Fourteen weeks of college football have led us to Championship Weekend. All five Power Conferences, as well as four of the five non-power conferences, will stage a championship game to determine who wins the respective leagues. Only the Sun Belt Conference is not holding a championship game, although 2018 will feature the first Sun Belt Championship Game. When the weekend is over, we will know the four teams that will fight for the National Championship as part of the College Football Playoff.
Just as we saw in 2016, several traditional names are in contention for one of the four playoff spots. College football blue bloods, such as Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia, are all in the hunt to play for the national championship. These four schools claim a combined 28 national championships between them dating back to 1925.
Meanwhile, schools such as Wisconsin, Texas Christian, and Auburn are also in the hunt for the championship. Auburn and Texas Christian have won national championships before, but only Auburn has won one in the last 50 years, having defeated Oregon in 2010 to win the title. Wisconsin, for all of their Big 10 success in the last 20 years, has never won a national championship, and would love nothing more than to finish their season with an undefeated record (they are currently 12-0).
Several scenarios can play out during the conference championship games that will affect the College Football Playoff. Some outcomes can lead to a very easy selection process for the four-team playoff. However, upset champions would lead to a near impossible task for the playoff selection committee.
In case you are unaware, the “Power 5” Conferences include the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big 12 Conference, the Big 10 Conference, the Pacific 12 Conference (Pac 12), and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). All but the Big 12 Conference consists of teams split into two divisions, with teams playing all of their division rivals and either two or three teams from the other division during the season. The Big 12 does not split teams into divisions, instead opting to pit every team against each other in a simple round robin format. The division winners of the four conferences will face each other for their respective conference championship, while the Big 12 Championship Game will feature the top two teams from their round robin. If you think that is complicated, you are not alone.
Once the conference championship games have been completed, a committee of athletic directors, school presidents, and other college football personnel, will gather and select the four teams to comprise the College Football Playoff. Those four teams will play in a two round tournament, with the winner being crowned National Champion.
It should be noted that while the University of Central Florida does not play in a Power Conference, they are also undefeated at 11-0 and will play for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship against another talented team in the 10-1 University of Memphis Tigers. Should Central Florida win, they will finish the regular season undefeated, and, even though they did not play a terribly difficult schedule, should warrant at least some consideration for a spot in the playoff, although the likelihood of such a consideration is low.
The College Football Playoff has four spots up for grabs, but as many as ten teams feel as though they have a chance to get in. Here is how they can win their way in.
Current Rankings provided by the Associated Press (AP)
CLEMSON UNIVERSITY TIGERS (#1, ACC ATLANTIC DIVISION CHAMPION, 11-1)
Clemson is the defending National Champion, and they are currently in line to repeat in 2017. The Tigers fell only once during the regular season to Syracuse, but have otherwise defeated every other opponent in their way. That includes difficult games against Auburn, South Carolina, North Carolina State, and Louisville. Clemson has looked impressive along the way, despite having to replace their All-American quarterback from a year ago in Deshaun Watson.
HOW THEY GET IN: Clemson gets into the playoff by beating Miami in the ACC Championship game. It does not get much simpler than that. The Tigers have more than proven that they deserve the chance to defend their National Championship from 2016.
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA SOONERS (#2, BIG 12 REGULAR SEASON CHAMPION, 11-1)
The Heisman Trophy will most likely be awarded to Oklahoma’s talented yet brash quarterback, Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma got off to a strong start by defeating Ohio State on the road in their second game of the season, and have not looked back since. Having taken down everyone in the Big 12 except Iowa State in a rare home loss, the Sooners look as strong as they have since their last National Championship in 2000.
HOW THEY GET IN: Oklahoma gets into the playoff by beating Texas Christian in the Big 12 Championship game. Oklahoma has one of the most impressive resumes in college football, having scored more than 35 points in 10 of their 12 games, with three of their wins coming against Top 20 teams.
