College football should realize playoff pressure
Three weeks into the college football season, the race to predict the four teams headed to the national championship semifinals is in full swing.
Ohio State is No. 1, but barely beat a Northern Illinois team that's not a gimme to win its own conference, the Mid-American. Mississippi played its way up to No. with a resounding win at Alabama Saturday. TCU continues to remain the pride of the Big 12 and a prime contender for one of the four spots. And Notre Dame is No. 6 with its legitimate hope of getting in with an unbeaten record. If the Buckeyes, Rebels, Horned Frogs and Irish all win out, then there's no problem picking the playoff semifinalists.
Trouble is when those teams start to lose, even once. Then, the decision to name the four teams turns to persons who aren't involved in the action on the field, which is a problem that the game can actually resolve fairly easily. College football needs a conference ranking system, not a team ranking. The conference schedule then becomes the integral part of the playoff system, as it should be.
Michigan State and Oregon are in key positions to illustrate this argument especially if Oregon should happen to win the Pac-12, but lose another game. The Spartans have a win over then No. 7 Oregon - a thrilling game that featured playoff pressure. But, it wasn't a playoff game because the teams are in different conferences so the outcome only affected people's opinions. And opinions don't win games, teams do.
The big potential challenge could very well happen November 21 when OSU plays host to MSU. If both teams win out until then, they should be No. 1 and 2. Should OSU win, and then win the Big 10 title the following week, they're in the semifinals. Easy.
Michigan State's 31-28 win over Oregon in the second week of the season gives Spartans fans that feeling of confidence that even if they lose to OSU and Oregon wins the Pac-12, they should be one of the four semifinalists ahead of Oregon because of the head-to-head win. That conundrum gets better, though, if Oregon should lose to USC when the teams meet November 21, but then return to beat the Trojans in the Pac-12 final two weeks later ending the season at 11-2 and with its conference title.
Unbeaten Mississippi beats unbeaten Florida for the SEC title and earns its spot.
Notre Dame loses twice: to USC and Stanford, and is out.
TCU has a loss to Baylor, which also has a loss - to eventual 7-5 Nebraska, and those two schools finish as the only two ranked teams from the Big 12 (which actually only has 10 schools). Baylor is ranked as the conference champion.
Clemson goes unbeaten through the season, but loses in the ACC title game to 10-2 Duke, which has losses to Northwestern and Georgia Tech. Duke is 11-2, while Clemson is 12-1.
How does a two-loss Oregon team get into the semifinals over teams that have one loss? Same for Duke, which also has a conference title.
Easy, the Ducks and Blue Devils would be two of four conference champions, having won the games that mattered most - those that got them to their conference title games, and then that game, too.
With five Power Conferences, the only rankings the playoff committee would need to make is the one that ranks the five conferences - with No. 5 getting left out of the playoff. That was TCU and the Big 12 last year.
MSU has only one loss and a win over Oregon. But, that was a non-conference win. The Spartans' key game is Ohio State, assuming they beat their other four division rivals. That takes on the pressure of a playoff game, with the game's loser being dropped from the playoffs.
The five conference champions might very well be ranked this way: Ohio State, Mississippi, Baylor, Oregon and Duke.
Duke gets left out. Florida, Clemson, Michigan State, TCU - all one-loss teams, scream to be ahead of Oregon, but none have a conference title.
That Michigan State loss is out there for the college football world to salivate over at the right time because of insider opinions, but it shouldn't be, even if the Ducks lose another game. Oregon has five division games, which lead to a conference title game, and that's the playoff system that every other team has, too - the Big 12 has more conference games, so that's its argument to overcome the lack of a conference title game.
The Power 5 conferences will each have a champion, and those are the only five teams that should be considered for the four semifinal spots, regardless of their records. That's how a playoff system works - the better team doesn't always win because which team is better is from an opinion based on stats and records. The actual better team wins on the field, and every team in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) has its shot at winning the games that matter.