Wild College Football Playoff Scenarios That Could Actually Happen
Just in case it isn't weird enough that a national champion is going to be crowned during a college football season in which the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren't playing (as things currently stand), we've come up with a few unlikely-but-feasible scenarios that would be extra wild.
Because, let's face it: No Big Ten and no Pac-12 in the national championship isn't that unusual.
Ohio State and Oregon squared off in the 2014-15 title game, but that's the last time either league made it to the finals. In both 2017-18 and 2018-19, neither the Big Ten nor the Pac-12 was even represented in the Final Four. So, if we end up with something like Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma battling for all the marbles, it wouldn't be that out of the ordinary.
But three teams (or no teams?) from the SEC would be a new wrinkle. We could also see a quartet of schools that has yet to be represented in the College Football Playoff. And wouldn't it be wild if UCF is one of those four teams? Considering it already claimed a natty three years ago, if anyone is going to win a national championship with an asterisk on it, it really should be UCF, right?
Matter of fact, let's get the ball rolling with that hypothetical scenario.
1st Appearance of a Non-Power Five Team
Two years ago, UCF entered Selection Sunday with an undefeated record for the second consecutive year. But there was never any hope of the Knights reaching the College Football Playoff. Not with undefeated champions in both the ACC and SEC, one-loss champions in the Big 12 and Big Ten, and an undefeated Notre Dame standing in their way.
This year, though, the AAC champ just might finally get that invitation to play for a national championship.
If we remove the Big Ten and Pac-12 teams from the preseason AP Top 25 and slide everyone else up to fill in those gaps, the effective preseason poll has Cincinnati at No. 13, UCF at No. 14 and Memphis at No. 17. Those three AAC teams play a round-robin tournament of sorts with Memphis hosting UCF, UCF hosting Cincinnati and Cincinnati hosting Memphis, plus a likely rematch of one of those games in the AAC Championship Game.
If any member of that trio runs the table, it will have at least three solid wins on its resume.
That team will still be at the mercy of the three Power Five leagues, though. If Alabama and Georgia both go 10-1 with one beating the other in the regular season and the other returning the favor in the SEC Championship, they—along with undefeated or one-loss champs from the ACC and Big 12—most likely would both finish ahead of an undefeated AAC champ. Could be similar situations in the other two leagues, too, if Clemson and Notre Dame have a split like that, or if some combination of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas does so.
If the ACC, Big 12 and SEC all fail to produce a second-best team legitimately worthy of CFP consideration, perhaps UCF (or Cincinnati or Memphis) gets the opportunity that has eluded it in recent years. That AAC champion would almost certainly be the No. 4 seed, penciled in for a blowout loss to a heavy favorite that won 10-11 consecutive games in a "real" conference, but it would be awesome to see it all the same.
3 SEC Teams in the Final Four
This is a scenario that I've previously written about as being feasible in a normal season, so it could absolutely happen with both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 out of the conversation.
It could only realistically work in the SEC, though.
The Big 12's true round-robin schedule puts its best-case scenario for three CFP candidates at a three-way 9-1 tie for first place. However, that means after the Big 12 Championship Game there's a team with two losses and no league title. Maybe the 9-1 team that gets left out of the Big 12 title game on a tiebreaker still has a good argument, but there's just no chance of that two-loss team getting in.
In the ACC, the only way I could possibly see it happening is if North Carolina—which does not play Clemson and has a home game against Notre Dame—goes 11-0 during the regular season, Notre Dame goes 10-1, Clemson goes 10-1 with a dramatic, heart-breaking loss at Notre Dame, and then the Fighting Irish beat the Tar Heels in the conference championship. Even then, however, they would need chaos in one of the other leagues, because there just aren't enough quality wins to be had in the ACC, where Clemson, Notre Dame and UNC are the only preseason AP Top 25 teams.
In the SEC, though, it's plenty feasible, even with the addition of two more interdivision games than usual.
Here are a couple of scenarios where it could work:
—Georgia beats Alabama during the regular season and finishes 9-1 but fails to win the SEC East because of a neutral-site loss to undefeated Florida. Alabama wins all of its other games, including the SEC Championship against Florida. Both Alabama and Florida would be near-locks, and Georgia would have one heck of an argument for inclusion.
—Alabama beats Georgia but loses at LSU. Each of those three teams wins each of its other games, resulting in 10-0 LSU vs. 9-1 Georgia for SEC title. Georgia wins, which makes the Bulldogs a one-loss SEC champion, makes the Tigers a one-loss runner-up with wins over Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M, and leaves the Crimson Tide at 9-1 with quality victories against Georgia, Auburn and Texas A&M. Hard to leave any of those resumes out.
There are several other similar situations where some three-team combination of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU—each of which is in the preseason AP Top Eight—ends the year in great shape. Factor in the possibility of Auburn (AP No. 11) or Texas A&M (No. 13) getting into the mix and there are that many more paths for three SEC teams in the playoff.
No SEC Teams in the Final Four
Three SEC teams in the playoff is a long shot, but it feels more likely than zero, right?
