The Athletic

Staples: The ‘root for chaos’ College Football Playoff guide

Every Saturday night, Andy Staples and Ari Wasserman react to the weekend’s slate of games on The Andy Staples Show & Friends. On Mondays, Andy revisits his and Ari’s biggest takeaway from Saturday night’s instant reaction. This week: “Rooting for chaos” scenarios to wrap up the college football season.

I fell into a trap late Saturday night.

As we recorded our podcast, Ari Wasserman and I discussed multiple College Football Playoff scenarios. I was trying to prepare the listeners for the likelihood of an 11-1 Tennessee edging out a 12-1 conference champion because the CFP selection committee has demonstrated that it loves good wins more than anything, and Tennessee has a home win against Alabama and a road domination of LSU that will buoy the Volunteers.

But Ari reminded me that it didn’t necessarily have to be an either/or scenario. I kept assuming that TCU would go 13-0 and claim one spot. The Big Ten and SEC champions would claim two others, and that would leave only one for everyone else. As Ari pointed out, we don’t usually get chalk in the season’s final weeks. Something crazy will happen. The question is what?

That’s what makes these next few weeks so much fun.

Obviously, we’ll be watching Michigan–Ohio State because of its Big Ten and national title ramifications. But it’s highly likely that some game we’re assuming is an easy win for the favored team will have us on the edge of our seats and ultimately shake up the CFP picture. Arizona’s win against UCLA on Saturday was one of those games. There will be more.

The best part is none of us know which game or games will change everything. But that doesn’t mean we can’t run through the scenarios. Today, we’ll examine four (still theoretically plausible) scenarios that require some chaos to happen. Consider this your handy “User’s Guide to 2022 College Football Chaos.”

To rank them, we’ll use the Nuts scale. In other words, how nuts is this if it happens?

The Pac-12 Makes The Playoff!

The Pac-12 hasn’t placed a team in the bracket since Washington in 2016. Even before Oregon’s loss to Washington and UCLA’s loss to Arizona on Saturday, USC probably was the league’s best hope for a CFP berth because it still has the chance to collect a decent non-conference win against Notre Dame. But after the events of Saturday night, USC now is the conference’s only hope.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Trojans to make the field.

  • USC needs to beat UCLA next week, beat Notre Dame the following week and then win the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 2. If the Trojans beat the Bruins, they’re in and UCLA is out. USC would play Oregon in the title game if the Ducks beat Utah and Oregon State in consecutive weeks. If the Ducks lose to Utah, it opens up the possibility of USC getting a rematch with the Utes, who beat the Trojans in Salt Lake City on Oct. 15. (The committee loves avenging sole losses.) If Utah beats Oregon but then loses to Colorado but Washington beats Colorado and Washington State, then USC would face the Huskies in Las Vegas.

Does your head hurt yet?

  • Georgia either needs to beat LSU in the SEC title game or the Tigers need to eliminate themselves prior to that game by losing to UAB or Texas A&M. The Bulldogs beating LSU in Atlanta obviously is the most likely option.
  • Ohio State needs to beat Maryland and Michigan and then win the Big Ten. The Trojans don’t need the Buckeyes losing to the Wolverines and then have to face a comparison to another one-loss team that beat Notre Dame.
  • Tennessee needs to lose to South Carolina or Vanderbilt. This may not be necessary if the next thing happens, though.
  • TCU needs to lose to Baylor or Iowa State or in the Big 12 title game. The Trojans probably don’t want to go head-to-head for the No. 4 spot with a 12-1 Big 12 champion TCU. If the Horned Frogs go 13-0, they’re in without question. If that happened, then USC probably would need that Tennessee loss because its wins wouldn’t be as good as Tennessee’s.
  • North Carolina or Clemson needs to lose a regular-season game and then win the ACC title game. It’s possible a 12-1 USC gets in over a 12-1 ACC champion anyway (or that other chaos allows both to get in).

If all of that happened, the top four could look like this:

  1. georgia
  2. Ohio State
  3. USC
  4. TCU (if the loss wasn’t in the Big 12 title game)

If only one of the Tennessee or TCU scenarios happened, the top four could look like this:

  1. georgia
  2. Ohio State
  3. Tennessee or TCU (depending on what manner of chaos ensued)
  4. USC

Nuts rating: 5 of 10.

The ACC Makes The Playoff!

When the committee reveals its ranking on Tuesday, the Power 5 league with the lowest-ranked highest-ranked team likely will be the ACC. Clemson probably will be ranked below the highest-ranked teams from the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, and North Carolina will be ranked below Clemson. Both teams have just one loss and are theoretically still alive for a CFP berth, but they feel like the easiest to dismiss in a comparison of one-loss teams because the committee doesn’t seem to value their resumes as much as it values ​​the resumes of the teams in the other Power 5 leagues. Plus, both lost to Notre Dame. And the Fighting Irish certainly aren’t in the mix for a spot with losses to Marshall and Stanford on the resume.

But Clemson and North Carolina still remain alive because those Notre Dame games are the only blemishes on their records. They probably need a little help, though. Here’s how one of them could make the field.

