College Football Playoff 2016: Breaking Down Format, Bowl Predictions and More

College Football Playoff 2016: Breaking Down Format, Bowl Predictions and More

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For the uninitiated, the College Football Playoff is a foreign concept, and even for ardent college football fans, making sense of this year’s playoff is difficult.

On Tuesday night, the selection committee revealed its rankings for Week 13, with the Alabama Crimson Tide, Ohio State Buckeyes, Clemson Tigers and Washington Huskies in the top four.

Since their regular season is over, the Buckeyes are essentially a lock for the playoff. The committee would have to show some serious nerve to drop Ohio State three spots after not playing a game.

The Crimson Tide, Tigers and Huskies still have to win their respective conference championship games. Assuming all three teams prevail, this is what the semifinals would look like:

Bowl Date Matchup Projection
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Dec. 31 No. 1 Seed vs. No. 4 Seed Alabama vs. Washington
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Dec. 31 No. 2 Seed vs. No. 3 Seed Ohio State vs. Clemson

The winners of the Peach and Fiesta Bowls would then travel to Tampa, Florida, for the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 9.

As long as Alabama, Clemson and Washington prevail, the selection committee’s job will be relatively easy. Michigan Wolverines fans would be upset to see their team shut out, but the current top four wouldn’t generate much controversy.

A loss for the Tigers or Huskies, though, would create a major headache for the committee.

The Wolverines would seemingly be the biggest beneficiary. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish was among those questioning why Michigan fell out of the top four in the first place:

“The separation between four to seven is not [wide],” CFP selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said, per MLive’s Nick Baumgardner. “But the separation between [four and five] is razor-thin.”

Hocutt also spoke highly of the Wolverines, per Baumgardner: “They have three wins against top-10 teams. They played an impressive game this past weekend, despite the loss.”

In that scenario, though, the committee would be putting a team that finished third in its own division into the semifinals. At that point, conference titles would essentially be meaningless distinctions and less important than passing the “eye test.”

Even the most ardent Penn State fan would likely admit Ohio State is the better team despite the Buckeyes losing to the Nittany Lions on Oct. 22. Still, that defeat should carry some weight.

Faced with a similar dilemma in 2015, the committee sent Michigan State into the playoff ahead of Ohio State after the Spartans were victorious in Columbus.

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Should Ohio State and Michigan both make the playoff this season, it will be interesting to see what—if any—precedent it sets in the years ahead.

A conference title was seemingly an easy bar to set for teams hoping to earn a semifinal berth. Without one, a school would be excluded from the playoff discussion. Fair or not, it’d at least provide the committee with a solid baseline.

Instead, the Big Ten champion will almost certainly see one—possibly two teams—ahead of it in the playoff, while the Big 12 champion was rarely part of the playoff discussion at all this year. That discussion was almost limited exclusively to sweating the possibility of a top-four Baylor team as the Bears continue to be embroiled in a sexual assault scandal.

If anything, this year has emboldened those arguing for an expansion of the playoff to eight teams. The committee would admit each Power Five conference champion as well as three at-large schools.

No playoff system in college football will ever be perfect. College basketball recently expanded the NCAA tournament to 68 teams, and there’s always some controversy every year over which schools on the bubble got overlooked.

With an eight-team playoff, the committee would at least make conference titles mean something while simultaneously allowing second- or third-place teams a pathway to the quarterfinals.