Breaking Down the College Football Playoff Picture at Midseason Mark

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistOctober 21, 2016

The College Football Playoff trophy will be making an appearance at Texas A&M at Alabama.
The College Football Playoff trophy will be making an appearance at Texas A&M at Alabama.Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You can count ESPN analyst David Pollack as one of those who doesn't believe the College Football Playoff selections will be cut-and-dried this season.

There's too much football left to play, and too many things that can, and will, happen.

"No matter how it shapes out, unless we have four teams that are undefeated from major conferences, then I think you're going to have some drama," he said. "I don't think everyone's going to run the table and go undefeated."

Some drama? In college football? That's like saying there's no crying in baseball. Of course there is.

With the selection committee closing in on its initial rankings Nov. 1, if there's one thing we've learned about the playoff chase and years of the BCS, it's that rarely will things slot into place in an expected, orderly way.

This year's version of football's Final Four will be revealed Dec. 4. Here's what we do know:

  • In the two years of the playoff, no selected team had more than one loss.
  • All eight teams have been conference champions, although Oklahoma didn't participate in a league title game last year.
  • With most teams having just cleared the midway point of their schedules, 11 unbeaten teams are heading into this weekend, and some will play each other before the end of the season.

On face value, the selection process seems like it could turn out to be easy this year:

Texas A&M can go from being a playoff contender to favorite with a win over Alabama.
Texas A&M can go from being a playoff contender to favorite with a win over Alabama.Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The winner of No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday will have the inside track in the SEC, which boasts eight teams in this week's Associated Press Top 25. Only two are from the SEC East, which hasn't scored a victory in the SEC Championship Game since 2008.

In the Big Ten, the survivor of Michigan at Ohio State on Nov. 26 will have similar status, if both teams continue to survive as expected.

Clemson already has that advantage in the Atlantic Coast Conference after winning its showdown against Louisville. Because the first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition, the Cardinals almost certainly need the Tigers to stumble twice to have a shot at representing the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game.

Washington is carrying the banner for the Pac-12.

Only it's never that simple in college football.

First off, as Pollack alluded to, the chances of there being four undefeated teams in Power Five conferences aren't good.

While some point to 2009 as being a potential nightmare situation for the selection committee because there were five teams with perfect records after the conference championships—Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State—two of them were from the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference, and the Big East had lost a lot of traction.

Not surprisingly, the BCS system paired the teams from the SEC and Big-12 in the title game.

At the end of October last year, 11 unbeaten teams were ranked in the committee's top 25, including the top three teams of Clemson, LSU and Ohio State. Only one of them made the playoff.

At the same point the previous year, there were only two undefeated teams, No. 1 Mississippi State and Florida State. The Seminoles ended up being selected, but the other three teams that made the semifinals were ranked Nos. 5, 6 and 16 the first week of November.

In both years, the committee made it clear that strength of schedule was an important factor in its decision-making process. This year, it could be huge.

For example, even though Washington looks like a playoff-type team and is in a strong position, Pollack thinks the Huskies need to be looking over their shoulder at what's going on in the Big 12. Baylor (6-0) has moved up to No. 9, but the real potential threat may be No. 12 West Virginia.

Oct 15, 2016; Lubbock, TX, USA;  Texas Tech Red Raiders running back Cameron Batson (13) is driven to the ground by West Virginia Mountaineers defensive lineman David Long (11) at Jones AT&T Stadium. West Virginia defeated Texas Tech 48-17. Mandatory Cred
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountaineers' nonconference games were against Missouri, Youngstown State (FCS) and Brigham Young. While none of those opponents has been particularly impressive, they're still vastly better than the other teams.

Baylor faced FCS foe Northwestern State, SMU and Rice. Between them, they have three wins this season. So far, the Bears have played only one team with a winning record.

Washington defeated Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. That the Pac-12 has only one other team ranked, Utah, could significantly hurt the Huskies' chances due to a lack of quality wins.

"If West Virginia is the team from the Big 12, West Virginia is going to get in over Washington," Pollack predicted.

The same could eventually be true of Baylor as well, although the odds aren't in either team's favor.

The Mountaineers (5-0) host TCU this weekend and travel to Oklahoma State and Texas before playing the only two ranked opponents on their schedule, No. 16 Oklahoma and Baylor. The Bears also haven't played a ranked opponent yet and have the meat of their schedule to go, including a four-game stretch in which they are on the road against Texas, at home against TCU, at Oklahoma and back home to take on Kansas State.

Similarly, Nebraska (6-0) has to be considered a long shot as it has back-to-back road games coming up against No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State. Plus, its biggest win against Oregon isn't looking that impressive anymore.

LSU is David Pollack's dark-horse team for making the playoff.
LSU is David Pollack's dark-horse team for making the playoff.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

At least the Cornhuskers have a chance to settle things on the field. One-loss teams such as Florida, Louisville and Utah (plus potentially the loser of Michigan-Ohio State) probably need some help in addition to running the table. As for the non-major conference challengers, they may already be out of the running.

Houston got a big win against Oklahoma but then lost to Navy. Boise State (7-0) doesn't have a signature winalthough Washington State is looking better with each passing weekand will likely go the whole season without facing a Top 25 opponent.

"I'm a big believer in getting the four best teams," Pollack said. "Not all conferences are created equal—sorry, news flash: Not all schedules are created equal."

That especially works to the advantage of the SEC, and maybe the ACC this year—although Clemson hasn't been dominating like it did in 2015. It's also why Alabama would still have a good shot at the playoff even with a loss, assuming it's not this weekend against Texas A&M or in the SEC Championship.

The reigning champions are on target to play seven ranked teams during the regular season. Texas A&M will face six, and keep an eye on 4-2 LSU, which has five ranked opponents on its remaining schedule. In comparison, Michigan could face only two.

But that's part of the fun of college football. Just when you think you're starting to figure it out...

"Every team is different and every game is different," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

With the pressure building, look for the drama to only continue as we enter the third quarter of the regular season, when the unbeatens continue to fall and the surprises rise in number.


This story was updated following Thursday night's BYU at Boise State game.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter: @WritingWalsh.


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