In the past 14 national championships, the SEC has been represented 15 times. That's not a misprint. Alabama played LSU in the 2012 BCS Championship, Alabama faced Georgia in the 2018 CFP championship and aside from Ohio State vs. Oregon in 2015—which was only possible because OSU upset No. 1 seed Alabama in the CFP semifinals—there has been one SEC team in every other title game dating back to 2007.
Any year without at least one SEC team in the CFP is hard to imagine, but especially this season.
It's entirely possible, though, and we're not even talking about some "Any Given Saturday" chaos where Arkansas upsets Alabama or Vanderbilt wins at Georgia.
Let's say the home team wins each of the marquee SEC West battles between Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. That means one loss for each of Alabama and Auburn; two each for LSU and Texas A&M. On top of that, Auburn has a likely loss at Georgia and not-exactly-simple road games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and South Carolina. Perhaps in addition to losing at LSU, Alabama picks up a loss during the latter 80 percent of its October gauntlet (at Ole Miss, vs. Georgia, at Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State), meaning a two-loss team wins the division.
If that two-loss teams proceeds to defeat a one-loss Florida or Georgia in the conference championship, it opens the door for the ACC and Big 12 to each send two teams to the playoff—or for the AAC champion to sneak into the top four.
Granted, for two ACC teams and two Big 12 teams to get in ahead of a two-loss SEC champion it basically needs to be 11-0 Clemson vs. 11-0 North Carolina in the former and an undefeated Big 12 team (say, Oklahoma) losing to a one-loss opponent (say, Oklahoma State) in the latter's championship. But that technically could happen.
A Pair of 'Three-Matches'
The idea of two Power Five leagues each sending two teams to the College Football Playoff isn't all that wild. We just laid out the possible path for no SEC teams in the Final Four. It's even easier to envision such a fate for the ACC or Big 12.
But here's something potentially wacky: What if the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds are teams from the same conference who already played during the regular season, had a rematch in the conference championship and end up with a "three-match" in the CFP semifinals? And what if the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds also fit that description?
If it happens in the ACC, it almost has to be Clemson and Notre Dame. From the SEC, Alabama and Georgia or Florida and LSU are the two likeliest combinations. And any Big 12 mix of Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas could work, provided the regular-season winner goes 10-0 and the loser goes 9-1 before exacting revenge in the conference title game.
Moreover, wouldn't it be fantastic if it's Clemson vs. Notre Dame and Alabama vs. Georgia in the playoff, setting up a potential fifth CFP matchup between Clemson and Alabama in the national championship? You might say you're tired of seeing those teams battle in late December or early January, but it's fun having a "for all the marbles" rivalry between the two best programs in the sport.
Alternatively, it'd be fun if both semifinals are ACC vs. Big 12, Big 12 vs. SEC or ACC vs. SEC. After a regular season with basically no nonconference games, it would be nice to at least have that series of games to settle the annual "which conference is best?" debate.
If it feels like the same teams are in the College Football Playoff every year, it's because that's sort of the case.
The CFP is only six years old, but in each of the past three years, three of the four schools had already been there before. There have been 24 CFP semifinalists but only 11 unique ones.
So, yes, it would be wild if the 2020 playoff is made up entirely of first-timers.
We already know Michigan State, Ohio State, Oregon and Washington won't be participating, so that just leaves seven schools. However, six of them—Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Oklahoma—rank among the favorites to win it all this year, making this an extremely unlikely scenario.
If anyone other than Oklahoma represents the Big 12, there's one. If North Carolina wins the ACC, that's two. Florida might be the third newbie as a strong candidate out of the SEC. And then if the fourth spot goes to Auburn, Texas A&M or the AAC champion, that would make a complete set of CFP rookies.
Again, it's extremely unlikely. The odds of the aforementioned six previous CFP teams all missing the playoff this year are probably about as long as Joe Burrow's oft-cited 200-1 Heisman odds in February 2019. But sometimes long shots work out.
A 'Who's Most Back?' Semifinal Showdown
There are two questions that get asked almost every single season (or, more often, preseason) in college football:
Is Texas back?
Is "The U" back?
Might as well combine the two into one wild scenario: Miami and Texas both reach the College Football Playoff.
With Justin Fields, Kedon Slovis and other great quarterbacks not playing this fall, Texas' Sam Ehlinger may well be the best QB not named Trevor Lawrence. And Miami's transfer quarterback D'Eriq King (from Houston) is easily one of the 10 best quarterbacks still scheduled to play this fall. That alone makes a CFP showdown feel at least somewhat feasible.
Both the Longhorns and the Hurricanes should also be strong on defense. With star lineman Gregory Rousseau sitting out for Miami, its ceiling isn't quite as high as we initially thought. But Texas should have one of the best defenses in the Big 12, while Miami should still rank in the top third of the ACC on D.
Miami has to play at Clemson, Louisville and Virginia Tech, plus a home game against North Carolina. Texas plays a true road game against Oklahoma State and a neutral-site game against Oklahoma. It's unlikely either team will be able to run the table.
But they are both ranked in the Top 20 of the "Adjusted AP Top 25" and are arguably the third-best team in their respective conferences, so never say never. Much, much weirder things have already happened in 2020.