last game in Starkville for the Egg Bowl. The road team has won that rivalry match-up once since 2003, and Mississippi State is itself ranked in the latest survey from the selection committee. It would not be the shock of the century, or even of the year, if Ole Miss were to lose in Starkville. But it would also not be a surprise if the Rebels won.
There's also the matter of the SEC Championship Game. Unless a truly unlikely series of events strikes the SEC East -- and we're talking unlikely even by that division's lofty standards -- Ole Miss would face Florida, which beat Ole Miss handily earlier this year, in the title game. Since divisional play began in 1992, there have been five regular-season rematches. Four of those games have been won by the same team that took the regular-season game. It's a tall order, but not an impossible one.
How far would beating Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Florida boost the Rebels up the board? A good deal. But perhaps not enough to get into the top four spots in the playoff poll. And the last team standing in their way could be a team that might not be an obstacle to another SEC contender: Memphis.
Yes, Memphis is still undefeated at this point. The Tigers have a tough slate to go, including games against Navy, at undefeated Houston, at once-defeated Temple (a narrow loss to Notre Dame) and against hapless SMU. If Memphis navigates that stretch without a loss, the Tigers will have beaten American Athletic Conference teams that account for three wins over Power 5 schools. Oh, and they will have beaten Ole Miss by 13 points.
There's your nightmare scenario for the SEC: Two or three undefeated Power 5 champions, one or two one-loss Power 5 champions and undefeated Memphis on one side, against Ole Miss or a non-champion SEC team on the other.
While the selection committee membership changes slightly every year, it's hard to see members picking a non-champion for the playoff just one year after essentially making that the reason for excluding Baylor and TCU. They wouldn't put it in these words, but the selection committee members have to know that legitimacy is a fragile thing, and the constantly-shifting metrics in the early years of the BCS steadily ate away at that system's reputation. It's one of the reasons the committee exists to begin with.
And the howls of protest would be deafening if the committee took two-loss Ole Miss over an undefeated Memphis team that beat the Rebels by almost two touchdowns. SEC partisans could talk all they want about strength of schedule and the fact that Memphis hadn't faced the same kind of week-in, week-out punishment that Ole Miss did -- but it would be hard to deny an undefeated Memphis team that beat Ole Miss, Temple, Houston and some other non-body bag teams a spot in the playoffs, and harder still to do so in favor of a team with a head-to-head loss against the Tigers.
This weekend's edition of the GAME OF THE CENTURY is still the most important game in the SEC, and perhaps the most important game in college football, so far this season. But when it comes to whether the conference will place a team in the playoffs for a second consecutive year, the most important contests will still be in the future.