The old preseason tradition of imagining nightmare scenarios for the BCS has carried forward into the College Football Playoff era. This year, most of the scenarios have involved at least one of three issues.
The first is a team from outside the Power 5 conferences like Notre Dame or Houston ending up in the thick of the race. A conference championship is one of the things the selection committee protocol names as a key consideration point, potentially to the Fighting Irish's detriment, and Group of 5 conferences are viewed as being clearly inferior to Power 5 conferences, potentially to the Cougars' detriment. They might muddy the waters that would otherwise be clear if the committee is once again just picking among the P5 conference champs.
The second factor is what happens if there are fewer than four Power 5 conference champions with no more than one loss. The preseason conventional wisdom expects the Pac-12 champ to have at least two losses. Big 12 favorite Oklahoma has two losable non-conference games in Houston and Ohio State before even getting into its chances of sweeping its league games. Massive personnel losses at Ohio State and Michigan State plus quarterback and depth questions at Michigan means it is by no means certain the Big Ten champ will get through with no more than one loss either. Will the committee put a two-loss team in the bracket?
The third issue ties in with the second. If faced with a dearth of zero or one-loss P5 champs, will the committee put two teams from the same conference in the playoff? The two generally recognized possibilities here are Clemson and Florida State from the ACC and Alabama and LSU from the SEC.
I think the real nightmare scenario is if the third possibility isn't an either/or situation. What if both Clemson/FSU and Bama/LSU go undefeated except for a loss to the other team in their divisions?
Specifically, the worst case would be if Clemson and LSU both go undefeated. FSU at 11-1 would have a pair of wins over pretty good SEC teams in Ole Miss and Florida, and those are better than what the orange Tigers would get from their non-conference slate. Alabama's presumed win over USC will likely look better than LSU's over Wisconsin, and no team gets more reputation-based benefit of the doubt than the Tide does.
It's entirely possible that those four teams will be the four best teams in the country. Just look at the preseason expectations. Alabama, LSU, FSU, and Clemson are all in the top five of the AP Poll, top six of the Coaches' Poll, and top six of the preseason consensus. It's not just human voters either. They're all in the top five of S&P+ and the top six of FPI. The FEI is lower on FSU, having the Seminoles at No. 11, but the other three make up the top three spots.
The committee's instructions say that it "need[s] to select the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate." It also allows for a non-champion to go into the Final Four if it "is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country." There is no reason why the unequivocal four best teams in the country can't come from just two conferences.
The committee should be able to justify picking Alabama, Clemson, FSU, and LSU given the experience so far with the CFP. In both years of the system, a team has gotten into the playoff merely because it was a Power 5 champ with no more than one loss and not because it actually looked like a top-four team based on either the eye test or respected computer rankings. Both times, that team got crushed: FSU lost 59-20 to Oregon in 2014, and Michigan State lost 38-0 to Alabama in 2015.
However, I just don't think that the committee will have the courage to pick four teams from only two conferences unless the champions of the other three Power 5 conferences plus Notre Dame all have at least two losses. And while that could happen, it probably won't. There likely will be at least one champion from the Big 12, Big Ten, and/or Pac-12 that finishes with only one loss. In that case, at least one of the non-champions from the ACC and SEC would be left out.
Then again, there has been some progress past simple loss-column counting by the committee. That undefeated 2014 FSU team was seeded third behind a pair of one-loss teams, for instance.
Suppose the committee did put the two Tigers plus the Tide and Seminoles in ahead of, say, a one-loss Washington or Michigan or TCU. This sort of thing is why we have the playoff in the first place. Two SEC teams making the BCS National Championship Game in 2011 immediately preceded the creation of the new system. The rest of the power conferences thought enough was enough and finally decided to expand the championship system. (Ironically, the SEC had been pushing for a four-team arrangement for years by then.)
If the majority of the power conferences get left out this year, there will be tremendous pressure to Do Something About It. This could go anywhere from tweaking the committee guidance to more heavily favor conference championships to possibly setting a date to expand the bracket. Only the situation of all four playoff teams coming from just two conferences could do that because the other three P5 leagues have voice and influence in a way that the G5 conferences do not. That's why I put this scenario far ahead on the nightmare scale than Houston—even an undefeated Houston—not making the playoff.
If you're one to root for chaos, then your best bet is pulling for the actual four best teams to be Alabama, Clemson, FSU, and LSU in some order. The committee will either have to break its own rules to avoid putting all four in or follow its rules and potentially set fire to the whole system. The Big 12 has been having an existential crisis ever since its one-loss champion(s) failed to make the 2014 bracket. Imagine what could happen if the Final Four only came from two leagues.