2017-12-02 13:18:03
On College Football: A Viewer’s Guide to This Weekend’s College Football Playoff Drama

13:18, December 02 38 0

Entering this weekend’s major-conference, neutral-site championship games, only 10 teams have any kind of shot at the four-team College Football Playoff.

The playoff selection committee will announce its final rankings at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, setting up the national semifinals on New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

But given the timing of this weekend’s games, we should have a much clearer picture of the likely contenders as early as 4 p.m. on Saturday.

The candidates can be grouped into three categories:

These teams are probably guaranteed berths if they win their conference championship games. The group includes the top four teams in the current playoff rankings, who are all playing in title games on Saturday: No. 1 Clemson (11-1); No. 2 Auburn (10-2); No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1); and No. 4 Wisconsin (12-0). But because of their relatively high rankings and the strong competition they will face Saturday, two more teams can be considered shoo-ins in if they win: No. 6 Georgia (11-1), which plays Auburn, and No. 7 Miami (10-1), which faces Clemson.

Two need more than a win Saturday. No. 8 Ohio State (10-2) must beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten title and then hope the committee deems them more worthy than No. 5 Alabama (11-1), which is currently ahead of the Buckeyes but is (uneasily) off this weekend after missing out on the Southeastern Conference title game. Alabama would ideally have both Wisconsin and Oklahoma lose (especially since even with a loss Clemson might stay ahead of Alabama), or at the least have one lose and for the committee to continue to rate the Tide above Ohio State.

No. 10 Texas Christian (10-2) and No. 11 Southern California (10-2) are both playing for league titles against impressive (in T.C.U.’s case) or relatively impressive (in U.S.C.’s case) competition. With big enough blowouts and the right upsets, one could craft a scenario in which one gets in the playoffs. That said, fans of these teams should not harbor much hope, particularly in the case of the Trojans, who would need something like a truly massive win Friday night over No. 12 Stanford (9-3) in the Pacific-12 championship game combined with unconvincing wins by T.C.U. and Ohio State. Pixie dust wouldn’t hurt, either.

The most influential game actually comes first, as the Big 12 title game between Oklahoma and T.C.U. kicks off at 12:30 p.m. Eastern (Fox) in Arlington, Tex. If Oklahoma wins, as is expected, the long shots become no-shots and the two teams who need help immediately are competing for only one open slot alongside the Sooners and the SEC winner (Auburn or Georgia) and the Atlantic Coast Conference champ (Clemson or Miami).

The SEC champion will be crowned next, with a 4 p.m. kickoff (CBS) in Atlanta. The winner is in; the loser is out.

At 8:14 p.m. (ABC) in Charlotte, N.C., Clemson and Miami will square off in the A.C.C. championship, and three minutes later (Fox), the Big Ten game will kick off in Indianapolis. If Oklahoma has won, Alabama fans will be rooting hard for the Buckeyes, who must defeat Wisconsin to give Alabama the opening it needs to sneak into the playoff.

By around midnight, the A.C.C. will have crowned its champion and either Wisconsin will have won — clinching a place at 13-0 — or Ohio State will have made things very interesting. In the latter case, fans and the committee members will debate the next morning between Ohio State and Alabama (and perhaps a just-defeated Clemson).

The Ohio State-Alabama talking points are as follows:

■ Alabama has the better record and the best loss (to Auburn), and it has beaten three ranked teams, though two of these were Nos. 23 and 25.

■ Ohio State has the worse record and the worst loss (a 55-24 drubbing at Iowa, which barely finished with a winning record), but also two wins better than Alabama’s best, over No. 9 Penn State and No. 16 Michigan State, to say nothing of, in this hypothetical, a Wisconsin team likely to remain in the top 10 regardless of the outcome.

Also: in this hypothetical, Ohio State would be a conference champion, while Alabama would not, and the committee is instructed to consider this as one factor. Then again, last year an 11-1 nonchampion made the playoff — none other than Ohio State.

One thing is for sure: if these two mainstays of college football pride and glory end up competing for the final spot, the spurned fan base will take the committee’s decision politely and without any note of bitterness.