  • Each team wins its final two regular-season games and they play an entertaining, not-sloppy ACC title game. We’re splitting hairs when it comes to nonconference schedules. Both lost to the Irish, and Clemson’s rival South Carolina hasn’t played well enough to make a win in that game a major factor. It probably doesn’t matter which team wins the ACC as long as that team is 12-1.
  • Georgia wins its final two regular-season games and beats LSU in the SEC title game.
  • Either TCU loses twice or Tennessee loses to South Carolina or Vanderbilt. (We should note here that it’s probably more likely the Gamecocks beat Clemson than they beat Tennessee.)
  • Ohio State beats Michigan and goes on to win the Big Ten. Michigan beating Ohio State is a non-starter for the Tigers and Tar Heels. guess who did Beat Notre Dame? The Buckeyes. The Clemson-North Carolina winner does not want to be compared to an 11-1 Ohio State. It won’t go well. A comparison to an 11-1 Michigan gives the ACC champion a shot. Of course, it would help the ACC champion immensely if the Wolverines would go ahead and lose to Illinois on Saturday and then get bombed by the Buckeyes.
  • USC loses to Notre Dame. This makes the loss to the Irish ever-so-slightly more acceptable and eliminates a potential 12-1 Pac-12 champion.

If all this happened, here’s how the top four probably would look:

  1. georgia
  2. Ohio State
  3. Tennessee or TCU (again, depending on the manner of chaos)
  4. Clemson-North Carolina winner

Nuts rating: 6 of 10

The Power 2

Remember how the Big Ten and SEC basically spent the past 15 years amassing most of the power in college sports? Remember when those leagues made media rights deals that will put them far ahead of everyone else financially and (possibly) competitively? Despite all that, we’ve still never seen an all Big Ten/SEC Playoff.

It would take some shenanigans, but it’s still plausible to have one this season. Here’s how it would work.

  • Ohio State beats Maryland and Michigan beats Illinois. Michigan then beats Ohio State in a close game.
  • Georgia wins its next three games.
  • TCU loses at least one of its final three games, but to avoid a judgment call, the Horned Frogs might need to lose twice.
  • Tennessee beats South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
  • Notre Dame beats Boston College and USC, knocking USC from CFP contention and giving the Irish a 9-3 record and the highest possible final CFP ranking. This will make Ohio State’s season-opening win look better to the committee.
  • Penn State beats Rutgers and Michigan State to finish with a 10-2 record and the highest possible CFP ranking. This makes Ohio State’s win in State College look better to the committee.
  • North Carolina loses to Georgia Tech or NC State but then beats Clemson in the ACC title game. This may not matter because an 11-1 Ohio State probably would be ranked higher than a 12-1 ACC champion Clemson or North Carolina anyway, but it removes all doubt.

If all that happened, the committee hopefully would rank the teams in a way that would produce two Big Ten-SEC semifinals instead of an all-Big Ten semi and an all-SEC semi. This would allow for maximum schadenfreude in the event that two teams from the same league make the title game.

For that to happen, the top four after this series of events would need to look like this:

  1. georgia
  2. Michigan
  3. Tennessee
  4. Ohio State

But this would also work if the committee wanted to do this:

  1. Michigan
  2. georgia
  3. Ohio State
  4. Tennessee

Georgia would have more quality wins than Michigan, though. So the first option is more likely. Then it would come down to the committee’s preference between Tennessee and Ohio State at the three and four spots. In this scenario, Ohio State’s wins against Notre Dame and Penn State would compare well at that point with Tennessee’s wins at LSU and at home against Alabama. But I still think the committee would go with the Vols at No. 3.

Nuts rating: 8 of 10.

The 12-team Playoff Begins Next Year

Only one conference has made the CFP every year of its existence. Only one conference has had two of its teams face off for the national title — and that has happened twice in the CFP era (and once in the BCS era). If you don’t pull for a team in that conference, you’re probably sick of that conference. If that’s the case, maybe stop reading now.

Though one particular result seems highly unlikely, there is a non-zero possibility that the SEC could put three teams in the CFP this season. If that happened, here’s guessing that any logistical preventing the CFP from expanding to 12 before the current contract ends would vanish immediately. The presidents in charge of the CFP want the new format to begin with the 2024 season. If this happened, most of them would demand it start in 2023.

  • Georgia and LSU win their remaining regular-season games, and then LSU beats Georgia in the SEC title game. The Tigers are the Masters of Chaos. If they beat UAB and Texas A&M and then follow that by shocking Georgia, the next 16 hours — and probably the aftermath of those hours — will be bananas.
  • Tennessee beats South Carolina and Vanderbilt and finishes 11-1. The Vols now hold a 40-13 road win against the 11-2 SEC champion.
  • Alabama beats Auburn in the Iron Bowl to finish 10-2. Tennessee’s win against Alabama remains ultra-valuable in the committee’s eyes.
  • Ohio State beats Michigan and wins the Big Ten. It probably doesn’t matter who wins this game in this scenario, but Ohio State’s win against Notre Dame would give the Buckeyes a glimmer of hope as an 11-1 non-division champion. Michigan has no such nonconference win.
  • TCU loses at least one — and this may only work if the one is the Big 12 title game.
  • USC loses to UCLA or Notre Dame.
  • It may not matter, but the eventual ACC champion (Clemson or North Carolina) taking another loss would make things less muddy.

If all that happened, this would be the top four:

  1. Ohio State
  2. USL
  3. georgia
  4. Tennessee

And next year we’d be talking about a top 12.

Nuts rating: 12 of 10.

Do you have any chaos projections? Let us know in the comments.

(Top pic: Donald Page/Getty)


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