Chaos Theory: Week 11 rooting guide to max College Football Playoff controversy
At this stage in the season, the selection process for the College Football Playoff seems like it will go either one of two ways. Either Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington will all win out (or Ohio State will beat Michigan and win out), creating a clear top four that no one can argue with. Or one or two of those teams will fall, and all hell will break loose.
Despite a chalk-filled playoff race so far, it would only take a few upsets to induce total chaos. Why? Because the neat line of demarcation between those top four teams and the rest can quickly become extremely blurry precisely because of how clear the line has been so far.
There’s no way to know the playoff chances of a one-loss Washington or which of the two-loss teams has the strongest case for a bid, because thus far there’s been no reason to seriously consider such cases. But if a few dominoes fall, the playoff selection committee will be awash in challenging questions. For those who love chaos in college football, that’s a thrilling prospect.
Here’s what to root for in Week 11 to start making the selection committee members sweat their decisions:
Alabama loses to Mississippi State, Clemson loses to Pittsburgh, Michigan loses to Iowa, Washington loses to USC
With no playoff contenders facing each other, one of these teams losing is the only way the race for semifinal berths can be fundamentally reshaped this weekend.
No. 4 Washington would seem to be the most vulnerable in this group. The Huskies face a USC squad that has won its last five straight and has lost just once since switching quarterbacks to Sam Darnold midseason. The No. 20 Trojans are only the second currently ranked opponent Washington will have faced this season, so coach Chris Petersen still has something to prove.
Oklahoma beats Baylor, West Virginia beats Texas, Penn State beats Indiana, Auburn beats Georgia, Wisconsin beats Illinois, Louisville beats Wake Forest, Texas A&M beats Ole Miss, Colorado beats Arizona
While we wait for one of the top four to slip up, the teams sitting on the fringe of the playoff race all need to do their part to win. The more teams that can present viable résumés if one of the undefeated teams go down, the more chaos that could ensue.
No. 10 Penn State is an appealing option for playoff controversy. If Michigan loses a game in the next two weeks and then falls to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions would earn the Big Ten East’s spot in the conference championship game if they can win out. Earning the Big Ten title would be a compelling case for Penn State in the playoff, but could the playoff committee really take the Nittany Lions with two-losses over a one-loss Louisville, for example? Even an 11–1 Ohio State, which fell to Penn State in Happy Valley could argue that its superior record and quality victories over Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma should put it ahead of the Nittany Lions.
No. 8 Texas A&M is a strong contender for chaos too simply because of how much the selection committee seems to love the Aggies. Texas A&M surprisingly ranked ahead of Washington for the No. 4 spot in the first rankings and fell just four spots despite an upset loss to Mississippi State last week. Could the committee’s love affair with the Aggies send them to the playoff if they win out and get some help from losses by the top teams? If that somehow happens, the cries of SEC bias will be deafening.
South Carolina beats Florida, Georgia beats Auburn, Tennessee beats Kentucky, Vanderbilt beats Missouri
This scenario bears only a loose connection to the playoff, but it sets in motion a fantastic potential for chaos in which the SEC East could end in a six-way tie. (Andy Staples explains more scenarios of SEC East entropy.) Incredibly, South Carolina would emerge from that six-team tie as the SEC East’s representative in the SEC title game.
Now imagine that the Gamecocks somehow do the impossible and beat Alabama in the conference championship game. In almost any circumstance, a one-loss Alabama would still figure to be in the playoff mix, particularly when that one-loss Crimson Tide team would still be the highest ranked team from the SEC. But could the playoff selection committee really take Alabama after it failed to win a conference title and, more importantly, lost to South Carolina? With every other SEC team already sporting at least two losses, it’d be hard to take a different team from the conference over the Tide, so this may be the best scenario for an SEC-less playoff this year.