This year seems likely to be the perfect one for a four-team playoff, as the gap between the 4th and 5th most deserving teams — assuming results go as planned next weekend — matches the natural divide from the on-field results.
- The SEC has one dominant team this year, Alabama. Assuming the Crimson Tide defeat Florida in the SEC Championship Game, Alabama will make the playoff. But the SEC did get a little lucky: if not for Arkansas gaining a first down on an absurd lateral, Ole Miss would have won the SEC West this year. What would the committee do with an 11-2 Mississippi team that beat Bama but lost 38-10 to Florida and by 13 points to Memphis, but won the SEC and beat the Gators in the rematch? Tough to say, but I think we’re all better off that we don’t have to ask that question this year. Assuming Alabama wins, the Tide will finish at 12-1 and very deserving of a playoff spot, while every other SEC team will have at least three losses.
- The Big 10 had four good teams this year, but it happened to have one of them in the Big 10 West, which may as well have been in Mountain West. With 14 teams and just 8 conference games (the same as the SEC), each team plays one game against the other six teams in its division, and only two games against the teams from the other division. This is how a team like Kentucky can finish with a weak schedule despite “playing in the SEC” — the Wildcats faced Auburn and Mississippi State from the West, the weak SEC East, and a soft nonconference schedule. Iowa had a similar setup, getting Maryland and Indiana from the Big 10 East, the underwhelming Big 10 West, and a pretty easy nonconference schedule (other than Pitt). The difference: Kentucky went 5-7, while Iowa rode this schedule to 12-0. Over in the Big 10 East, Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State were the class of the division. They went undefeated against the rest of the East, but Michigan State swept Michigan and Ohio State, albeit in skin-of-teeth fashion: the Spartans never led in either game until the clock hit triple zeroes. Regardless, we now have a great B10 Championship Game, and the winner of Iowa/Michigan State will obviously be a very deserving playoff team. Iowa would be 13-0, and Michigan State would be 12-1 with wins over Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, and Oregon, with the one loss coming in controversial fashion on a bad call against Nebraska.
- The Big 12, like the Big 10, had four good teams this year. Unlike the Big 10, all four teams played each other in the conference’s round robin schedule. Oklahoma went 3-0 against Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU, which was enough to make up for the Sooners slip against Texas earlier in the year. The Cowboys, Bears, and Horned Frogs all finished 10-2 (assuming TCU beats Texas next weekend), making an 11-1 OU team the clear deserving choice. It doesn’t hurt that Oklahoma also had the most impressive nonconference win of the group, a 31-24 double overtime victory in Tennessee.