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN BADGERS (#3, BIG 10 WEST DIVISION CHAMPION, 12-0)
An undefeated regular season sounds like a good thing, but it means nothing if you cannot seal the deal with a championship. Wisconsin is the only remaining team from a Power 5 Conference without a loss to their record; however, their schedule was not as difficult as some of the other schools under consideration. It was not until the Badgers defeated Michigan that Wisconsin had a win over a ranked team, and that game took place in mid-November. Still, Wisconsin has a dominant defense and a strong running game, both of which are immeasurably important in the College Football Playoff.
HOW THEY GET IN: Wisconsin gets into the playoff by beating Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship Game. While their schedule has been less than spectacular up until now, Ohio State is a Top 10 team in every sense of the term, and a win over Ohio State would guarantee Wisconsin a spot in the playoff.
UNIVERSITY OF AUBURN TIGERS (#4, SEC WEST DIVISION CHAMPION, 10-2)
Auburn has a legitimate chance to become the first team with two regular season losses to make the College Football Playoff. After finishing their season with wins over two top teams in Georgia and Alabama, it is undeniable that the Tigers have earned their spot in the playoff. Auburn has not lost since they played at Louisiana State several weeks ago, and their run of success since has more than made up for their two losses earlier in the season.
HOW THEY GET IN: Auburn gets into the playoff by beating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. If Auburn finishes their season with wins against three Top 10 teams within a four game stretch, including two wins against Georgia, then Auburn will be a lock for the College Football Playoff.
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (#5, SEC WEST DIVISION RUNNER UP, 11-1)
It was a simple task for Alabama on paper, though defeating Auburn to finish the season undefeated proved too much for the Tide. In losing to Auburn, not only did Alabama lose their number one ranking, but also their undefeated season and, more importantly, their shot at an SEC Championship. Therefore, Alabama is in a bit of a state of limbo, similar to how Ohio State was last year, in that they will not win a conference championship, but still have a resume worthy of inclusion into the playoff.
HOW THEY GET IN: Alabama gets into the playoff if, and only if, either Ohio State, Texas Christian, or Miami win. Alabama dominated their schedule, but lost at the most inopportune time of the season. While not eliminated, Alabama cannot help themselves, and therefore must rely on other schools to help them steal one of the four playoff spots.
UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA BULLDOGS (#6, SEC WEST DIVISION CHAMPION, 11-1)
Georgia, like Alabama, was undefeated until they played Auburn late in the season. Unlike the Crimson Tide, though, the Bulldogs were still able to win their division of the SEC, and thus will have the chance to exact revenge against the Tigers in the SEC Championship game. Georgia has what may be the best win of any SEC team against a team from outside the conference in the form of their 20-19 victory at Notre Dame. Georgia possesses a powerful running game, but they were shown to not be invincible in their first matchup against Auburn.
HOW THEY GET IN: Georgia gets into the playoff by beating Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Essentially, if Georgia beats Auburn, they will trade rankings, with Georgia jumping into the playoff with a more than deserving resume to their credit.
UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI HURRICANES (#7, ACC COASTAL DIVISION CHAMPION, 10-1)
Until last week, Miami seemed to have the clearest path to the College Football Playoff. All they had to do was beat the lowly Pittsburgh Panthers to ensure an undefeated regular season. Such an outcome might have meant that Miami could have lost to Clemson and still gotten into the playoff. However, in a complete shocker, Pittsburgh not only beat the Hurricanes 24-14, but also made Miami look quite bad in the process. While Miami will still play for the ACC Championship, their path is much cloudier to the College Football Playoff as of now.
HOW THEY GET IN: Miami gets into the playoff by beating Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, and likely need either Ohio State or Texas Christian to also win. All due respect to Miami, but unless an upset occurs, even a victory over Clemson will not be enough to allow the Hurricanes to leapfrog ahead of Alabama into the playoff.
THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY BUCKEYES (#8, BIG 10 EAST DIVISION CHAMPION, 10-2)
What a confusing situation it is for Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost early at home to Oklahoma, but rebounded with an epic victory over #2 Penn State in October. Still, the momentum was short lived, as Ohio State were soon routed on the road to Iowa 55-24. Since that game, the Buckeyes have looked as good as any team in the country, having crushed two quality opponents in Michigan State and archrival Michigan.
HOW THEY GET IN: Ohio State gets into the playoff by beating Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game, and likely also needs Texas Christian to win. Unfortunately for Ohio State, their own 2016 playoff trip may cost them in 2017. The Buckeyes did not win the Big 10 last year, but still made the College Football Playoff. Unless something crazy happens, Alabama would be more likely to receive a playoff spot than Ohio State, despite Alabama not playing for the SEC Championship.
TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY HORNED FROGS (TCU) (#10, BIG 12 REGULAR SEASON RUNNER UP, 10-2)
TCU may be a longshot to make the College Football Playoff in 2017, but unbelievably, they are not out of it just yet. The Horned Frogs do not have the most impressive resume, having beaten only one ranked team in the form of Oklahoma State, but their defense has looked dominant at times. TCU held six opponents to single digit points, including two shutouts. While they lost earlier in the season to Oklahoma, the Horned Frogs will get their chance at revenge in the Big 12 Championship game.
HOW THEY GET IN: TCU gets in by beating Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game by multiple touchdowns, and also needs Ohio State AND Miami to win. Similar to Ohio State in 2014, TCU must be not merely win their conference championship, but they must do so in a blowout. On top of that, they need lower ranked teams to win all over the place in front of them. Even then, it might not be enough, but the door is not shut on TCU quite yet on making their first College Football Playoff.
UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA KNIGHTS (UCF) (#12, AAC EAST DIVISION CHAMPION, 11-0)
If any team from outside a Power 5 Conference has had a good argument to crash the College Football Playoff party, it has to be the undefeated UCF Knights. UCF scored over 30 points in every single game, over 40 in eight of 11 games, and over 50 in three of 11 games. While their offense has been overpowering, their schedule has not been challenging, with their most impressive victory coming in their 49-42 instant classic against rival #23 South Florida. Logically, UCF does not belong in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. However, in such an unpredictable year as 2017, with no truly dominant teams emerging, there is reason to believe that UCF has at least a punchers chance to get a playoff spot.
HOW THEY GET IN: UCF gets in by beating Memphis in the AAC Championship Game by multiple touchdowns while scoring more than 56 points, AND needs Ohio State AND TCU AND Miami to win, AND needs each of the ACC, Big 12, Big 10, and SEC Championship Games to be played poorly by all teams involved, AND needs sympathy from the College Football Playoff selection committee. Basically, UCF needs a miracle to even have a realistic shot at a playoff spot. Weirder things have happened, though.
In summary, it comes down to the following:
The winner of the SEC Championship Game is in the playoff.
Clemson, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin are in if they win, and out if they lose.
Alabama is in if Clemson, Oklahoma, or Wisconsin lose.
Miami is out if they lose, and in if they win as long as Oklahoma or Wisconsin lose.
Ohio State is out if they lose, and in if they win as long as TCU wins.
TCU is in only if they win in a blowout AND Clemson loses AND Wisconsin loses.
UCF needs a miracle to get into the playoff.
Got all that? The simplest, least controversial outcome to Championship Weekend is if Clemson, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin all win their conference championships. In that case, Clemson would likely get the number one seed and would play the SEC Champion in one Semifinal game. Meanwhile Oklahoma would play Wisconsin in the other Semifinal game.
Do not expect such a clean result to the weekend. The 2017 season has been a roller coaster, with upsets occurring on a regular basis throughout the year. The question right now is not will there be any upsets in the conference championship games, but rather how many will occur, and how will each upset affect the College Football Playoff? May the chaos begin!