The first edition of the College Football Playoff could hardly have been more successful. Controversy and debate played a big role in the inaugural playoff -- from the perspective of Baylor, TCU and the Big 12, at least -- but those things will always play a big role. No playoff, no matter how many teams are involved, will be devoid of controversy.
In the end, the selection committee's choice of Ohio State was validated by the Buckeyes' championship run, the playoff race drew a ton of attention all season and the three playoff games attained enormous viewership on New Year's Day and Jan. 12. As expected, the College Football Playoff has already represented substantial progress from the Bowl Championship Series.
The second edition of the playoff this season will surely continue that progress, although it is also likely to be messier.
Aside from two one-loss teams from the Big 12 getting left out, the playoff picture was relatively clean last year. Mississippi State fell over the last month, but there were no upsets of top teams down the stretch. We didn't see how much the timing of a loss affects the committee, if at all. All six contenders won on the final weekend of the season, and thus the only controversy was the last-day re-shuffling that was only controversial because the committee acted differently than we'd grown accustomed to when following the polls for so many years.
That chaos we thought we were experiencing last October, when Mississippi State and Ole Miss rose to the top of the national discourse, had little impact on the playoff itself by the end of the season. This time, expect chaotic jockeying for position for those final playoff spots through rivalry week around Thanksgiving and championship weekend in December.
The 2015 season can test the playoff process in many ways. For one, this will be the first time the semifinals are staged on New Year's Eve, with the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl kicking off at 4 p.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET, respectively, on Dec. 31. Viewership is bound to drop, although the suspicion here is that those who devised the system will be proven mostly right and, over time, playing the semifinals on New Year's Eve two out of three years will feel normal. Second, based on the history of college football, and based on how the landscape looks now, the selection committee is likely to be thrown more curve balls down the stretch, with greater parity and more late upsets.
The Playoff Race
Over the last month, we've posted projected records for every team in the Sports on Earth conference preview series, based on predicting the winner of every game for all 128 teams. It should go without saying that this is a thankless task, with many predictions bound to be wrong by the end of the first weekend.
However, based on the strength and depth of the SEC West and Pac-12 South, and the difficult schedules of contenders in both conferences, among other factors, it's not hard to envision a playoff race in the 2015 season ultimately featuring a bunch of two-loss teams in the mix. In preseason rankings just about anywhere, it's Ohio State and then everyone else, with assumed tight races in just about every other league. Plus, Notre Dame very well may be a factor in the race, and if that is the case, the independent Fighting Irish could cause two Power Five conference to get left out of the playoff, which will undoubtedly produce endless offseason arguing, even though Notre Dame's schedule gives it plenty of opportunities to prove it belongs.
In the Sports on Earth preview series scenarios, here's how the regular season shakes out:
- Ohio State goes undefeated and beats Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game to finish 13-0, punching its ticket to the playoff as the No. 1 seed, with little debate.
- Baylor and TCU waltz through much of the season unbeaten, seemingly on a path to an enormous showdown of unbeaten teams on Black Friday in Fort Worth. On Nov. 21, six days before their matchup, Baylor loses at Oklahoma State and TCU loses at Oklahoma. With each team having one loss, Baylor wins at TCU, beats Texas and finishes 11-1. TCU finishes 10-2.
- Clemson goes 10-2, losing to Notre Dame and N.C. State, to take the Atlantic Division with a 7-1 conference record. Virginia Tech loses to Ohio State, Miami and North Carolina but beats Georgia Tech on Nov. 12 on the road to win the Coastal tiebreaker. Clemson beats Virginia Tech in the ACC title game and finishes 11-2.
- The Pac-12 gets messy. Oregon, USC, UCLA and Arizona State are all capable of making runs to the playoff. Oregon wins at Michigan State but loses at Arizona State (Oct. 29) and at Stanford (Nov. 14). The Ducks beat USC in the regular season on Nov. 21, and the Trojans also lose in an upset at California on Halloween. USC beats UCLA on Nov. 28 to win the Pac-12 South with a 7-2 record. The Trojans then turn the tables on Oregon, beating the Ducks at a neutral site to win the Pac-12 with an 11-2 record overall.
- The deep SEC follows a path similar to the Pac-12's. Georgia beats Alabama -- with the Crimson Tide still rebuilding on offense -- on Oct. 3 but loses at Auburn on Nov. 14. The Bulldogs finish the SEC schedule 7-1 and 11-1 overall, ranked No. 2 at the end of the regular season. Alabama loses that Georgia game and also to LSU on Nov. 7, but everyone else in the West beats up on each other. Alabama wins the West at 6-2 in the league. With Georgia on the brink of a playoff bid, its hopes are -- again -- crushed by Alabama, who atones for the regular-season loss by winning in Atlanta for the SEC championship.
- Independent Notre Dame finishes 10-2, with losses to USC on Oct. 17 and at Stanford on Nov. 28.
- Boise State finishes 12-1 with its only loss to BYU and a win over San Diego State in the Mountain West title game. Cincinnati goes 11-2 with a win over Memphis in the AAC championship.
The picture painted above creates a mess, but it's also probably a mess that would be easily solvable, even if many people are left unhappy. It will also certainly be wrong, because specifically predicting the finish is next to impossible. Don't expect a repeat of last season, when the four playoff teams -- Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State and Oregon -- were correctly predicted by many in the preseason.
In this scenario, undefeated Ohio State is a lock for the playoff. As a one-loss, undisputed Big 12 champion, Baylor gets the Big 12 its first playoff bid. That's the easiest part.
That leaves a whole bunch of two-loss Power Five teams competing for two playoff spots: SEC champion Alabama, Pac-12 champion USC, ACC champion Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia and TCU. This assumes that Boise State is good enough to beat out Cincinnati for the Group of Five's major bowl bid but not a playoff spot.
Georgia and TCU lost their conference titles, so they're out. Clemson and Notre Dame have cases, and, historically speaking, leaving out Notre Dame is among the rarest of occurrences. Still, the choices should be obvious: On paper right now, Alabama and USC play two of the hardest schedules in college football, in the two deepest and most talented conferences. Their resumes are better, so they're in.
Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: No. 1 Ohio State over No. 4 USC
Cotton Bowl, Dec. 31: No. 2 Baylor over No. 3 Alabama
National Championship, Jan. 11, Glendale, Ariz.: Ohio State over Baylor
The bowl system has gotten more complicated lately. Not only are there 40 bowls now -- meaning 80 teams can earn postseason bids -- plus the national championship game, but the way bowls are selected has changed.
First, the New Year's Six: With the Orange and Cotton bowls hosting semifinals, the Rose Bowl will have its traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup, featuring either their conference champions or their highest ranked non-playoff teams. Same with the Sugar Bowl for the Big 12/SEC. The ACC champion will find a home somewhere in the Peach or Fiesta if it does not make the playoff, as will the highest Group of Five conference champion, which everybody presumes to be Boise State. The Fiesta Bowl may be likely for Boise State again, but to avoid a repeat of last year, it's possible the Broncos will be sent to Atlanta instead.
The rest of the bowls have an even looser pecking order than before, so projections below are done by taking into account regular-season success, geography and history. The Big Ten, for example, is doing its best to ensure that its bowl teams play in different games and different regions over the years, so fans and teams don't get tired of going to the same place every season. So here are projections for all of the bowl games, taking into account all these factors and our projected team records from the conference previews. Most of the schedule is set, but details of the Arizona Bowl are still to be decided, beyond knowing that it is supposed to match the Mountain West and Conference USA. In this case and a few others, leftover .500 teams have to fill the gaps where conferences don't produce enough eligible teams to fulfill their tie-ins.