When the Playoff system was announced in 2013, it sounded like it would be difficult for two teams from the same conference or division to both make it. Conference title games and head-to-head results give the committee simple ways to distinguish teams from the same conference.
But here we are, roughly two days after AP No. 5 Clemson beat No. 3 Louisville by a few yards, with the Cardinals only falling to No. 7 in the polls.
The question to the Playoff committee, which will release its first rankings in a month, could soon become: Does a close road loss make Louisville a team unworthy of making the top four, if Clemson wins the ACC and the Cardinals finish 11-1?
Below is a little taste of what the committee has said it looks at:
The committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering:
-Conference championships won,
-Strength of schedule,
-Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)
-Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.
Let’s run through what Louisville has done so far and try to envision a scenario in which both can be legitimate candidates to make the Playoff.
Louisville doesn’t have a tough overall schedule, but it does have plenty of what the committee has called “game control,” or the ability to dominate opponents.
U of L ran Florida State off the field, 63-20, and even though FSU has disappointed this season, it could still finish in the top 25 and thus count as a quality blowout for the Cardinals.
Other than that and the road loss to a potential Playoff team, Louisville hasn’t played impressive opponents, though Syracuse or Marshall could still make bowls.
What Louisville has done is destroy lesser teams, with an average scoring margin on the season of 58-26.4, even after the Clemson game.
The Cardinals still have at least one huge game ahead, a trip to AP No. 6 Houston. The Cougars could still reach a New Year’s Six bowl even with a loss to Louisville, which would give the Cardinals one of the season’s best wins.
Per S&P+, the combined projected final records of the remaining opponents on Louisville’s schedule — including Duke, NC State, Virginia, Boston College, Wake Forest, Houston, and Kentucky — is about 40-44. It’s clear Louisville must win at Houston and otherwise keep putting up huge blowouts.
Remember why the committee prefers conference champions in the first place?
The 2011 BCS Championship was a rematch between LSU and Alabama. LSU won in the regular season, but Bama won the unpopular rematch after Oklahoma State finished No. 3 in the BCS.
Having Louisville finish with just one loss to Clemson, but no division title, would present quite the predicament for the committee. It would be our best look yet at how much the committee truly values conference championships.
But let’s flash back to 2014 for a minute. When the third rankings came out on Nov. 11, we had two one-loss teams inside the top four: No. 2 Oregon and No. 4 TCU. No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 3 FSU were undefeated.
No. 5 Alabama would beat the Bulldogs on the road that week, 25-20. The Crimson Tide jumped to No. 1, but MSU remained in the top four. If the season had ended right then, would the Bulldogs have made the Playoff and gotten a rematch, or would the committee’s conference-championship boosts have kicked in and moved someone else ahead?
We don’t know yet. That’s part of what this Louisville season could show us.
For this to even be a consideration, Louisville needs a lot of help.
The Big Ten and SEC look like they’ll each have a team represented, and we probably shouldn’t rule those conferences out of the two-team discussion, either.
The Pac-12 appears to be in decent shape and would almost certainly make it in with a one-loss champion.
The Big 12 has only two undefeated teams, Baylor and West Virginia, and its lack of a conference championship (a “13th game,” in the committee’s words) hurt it in 2014. A one-loss Big 12 champ has a chance, but if it’s Baylor, the Bears’ weak out-of-conference schedule will come back to haunt them yet again.
Houston remains a threat, but any mid-major would likely be knocked out of the Playoff with one loss, and that’d give Louisville a head-to-head advantage anyway.
There’s a lot of football left to be played, and if there are a few undefeated teams remaining by the end, the odds stack heavily against Louisville. But the Cardinals aren’t fully out of the Playoff race just yet.
(And besides, Clemson could still lose a game.)